These books and websites are especially recommended as reference works of first resort, the ones most likely to answer your questions with the best information. They are reliable, readily available, and respected by language professionals. We often use them when researching questions for the show and for our own writing, though of course we have our own libraries and digital archives with many volumes and many gigabytes of data.
We recommend them because they’re good and we trust them, not because money changed hands. (Not that anyone offered!) However, if you want to own them, please use our links below to make the sale. We make a small affiliate commission with Amazon and that helps, in a small way, to support the show.
American Heritage Dictionary. Very reliable with excellent notes and very good etymologies with a strong emphasis on Indo-European roots. Includes audible pronunciations online and color photos in the paper version. Not quite an unabridged dictionary but it is all the dictionary that most people will ever need, which means, physically, that it’s a desk dictionary. Use a digital version of it online at no charge.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This is the dictionary we recommend to anyone who has basic, unspecialized day-to-day needs at home, school, or the office. Portable and easy enough to handle for middle-schoolers and older. Use a version of it online at no charge.
Oxford English Dictionary. The most comprehensive English-language dictionary ever made. Weak on Americanisms, slang, and non-British dialects, but those are quibbles. ¶ OED has very deep etymologies for its oldest words, though careful scholars will note that the first citation for an OED entry is probably not the first time a word was ever used, just the first time a word was found in print by OED editors and contributors. Further, since the publication of the second edition in 1989, many new digital databases have appeared which index the full-text content of books, newspapers, ephemera, and other printed matter (including Google Books); it is now commonplace for second-edition entries to be easily antedated by a brief search of these databases. But, because of careful and ponderous editing, it may be years or decades before these new, earlier uses are reflected in the work. If your thesis or argument depends on the date of a first use of a word, don’t just quote a dictionary! ¶ Get the 20-volume paper version if you must, at $1000 or more, but it’s a fossil. On the other hand, the OED Online is updated quarterly with thousands of new and revised entries and can be searched from any web browser. It will set individuals back about $300 a year unless there’s a sale. Free access can often be had through schools, libraries, and universities at no cost and sometimes even comes with alumni status.
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Two volumes. Not portable. Kind of expensive. Surprisingly, it’s not just a subset of the OED above. Instead, it has its own editorial team, is updated far more often, and includes many entries and meanings missing from the OED. It is not as American as we would like, but it has not ignored the New World, either.
Dictionary of American Regional English, volume I A-C, volume II D-H, volume III I-O, volume IV P-Sk, volume V Sl-Z. Now available in full online with regular updates via Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. The go-to source for regional and local American language. This is an incredible work of scholarship and lexicography. There’s nothing else like it in American English, though DARE was begun more than 100 years ago in an attempt to create a dictionary parallel to Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary.
Historical Dictionary of American Slang, volume I A-G 1994, volume II H-O 1997. Alas, this serious scholarly work may never be completed, although Oxford University Press took it on in 2003. Now only covers through the letter O. Grant formerly served as project editor for this dictionary. Still, where there is coverage, it is an excellent work that is to be trusted, especially for terms predating 1980.
Green, Jonathon. Green’s Dictionary of Slang. A very expensive three-volume historical dictionary that is also available free, and with updates, online. The most comprehensive work of English slang ever completed, though it leans a little heavily on secondary and tertiary sources. Skews British but you’ll hardly notice. Zillions of in-context citations. We talked about it in this episode.
Garner’s Modern American Usage. Highly conservative and safe, while still rightly contradicting Strunk and White in many places. Offers many examples of incorrect usage. This is the tie-breaking work to check when other sources disagree. It is best paired with Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Springfield, Massachusetts, Merriam-Webster, 1994. Based upon a historical analysis of what careful writers actually do with language, rather than perpetuating folklore and myths about the rules of English. Scholarly and academic. Loaded with examples of usage. Very likely to convincingly persuade you that many of your long-held beliefs about what makes good writing are wrong. It is best paired with Garner’s Modern American Usage.
Dictionaries, Paper and Online
Checking one dictionary is rarely enough. You’ll often find that they disagree about which are the most-common spellings, pronunciations, and meanings. Same for style guides: check more than one.
Dictionary of American Regional English. See the description above.
Dictionary of Scots Language. Edinburgh: Scottish Language Dictionaries Limited, 2004. It is incredible that this historical dictionary — actually a combination of several print works — is freely available online.
Montgomery, Michael, and Hall, Joseph S., eds. Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, or, preferably, its second edition, the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English.
Online Etymology Dictionary. While useful for a snapshot of a word’s history, sources are not cited for each entry — only generally across the site — so it’s impossible to say how reliable each entry is. Little primary research seems to have been done and some of the works cited in the overall bibliography are unreliable. Still, if one does not have access to the Oxford English Dictionary, then this site may suffice.
Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Also included with Apple’s Mac OS X operating system. Grant had a small hand in compiling the first edition, and his wife the third edition, of this thesaurus.
Safire, William. Safire’s Political Dictionary. More encyclopedic than dictionary-like, this work benefits greatly from Safire’s decades in politics and his large Rolodex. Many behind-the-scenes stories are unique to this book.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, online and on CD-ROM. New York: Merriam-Webster. Originally published 1961, updated in its CD and online versions. A thorough unabridged edition, though largely behind the times.
Style and Grammar Guides
Checking more than one guide is always advised. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, while it is recommended as an inspirational tool for beginning writers and in some cases does a decent job of identifying common writing problems, should not be a final arbiter for any specific style question or point. It is best used merely as a general survey of areas to which a good writer should be attentive. You will find that many of its specific rules have been completely overturned by the respected reference works listed below. (For a summary of the problems with Elements of Style, see Jan Freeman’s review of a 2005 edition.)
The Chicago Manual of Style. A comprehensive and multipurpose writer’s tool, thought it does not offer many glimpses into the reasoning for rules.
Huddleston, Rodney, and Pullum, Geoffrey K. A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge and New York, 2005. A brilliant encapsulation of the ground-breaking work done in the much larger (and more expensive) Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which was built by examining large corpora for examples of how educated writers use English, rather than perpetuating long-held and unexamined rules. Covers world-wide Englishes quite well.
On the Web
Languagehat — Wide-ranging coverage of language- and literature-related topics, with an eye for unusual language and languages, and a solid cast of regular commenters. Language or linguistic dilettantes and amateurs will satisfy their curiosity and passion here.
Language Log — One of the smartest group blogs on any topic anywhere on the Anglophone Internet, featuring respected linguists and grammarians commenting on the mundane, arcane, and profane. A key to the blog’s success is that the various posters disagree as often as they agree — meaning more than one school of thought is represented, rather than whatever is faddish or fashionable. Alas, attempts at allowing visitors to comment proved unviable.
WordOrigins.org — Dave Wilton’s site not only features key refutations of common etymological myths (see the “Big List” on the main page), but a chummy group of expert regular visitors in its discussion forums, where the level of discourse is high. And woe to the lazy student looking for someone else to do their research! Dave also offers a free, informative email newsletter.
World Wide Words — You could spend a week on Michael Quinion’s site and still not see everything. He’s prolific and erudite, mainly from a British English perspective. His weekly newsletter is highly recommended. Also highly recommended is his website about affixes.
Separated by a Common Language is a blog by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist who lives and works in the United Kingdom. She writes interestingly and comprehensibly about the differences between Englishes, covering everyday topics far beyond go to hospital or fanny.
Visual Thesaurus is an online, interactive thesaurus that’s fun to search when you’re stuck for a word. The site also includes articles about and interviews with newsmakers in the field of language. The Visual Thesaurus is published by Thinkmap, Inc., which has been an underwriter of A Way with Words.
Organizations and Societies
Linguistic Society of America. The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) was founded in 1924 to advance the scientific study of language. LSA plays a critical role in supporting and disseminating linguistic scholarship both to professional linguists and to the general public.
The American Dialect Society, founded in 1889 at Harvard University, has always had in its member roster a comfortable mixture of professionals and amateurs. ADS has a quarterly academic journal and a very active, open-to-all email list.
The Dictionary Society of North America publishes an annual journal and holds a biennial conference.
National Puzzlers’ League. An eclectic crowd that enjoys all forms of wordplay and puzzle-making.
These works are recommended for children under the age of 13. For children 13 and older, we believe adult reference works are ideal, as long as there is guidance and attention from adults.
Clements, Andrew. Frindle. Nick wants to rename the ink pen. Can he make it stick? It’s a fun fiction tale with solid ideas about how language works built right in.
Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary. With pictures.
Merriam-Webster’s Everyday Language Reference Set. Includes the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, and Merriam-Webster’s New Vocabulary Builder.
Oxford Childrens Classics Collection. Includes Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Flambards, Treasure Island, Party Shoes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, and The Jungle Book.
Smith, Keri. Wreck This Journal. A collection of writing prompts for the young wannabe writer.
Other Reference Books
Barnhart, David K., and Metcalf, Alan A. America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Scholarly but highly readable.
Bauer, Laurie, and Trudgill, Peter. Language Myths. London and New York: Penguin, 1998. A fundamental work for the beginning language scholar: dispels and explodes many long-held but inaccurate beliefs about language.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English, 2 ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A comprehensive, illustrated, and highly readable reference work about all aspects of language.
Green, Jonathon. Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made. London: Jonathan Cape, 1996. This work is so insiderish and covers so much territory that only those readers who are truly fanatical about dictionaries will appreciate it.
Hughes, Geoffrey. An Encyclopedia of Swearing. Armonk, New York, and London: M.E. Sharpe, 2006. Scholarly, historical, and explanatory, not prurient, puerile, or inane.
Mencken, H.L. 1948. The American Language. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Landmark work. The final edition of this work is most recommended. It includes the main volume and two supplements. Raven McDavid did a one-volume abridgement in 1963, mainly by leaving out many of the word lists.
Metcalf, Allan. Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Highly recommended.
Read, Allen Walker. Milestones in the History of English in America. Publication of the American Dialect Society Duke University Press, 2002. This volume includes the original journal articles that once and for all resolve the question of the origin of “OK.”
Wilton, David. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. With the Bauer/Trudgill book above, this work is highly recommended as a way of answering questions about word origins that are frequently asked and often wrongly answered.