Grammar, Punctuation, Style, and Usage

Graduate Student Resource Center

Loads of books and websites have been written on grammar, punctuation, style, usage, and how an understanding of these conventions can improve your writing. We’ve distilled the best of what’s online and in print into the categories below:

  • Online resources and apps that you can use to identify errors, learn to self-edit, and study common rules
  • All-purpose reference books, which tell you everything you need in one handy volume
  • Pop-grammar books that have a sense of humor
  • Textbooks that teach grammar to improve writing style
  • Classic books on writing style
  • All-purpose websites, which present information on grammar, punctuation, style, and/or usage
  • Online books on English usage (for those interested in, e.g., the difference between “ensure” and “insure”)

Online Resources and Apps

Grammarly : Free grammar and punctuation help with browser extension; features include advanced spell checker, plagiarism assistance, and explanation of rules. Premium version available for a fee.

Sentence Sense: Interactive activities including writing practice, self-evaluations, and guided explorations of various grammar topics.

Grammar Bytes! Interactive exercises on topics such as run-on sentences, sentence fragments, irregular verbs, commas, pronoun agreement, pronoun reference, subject-verb agreement, and word choice. Also contains tip sheets and definitions of grammatical terms.

Common Errors in English Usage . Web site created by Washington State University Professor Paul Brians focusing on usage (as opposed to grammar more generally). Useful for determining whether a word or phrase is acceptable in Standard English (e.g., “whipped cream” versus “whip cream”) or distinguishing between two very similar words (e.g., “uninterested” versus “disinterested”).

All-Purpose Reference Books

The following books are usually assigned in undergraduate-level writing classes, but they can be enormously helpful if you want a single, well-designed reference book that does it all. The texts below include sections on style, grammar, punctuation, usage, mechanics (e.g., capitalization, formats for numbers and abbreviations), citation formats, the writing and research process, and common errors for ESL students. They often have free online companions.

Hacker, D. (2016). A Writer’s Reference (9th ed.). New York: Bedford St. Martin’s.

Bullock, R., Brody, M., & Weiberg, F. The Little Seagull Handbook (3rd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.

Maimon, E., Peritz, J. H., & Yancey, K. B. (2013). A Writer’s Resource (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pop-Grammar Books

Believe it or not, grammar can be fun. The books below are seek to provide painless, humorous or, at least, interesting discussions of grammar, punctuation, usage, and (sometimes) style and mechanics. Unlike the texts above, they do not contain information on citation formats, the writing and research process, or grammar for ESL students.

Clark, R.P. (2011). The glamour of grammar: A guide to the magic and mystery of practical English. New York: Little, Brown, & Company.

Gordon, K. E. (1993). The deluxe transitive vampire: A handbook of grammar for the innocent, the eager and the doomed. New York: Pantheon.

O’Conner, P. (2010). Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English (3rd ed.). New York: Riverhead Books.

Truss, L. (2003). Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero-tolerance approach to punctuation. New York: Gotham Books.

For more books on English grammar, see our ESL resources page.

Textbooks on Grammar to Improve Style

If you want to study grammar in order to improve your writing style, check out these textbooks. Many of them also contain information on punctuation.

Kolln, M. (2016). Rhetorical grammar: Grammatical choices, rhetorical effects (8th ed.). New York: Longman.
Contains chapters on sentence structure, cohesion, sentence rhythm, voice, coordination, brevity and subordination—as well as “making choices” with verbs, adjectives, adverbs, stylistic variants, etc. Also contains a chapter on punctuation and answers to exercises. The instructor’s manual can be downloaded from the publisher’s website.

Morenberg, M., & Sommers, J., with D. A. Daiker & A. Kerek. (2008). The writer’s options; Lessons in style and arrangement (8th ed.). New York: Longman.
Contains chapters on revising different parts of sentences (e.g., relative clauses and participles) as well as on revising paragraphs and drafts (e.g., coherence, emphasis, paragraph patterns). The instructor’s manual can be downloaded from the publisher’s website.

Dykstra, P. (2006). An easy guide to writing. Prentice Hall.
Markets itself to “developmental/basic” writers who “struggle with sentence structure and the conventions of Standard Written English.” Contains chapters on sentence essentials, punctuation, word choice, fine-tuning sentences, writing paragraphs and essays, and grammar for non-native speakers. Contains answers to self-tests and an online companion with more exercises and resources.

Classic Books on Writing Style

These two classic books focus on style, but the authors do cover grammatical concepts.

Williams, J., & Bizup, J. (2016). Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (12th ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Presents powerful, concrete strategies for improving your prose. Contains chapters on cohesion, emphasis, coherence, concision, length, elegance, and usage. There are many iterations of this book, including a concise student edition.

Lanham, R. (2006). Revising prose (5th ed.). New York: Longman.
A “paramedic” method for clarifying and streamlining prose by a UCLA emeritus professor. The DVD version is fantastic and uses animation to make the editing strategies concrete.

All-Purpose Websites

These websites don’t go into as much depth as the books, but they cover the basics of grammar, punctuation, style, usage, and/or mechanics.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University: The “Grammar and Mechanics” section contains links to handouts on grammar (e.g., “how to use adjectives and adverbs”), punctuation (e.g., “conquering the comma,” style (e.g., “sentence clarity”), and mechanics (e.g., numbers, spelling).

Guide to Grammar and Writing, Capital Community College —The “Word and Sentence Level” and “Paragraph Level” drop-down menus contain links to thorough descriptions of grammar, punctuation, style, and usage topics. The Frequently Asked Questions and GRAMMARLOGS sections may also be useful if you have a particular question in mind (e.g., whether “girls basketball” or “girls’ basketball” is preferred). Alphabetical index of topics. This website is also listed above in the Online Quizzes section. It appears to have last been updated in 2005

Grammar Handbook, Capella University—Clear and well-organized discussions of parts of speech and the structure of phrases, clauses, and sentences. Also contains what it calls “common usage problems” (though you typically will not find these topics listed under “usage”): information on homophones, parallelism, misplaced and dangling modifiers, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences.

Hyper-Grammar, University of Ottawa —Hyperlinked descriptions of parts of speech; parts of a sentence; punctuation; using pronouns, verbs, and modifiers; building phrases, clauses, and sentences; writing paragraphs; diction; spelling; and miscellaneous (thesis, word formation, apposition, noun and pronoun characteristics).

Ask Betty, University of Washington —Information on how to decode instructor comments like “awk”; questions and answers from students (e.g., “When do I use whom?”); and a section on grammar, style, and punctuation topics (e.g., active and passive voice, cohesion).

22 Short Films about Grammar --These one-minute videos, created by Mark C. Marino, cover common errors in grammar, punctuation, and style in a hilarious way. Check out, for example, "the Sopronouns" and "Pirates of the Parallel Structure."

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