Grammar, Punctuation, Style, and Usage

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 Quizzes

Bedford/St. Martin’s Exercise Central—After registering (for free), you have access to a 65-question diagnostic test and a customized study plan with exercises and tutorials. The test contains four to five questions per “skill area,” which range from subject-verb agreement to “ESL” to parallelism.

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.

Guide to Grammar and Writing, Capital Community College—174 interactive quizzes on grammar, style, punctuation, usage, spelling, and vocabulary. (For an alphabetical list of topics, click here.) Note that not all of the quizzes’ answers have explanations. This website is also listed under All-Purpose Websites, below. It appears to have last been updated in 2005.


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.

Farbman, E. (1989). Sentence Sense: A Writer’s Guide. Available (An online Houghton-Mifflin textbook. Contains 20 computer-graded or self-graded exercises.)

Hacker, D. (2003). A Writer’s Reference (5th edition). New York: Bedford St. Martin’s.

Harris, M. (2006). Prentice Hall Reference Guide. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Maimon, E., Peritz, J. H., & Yancey, K. B. (2007). A Writer’s Resource (2nd edition). 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.

O’Conner, P. (1996). Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English. New York: Riverhead Books.

Hale, C. (2001). Sin and syntax: How to craft wickedly effective prose. New York: Broadway Books.

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

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. (2003). Rhetorical grammar: Grammatical choices, rhetorical effects (4th 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. (1995). Style: Toward clarity and grace. 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. (2000). Revising prose. 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). For an alphabetical index of topics, click here. This website is also listed above in the Online Quizzes section. It appears to have last been updated in 2005.

Grammar Handbook, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—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.

HyperGrammar, 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).

The Basic Elements of English: An Interactive Guide to Grammar, University of Calgary—Tutorials on parts of speech, sentence elements (which includes a “sentence faults” section with information on, e.g., fragments and misplaced modifiers), punctuation, and word use. There appears to be a glitch in some of the interactive exercises: answers are sometimes not visible.

Guide to Grammar and Style, Jack Lynch—Short discussions of grammar, style, and usage topics. Topics are listed in an A-Z index, so you have to know what you’re looking for.

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."  You can also find them on YouTube.

Online Books on English Usage

Refer to these websites if you want to know whether a word or phrase is acceptable in Standard Edited English (e.g., “whipped cream” versus “whip cream”) or if you want to know the difference between two very similar words (e.g., “uninterested” versus “disinterested”). Some of these books contain discussions of grammatical terms and explanations of acronyms.

Quick and Dirty
This guide provides short explanations of words and phrases. Its concision is sometimes a virtue and sometimes frustrating:

Brians, P. (2007). Common Errors in English Usage. Scroll down past the image of the book cover to find the index of words.

More than You Ever Wanted to Know
These books provide thorough discussions of words and phrases.

Garner, B. A. (2002). The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. You can access this site only through the UCLA network.

Allen, R. Ed. (1999). Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage. You can access this site only through the UCLA network.

This page was created by Andrea Olinger. To suggest a resource or report a broken link, email the GWC at