Here Comes Santa Claus

James J. Kilpatrick
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Posted: Jan 02, 2006 9:18 AM

Can a writer ever have too many books about writing? There must be some point of saturation at which shelf space, desk space, sofa space and bathroom space at last run out -- but for most of us there remains a little room yet. In this gift-giving holiday season, what might you give the writer on your list?

Another dictionary! For writers there is always room for one more. The best of the desk dictionaries, at least in my experience, is Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate. The typography is readable, the definitions are usually clear and succinct, and the illustrative quotations are as comprehensive as any writer reasonably could ask.

Merriam-Webster wins the cut-glass flyswatter in part because of its useful appendices. The editors provide 45 pages of biographical names, starting with Hank Aaron, the outfielder, and ending with Huldrych Zwingli, a 16th-century Reformation leader in Switzerland. I once met Aaron, but never had the pleasure of meeting the other fellow.

Did you know that Aaron ranks second in major league games played (3,308), second in at-bats (12,364), third in runs scored (2,245), and first in runs batted in (2,297)? Those statistics are not in Merriam-Webster. They're in the World Almanac, another indispensable volume for a writer with eclectic interests.

Getting back, briefly, to dictionaries: My second choice would be the Random House College edition of 1997, a really lovely work. It's out of print, sad to say, but if you can find a copy, grab it. Tied for second is the American Heritage College Dictionary because of its splendid notes on usage. (Its note on "unique" is sufficient reason alone for buying the volume.) I also refer almost daily to Webster's New World Dictionary, the Encarta Dictionary, and the (two-volume) Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Not long ago the Oxford folks sent me a review copy of their new Oxford American Dictionary. It runs on to more than 2,000 pages and weighs upward of 800 pounds, so you will need one forklift or three sumo wrestlers to hoist it, but you will love this gorilla once you get to know it.

Every serious writer would love to see a thesaurus by the Yuletide tree. The most familiar thesaurus is Roget's 21st Century edition, published by Dell. The Old Reliable, if you can find it, is "The Synonym Finder," published by the Rodale Press in 1978. Not long ago I wanted a synonym for "discreet." The late Jerome Rodale instantly offered: careful, prudent, wise, sagacious, cautious, judicious, sensible, guarded, circumspect, wary, chary; aware, awake, alert; heedful, watchful, vigilant; tactful, politic, and half a dozen others. The word I wanted was "prudent."

If you can give your writer only one book, that book of course is the Strunk-White "Elements of Style," published by Macmillan. William Strunk Jr. was a professor of English at Cornell early in the 20th century. E.B. White was the hugely gifted author of "Charlotte's Web" and "The Second Tree From the Corner." The final chapter runs to only 20 pages, but for a writer, these could be the most useful 20 pages ever printed.

Free-lance writers learn in their cradles that every newspaper or magazine has its own idiosyncratic rules of style. Often the rules are very idiosyncratic, like The New Yorker's rule on paragraphing: Never paragraph if you possibly can avoid it. For everyday consultation, the best buy is the Stylebook of The Associated Press, available at $19.70 from the AP Bookstore, 450 West 33rd St., New York, NY 10020. Grudgingly, I can also recommend The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage -- "grudgingly," because its editors' inability to distinguish "like" from "such as" makes every page suspect.

Give your writer a book! Nothing could please a writer more.

(Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to Mr. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is kilpatjj@aol.com.)