‘What are the best books on grammar, punctuation, writing, speaking, pronunciation, and vocabulary I can refer to improve my English?’

This is a common question from people who’re working on their English.

You need books to learn the basic rules of some aspects of English such as grammar, but, by and large, you don’t need books to learn aspects such as pronunciation.

Here are few books (or no books where they aren’t required) you can refer to improve your English:

1. Books on grammar

High School English Grammar and Composition Book (Regular Edition) by Wren & Martin and revised by D V Prasada Rao N and N D V Prasada Rao

Essential English Grammar by Raymond Murphy

Intermediate English Grammar by Raymond Murphy

Besides, the first book in writing section further down this post too covers grammar in an abridged form, but it doesn’t have any practice exercises.

2. Books on punctuation

Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R L Trask

If you’re looking for an in-depth understanding of punctuation, this is the book. It’s quite comprehensive (to give an example, I haven’t found such coverage of capital letters elsewhere), with plenty of examples. And it’s an easy read too.

But if you’re not looking for an in-depth read, your purpose will be served by High School English Grammar and Composition Book (referred above) and The Penguin Writer’s Manual (covered further below).

3. Books on writing

Writing is a skill and you’ll get better at it through more and more writing. Besides writing practice, you should read a lot and absorb the nuances and practices of the best writers.

Here are few books on writing I’ve gone through myself that you may find useful:

The Penguin Writer’s Manual by Martin Manser and Stephen Curtis

Unlike other books in this section, this book also covers basics such as grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation). So if you’re new to writing, this could be a better option.

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White

Thin (around 100 pages) and yet quite comprehensive, this book remains a long-standing favorite of learners of writing. However, it’s not an easy read for beginners and every time you read it, you discover few new lessons on writing. If you pick this up, read it 2-3 times at least. I’ve gone through this book around 8-10 times, and every time I’ve learnt something new.

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

This book covers how to write for the web, which has its own nuances.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

This book is more for professional writers, but even a beginner can gain few useful tips from the book.

4. Books on speaking

I went through number of books on how to speak English well, and they’re woefully short on fundamentals and insights on most components of speaking. They focus heavily on grammar and model sentences for common situations (how to greet, how to talk on phone, how to make a sales call, and so on). Some focus on vocabulary and pronunciation as well.

Common situations may serve some purpose for absolute beginners, but not so much for others. Moreover, how many situations can possibly be covered in a book and how many can one remember? To add a layer, more often than not, you won’t find a situation unfolding exactly the way you’ve read in the book. A real conversation on any topic, say weather, can go in million directions.

In the same vein, pronunciation is hard to learn by going through phonetic form as mentioned in most books. Far better is non-phonetic form. Here is an example so that you can understand this.

Try pronouncing the following two:phonetic vs. non-phonetic form of pronunciation

Source: Phonetic form and non-phonetic form

If you’re like most, you’ll struggle with the first (phonetic) because of its alien symbols. The second (non-phonetic) is far more intuitive, but it’s missing from most books. (You may have figured out – especially from the non-phonetic form – that the word in question is ‘refrigerator’.)

Better yet is to listen to pronunciation. That’s the way most of us have learnt pronunciation – by listening to others or directly to pronunciation of words on Google.

On vocabulary, the book, instead of listing just words, their meaning, and few example sentences, can talk about tactics to learn vocabulary that you can actually use in speech and retain it for long. It may also talk about how people who pause a lot for want of good vocabulary (they know the word in their native language, but not in English) can build their basic vocabulary fast. The book can prescribe 1-2 (you don’t need more) exercises that you can practice anywhere, anytime to identify gaps in your vocabulary and consolidate existing vocabulary.

And mistakes to avoid? People spend months and years in futility trying things that don’t work. I know of people who adopt watching movies and reading newspapers as the main tools to get better at speaking English.

To sum this part, a book on speaking should explain tactics that people can use to learn on their own. In other words, instead of selling hundred types of fish to someone, teach them how to catch fish. They’ll get all the variety on their own. Give people fundamentals, insights (and not just lists) on how to learn different components of spoken English. And how to avoid common mistakes.

Before I close this section, I should emphasize that you get better at speaking through more speaking. A book can only support. At a fundamental level, speaking requires your vocal organs (lips, tongue, and throat) to get used to producing sounds in a certain rhythm (pause, intonation, pace etc.), which can come predominantly through speaking.

5. Books on pronunciation

There are plenty of books on pronunciation, but, as mentioned in the preceding section, learning pronunciation from books is an inefficient way. The best way to learn pronunciation is to listen (and not read) pronunciation. But, unfortunately, books don’t speak.

Online dictionaries, however, do.

Listen to pronunciation on online dictionaries to improve your pronunciation efficiently. You don’t need a book for it. Two online dictionaries for pronunciation I’ll recommend are:

Dictionary.com (It provides pronunciation in non-phonetic form as well, which is far more intuitive than phonetic form.)

Cambridge English Dictionary

6. Books on vocabulary

Good vocabulary will help your written and spoken English both.

But, do you need a book on the topic to improve your vocabulary?

Do you need a Norman Lewis?

You don’t.

You don’t need a book on vocabulary aside from maybe the specific case of preparing for an exam. Esha Manwani improved her vocabulary organically by reading lots of books and novels befitting her level over a period of time. Watch her talk about her journey to improve English language skills in this TEDx talk (duration: 1:45 minutes):

She immersed herself in books, and over a period of time ‘somehow voice in her head started forming grammatically correct sentences’. She started using words in the right context even though she didn’t know their meaning (that’s building vocabulary subconsciously).

Her method is absolutely fine, but if you’re motivated, you can make your vocabulary-building many times more efficient. While reading, mark the words whose meaning or usage you aren’t sure of and, after you finish reading, refer a dictionary. Go beyond meaning of the word if you want to make your vocabulary usable in speech and writing. Also browse the example sentences (in a dictionary) that follow the meaning.

This method is far more sustainable and retentive (you retain vocabulary for long) than going through word lists. Here you build vocabulary at a steady pace, learning through context (of the book you’re reading).

Having said that, I looked at following four vocabulary books to understand their effectiveness in building vocabulary you can use in speech and writing:

Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis

30 Days to More Powerful Vocabulary by Wilfred Funk and Norman Lewis

All about Words by Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum

How to Build a Better Vocabulary by Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum

They do a nice job of categorizing words under a central idea such as personality types, doctors, science, speech habits, and compliments, which is an ideal way to learn words. And they also have extensive exercises in each chapter to practice the vocabulary you’re learning.

However, I think these books lack on few counts:

  • Learning how a word is used through example sentences is an important cog in building vocabulary. These vocabulary books don’t have enough examples.
  • Pronunciation is mentioned in phonetic symbols, which is less intuitive than non-phonetic form. (We saw example of the word ‘refrigerator’ earlier in the post.)

    Moreover, when it comes to pronunciation, all books suffer from lack of option to hear pronunciation (for obvious reasons), something that can be accomplished on an online dictionary through just the click of a button.

  • They go too deep into unrequired stuff such as origin and dissection (prefix, root, and suffix) of the word. Few are interested in exploring a word to that extent, and hence such information distracts the reader and unnecessarily bulks up chapters.
  • Significant proportion of words in these books are uncommon and difficult and should be avoided in verbal or written communication. (Some people mistakenly believe that dropping in difficult words in their speech and writing will make them look smart.) Few examples from Word Power Made Easy: ambivert, misanthrope, misogamist, psychogenic, omniscience, malediction, maladroit, martinet, and voluble.

In sum, if you want to improve your vocabulary for speech and writing, I don’t think you need any vocabulary book.