An American Editor

April 1, 2010

The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf

I have been a professional editor for more than 25 years and during those years I have purchased, read, and used numerous references. Even now I look for additional language reference books to buy (I have on order, for example, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction by Anatoly Liberman).

There is no list of must-have reference books that every professional editor must own or have immediate access to, with the possible exception of standard dictionaries; which books should be part of an editor’s reference library depends a great deal on the types of manuscripts the editor works on and the type of editing performed (by which I mean whether one does developmental editing, copyediting, or both).

One book every editor should have (in addition to dictionaries) is the appropriate style manual. There are many style manuals available, even news organizations like the New York Times and Associated Press have style manuals. Sometimes the required style manual is nothing more than the grammar and style rules created by the client, but usually it is one of the standard manuals, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, The Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, the AMA (American Medical Association) Manual of Style, and the Council of Science Editor’s Scientific Style and Format, to name but a few. It is the style manual that is the arbiter of the rules to be applied to a manuscript, for example, how a reference is to be styled, how a quotation is to be delineated, whether or not serial commas should be used, whether or not prefixes should be hyphenated or closed up, whether or not a phrase should be hyphenated, etc.

In addition to the appropriate style manual, an editor’s bookshelf must contain at least one dictionary, although many editors will have several. Two of my favorite dictionaries are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Although one would think that all dictionaries are the same, they are not, and clients often have a preference. Along with a standard language dictionary, specialized dictionaries are needed. For example, medical editors often own several medical specialty dictionaries, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, and the APA Dictionary of Psychology, in addition to the standard English language dictionaries.

My bookshelf also includes “word” books, that is, books that are lists of accepted words and their spelling for a particular specialty subject area. Because I do a lot of medical editing, I have numerous medical word books. Specialty areas, like medicine, also require specialty reference books. My medical library, for example, includes several drug reference manuals, drug interaction guides, and medical test guides. And because a lot of my specialty work also includes chemical compounds, my library also includes chemical reference books like The Merck Index.

But my bookshelf also includes books devoted to language usage, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, and Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. These are the books that go into detailed explanation of when, for example, which is correct and the difference between farther and further in usage.

Usage books only tell part of the story. Another part is told in a word or phrase’s history (etymology). Some of this information is available in the standard dictionary, especially the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, as well as from specialty books like A Dictionary of Americanisms, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. These resources are valuable in determining whether a word or phrase are being used appropriately.

Also useful are texts that help an editor analyze the roots and origins of a word, especially when an author uses a wholly unfamiliar word, including one not found in the standard language references, or creates a new word. Composition of Scientific Words is particularly helpful with science words and the Word Parts Dictionary is useful with standard English words.

In addition to books about words, a professional editor’s bookshelf includes books about grammar. Grammar books also address the correct word issue, but the focus is more on correct sentence structure, for example the restrictive versus the nonrestrictive clause, use of commas, passive versus active voice, and the like. I suspect many editors make use of The Gregg Reference Manual when grammar questions arise.

Some editors rely on online resources in this Internet Age. I find that troublesome to the extent that there is no assurance of reliability or accuracy. I know the source of my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but have no idea of the source for or accuracy of a Wikipedia article. Having grown up in the print age, I am not comfortable relying on the Internet as the source of my information. But making use of online resources is also an important part of an editor’s job; the key is knowing which resources to accept and which to reject. A professional editor can knowledgeably make that decision.

Why is the editor’s bookshelf important? Because it helps separate the professional editor from the amateur. The professional editor has a deep interest in language and how language is used. The professional editor wants to improve communication between the author and the reader. The professional editor devotes significant time and resources to mastering language so that when a manuscript leaves the editor’s hands, it is better communicates the author’s message. Nonprofessional editors do not make the investment nor work to master the language skills that are needed.

The difference between a professional and a nonprofessional editor can be the difference between clear communication and miscommunication of an author’s message. The comprehensiveness of the editor’s bookshelf, the editor’s resources, is a clue to the editor’s professionalism, and something that every author should be interested in.



  1. Here’s a useful addition to the shelf: Jennifer Bothamley, ed. “Dictionary of Theories.” Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1993. ISBN 1-57859-045-0.

    When the author refers to the Uncertainty Principle, are you sure you know what it is? Do you laugh when you read about the Laffer Curve? Can a bathysphere reveal “deep structures”? What is the “luminiferous aether”? Was Plogiston a follower of Socrates or Plato?

    It’s a very helpful book. In fact, it’s visual potato chips (you can’t read just one entry)! I saw it on the discount table at Waldenbooks a few years ago and gladly swapped a portrait of Lincoln for it.


    Comment by Michael Brady — April 1, 2010 @ 8:20 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Michael. I concur on its usefulness. I have a copy of the 5th printing copyrighted 2002. Bothamley provides both an explanation and a in some instances a short history, along with appropriate citations. She also cross-references explanations so you can browse across disciplines as well as within areas.


      Comment by americaneditor — April 1, 2010 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  2. Why is there so much hate against the “Random House Webster’s Unabridged, 2nd. Ed.”? (ISBN-10: 0375426094, ISBN-13: 978-0375426094)
    It once had a cheap “clone” by Barnes & Noble, it was $19.99 and named “Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary” (ISBN-13: 9780760749753, ISBN-10: 0760749752)

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by beranger — April 2, 2010 @ 4:25 am | Reply

    • I was unaware that the Random House dictionary was the subject of “hate.” The most controversial dictionary, and the one most often reviled, is the 1961 Webster’s Third New International (Unabridged). For a good article about the controversy, see “Ain’t That the Truth” by David Skinner. As for Random House’s Webster’s Unabridged, I’ve never been requested to use it as an authoritative source by any publisher, not even Random House. Perhaps someone else can provide more information about the dictionary and its positives and negatives.


      Comment by americaneditor — April 2, 2010 @ 7:28 am | Reply

      • If nobody’s ever considering it then yes, I call this “hate”.

        Short digression: while Associated Press recommends as a reference the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (with Wiley now, formerly with Simon & Schuster, I guess), this dictionary doesn’t include an entry such as “lede” — OK, Random House’s and M-W’s dictionaries don’t have it either, but AHD4 does have it. End of digression.

        While none of the dictionaries is really updated and none of them is outstanding, I’ll only say that, 40 years later, I agree with Kurt Vonnegut: I very much prefer Random House’s Unabridged to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged:

        My problem with Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged (and Collegiate too) is two-fold:

        (1) More often than not, the definitions are not trying to *explain* the meaning, they rather “define” the word by using a capitalized SYNONYM; judging by that alone, too many words are having the same meaning.

        In contrast, Random House’s Unabridged (also the College editions) usually has crystal-clear definitions (although in a few cases there were shorter ones in M-W), even if this leads to redundancies. If you compare the definitions of terms that are defined as SYNONYMS by M-W, you’ll find that they’re not 100% equivalent, there’s a nuance.

        (2) Random House’s tries to help the reader by giving the most common meaning *first*, and the least probable as the last definition. If you’re looking for a rare or obsoleted meaning, look for the last definition, not the first one.

        In contrast, Merriam-Webster is a *chronological* dictionary: the meanings are listed by the historical order they appeared, no matter the first one may date from 1400 and might be extinguished in the meantime!

        Here’s a detailed explanation I was given in 2005:

        Subject: Re:
        Date: Mon, 20 Jun 2005 11:35:37 -0400
        From: Karen Wilkinson

        Dear Radu-Cristian Fotescu:

        I can certainly understand why you were perplexed by the homograph numbering system in the online version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. I hope the following explanation is of some help to you.

        As you may know, the print edition of the Third includes a separate Addenda section for new words and meanings that have established themselves since the book’s initial publication. The Addenda entries for new words appear just as they would in the main A-Z section, complete with pronunciations, etymologies, and so forth. In the online version of the book, these Addenda entries are of course incorporated into the same database as the main A-Z entries.

        Additionally, the Addenda section includes a special type of abbreviated entry for new meanings of words that are already entered in the main A-Z section. This kind of entry is intended merely as an extension of an existing entry, so it usually doesn’t include information about pronunciation or etymology: it simply lists the entry word, the part of speech, and the new meaning(s) being added.

        When the book is next fully revised, these special add-on entries will be merged into their corresponding main entries. In the meantime, we’ve included them in the online database in their current form so that they may be searched along with the book’s regular entries. However, this method does pose some problems with regard to homograph numbering. Because the special entries are meant as additions to existing entries, it would be misleading to number and label them in the results list as if they were complete entries in their own right. On the other hand, there are often several such Addenda entries corresponding to several different main entry homographs, so it would be even more confusing not to distinguish them in some way, both from the main entries and from each other. Here’s the solution we’ve arrived at:

        1) Normal homograph entries are shown in the results list with the homograph number and part-of-speech label in brackets after the main entry word, e.g.:


        page[2,transitive verb]


        2) If there’s a corresponding Addenda entry for an additional meaning, it will be shown without a following number or part of speech:


        3) If there is more than one such Addenda entry, the first will be shown without a number or part of speech, and the rest will be numbered in ascending order, also without a part of speech shown:



        Incidentally, our main entry homographs are determined both by etymology and by part of speech. Thus, page[1,noun] and page[3,noun] are separate entries because they come to us from different sources, and page[1,noun] and the derivative page[2,verb] are separate entries because are different parts of speech. The order of homographs is historical, from oldest to newest.

        Again, I hope this explanation helps to make sense of what might appear at first glance to be a somewhat arbitrary numbering system. If we can be of any further assistance, please feel free to write again.

        Karen Wilkinson, Associate Editor
        Merriam-Webster, Inc.

        Also of interest, from the same Ms Wilkinson (now no longer with M-W Inc.):

        « At the time Webster’s Third New International Dictionary was first published, print technology was not quite what it is today. It is therefore more difficult and expensive to open pages for editing in this book than it is for a more recently published book such as the current edition of the Collegiate. If we were to incorporate the Addenda into the main A-Z section at this point, the resulting expense would probably force a considerable increase in the book’s price. By performing this task as part of the normal revision process for the next edition, we’ll be able to do it more efficiently, which will help us to keep our costs (and, consequently, the book’s price) at a reasonable level.

        The next edition in our International series will of course be created using the latest print technology, and will therefore be able to be updated in the same manner as the Collegiate–that is, with changes made directly to the book’s main text.

        It’s worth noting that Webster’s Third New International Dictionary is by a significant margin the largest single-volume English dictionary currently in print, so even a “minor” update to this book requires a fairly major commitment of time, staff, and resources. The recent 2002 Addenda update took our team of 40 full-time editors over a year to complete, and involved the addition of about 4,000 new entries and senses. I would guess that the task of merging the current Addenda with the main A-Z section would require a similar commitment if it were to be completed as an independent project rather than as part of the preparation of a new edition. »

        It is only sad that, under the big umbrella of Bertelsmann’s, Random House made no effort to update the definitions in his Unabridged and College editions, because Random House was my primary choice for American English — and I still love it, as I said.

        It must be obvious by now, I am not a native speaker of English. One consequence is that I somehow have to switch “mindsets” between my mother tongue (Romanian), and the other languages I can understand: French, British English, American English (should I add “Internet English” too?).

        One really needs to switch the mindsets as long as he or she has never lived in the said culture, and the only contact with a given culture and civilizations are the books and the movies (needless to say, the BBC and Granada movies of the 80s meant a lot to spread the British English in some parts of the world).

        For British English I used to prefer a certain Collins editions, and now I fancy the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary — which means I’m not a fan of the Oxford dictionaries. (For old British English, there are some gems to be found in an older Wordsworth Concise.)

        For American English I traditionally preferred the College + Unabridged from Random House, with mixed feelings towards the American Heritage Dictionary 4th (and a rather C grade for Webster’s New World College Dictionary) — which means I’m not a fan of the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries (their Thesaurus is however very useful).

        Now, I’m not sure about the the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), because I don’t own one.

        As a last note, in the digital era some people managed to broke some dictionaries, which are now seen as “databases”, not as “documents”. The 2005 edition of the Random House College (ISBN: 0375426000) has an error in print (on page 1424-1425): the definition of “zip” was almost completely erased and just left a meaning about computer files. This blunder is also present in the latest *electronic* editions of Random House’s dictionaries, namely WordGenius 4.7, by Eurofield Information Solutions (an Australian company).


        Comment by beranger — April 2, 2010 @ 8:15 am | Reply

  3. […] Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance Filed under: Editorial Matters,Professional Editors — americaneditor @ 8:09 am Tags: authors, Chicago Manual of Style, communication, copyediting, declining quality, editor, editorial quality, Freelance Editorial Services, Garner's Modern American Usage, grammar, language, language manuals, organization, professional editor, professional editors, publishers, quality, style manuals, syntax, words, wordsnSync Editors rely on lots of “professional” resources to guide their editorial decisions when working on a manuscript. In addition to dictionaries and word books, we rely on language usage guides and style manuals, among other tools. [To learn more about the professional editor's (and my) bookshelf, see The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf.] […]


    Pingback by Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance « An American Editor — May 20, 2010 @ 8:10 am | Reply

  4. […] an amateur and a professional, see the following articles: The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf; On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?; For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; […]


    Pingback by I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors « An American Editor — June 28, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply

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