Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark

Reference Books

A handful of reference books are essential for people writing English papers. If you're an English major, buy any of them you can afford. In any case, get to know them in the library — every library worth its salt should have them. (If your library doesn't, ask a reference librarian about buying them.)

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
The dictionary to end all dictionaries. In its second edition, it stretches to twenty folio volumes, more than enough to keep you busy until you die. Where the OED differs from most dictionaries is that it's a historical dictionary — its original title, in fact, was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. That means it's concerned not only with defining words as they're used today, but also with the history of words: when they were first used, where they came from etymologically, and how they've been used over time. And you get not only definitions and etymologies, but examples of how the words have been used. Any word-lover (or English-paper-writer) should get to know it. Here are some further tips on how to use the OED.
Other dictionaries
The OED is without doubt the best dictionary in the language, perhaps in any language, and has never been superseded. It's swell for serious research, but it can be overkill if you just want to know what turgid means. For mundane tasks like that, a smaller dictionary will do just fine. It's usually best to stick with the big, respected names: Merriam-Webster, Random House, American Heritage. (In the UK, Collins, Chambers, and Oxford are probably your best bets.) I'm especially fond of the American Heritage Dictionary, now in its fourth edition. Note, by the way, that “Webster's” is strictly meaningless: any dictionary can call itself “Webster's,” and some of them are wretched. Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, is a brand name, and their dictionaries tend to be good.

Period-specific dictionaries can help you pin down the meaning of a word in its historical context. If you're working on medieval literature, for example, there are special dictionaries for Old and Middle English. And if you're reading a book from eighteenth-century England, it might be worth seeing how Samuel Johnson defined it in his Dictionary of 1755 — available in facsimile reprints, on a CD-ROM, and in a handy-dandy one-volume abridgment edited by your humble servant. Also useful is Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828.

There are dictionaries of slang, both contemporary and historical. Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English is really handy. We learn from A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811), that “a valet or footman walking behind his master or mistress” was called a “fartcatcher,” and you can chuckle for hours over some of the more creative terms for sexual acts and organs that appear in these volumes.

Thesauri and dictionaries of synonyms
It's all too easy to abuse a thesaurus: it's tempting to take your perfectly straightforward words and translate them into ostentatiously long words. (When I had to give an oral presentation in my ninth-grade English class, and I wanted to say something wasn't needed and wasn't wanted. I pulled Roget's off the shelf and produced the monstrosity “It is neither necessitous nor desiderative.” Man, what a jackass I was.)

Still, a good thesaurus, when used intelligently, can help you with your writing. Just be sure to observe a few rules. First, never use a word you don't know. Second, never use a big word when a little one will do. Third, be sure you know the subtly different shades of meaning between words. There's no such thing as a perfect synonym; any two words for the “same thing” will differ slightly in denotation or connotation.

If you keep those rules in mind, a thesaurus can help to make your writing more precise. That's always a good thing.

(My dictionaries, by the way, still prefer the Latin plural thesauri to the English thesauruses, though both are acceptable.)

Dictionaries of quotations tend to be organized in two ways. Some arrange all quotations by author, and then provide a huge word index at the back. Others group quotations by topic, with an author index at the end. Both are useful, but in different ways. The most famous general dictionary of quotations is Bartlett's, though I'm usually more fond of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. There are also specialized dictionaries of quotations: Shakespearean quotations, humorous quotations, literary quotations, political quotations, and so on.
Believe it or not, encyclopedias can be used for something other than plagiarizing reports when you're in eighth grade. A good encyclopedia is a godsend. Every student — every literate human being, for that matter — should own a one-volume desk encyclopedia, which will help you with quick look-ups. (It's actually quicker to pull the volume off the shelf to get a survey of a subject than to type it into Google and then spend a half-hour sorting through the results.) And big multi-volume encyclopedias can be had in your library's reference department.

There are plenty of encyclopedias out there, ranging in quality from brilliant to crappy. My favorite is The Encyclopædia Britannica, which has been around since the eighteenth century in many incarnations. The eleventh edition in 28 vols. (London, 1911) is considered by aficionados to be the finest encyclopedia ever written. Yes, it's absurdly out of date; if you're interested in how transistors work, find another book. And it bears all the hallmarks of its age, with offensive statements about “subject races” and all that. But it's a masterpiece, and if you want to know about the orders of classical architecture, or the history of meteorology, it's unbeatable. And of course there are more modern editions of Britannica, which are among the most useful encyclopedias out there.

Biographical dictionaries
Three gigantic sets are essential sources for biographical information on major and minor figures: The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), The Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB), and American National Biography (ANB). The DNB and DLB cover British authors, and the American National Biography fills in the gaps for Yankees. Always a good place to start to get a quick biographical sketch — four or five pages for most major authors, maybe a page for less well-known figures. If you need extensive biographical information, most of the major writers will be the subject of full-length biographies you can find elsewhere in the library. But for a quick-and-dirty overview of someone's life, the DNB and its cousins can't be beat. (You can't begin to afford them, though; they're far too big for home use. But a little biographical dictionary like Chambers Biographical Dictionary can be useful.)
Don't forget the topic-specific reference works. The two big British university presses publish “Companions” to various subjects, and they can really make a paper better.

From Oxford come the big encyclopedic guides, The Oxford Companion to English Literature and The Oxford Companion to American Literature, covering writers, works, and movements. (There are also Oxford Companions on other literatures — French, German, Classical — and specialized topics, like The Oxford Companion to Women's Literature.) If you're an English major, consider buying a copy of the one closest to your major area of interest. You can often find them cheap in secondhand bookshops.

Cambridge has a very different series of companions: collections of essays on an author (The Cambridge Companion to Keats), a genre (The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre), a movement (The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism), or a period (The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature). They're usually edited by prominent scholars, and include maybe a dozen new essays by hotshots in the field. Whereas Oxford Companions are designed for quick reference, the Cambridge Companions tend to give you twenty-page essays on various topics. The two series work together pretty well.

Miscellaneous reference works
You'll be amazed at the number of reference books out there. Spend a few days getting to know them, and you'll save countless days in your later research. A miscellaneous grab-bag of some interesting ones:
  • The Oxford Companion to the Year, ed. Blackburn and Holford-Strevens, is a very clever idea for a book: a companion to each day of the year, listing holidays, saint's days, and major events, combined with a guide to various calendars.
  • Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable offers brief histories of words and phrases in English. It's a fun book to browse. An early version from 1898 is available on-line; more recent editions can be had in print, providing information on terms like paparazzi, fully monty, and couch potato.

The librarians at Rutgers — my home — have put together lists of other useful reference books. I won't try to duplicate their effort: take advantage of their work. Note that all these sources just scratch the surface of what's available. Don't hesitate to talk to a reference librarian about any research needs: they're not only willing but eager to help.

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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