Three Essential References for the College Student

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In the age of the Internet, it’s not unthinkable for a student to never have touched a physical dictionary, encyclopedia volume, or reference book.  Just about everything can be found online, whether it’s linked from a Wikipedia page or found on one of many online academic journal catalogues such as JSTOR.  Some students might even laugh at the idea of owning a physical copy of any reference book, considering the wealth of information that Google places at easy reach.

Nevertheless, every college student should still consider buying physical copies of a few essential reference books.  There are books that can potentially save your hide the night before your term paper is due, when you’re putting the finishing touches on your essay and frantically trying to figure out how to cite a particular source or whether a certain word is correct in the context you’re using it.  If your Internet connection happens to die that night, owning a copy of The MLA Handbook could mean the difference between finishing your paper and going to sleep or racing to the library at three in the morning to find a book that might already be checked out.  Even if your Internet is up, however, you’re not totally free from danger: Google and Wikipedia are full of incorrect and inaccurate answers to questions of grammar, style, and fact.  To ensure that you’ll never be faced with these kinds of situations, be sure to buy these vital books and keep them on your desk at all times.

1)  Roget’s Thesaurus

You’re writing a literary analysis of the racy novel Like Water for Chocolate and are desperately searching for a less explicit way to describe the relationship between Tita and Pedro.  Where do you turn if the Internet fails you?

You turn to Roget’s ThesaurusRoget’s contains hundreds of thousands of synonyms for tens of thousands of words.  When writing a paper, it’s important to maintain a lively voice by mixing up your choice of words.  Using the word “violent” or “bloody” five times in a row to describe the French Revolution will make your writing sound dry and break your flow.  This is where Roget’s comes in handy.  Simply look up “violent” and “bloody” in the thesaurus, and you will find several synonyms, along with terms and phrases that include those words.   For example, “bloody” yields the synonyms “killing”, “red”, “unclean”, and “cruel”, along with the terms “bloody-minded” and “bloody flux” (the last of which is no longer in common use.)

However, you should be careful when using Roget’s.  It may be tempting to find the longest or “smartest-looking” synonyms and shove those into your paper without regard for style, sense, or flow.  Rest assured that your professor will know exactly what you did and why you did it.  Write naturally, and use Roget’s when you really need it.

2)  The MLA Handbook

You’re writing an essay on the changing economic landscape of China, and you need to cite a handful of articles you found online, a book with five authors, and a translated newspaper blurb.  Once again, your Internet connection is down, you have no idea how to properly cite any of your sources, and your paper is due in six hours.  (For a sense of heightened urgency, let’s assume that Internet is out throughout the area and that the library is closed.)  How would you handle this situation?

You’d better hope that you have a copy of the relevant format guide at your side.  Political and economic analyses are most often written in MLA format, so the book you’d probably want in this situation is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.  This guide features hundreds of citation forms, both in in-text and source page varieties.  Proper MLA formatting isn’t as simple as just getting the citations right, though: the Handbook also lists the correct margins, spacing, and font for your paper.  Other format style guides include the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (for APA format), Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (for Turabian format), and The Chicago Manual of Style (for Chicago format.) 

It’s generally a good idea to have a few of the official format handbooks lying around just in case you need them, but you can probably best determine which books you’ll need by the courses you are taking.  If your coursework is heavy with psychology, you’ll probably be using APA most of the time.  If you are working towards an English major, the MLA and Turabian guides will be the most useful to you.

3)  Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

You’re writing another essay for your literature class.  You are nearly finished with it, but there are a few instances of questionable grammar and style in your paper.  Your professor happens to be incredibly strict when it comes to such issues, and you don’t want to risk asking Google and getting the wrong answer or no answer at all.

This is just the kind of situation in which The Elements of Style comes in handy.  Originally written by Professor William Strunk and later edited and expanded by author E. B. White, The Elements of Style is the best English style and grammar guide around.  This slim volume contains both hard and fast rules of grammar and guidelines for good writing.  If you’re stuck wondering whether to use “different from” or “different than” in a paper, flip to Chapter IV, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”, to find your answer (it’s “different from”, by the way.)  Although old, The Elements of Style is as useful today as the day it was first published.  No student should be without a copy.

These are just a few of the most useful references available to the careful and diligent student.  There are many other guides out there, however.  Use your own judgment to determine which ones will serve you best, but whatever you do, don’t rely on Google and Wikipedia for all of your immediate academic needs.  Sooner or later, they will fail you, and then you will wish you’d bought a trustworthy guide.

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