Practical English Usage – The Best No-Nonsense Grammar for English Learners

With the vast selection of grammar books available, it can be difficult for English learners to choose the book which works best for them. The best kinds of dictionaries are those which present English grammar in the clearest way possible. Check out my article talking about why you need a good grammar book.

Practical English Usage by Michael Swan is the best modern example I have seen of this kind of book. The book is split into two sections; one covers common English grammar points and the other covers English vocabulary. Explanations are clear, easy to understand, and written with learners in mind. You can pick up a copy of Practical English Grammar on Amazon for an affordable price.

The Good

Straightforward Layout

Swan’s goal was to create a book which can act as a good reference text for English learners, so the lay out of Practical English Usage makes it easy for learners to quickly find the grammar point they’re looking for. The grammar portion of the book is 26 sections long.

Each section is clearly marked with the grammar point covered. For example, section 14 deals with pronouns and section 20 is about conjunctions. This makes it simple to crack open Practical English Usage and quickly find the answer to your grammar question.

Under each of the sections are subheadings that focus on a particular problem an English learner might have:

  • 14 Pronouns
    • 176 Possessive Pronouns: mine, yours, etc
    • 180 somebody, someone, anybody, anyone, etc
  • 20 Conjunctions, Sentences, and Clauses
    • 227 not…or; not…nor; and not
    • 229 subordinate clauses: some general points

The layout of the book makes finding the information you need simple. It shouldn’t be a struggle to find the information you need when you need it. You want to be able to pick up your grammar book and dive directly into solving your problem. Wasting time sifting through confusing sections of a dense grammar book is the last thing you want to be doing during your language studies.

Clear Explanations

The explanations included for each section are as clear as you’ll find in an English grammar book. Swan writes each point using common, everyday English wording and includes plenty of examples, so readers are able to clearly follow and quickly understand the point.

I have tried to make the presentation as practical as possible. Each entry contains an explanation of a problem, examples of correct usage, and (when this is useful) examples of typical mistakes.

Swan, Michael, Practical English Usage. 4th Ed., Oxford University Press, 2017.

This provides the reader with a tight presentation of each grammatical concept. The sections are all self contained. Everything you need to know to understand and properly use each grammar point is presented in each section of the book. This focus on clear language explanations supported by examples is invaluable for an English learner looking for a no-nonsense approach to English grammar.

You can easily find, read, and understand any grammar question that crosses your mind using this book.

Excellent Supporting Information

Accompanying the excellent grammatical information is additional information which nicely rounds this book off into a phenomenal English resource.


Swan includes a brief introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) at the beginning of his book. He covers both the vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u, etc.) and the consonant sounds (p, t, k, b, h, etc.) of English along with example words showing how each is pronounced.

I have written in the past about how important the IPA is for proper English pronunciation (check out my article here). It’s very nice to see Swan paying attention to this fact in this book.

The inclusion is very brief; you won’t be receiving an in-depth overview of the IPA or exact instructions on how to use it or pronounce the symbols. However, the page on the IPA achieves its goal of being a brief introduction to English sounds. If you’re interested in more information on the IPA, check out my article on the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association here.

Grammar Information

Due to the nature of the subject (we’re talking about grammar after all), sometimes Swan must use some technical jargon to talk about a particular grammar point. However, the book contains an excellent glossary which breaks down each technical phrase into an understandable English definition. You won’t easily find yourself lost and confused with this book. Swan takes great pains to make even the most abstract grammatical concepts easy to digest.


Swan includes a lengthy discussion of English vocabulary in this book. This takes an already fantastic reference book and steps it up another notch, making it a must-have resource for English learners. The discussion on vocabulary ranges from:

  • talking about age
  • talking about dates
  • telling the time
  • talking on the telephone
  • slang

There are many more subsections in the vocabulary portion of the book. That should give you a taste of what it contains, however.

The discussion on vocabulary is fantastic. It addresses most of the questions learners might have about every day situations like telling the time or addressing someone politely. The reader is given plenty of examples so they can clearly understand how to properly use each vocabulary point.

Vocabulary Elements

It was a pleasant surprise to see the inclusion of vocabulary elements in Swan’s book. There is an entire section dedicated to vocabulary elements. Much like the IPA, the look at vocabulary elements is brief. This isn’t a book on them; the book is focused on grammar. However, their inclusion helps bolster this book as an all around English reference manual.

If you’re not sure about what vocabulary elements are, I have written an article talking about how you can use vocabulary elements to read any English word (check it out here).

The Bad

While I think this book is fantastic for English learners, nothing is without its faults. The following are a few of my thoughts on things I think could be improved in Practical English Usage.

Lack of Practice Exercises

There is a distinct lack of practice exercises in Practical English Usage. This is disappointing as I feel practicing is an important component for understanding. You can read about a fact and not fully appreciate or understand it until you use it yourself. This is why I feel practicing is vital to fully grasp a new English grammar point.

Readers who pick up Practical English Usage will need to supplement the material they learn in the book with practice exercises. This is critical to your understanding of a new grammar point.

Focus on British English

Practical English Usage has a focus on British English. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, however certain readers might find it disappointing in some parts if they are not interested in learning the British variety of English. When writing about English, it is necessary to focus on a single variety. After all, everyone speaks differently and there is a wide range of English dialects.

However, Swan does his best to supplement the discussion with relevant American English differences. This does a lot to lighten the focus of the book and broaden its scope to include more varieties of English. So, I don’t feel that the explicit focus on British English is a true detriment to the book’s usefulness for all readers but it is something to keep in mind.


Overall, Swan’s book fills the important role of being a comprehensive English reference resource for English learners. The sheer breadth of the material covered in the book offers something for everyone in terms of new information.

Swan’s inclusion of not only the most common English grammar problems, but also a brief introduction to English IPA and reference charts for vocabulary elements really cements this book as my top pick for English learners.

While the book may not go in-depth into the additional topics, it doesn’t need to. What it offers is more than enough as a primer for students who have never seen the material before and as a quick reference work for those who have.

All in all, I wholeheartedly recommend Practical English Usage by Michael Swan to all of my students, and I recommend it to you too!

Check out Practical English Usage on Amazon here.

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