Troublesome Words [Paperback]
- Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 01 October 2009
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A great resource for readers and writers, Bryson dissects common and not so common writing mistakes and clearly explains the correct way to address them. Not lost is Bryson's patented sense of humor, either. ;-)
It's Bryson-what's not to love.
Before finding fame as a travel writer with The Lost Continent and Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson had been a sub-editor at the Times struggling with the nuances of the English language. What is the difference between flouting and flaunting; what exactly does it mean to imply and to infer; can one use the word either in reference to more than two alternatives? Unable to find a single, concise guide to which he could refer to for such ‘troublesome words’, Bryson contacted Penguin and offered to write one himself.Troublesome Words, the 2001 revised and updated edition of Bryson’s original 1984 book (The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words), is an A – Z guide to words and phrases commonly misused in print. Drawing from more than 40 respected works on linguistics, Bryson provides advice and suggestions to everyday grammatical problems and helpfully illustrates them with real-life examples of misuse. He explains that culminate, for example, “does not signify any result or outcome, but rather one marking a high point” and cites an a news clipping from The Times which reads “The company’s financial troubles culminated in the resignation of the chairman last June”. The example highlights Bryson’s lesson. A series of financial gains could culminate in the chairman receiving a bonus but financial troubles do not culminate in a resignation. Helpfully, he not only warns against words that are used incorrectly, but also those which are often used redundantly, such as basically; a word which in most contexts “is basically unnecessary, as here.”Unfortunately, the somewhat narrow breadth of the guide does betray its (and Bryson’s) Fleet Street origins. Almost every example of misuse hails from newspaper pieces and, furthermore, usually from the business pages. So Bryson provides the correct spelling for the name of the household products company, Procter & Gamble but no guide to using, for example, the word breadth, as appears at the top of this paragraph (incorrectly as it happens, the phrase used should be “narrow scope”). As such, one can’t help but feel the dictionary would be improved by a slight shift in emphasis toward the general writer.These are minor gripes though, and Bryson is both a thoughtful and entertaining guide. Without bloating the book he peppers his definitions with etymology, anecdotes and, where appropriate, his trademark dry humour. He tells us, for example, that “the belief that and should not be used to begin a sentence is without foundation. And that’s all there is to it”; and that “barbecue is the only acceptable spelling in serious writing. Any journalist or other formal user of English who believes that the word is spelled barbeque or, worse still, bar-b-q is not ready for unsupervised employment’. As such, Troublesome Words is one of those rare things: a reference work which can be dipped into time and again yet remains a joy when read cover-to-cover.
A friend asked if this is worth getting. I replied, <br/><br/>Hm, it's certainly briefer than Garner's modern usage, which I am reading cover to cover. But less meaty might be just right. (In Garner I hiccuped my wonted plodding A-to-Z to see what Garner says about which's increasing use as a conjunction. Surprisingly (to me), he doesn't mention it.) <br/><br/>Some of Bryson's explanations I doubt you need (antennae or antennas, auger v. augur), but your students might. Some I don't care about (short of publication), such as that All Souls College doesn't take an apostrophe. Some are just Bryson's superiority: "Alas! Poor Yorick. I knew him (-well), Horatio" doesn't belong in a dictionary. If he includes that he should include "Play it again, Sam, too" (he doesn't). <br/><br/>Some are his Britishness: He tells how to pronounce British (Gonville and) Caius College and Pall Mall but not Usan places such as Gloucester, Peabody, and Worcester. He gives the spelling bit not the pronunciation f the Welsh word "eisteddfod."<br/><br/>Perhaps a quarter of the entries on nuances of meaning I do appreciate (e.g., ambiguous v. equivocal). I remember being taking to task for writing "complacent" when I meant "complaisant."
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