Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words : A Writer's Guide to Getting It Rights
One of the English language's most skilled and beloved writers guides us all toward precise, mistake-free usage.As usual Bill Bryson says it best: "English is a dazzlingly idiosyncratic tongue, full of quirks and irregularities that often seem willfully at odds with logic and common sense. This is a language where ‘cleave' can mean to cut in half or to hold two halves together; where the simple word ‘set' has 126 different meanings as a verb, 58 as a noun, and 10 as a participial adjective; where if you can run fast you are moving swiftly, but if you are stuck fast you are not moving at all; [and] where ‘colonel,' ‘freight,' ‘once,' and ‘ache' are strikingly at odds with their spellings."
Bestselling author Bryson's latest book is really his first: this guide to usage, spelling and grammar was first published in 1983 when Bryson (In a Sunburned Country, etc.) was an unknown copyeditor at the London Times, and has now been revised and updated for use in the U.S. Alphabetically arranged entries include commonly misspelled and misused words. He also includes common problems with grammar, as well as an appendix on punctuation. Bryson often cites the 1983 edition of H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage as an authority, though he also makes a handful of references to recent texts, such as the Encarta World English Dictionary and Atlantic Monthly columnist Barbara Wallraff's "Word Court." Despite the revisions, the book often betrays its origins as a British text, as in citing words in common usage throughout the U.K. and British Commonwealth, but rarely used by American writers, such as Taoiseach, the Prime Minister of Ireland or City of London vs. city of London. In addition, Bryson avoids taking on computer lingo, such as distinguishing between the Internet and the World Wide Web. Despite these shortcomings, Bryson's erudition is evident and refreshing. His passage on split infinitives, for example, asserts that it is "a rhetorical fault a question of style and not a grammatical one." Readers looking for the author's trademark humor will not find it here. Instead they will find a straightforward, concise, utilitarian guide, albeit one listing Bryson's "suggestions, observations, and even treasured prejudices" on newspaper writing primarily in Britain, circa 1983. (On sale Aug. 13) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 31, 2002
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Excerpt from Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson
The physicist Richard Feynman once remarked that every time a colleague from the humanities department complained that his students couldn't spell a common word like seize or accommodate, Feynman wanted to reply, "Then there must be something wrong with the way you spell it."
There is something in what he said. English is a merry confusion of quirks and irregularities that often seem willfully at odds with logic and common sense. This is a language where cleave can mean to cut in half or to hold two halves together; where the simple word set has 126 meanings as a verb, 58 as a noun, and 10 as a participial adjective; where if you run fast you are moving swiftly, but if you are stuck fast you are not moving at all; where colonel, freight, once, and ache, among many thousands of others, have pronunciations that are strikingly at odds with their spellings; where some Latin plurals are treated always as singular (agenda) and some are treated always as plural (criteria) and some (data, media) are regarded by some careful users as plural and by others as singular. I could go on and on. Indeed, in the pages that follow I do.
In many ways the text contained here represents not so much a new edition of an old book as a new edition of an old author. When I put together The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words (as it then was) in 1983, I was a young copy editor on the London Times, and it was a fundamental part of my job to be sensitive to and particular about points of usage. It was why they employed me, after all, and I took the responsibility seriously.