Review of Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right
By: Bill Bryson
Reviewed by: Judy Bobrow
Amazon is great! I love shopping there for books and many other things. And I will be forever grateful to the online giant for making it possible for me to complete the daunting task of publishing my family history, “Carrying On.” But one thing Amazon cannot do for me is replace the joy of book browsing for treasures in a bricks and mortar bookstore.
Case in point: On a recent trip to Portland Oregon, I had the pleasure of book browsing for treasures with my 10-year-old granddaughter, Eliana Grace, at Powell’s Books (also known as Powell’s City of Books). After checking out her stack of books she announced: “I want to live in this store.” And while Eliana was finding her treasures, I found one of my own: “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting it Right,” by Bill Bryson, author of “A Walk in the Woods,” and “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”
As a young copy editor in 1983, while on the staff of The London Times, Bryson began collecting troublesome usage questions he encountered every day in his work. And from those questions “The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words” was born. The book I found at Powell’s Books, in Bryson’s words, “is not so much a new edition of an old book as a new edition of an old author.” But whatever its name or genesis, the book is a treasure for anyone writing, editing or reading. In it, Bryson tackles, in his words, “the merry confusion of quirks and irregularities (in English) that often seem willfully at odds with logic and common sense.”
Leaf through this little book (only 232 pages including an appendix for punctuation questions), and you will find explanations for many of the “quirks and irregularities” those of us in the writing business constantly puzzle over. There are explanations addressing the differences between who and whom; which and that; sometime and some time; abbreviations, contractions and acronyms; and a long section on number. Here are a few brief examples of Bryson’s explanations to whet your appetite:
behalf: A useful distinction exists between on behalf of and in behalf of. The first means acting as a representative, as when a lawyer enters a plea on behalf of a client, and often denotes a formal relationship. In behalf of indicates a closer or more sympathetic role and means active as a friend or defender. “I spoke on your behalf’” means that I represented you when you were absent. “I spoke in your behalf” means that I supported you or defended you.
connote, denote: Denote means simply to convey information. Connote describes additional aspects that follow from what is denoted. My frown as I approach the house might denote to an interested onlooker that I am unhappy, but connote that I have just spotted the large new dent on the rear passenger door of the family car.
navel, navel: The first pertains to a navy and its possessions or operations, the second to belly buttons and like-shaped objects. The oranges are navel.
needless to say: is a harmless enough expression, but it often draws attention to the fact that you really didn’t need to say it.
prophecy, prophesy: The first is the noun, the second the verb. Thus: “I prophesy war; that is my prophecy.
Bryson says that while all of these distinctions help to make the language we use clear to those listening to it or reading it, they are not made in the interest of “making words conform to an arbitrary pattern.” They are simply “a compilation of suggestions, observations and even treasured prejudices.” For anyone interested in words and their meanings, this book is a treasure to be used as a reference, and to read just for fun. Keeping it on my desk is a constant reminder that the goal in my editing work is to make usage choices that are based on bringing clarity to the works of fiction and non-fiction that I am responsible for.
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