Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right by Bill Bryson

In my quest to read all of Mr. Bryson's books, some are easier than others. But I have to say that, for a grammar nerd who loves words, this was a joy. It did take me a long time as I didn't want to read too much at once for fear it would run out of my ears, but I learned a lot and I will be hanging onto this as a reference book for a long time to come.

Did you know the phrase is to the manner born, not manor? Oops. Me neither. Did you know a koala is not a koala bear? That one I did learn last year while preparing to visit Australia. How about that there is no such thing as one kudo? You give someone kudos or none at all. Luckily for all of us, Mr. Bryson has pulled together here a comprehensive list of the most commonly misused ("As U.S. travel abroad drops, Europe grieves" -New York Times. Really? Grieves?), misunderstood (grisly vs. grizzly), and overused words and phrases (lion's share) in writing.

As Mr. Bryson was a copyeditor at Penguin in the U.K., once or twice I did wonder if his use of a word was British, however he does note differences in American and British usage (if not spelling, and the spelling throughout and punctuation are American) so I think my guesses about those Brit-isms are likely wrong. But it is worth noting that he does elucidate a lot of British place names that an American will never need to know. However that minor inconvenience is not good reason to ignore this book. I love how he comes down on the side of reason and sense over rules and traditions (it is okay to split an infinitive, as well as end a sentence with a preposition!) but he has done his homework and cites multiple sources for any debate, and even tries to find the originator of those rather random grammar "rules," to point out how recent and ill-founded they are.

So if you've ever wondered when to use "on to" instead of "onto" or whether it is better to use "flammable" or "inflammable" when talking about a thing easily lit on fire, Mr. Bryson has you covered. If you find this book cursory and wish it were more comprehensive, he's got you covered with Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors. But if you actually want to read a dictionary straight through and retain any of it, I recommend starting with this thinner volume. And if you just love words and language, you need to check out Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States and The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

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