Grammar A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words by best-selling writer-editor Bill Bryson offers serious scholarship with a smooth, light touch. It’s a hard book to stop reading once you’ve opened it.

We have a lot of other reference books in our offices, but the most recent of those came out in 1983. That was way back in the dawn of the personal-computer age. Much has changed since then, including the language. Bryson’s book is addressed and attuned to the twenty-first century.

Our 1966 edition of Wilson Follett’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage spends 22 pages on the proper uses of shall and will, including the difference between sentences like I shall see him and I will see him, a difference that would be news to most everyone walking around in 2015. How refreshing, then, to find Bryson’s shall, will entry is less than a page long, concluding with “the distinctions are no longer all that important anyway.”

The book has 222 pages devoted to problematic words and phrases, plus a breezy introduction, an appendix on punctuation, a glossary to explain or review the basic parts of speech, and a list of suggested reading. The appendix, though a bit sketchy, includes an especially good discussion of commas. The glossary is handy, but also sketchy. For instance, verbs are “words that have tense,” but tense is not defined.

Among the spelling snags (dormouse, not doormousestratagem, not strategem), fine distinctions (liablelikely, apt, and prone are not interchangeable), and debunked superstitions (split infinitives are not wrong), several entries contain brief science, geography, and history lessons—things you never knew or knew you wanted to know: London’s Big Ben is not the clock, just the hour bell. Victorian sticklers wanted laughable changed to laugh-at-able.

Bryson’s first priority is the reader: “Readers should never be required to retrace their steps, however short the journey.” That could be the book’s mission statement. Writers will appreciate the author’s comprehensive collation of hazards and snares. How is blatant different from flagrant? Did you know that equally as is always wrong? Why say “the vast majority of” when you mean most?

One of Bryson’s many strengths is his sensitivity to ungainly wording (the fact that is best avoided; precautionary measure can usually be shortened to precaution). And he has amassed an astonishing array of redundancies. Bryson keeps them coming every couple of pages. Most look perfectly respectable until you think about them: admit to, brief respitecompletely surrounded, future plans, join togetherminute detail, old adage, personal friend, self-confessed, think to oneself, visit personally, weather conditions, and so on.

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words respects traditional teachings yet acknowledges the inevitability of change. Check it out.


Pop Quiz

Correct any of the following sentences that need fixing. These sentences illustrate principles discussed in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Answers are below.

  1. No sooner had he thought about her when she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that were his due.
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event.
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the altercation.


Pop Quiz Answers

  1. No sooner had he thought about her than she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that was his due. (Bryson: “Kudos, a Greek word meaning fame or glory, is singular.”)
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event. CORRECT
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the fight. (Bryson: “No one suffers physical injury in an altercation.”)

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11 responses to “A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide”

  1. Marcelo Esteban Mauricio says:

    Actually, sentence 3 is NOT correct, because “people” should use “who” rather than “that” as its connecting word, the correct version would be:”I was one of three hundred peopple WHO attendd the sold out event”. Note I also fixed the use of “the” before the spelled-out number “three hundred”, which is wrong. We say “one of the hundreds” but NEVER “one of three hundred”

    • As we note in our blog Who vs. That, who is preferred when referring to people, however, that may refer to people, animals, groups, or things. Therefore, Pop Quiz answer 3 is correct. In American English, “one of over three hundred” is grammatically correct without the word the.

  2. Tom R. says:

    Over 300? How about “more than 300”? A pet peeve of mine. Right, wrong, or “who cares?”

    • It’s basically “who cares?” Some traditionalists agree that over is incorrect for more than, but most authorities these days, including Bryson, say nonsense on that.

      • steve talbert says:

        people will know what you mean eitheR way (which is the point of having good grammar), but I personally use more than because over refers to physical position. probably came about because heavier objects caused scale to go up, so 301 was over 300. But now with digital the next number is just next.

  3. steve talbert says:

    Same with ages. Someone over 30 is actually someone over 30 years old. Older people are typically taller than younger and or above in status, so over is an actual reference, but it’s really an idiomatic use since that is not always the case and either temporary or cultural.

  4. Allan G. says:

    Your previous article prompted me to visit a local library where I located a copy of Dictionary of Troublesome Words. It is entertaining but requires a great deal of concentration to absorb the content. I get tired and want to take a nap so I’m not making the rate of progress I hoped.

    Thanks for the tip.

  5. Samantha says:

    “Finding of fact” vs. “Findings of fact” vs. “Finding of facts” vs. “Findings of facts”

    Does the plurality of both “finding” and “fact” depend on the number of findings being made or the number of facts being considered? Or is it the same regardless of the number of findings or facts?

    • “Findings of fact” appears to be the more commonly used term. From what we can tell, use of the term does not necessarily follow how many findings or how many facts there are. Since it is a term of art in the legal world, we hesitate to give guidance on the use of the term, and recommend that you consult a legal style manual.

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