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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
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 doormouse; stratagem, not strategem), fine distinctions (liable, likely, 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 respite, completely surrounded, future plans, join together, minute 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.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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.
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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.”)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.