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

June 28, 2015


If you’re a word nerd, you will find this book interesting, probably useful. If you’re a writer, you should definitely read it. If you like to correct people, this book will give you plenty of ammo. But mostly, if you love language, particularly English’s quirks, inconsistencies and interesting etymologies, you should check this out.

When he was a copy editor for the London Times in the 1980s, feeling the world was lacking an authoritative guide to the “traps” of the language, Bryson wrote the first edition of this book (his first book, too). It has since been updated and expanded.

The content includes commonly misspelled words and names (“misspell” is one of the entries); common, uncommon and downright obscure grammatical errors; etymologies; differences between British and American English; issues of word choice (e.g. partly/partially, oral/verbal); commonly misused idioms; and, my favorite for some reason, common tautologies (e.g. “minute detail,” “set new records,” “revert back”). Many of the entries include examples, usually of the rule being broken in major publications, which adds a degree of grammatical schadenfreude. It’s always nice to call out the mistakes of the experts.

Although he is obviously a proponent of precise writing, Bryson takes a common sense approach. He notes when there is disagreement on an issue (it is amazing how often), when a rule is in a state of evolution and when only the strictest grammarian would ever notice or care. And Bryson injects his signature wit and sarcasm, making this book surprisingly enjoyable. It may be called a dictionary, but this is likely the only one I’d want to pick up and read cover to cover.

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