September 9th, 2009

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Reference: Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right, by Bill Bryson. Available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and other book stores.

Description: Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words is, as described by the author, "a compilation of suggestions, observations, and even treasured prejudices" that provide a quick reference to help writers avoid many of the common traps and snares in English.

Why is it useful? Have you ever been confused about the difference between parlay and parley? Wanted to know whether you should use or avoid the word "hopefully" in your writing? Needed to check whether Eiffel Tower is spelled the same as the Eifel Mountains? Or even wanted a definition of gerund complete with an example? If so, then you can use this book. As a copy editor for the Times in London in 1983, before he became a best-selling non-fiction author, Bryson lamented the fact that there was no simple and concise guide to the more confusing aspects of English. What came from that confusion was the first edition of this book. Updated and expanded in 2002, the second edition covers many commonly confused or misused words and spellings. In that sense it’s very much like the word glossaries which appear in other books on writing, but focuses exclusively on addressing that aspect of a writer’s confusion.

Most of the book is the "Troublesome Words" section, as might be expected. This consists of about two hundred and twenty pages of words listed alphabetically, most of which have a short paragraph explaining the meaning of the word, or if two words are listed the difference between them. Many words have much longer definitions, complete with amusing comments or anecdotes in true Bryson style. A few words have information which spans a page or more. For example, "number" has nearly four pages explaining five different "errors of number – the failure to maintain agreement between the subject and verb in a sentence." Troublesome Words also includes a ten page appendix on punctuation, which contains clearly written and informative suggestions about some of the most common punctuation errors. There is a bibliography and suggested reading section, which references nearly every major dictionary, source of usage and style, or guide to writing. And lastly there is a glossary of grammatical terms, which provides a straightforward refresher on those terms used in the book.

Overall, the book is very easy to read and offers a lot of useful information for the writer - professional or otherwise. So whether you’re editing copy for a major newspaper, writing email messages to customers, or just need some clarification between two words with a similar meaning, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words can come in very handy.