New York: Broadway Books, 2004.
After reading Kingsley Amis’s guide to usage, I needed something to refresh my palate (not pallet or palette). I was confident that Bill Bryson’s would be the gentlemanly voice of reason and erudition, and I was not mistaken. This is a man for whom accuracy, concision and modesty are the most important components of careful writing. Many of the entries point out redundancy, tautology, excess. Modesty is a particular virtue in his book, and there are many variations on the theme of “do not make your word choice startle the reader or draw attention to itself.” Hear, hear! (Not here, here.)
This book first appeared as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, and Bryson wrote it for himself. (The Penguin book appeared in 1983. In this edition, first published in 2002, 60% of the material is new.) He was a copy editor on the London Times but found that there was much that he did not know about English:
when I realized there were vast expanses of English usage–linguistic Serengetis–that I was not clear about at all, I wrote to a kindly editor at Penguin Books named Donald McFarlan and impetuously suggested that there was a need for a simple, concise guide to the more confusing or problematic aspects of the language and that I was prepared to undertake it. To my astonishment and gratification, Mr. McFarlan sent me a contract and, by way of advance, a sum of money carefully gauged not to cause embarrassment or feelings of overworth. Thus armed, I set about trying to understand this wonderfully disordered thing that is the English language.
As I observed in the first edition, the book that resulted might more accurately, if less convincingly, have been called A Guide to Everything in English Usage That the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear About Until Quite Recently.
This is the tone I’m after in the writer of a guide to usage: the perfect combination of earnestness, humour and self-deprecation.
I suspect that it is possible that there is a wing of the loony bin for people who read dictionaries, but I will say it out loud: I really enjoyed this book. I learned or was reminded of all kinds of things that I will no doubt have forgotten already, but there are a few entires that stayed with me.
The provincial elections in Ontario just wrapped up, so my attention was drawn to several election-related words:
bellwether Not -weather. Wether is an Old English word for a castrated sheep. A bellwether is a sheep that has a bell hung from its neck, by which means it leads the flock from one pasture to another. In general use, it signifies something that leads or shows the way.
canvas, canvass The first is the fabric; the second is a verb meaning to solicit, especially for votes.
vocal cords Not to be confused with chords (groups of musical notes)…. Vocal cords are so called because of their shape and structure, not because of their tonal quality.
A little closer to home, I was humbled to discover that E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel is Howards End (no apostrophe). I’ve gone through and corrected on my blog all mistaken references to the novel as it appears in my transcription of Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing. Bryson would point out my careless transcription of the title, but I think he’d be kind about it.
In fact, Bryson was, perhaps, a little too gentlemanly, and I searched in vain for jests at the expense of either the British or the Americans. Bryson is an American who has lived much of his life in England, and I had hoped for a bit more of his winning way of explaining one to the other (see his Notes from a Small Island and I’m a Stranger Here Myself for that).
There was the occasional barb:
barbecue is the only acceptable spelling in serious writing. Any journalist or other formal user of English who believes that the word is spelled barbeque or, worse still, bar-b-q, is not ready for unsupervised employment.
But that was as snarky as he got.
If you are in the market for a concise guide to usage, I recommend this one. Bryson has covered both sides of the Atlantic, and he refers even-handedly to American and British practice. As a product of both British and American schools, and now as a resident of Canada, I appreciate this. My spelling is nothing if not schizophrenic, and he has helped me do some mental tidying.