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Troublesome Words | Review

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Troublesome Words – Bill Bryson

 

192 pages Penguin (Paperback - 2nd edition)

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Troublesome Words

 

'..asking colleagues for advice on points of language is all very well, you’re as likely to end up with two extremely interesting but entirely contradictory answers..'

 

 

'Bill Bryson notes, not unreasonably, that he doesn’t actually have the right to tell you or me how we should use the language, but that we may find this simple guide helpful when it comes to dealing with the many problems thrown up by standard written English.'

Before he became famous as a travel writer, Bill Bryson worked as a reporter and editor for a number of British newspapers. His experience as an editor made him realise that, while asking colleagues for advice on points of language is all very well, you’re as likely to end up with two extremely interesting but entirely contradictory answers, as with anything useful. Traditional reference works aren’t always much better.

If the jargon doesn’t trip you up, then a whole new flock of contradictions lurk in the margins, waiting to ensnare you. While much of what passes for good usage is little more than pedantry and resistance to change, I agree with Bryson that we need some conventions to stick to, otherwise the written language would be in the kind of chaos that would leave even Shakespeare (the man who wasn’t quite sure how to spell his own name) clutching his head in despair. Bill Bryson notes, not unreasonably, that he doesn’t actually have the right to tell you or me how we should use the language, but that we may find this simple guide helpful when it comes to dealing with the many problems thrown up by standard written English. I can only agree.

Originally entitled ‘The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words,’ the book is, not surprisingly, arranged alphabetically, but I have read it straight through, from cover to cover. I found it stood up surprisingly well to such treatment, although from now on I’ll be most likely to use it as a dictionary, or something to dip into when I need a little light entertainment. Given that this is written by Bill Bryson, you didn’t really expect it to be entirely serious, did you? Nevertheless, it is also an incredibly helpful book. It’s the book I wish I’d had when I was trying to explain to someone why Dr doesn’t need a full point after it, and the book I want to give to every broadcaster who says that someone is being pressurised into doing something.

Some entries provide a brief historical summary on how a word has been used, ‘hopefully’ being one, while others discuss the intricacies of several current variations, such as ‘different from/than/to’. Some show Bryson at his waspish best, castigating the very people who’ve presumed to tell us what to do, and showing that the authorities also have their lapses – and believe me, some of their lapses are very ugly indeed.

All in all, while this is a slim volume, it’s a very valuable one too. Bill Bryson will get you out of trouble without being judgmental about it, and he’s certainly earned his place on my reference shelf.

© Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. 2001

Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller

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List price: £16.99
Publisher: Viking
2001-11-01
Hardcover
Sales rank: 1,084,310


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