Book Review: Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

Bill Bryson, a writer best known for his humorous travel books but also the author of two books on the English language, has recently produced a usage guide. Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words is an updating of his 1983 Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words and Phrases (now out of print).

In the book, Bryson lists a fair number of words and phrases that are commonly misused, misspelled, or confused. A very good writer in his own right, Bryson’s advice is usually sound and practical, although he does stray a bit into the realm of personal idiosyncrasies and stylistic preferences and the book contains more than its fair share of errors.

Readers may be disappointed by the lack of Bryson’s trademark humor in this work. His travel commentaries are witty and fun reads, but this is much more the prim, proper usage and, though Bryson would probably be loath to say it, style guide.

But beyond the lack of humor, which may be disappointing but is hardly a flaw in a reference book, the central question is whether or not this book is really needed. The market is crowded with usage and style manuals and this one adds little. It is shorter than most and readers would be much better served by buying the more comprehensive Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage or the classic Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Bryson writes in a simpler, more straightforward style than most of the other usage editors and he notes in his introduction that he deliberately omits grammatical jargon. While this may be helpful for someone looking for a quick answer on a particular point of usage, often the in-depth grammatical discussion is what is most useful about these guides and any serious writer should be undaunted by grammatical jargon.

The book also suffers a bit from being a revision. Several recent troublesome words, like proactive, are not to be found and several fairly obscure Briticisms, like the spelling of Sca Fell in the Lake District, remain. Bryson also needs to update his references. He refers to the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, but the current one is the fourth (to be fair, the third was current when he was writing this). He also refers to several idiosyncrasies of the original OED that were corrected in the second edition, published in 1989 (e.g., the original OED’s insistence on spelling the poet’s name Shakspere and the acceptable plural forms of compendium). He also continually references Gower’s 1965 updating of Fowler, a fine work for its time but nearly half a century old. These outdated references make one wonder if he is really up on the most current usage.

While Bryson’s advice is usually reasonable, he has a tendency to impose his own stylistic preferences. In one howler, he states “celibacy does not, as is generally supposed, indicate abstinence from sexual relations. It means only to be unmarried.” Well, if a word is “generally supposed” to mean something, then it does mean that. In his introduction he acknowledges that it is consensus that governs English usage, but he ignores that consensus here. If one is writing a theological treatise, then it might be useful to maintain the distinction between celibacy and chastity, but in most other cases the distinction serves no purpose. In several other cases he demands usage of a jargon sense of a word that is at odds with its commonly accepted meaning (e.g., insisting that gendarme is a soldier, not a policeman, that the legal jargon term hanged, rather than hung, is the only acceptable usage for executions, and that the classical sense of nemesis is the only proper one).

Other personal idiosyncrasies that make their way into the book’s pages are his insistence that the spelling barbeque is improper. To be sure, it is not the most common one (which is barbecue) but it is a perfectly acceptable variant. Similarly, his insistence that the pronunciation of buoy must be /boy/ and not /boo ee/ is without foundation.

Other times his wording is sloppy. He says irregardless is not a “real word.” To which I repeat Jesse Sheidlower’s classic retort, “If it’s not a word, what is it? A ham sandwich?” Irregardless is nonstandard and should be avoided in formal writing, but it is a commonly used word. In another entry on not confusing the two US Senators Bob Kerrey and John Kerry, Bryson refers to Bob Kerrey’s Vietnam service where his troops “murdered” innocent civilians. The word Bryson should have used is killed, or at least added an allegedly. Someone with Bryson’s journalistic background should know the distinction between murder and killing and he perhaps should have made this an entry in the book. He is also a bit harsh on writers who, as he says, “misspell” the name Khrushchev, ignoring the difficulties of transliterating from the Cyrillic.

Bryson also makes some technical errors in some entries. He does not seem to understand trademarks and trade names. And in another entry he misses an important lesson on the definitions of mean, median, and average (and leaves mode out of the discussion altogether).

It is worth restating here that overall Bryson gives good, solid advice. The flaws mentioned here, while significant, are not typical of the quality found in the book. The number of useful tips outweighs the number of errors and idiosyncrasies. But the number and frequency of the flaws is, to use Bryson’s own word, troublesome.

Most people will only have room for one usage manual on their bookshelf, and for those this is not the best choice out there. Those who have created a personal library of such books, however, may want to take a look at it.

Hardcover: 224 pages, Broadway Books, ISBN: 0767910427, 1st edition (August 2002), $19.95.

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