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

ISBN: 0767910435
ISBN 13: 9780767910439
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

Why should I avoid discussing the 'weather conditions'?Can a woman be 'celibate'?When can I use 'due to', or should I play safe and always use 'because of'?What's wrong with the way I'm using 'crescendo'?This book provides a simple guide to the more perplexing and contentious issues of standard written English. The entries are discussed with wit and common sense, and are illustrated with examples of questionable usage taken from leading British and American newspapers.No familiarity with English grammar is needed to learn from this book, although a glossary of grammatical terms is included and there us also an appendix on punctuation.Journalists, copy-writers and secretaries will find this an invaluable handbook, and it will also be a highly enjoyable book for the word-buff.

Reader's Thoughts

Vanessa Beardsley

Well, I thought this was going to be an actual history of words, but it's actually a word guide... I suppose that's why it's titled "Writer's Guide?" Duh. So, although very useful, not the kind of thing to read cover to cover for me, anyway.

Syntactical Disruptorize

This is a charming book on words writers often get wrong, but it misses its target, through no fault of the author. If you know enough to look in this book, much less own it, you probably cared enough to get it right in the first place. It's an okay book to wave in someone's face to let them know just how wrong they are, but that's a nasty use of Bryson's self-effacing, gentle style.

Peter Fabre

As a person who doesn't understand the rules of grammar or punctuation, this book was both informative and humorous. I didn't intend to read it fully but after some descriptions ('decimate' amongst them) of words which i thought i used correctly were quoted to me, i had little choice but to correct my vocabulary. Bryson's eloquent, witty, informative and often scathing responses make the book more than just a writer's reference.


Excellent. It answered innumerable questions on spelling, grammar and punctuation. Plan to keep it atmy office within arm's reach.


I'm a fan of Bryson, and this book -- though not intended to be entertaining -- is invaluable. Even though most of us aren't writers, with the proliferation of e-mail and correspondence for our jobs, I feel that this book is something all of us should read and use.From the introduction: "What follows should be regarded less as a book of instruction than as a compilation of suggestions, observations, and even treasured prejudices. Never forget that no one really has the right to tell you how to organize your words. If you wish to say 'between you and I' or to use fulsome in the sense of lavish, it is your privilege to do so and you can certainly find ample supporting precedents among distinguished writers. But you may also find it useful to know that such usages are at variance with that eccentric, ever-shifting corpus known as Good English. Identifying that consensus, insofar as such a thing is possible, is the principal aim of this book."


This book definitely earns a 5 star rating, I'm just not sure who to recommend it to:Professional writers and grammar nerds will love the book's utility; this is a resource I know I'll be returning to often. For example, if all I'm trying to do is spell or define a word then I'll pull out a basic dictionary. But what if three different words seem to have identical definitions, are there situations I'm supposed to use one word over another? Or let's say I see several respected publications handle a stylistic/grammatical choice differently, whose example do I follow? What if the experts throughout history have disagreed? Or what if modern usage differs from those expert resources? What if various countries use the same word in different ways? Bryson's guide helps to navigate these types of tricky questions. Bryson doesn't care about following rules for the sake of following rules. This is not an arbitrary style guide. No, this book has the sole purpose of improving one's writing by taking away those things that are incorrect, confusing, or misleading. I'm paraphrasing here but the the reader should never have to re-trace their steps to figure out a sentence. The reader should be able to get from A to B with as little resistance as possible, that's what good writing is all about [certainly in journalism, anyway].I could also recommend this book to the non-writers, non-grammar-nerds. Bryson has written a really accessible book, it's not bogged down with linguistic jargon and it always presents the ideas in an entertaining and easy-to-understand way. Even though it functions as a dictionary, I really enjoyed reading it from cover to cover. Bryson's breezy commentary makes the reading experience feel more like grabbing coffee with your brilliant writer friend than going to the library to crack open a dusty tome. Just saying, good stuff.I would also recommend this book to anyone who fully reads the title of the book. I'm seeing negative goodreads reviews because the person was expecting something like his travelogue humor. Hmm. So just be clear, this book only, but masterfully, delivers what the front cover claims it will deliver: a dictionary of troublesome words for writers who want to get it right.

Christopher Weaver

Great book. Definitely quality reference material. I'm positive I highlighted more than half of the information. I believe that I am a good writer, and this book made me aware of several dozens of mistakes that I make.


This should be on every writers bookshelf. Oh I wish I knew many of these pearls in prior years.


In my quest to read all of Mr. Bryson's books, some are easier than others. But I have to say that, for a grammar nerd who loves words, this was a joy. It did take me a long time as I didn't want to read too much at once for fear it would run out of my ears, but I learned a lot and I will be hanging onto this as a reference book for a long time to come.Did you know the phrase is to the manner born, not manor? Oops. Me neither. Did you know a koala is not a koala bear? That one I did learn last year while preparing to visit Australia. How about that there is no such thing as one kudo? You give someone kudos or none at all. Luckily for all of us, Mr. Bryson has pulled together here a comprehensive list of the most commonly misused ("As U.S. travel abroad drops, Europe grieves" -New York Times. Really? Grieves?), misunderstood (grisly vs. grizzly), and overused words and phrases (lion's share) in writing.As Mr. Bryson was a copyeditor at Penguin in the U.K., once or twice I did wonder if his use of a word was British, however he does note differences in American and British usage (if not spelling, and the spelling throughout and punctuation are American) so I think my guesses about those Brit-isms are likely wrong. But it is worth noting that he does elucidate a lot of British place names that an American will never need to know. However that minor inconvenience is not good reason to ignore this book. I love how he comes down on the side of reason and sense over rules and traditions (it is okay to split an infinitive, as well as end a sentence with a preposition!) but he has done his homework and cites multiple sources for any debate, and even tries to find the originator of those rather random grammar "rules," to point out how recent and ill-founded they are.So if you've ever wondered when to use "on to" instead of "onto" or whether it is better to use "flammable" or "inflammable" when talking about a thing easily lit on fire, Mr. Bryson has you covered. If you find this book cursory and wish it were more comprehensive, he's got you covered with Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors. But if you actually want to read a dictionary straight through and retain any of it, I recommend starting with this thinner volume. And if you just love words and language, you need to check out Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States and The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.


Excellent book. There was much here I just didn't know, and a lot of other material that I might once have known but had forgotten. I actually read through the entire thing, although it would be a great browsing book for anyone who wants to write or who just loves langauge. I got several blog posts out of the interesting material I found within.


I am always reading this type of book to glimpse into the world of those smarties that I believe secretly carry a red felt pen with them to correct the incorrect grammar of the rest of us.I always learn that I have been misusing or mispronouncing some word or another, this makes me think that reading through the book has been validated, until I catch myself using that same word incorrectly again.


Loved it. I felt vindicated by a few entries (like "begs the question") and surprised by others.I read this on an e-reader, but would like to have a hard copy to be able to flip through it more easily.I love just about anything Bill Bryson writes. He's laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of his books.


For lovers of the English language

Aaron Brame

I taught middle school grammar for six years, and my favorite part of the grammar book (didn't you have a favorite part of the middle school grammar book?) was always the glossary of usage. I saved that part of the curriculum for the end of the year, like a desert that you look forward to throughout a long meal. "Class, do you know when to use 'fewer' instead of 'less'? No? Oh, goodie."After the joyful experience I had reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, I wanted to check out more Bryson, and when I saw this title, I knew I was going for it. This book is just what it says it is, a dictionary, and it is arranged as such. So I started with the "a/an" entry and went along all the way through"z" and onto the appendix. It would take a pedant to write such a book, and Bryson does not disappoint. Some people might find his points to be esoteric and his tone to be that of a humorless martinet. I sure did, and I loved just about every minute of it. Here's what I learned.1. I make many, many mistakes in my writing. Bryson could look at the four short paragraphs above and find multiple errors in usage. Look! I misspelled "dessert!" The comma after "title" in the third paragraph is suspect. I could have used hyphens to introduce the non-essential phrase ("a dictionary") instead of commas. Bryson's disapproving voice reverberates in my mind every time I write a sentence.2. It's okay to end your sentence with a preposition. If you are the kind of person who will break his back to avoid ending your sentence with one of these offenders (or, like me, even ending with a prepositional phrase), you need to get over yourself. There's nothing wrong with it, and the rule you are following has been deemed unnecessary for over a hundred years.3. You should read his rule on when to use "shall" versus "will." Authorities have been trying to pin down the vagaries and nuances of "shall" and "will" since the seventeenth century... The gist of what they have to say is that either you understand the distinctions instinctively or you do not; that if you don't, you probably never will; and that if you do, you don't need to be told anyway.4. The show Good Morning America should be called Good Morning, America. Of course it should.

Karen Brooks

This is a brilliant little book amd a must read/desk companion for professional writers. Arranged alphabetically, it basically explains correct spellings, etymology and meanings of various words and the mistakes that even lovers of words and writing can make. For example when to use compliment or complement; when to parlay or attend a parley. He explains the real meaning of condone (which is not to approve or endorse but to forgive - whoops!) and takes his time over who and whom. He also explains a range of tautologies, redundancies (past history!) and misspellings - basically, the common errors that even the best writers can make. It's fun (a wee bit shocking and embarrassing) to flick through and realize you have committed a particular lexical sin, amd more than once, but in typical Bryson fashion, it's also terrific to read cover to cover. This is a book that will never stray far from my desk. Promise.

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