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

Rob Charpentier

This is Bill Bryson’s very first book! Although there’s really not much of story line to be found in a dictionary, I still think that this book manages to hold the interest of the reader just like anything else he ever laid his hand to. This is especially so when compared to other books of a similar vein. Of course, I freely admit that I’m completely biased towards this author to the point of essentially being in his employ or at the very least a close relative. Of which, I assure you neither are true.In his brief introduction to this book Bryson’s signature wit as well as a firm grasp and comprehension of his subject matter are all here in embryo. One quickly sees that even when approaching something as drab a subject as English 101 he brought with him an enthusiasm and humor that quite often is entirely absent in such things. I find it personally reassuring to see this here at the beginning when no one was really expecting him to be anything of the kind he still showed this particular spark and has continued ever since. At the time this book was published in 1984 Bryson was the copy editor of the Times of London and so clearly was qualified to attempt to write this kind of book. This is actually no mean feat especially when you consider the typically superior British attitudes towards Americans language skills and that he is both American born and educated. Yet, he is humble before his subject and rather than presenting himself as being anything close to an expert he immediately suggests in the first paragraph of his introduction that the name of this book could just as easily have been called “A Guide to Everything in English Usage That the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear About Until Quite Recently.”Basically, despite the fact that he actually made his living by the proper use and arrangement of words by profession he discovered there were still a great many finer points about this language that are extremely confusing. This inspired him to research these particular points for his own good as well as for his continued livelihood. In the end, he thankfully decided to share his findings with others. Of course, by no means does he offer this book as the last word on the subject and he provides several reasons as to why this is so, both historically and sociologically. To paraphrase his points broadly, language as a whole is essentially an extremely fluid and ever-changing thing that quite often just won’t always adhere to any one specific set of rules. The self-appointed elitist sticklers and academians all insist that we should all get it line and follow their examples and stop mussing about with these rules, however whimsical at times. Yet, despite these adamant efforts to drag the rest of us with them, the reverse often happens where through the sheer perseverance of misusage over decades, if not centuries, by the common people they eventually relent to these shifting dominant paradigms and concede defeat…but almost always with a footnote claiming they were initially right to begin with.Bryson gives us much to contemplate here in the examples he offers up as being especially troublesome. One can take many of these to heart and apply them personally in our everyday life, as well as to take up the banner on behalf of a few of these to uphold their traditional meanings. Although, there are also more than a few where we could merely can take note of some of the quaint historical hissy fits some people have had over these, knowing full well in our hearts that it is long past the point of caring or attempting to correct them. We are always free to just continue in our errant ways in any way we seen fit when it comes to language. Overall, I think this more relaxed approach that this author takes on this subject makes this is a marvelous addition to anyone’s reference library, student and instructor alike. If not just for the information alone but for the clear and concise nature of the writing that does not overcomplicate the finer points of any arguments with the unnecessary addition of technical jargon. As Bryson so beautifully illustrates tongue in cheek by offering one such erudite example as this one here, “Once you have said that in correlative conjunctions in the subjunctive mood there should be parity between the protasis and apodosis, you have said about all there is to say on the matter.”Yes, indeed you have! Thank you Mr. Bryson for clearing this matter up for us!


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.


Great book for someone with an English challenge. I'm never tired of flipping through pages each time and learning correct words usage from the author. He makes learning fun. I like his style of writing. My favorite author of the year.


A lot like reading the dictionary. Many of the "Troublesome Words" are English in places in England -- didn't find that I care how Queens College is referred to (and have no idea if I did it right there)I did learn a few things and felt it was worth reading...I can see it being quite helpful to professional writers.


What a delightful surprise. I can't say that I've ever read a dictionary from cover to cover, but that's just what I did with this book. Unlike other books by Bryson, this really isn't don't read it looking for chuckles...but it was so clear and helpful that I just had to read it all. My sister asked me jokingly if I was getting that smug feeling that sometimes accompanies reading about grammar and spelling and so forth--"Oh yes, I already knew that,"--but no. If anything I was very humbled by how much I didn't know. I'm going to keep this on my bookshelf at school because I know I'll refer to it again.

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.

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.

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.


How do you rate a reference book? Very helpful and informative. Many publishing mistakes are uncovered and discussed. I checked this copy out from the library but it's a great reference that I'd like to have handy on my desk.


I really enjoyed this, but then I do sometimes read the dictionary for fun. I found Bryson’s expectations of correct usage to be insightful and realistic. I appreciate his examples of incorrect usage.An example of something I have applied to my own writing is the entry for include. He writes, "include indicates that what is to follow is only part of a greater whole. To use it when you are describing a totality is sloppy, as here: “The 630 job losses include 300 in Redcar and 330 in Port Talbot” (Times). No one ever pointed that out to me before. Thank you, Mr. Bryson!

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.


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.


It's a reference book! For a fan of Bryson, this is hilarious. He's so difficult so much of the time, this book was meant to be written by him, for sure! Besides, as a nerd, I am very interested in words. Not to be too crass, but this is a fine bathroom read.

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.

Mark Allen

A great reminder of how easy it is to write bad English. Not a book you'd generally read straight through unless you like reading operating manuals. However, it's a great reminder of those things that trip most people up.Recommended.

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