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Troublesome WordsIt is nearly 20 years since Bill Bryson first penned his deliciously witty paean to precision Troublesome Words. Now he has revised it and 60 per cent of the content is new so it’s well worth another browse and a place on the desk corner of anyone who likes words and who wants to get things right.
Once a sub-editor at The Times, Bryson is irresistibly drawn to knowing that “to flaunt” means to display ostentatiously but “to flout” means to treat with contempt. Or that a straitjacket may be straight but its name means that its occupant is confined and restricted–in straitened circumstances, perhaps. And can you explain the difference between a Creole and a Pidgin or between egoism and egotism? If not consult Bryson. Then you’ll be able to. There’s no pedantry or pomposity in Bryson’s writing. But he argues: “Just as we all agree that clarity is better served if ‘cup’ represents a drinking vessel and ‘cap’ something you put on your head, so too I think the world is a fractionally better place if we agree to preserve a distinction between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, between ‘I lay down the law’ and ‘I lie down to sleep’, between ‘imply’ and ‘infer’ and countless others.”
Bryson modestly jokes that this alphabetically arranged book could be subtitled “Even More Things in English Usage That the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear about Until Quite Recently”. If only most of us were sure about a fraction of the things Bryson clearly understands very well we might all be more effective writers and speakers. —Susan Elkin