The Dictionary of Troublesome words by Bill Bryson


I have just begun reading Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. It is utterly fascinating. It is a about the English language in all it’s quirkiness and confusion. Bryson says in the introduction that:

“One of the abiding glories of English is that it has no governing authority, no group of august worthies empowered to decree how words may be spelled and deployed. We are a messy democracy, and all the more delightful for it. We spell eight as we do not because that makes sense, but because that is the way we like to spell it.

When we tire of a meaning or usage or spelling—when we decide, for example, that masque would be niftier as mask—we change it, not by fiat but by consensus. The result is a language that is wonderfully fluid and accommodating, but also complex, undirected and often puzzling—in a word, troublesome.”

So he has put together a guide to help us navigate the confusion and figure out what Good English really is. To find not the correct usage of words and expressions, perhaps, but the agreed upon on usage, the big consensus so that we can all write in a way that our words and our intent as as clear to everyone else as they are to us.

As I already told you, the book is fascinating. Let me give you a few examples:

affinity: denotes a mutual relationship. Therefore, strictly speaking, one should not speak of someone or something having an affinity for another but should speak of an affinity with or between. When mutuality is not intended sympathy would be a better word.”

all intents and purposes is colorless, redundant, and hackneyed. Almost any other expression would be an improvement. “He is, to all intents and purposes, king of the island” (Mail on Sunday) would be instantly made better by changing the central phrase to “in effect” or removing it altogether. If the phrase must be used at all, it can always be shorn of the last two words. “To all intents” says as much as “to all intents and purposes.”

all right: A sound case could be made for shortening all right to alright, as many informal users of English do already. Many other compounds beginning with all have been contracted without protest for centuries, among them already, almost, altogether, and even alone, which originally was all one. English, however, is a slow and fickle tongue, and alright continues to be looked on as illiterate and unacceptable, and consequently it ought never to appear in serious writing.”

altercation:  “Three youths were injured in the altercation” (Chicago Tribune). No one suffers physical injury in an altercation. It is a heated exchange of words and nothing more.”

and: The belief that and should not be used to begin a sentence is without foundation. And that is all there is to it.”

That last one is the most satisfying to me, personally. I start sentences with ‘and’ all the time and it is not something I can change, so it is good to be vindicated.

The book is full of gems like these and is a must have for anyone who is interested in writing and language.


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