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Troublesome Words [Paperback]

Bill Bryson
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Oct 2009

What is the difference between mean and median, blatant and flagrant, flout and flaunt? Is it whodunnit or whodunit? Do you know? Are you sure?

With Troublesome Words, journalist and bestselling travel-writer Bill Bryson gives us a clear, concise and entertaining guide to the problems of English usage and spelling that has been an indispensable companion to those who work with the written word for over twenty years.

So if you want to discover whether you should care about split infinitives, are cursed with an uncontrollable outbreak of commas or were wondering if that newsreader was right to say 'an historic day', this superb book is the place to find out.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (1 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141040394
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141040394
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 21,788 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. Settled in England for many years, he moved to America with his wife and four children for a few years ,but has since returned to live in the UK. His bestselling travel books include The Lost Continent, Notes From a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods and Down Under. His acclaimed work of popular science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Aventis Prize and the Descartes Prize, and was the biggest selling non-fiction book of the decade in the UK.

Photography © Julian J

Product Description

Amazon Review

It 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'Combines the virtues of a first class work of reference with the pleasure of a good read' The Times

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
91 of 91 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still masterful and masterly 1 Jun 2010
By Jon Chambers VINE VOICE
Do you put 'spoonsful' or 'spoonfuls' of sugar into tea? Do you know the difference between defining and non-defining clauses and between 'androgynous' and 'androgenous'? Can you tell irony from sarcasm and 'prophecy' from 'prophesy'? If you can, then you don't need this book. But you'd probably want to read it anyway. To all intents and purposes, Troublesome Words is the same as the earlier Dictionary of Troublesome Words, with a makeover to make it look new (rather like this review, in fact).

The great triumph of Troublesome Words is that it's arranged like a dictionary but is interesting enough to read cover to cover as though it were a novel. It projects a sense of personality (Bryson's) and his values: companies' eccentric and convention-defying names - with backward facing letters, for example - should never be allowed to become 'a distraction in print'. It bears the hallmark of Bryson's distinctive style: conversational, witty and digressive. All it lacks is a narrative.

Although essentially a work of reference, Brysonisms lighten the way. The entry for 'that' and 'which', for instance, advises brushing up on those clauses, defining and non- . 'Learning these distinctions is not, it must be said, anyone's idea of a good time, but it is one technical aspect of grammar that every professional user of English should understand because it is at the root of an assortment of grammatical errors.' And woe betide anyone who spells 'barbecue' with a 'q' and hyphens because they are clearly 'not ready for unsupervised employment'.

Other books of this type are more famous, authoritative and formidable - those by Fowler and Partridge in particular. But this one is actually entertaining as well as instructive, and is also considerably more recent (and therefore more in touch with contemporary usage). It has my vote, anyway.
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81 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect for the layperson. 10 Jan 2004
By T
I found this book very approachable and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn a little bit more about the English language but doesn't have the time or inclination to plough through the more traditional style of language book.
It is organised alphabetically making it easy to dip into but is also fine to read straight through.
Examples are provided of the wrong way of doing things as well as the correct way which makes it easier to remember.
There are lots of examples of bad grammar taken from National newspapers to show you that even the professionals don't get it right. This gives the book a less formal approach, than say Fowler, and doesn't make you feel inferior just because you didn't know what a dangling modifier was.
Bill Bryson has selected a good range with examples of confusing spellings, punctuation, and grammar that will serve as an excellent starting point for anyone who wishes to take certain sections further.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deceptively good with a lasting impact 24 Nov 2010
By Darren Simons TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Okay I'll admit I'm not someone who tends to read dictionaries from cover to cover but I do like Bill Bryson books, especially the way he manages to present little facts you didn't know but find yourself pleased that you can subsequently recall in pub conversations. In Troublesome Words Bryson goes through the dictionary from A to Z (followed by a bit on punctuation) and highlights particular words which people tend to get wrong... perhaps it's the context they're used in or maybe the spelling. For me, the best part of the book was Bryson highlighting words which are literally superfluous (like literally just there!) in the way they are used. The example of "literally" was particularly amusing: Bryson points out if it's literal then it doesn't need to be there but actually it's generally the complete opposite.

From a practical perspective I found I've already tried to put his guidance into practice (I'm sure Bryson would have a field day with what I've written here) and even though some of the comments are perhaps overly critical it's a good read.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Amusing Grammar 9 July 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Well, one thinks they know most things in grammar, but one nearly always gets caught out. I didn't realise graffiti is plural and that the singular is graffito. Remember in future to say "There were graffiti........
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Before finding fame as a travel writer with The Lost Continent and Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson had been a sub-editor at the Times struggling with the nuances of the English language. What is the difference between flouting and flaunting; what exactly does it mean to imply and to infer; can one use the word either in reference to more than two alternatives? Unable to find a single, concise guide to which he could refer to for such `troublesome words', Bryson contacted Penguin and offered to write one himself.

Troublesome Words, the 2001 revised and updated edition of Bryson's original 1984 book (The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words), is an A - Z guide to words and phrases commonly misused in print. Drawing from more than 40 respected works on linguistics, Bryson provides advice and suggestions to everyday grammatical problems and helpfully illustrates them with real-life examples of misuse. He explains that culminate, for example, "does not signify any result or outcome, but rather one marking a high point" and cites an a news clipping from The Times which reads "The company's financial troubles culminated in the resignation of the chairman last June". The example highlights Bryson's lesson. A series of financial gains could culminate in the chairman receiving a bonus but financial troubles do not culminate in a resignation. Helpfully, he not only warns against words that are used incorrectly, but also those which are often used redundantly, such as basically; a word which in most contexts "is basically unnecessary, as here."

Unfortunately, the somewhat narrow breadth of the guide does betray its (and Bryson's) Fleet Street origins. Almost every example of misuse hails from newspaper pieces and, furthermore, usually from the business pages.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great writer
Published 20 days ago by Anthony Wakefield
5.0 out of 5 stars Just the job
Fine Book very useful for idiots like me.
Published 3 months ago by Icarus Rising
5.0 out of 5 stars Bill Bryson - Top Man.
I love everything that Bill Bryson writes.
He is a learned man with a talent for displaying that ability.
Try his talking books - narrated by himself of course!
Published 3 months ago by Richard Graham Morton
5.0 out of 5 stars A dictionary that actually reads like a book
Previously published as the Penguin Guide, so don't buy both, this is Bill Bryson at his best, informative, intelligent and never patronising. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Riggers
4.0 out of 5 stars Troublesome work
I love everything this man writes, can't get enough of him I think we have the same sense of humour.
Published 5 months ago by Pauline Gwyther
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reference material.
I've so far just picked at it but will find fuller use in time. Five stars for the idea and selected words.Tips would be a helpful addition, e.g. Read more
Published 6 months ago by R
5.0 out of 5 stars Selected by my Son-in-Law as a gift.
Just perfect, couldn't be better, it was the choice of a relative for a gift. Supplied in time without problems.
Published 8 months ago by Daniel Crawford
4.0 out of 5 stars Best of Bill Bryson. This time Troublesome words.
I have been an avid fan of American anglophile Bill Bryson for at least 20 years. He writes fluently on all sorts of subjects, from his early childhood in Des Moines, Iowa through... Read more
Published 10 months ago by bigden39
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
Haven't had time to get into this yet, but it promises to be an interesting read. Hoping to learn a lot.
Published 10 months ago by Susan
3.0 out of 5 stars If need that kind of help with words..
... it is a useful book but I found nothing new in it so hoping it will be useful for someone else.
Published 10 months ago by Just in my opinion
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