Book Review: Dictionary of Troublesome Words, by Bill Bryson

The Dictionary of Troublesome Words is subtitled “A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right.” You should learn something critical from this: namely, that if you’re not a writer, and you don’t care much about words in their most precisely accurate usages, you won’t care much about this book. I, myself, loved it.

I’m new to Bill Bryson, though I know he has won legions of fans with travel literature like A Walk in the Woods. In Dictionary, he provides “an essential guide to the wonderfully disordered thing that is the English language” (from book jacket) by using several What-Not-To-Do examples from well-known and well-respected newspapers and other publications. For instance, the Washington Post wrote in an article, “He did not feel he had received the kudos that were his due.” Can you point out the error? Bryson explains, “Kudos, a Greek word meaning fame or glory, is singular. Thus it should be ‘the kudos that was his due.’ There is no such thing, incidentally, as one kudo.” Publications are not just guilty of grammatical errors, but redundancy as well as well. (little joke there) The Observer once printed, “Police searched his house in the tiny hamlet of Oechtringen.” Bryson quips “It is the nature of hamlets to be tiny.”

Dictionary is ordered, in proper style, alphabetically, with discussion on several hundred words that are most likely to be misused. He also includes some phrases and quotes from classic literature that have – over time – been misunderstood or misspoken. An entry under “W” clarifies, “‘Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink” as being the actual lines from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Anyone else remember the line finishing with “And not a drop to drink”? Ok, maybe it was just me.

Whether this book makes you better at your craft or more self-conscious about all your errors, I do think it is a fabulous resource for writers. And some of the entries are just pretty funny. Case in point, an entry under “K”: “Koala bears is always wrong. Koalas are marsupials and have no relation to bears. Just call them koalas.” Koalas it is, Mr. Bryson!

*Disclosure: Amazon affiliate link included.