That Bill Bryson’s Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (new this week in paperback from Anchor Books) should surpass utility and be loads of fun as well seems almost unfair. Aren’t dictionaries and style manuals meant to be dry? Bryson’s title here is pretty honest; he’s made a dictionary of hard-to-remember/easy-to-forget words, including plenty of commonly misspelled words. In the age of spell-check, it’s not so much Bryson’s spellings that are essential as it is the context in which he puts his words. For instance, do you know the difference between “gabardine” and “gaberdine”? (“The first is a type of worsted cloth, the second a long cloak”). Bryson goes further (not farther!) than mere distinctions between words like “creole” and “pidgin” or “bravado” and “bravery”: he actually gets into the fray of how one ought to use words. Consider the entry on “past”:
“Often a space waster, as in this example: ‘Davis said the dry conditions had been a recurrent problem for the past thirty years.’ In this sentence, and in countless others like it, ‘the past’ could be deleted without any loss of sense. Equally tautological and to be avoided are such expressions as past records, past history, past achievements, and past precedents.”
The exasperation is almost palpable! When I first picked up the dictionary, I immediately checked out what Bryson had to say on one of my own pet peeves, “couldn’t of” as the contracted form of “couldn’t have.” Here’s Bryson, in a solution that mixes humor with a bit of common sense:
“As a shortened form of ‘couldn’t have,’ couldn’t of does unquestionably avoid the clumsy double contraction couldn’t’ve, a form not often seen in print since J.D. Salinger stopped writing. However, I would submit that that does not make it satisfactory. Using the preposition of as a surrogate for ‘ve seems to me simply to be swapping an ungainly form for an illiterate one. If couldn’t’ve is too painful to use, I would suggest simply writing couldn’t have and allowing the reader’s imagination to supply the appropriate inflection.
As we see, Bryson’s interest isn’t so much on presenting himself as an absolute authority on the English language as it is in helping writers to be more lucid. We see this again–with the same wittiness–when discussing the differences between “Shakespearean” and “Shakespearian”:
“The first is the usual spelling in America and the second is the usual spelling in Britain, but, interestingly, don’t look to The Oxford English Dictionary for guidance on any spellings concerning England’s greatest poet. Perversely and charmingly, but entirely unhelpfully, the OED insists on spelling the name Shakspere, a decision it based on one of the six spellings Shakespeare himself used. It does, however, acknowledge that Shakespeare is ‘perhaps’ the commonest spelling now used.
While Bryson’s Dictionary is plenty of fun for word nerds, it’s utility and ease-of-use are really what make it a must-have for writers. Bryson devotes 11 pages of his short, useful appendix to punctuation, a section that every young (or not so young) writer should read (the three pages he devotes to comma use are particularly insightful). In sum, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors is a witty and intuitive aid that many a writer will love having on their desk. I know I do. Highly recommended.