I’d like to think of myself as a writer. As an economist, I am one, it just does not feel like it all the time. As a writer, I decided it would be useful to read Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words. (To just have it on the shelf is not a good alternative. It needs to be read and reread on occasions.) Troublesome Words is simply a list of words and phrases which writers need to show special care, at least according to Bill Bryson. (His alternative title: A Guide to Everything in English Usage That the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear About Until Quite Recently. Humble guy, this Bryson. A great writer too, by the way, his A Short History of Nearly Everything is highly recommended.)
Reading a list of words, although commented, may sound boring. Admittedly, at times it is, but Bill Bryson’s approach and style is refreshing and amusing. A good example is put on the back cover:
Barbecue is the only acceptable spelling in serious writing. Any jounalist or other formal user of English who believes that the word is spelled barbeque or, worse still, bar-b-q is not ready for unsupervised employment.
If I should criticise anything, it would be that the book is more aimed at journalists and perhaps authors of novels and the like, rather than at technical and scientific writers like myself. But of course, there are more journalists than scientists in the world.
I’m astray. My intention here was to post a few noteworthy entries from the book (and probably more in later posts as I work my way through the book; right now I’m somewhere on ‘F’):
exception proves the rule, the. A widely misunderstood expression. As a moment’s thought should confirm, it isn’t possible for an exception to confirm a rule – but then that isn’t the sense that was originally intended. Prove here is a ‘fossil’ – that is, a word or phrase that is now meaningless except within the confines of certain sayings (‘hem and haw’, ‘rank and file’ and ‘to and fro’ are other fossil expressions). Originally prove meant ‘test’ (it comes from the Latin probo, ‘I test’), so the exception proves the rule meant – and really still ought to mean – that the exception tests the rule. The original meaning of prove is preserved more clearly in two other expressions: ‘proving ground’ and ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’.
Never liked that expression, now I have good reason too. I just noticed that Bryson’s punctuation is slightly at odds with what I’m used to (in particular, see his placement of commas relative to quotation marks). Perhaps it’s an English thing, perhaps it is contentious. (Bryson has an appendix on punctuation, by the way, I’ll get to it in a hundred years, perhaps, with my normal progression). Anyway, another interesting entry:
fact that. This phrase made Strunk ‘quiver with revulsion’ and he insisted that it be revised out of every sentence in which it appeared. That may be putting it a trifle strongly. [Perhaps, but Strunk wrote his book almost a hundred years ago.] There may be occasions where its use is unaviodable, or at least unexceptionable. But it is true that it does generally signal a sentence that could profitably be recast. ‘The court was told that he returned the following night despite the fact that he knew she would not be there’ (Independent). Try replacing ‘despite the fact that’ with ‘although’ or ‘even though’. ‘Our arrival was delayed for four hours due to the fact that the ferry failed to arrive’ (Sunday Telegraph). Make it ‘because’.
UPDATE: More entries worth checking out: abbreviations, allusion, anticipate, between, but, claim, compound, dangling modifiers, data, double meanings, double negatives, due to, and enormity. Long list, I know, better read the whole thing while you’re at it.