Who's Whose, by Philip Gooden (Walker& Company, 2005, 245 pp. ISBN 0-8027-1464-1, US$14.00)
The Wrong Word Dictionary, by Dave Dowling (Marion Street Press, 2005, 238pp. ISBN 0-0729937-7-0, US$14.95)
Henry Fowler said that he wanted his Modern English Usage to "tell people that altogether is different from all together, or nail alright and all right to the counter, or distinguish accessary from accessory." His famous book set the model for the many usage guides which continue to pour forth from publishers. People seem to want help with usage, perhaps because--as Sidney Landau suggests in Dictionaries (2001)--they regard correctness in language as helping them to rise in the social scale. Landau thinks this is particularly important in the socially-mobile USA, although two of these three American books were originally published in Britain.
The main challenge in usage manuals is to strike the right balance between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Users of these books want to be advised about the most acceptable things to say or write, but this advice must be based on fact, not on the prejudice or whim of the person who wrote the manual. In Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler was often misled by his own personal preferences, and proved wrong by history--as in his subjective belief that "Chiropodist is a barbarism and a genteelism." Yet he could also be admirably objective, demolishing myths about such things as split infinitives, and admitting that even usages he disliked would probably find their way into standard English.
The late lamented Larry Trask sometimes slides into prescriptivism in his book Say What You Mean! (originally published in 2001 in the UK as Mind the Gaffe)--for instance, in his old-fashioned advice to "Use plain words and not fancy words" (doesn't it depend on the context?) and in telling us not to say "Fewer than six weeks" (which strikes me as unexceptionable). However, he is sensibly tolerant about the blurring between shall and will, and his preface admits that "Every living language is constantly changing"--a thought that should give pause to anyone pontificating about English.
Trask's book is the most ambitious of these three, including useful entries for such words as fatwa and octopus. The other two books restrict themselves to spelling out the difference between words that are often confused: like forego and forgo or lay and lie (although they both omit aboriginal/aborigines). Dave Dowling's book is sketchier than Gooden's and may tend to confuse the reader. For example, the entry for ability/capacity states baldly that "Capacity refers to the ability to hold or contain something," ignoring its other common senses. Philip Gooden's Who's Whose is generally more helpful: it includes an entry for have/of (which Dowling hides under might and must) and its entry for disinterested/uninterested mentions the interesting point that the "wrong" sense of disinterested ("unconcerned") was historically its first meaning.
Larry Trask says that his book is meant to help readers to master "Standard written English" but he goes on to say that "Standard written English has to be acquired usually by formal education." The proliferation of usage manuals like these suggests that formal education often fails to equip students to write well--a skill which, in any case, is probably better acquired by extensive reading.
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|Title Annotation:||Say What You Mean!; Who's Whose; The Wrong Word Dictionary|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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