Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, by Harry Shaw (1975)

Ever since I became an avid reader and consequently fell in love with words, I've been trying to master the language much like a musician might memorize chords, scales, arpeggios, and other musical phrases. Beyond its more visceral rewards, I believe such a pursuit is worthy of my time and energy. Partly for this reason, I abhor sloppy writing as a substitute for clear, lucid prose.

I should mention that both in conversation and on social media (Facebook, Twitter), I'm that guy who frequently corrects people when they abuse our otherwise wondrous language. Probably why I'm so damn popular. (Incidentally, Shaw correctly identifies the preceding statement as irony, not sarcasm, which is more derisive irony, something along the lines of “What a great friend you turned out to be!”)

Because I love the English language and am grief stricken when it's abused or treated with indifference, while reading this treasure I was pumping my fist in the air and affirming this and that entry with a “Thank you, Shaw!” and a “In your face, illiterates!” Not really, but at this point you can probably imagine me as the type.

Beyond the most commonly misused words such as then and than; there, their, and they're; less and fewer, effect and affect; exercise and exorcise; stationary and stationery; incisive and decisive; allusion, illusion, elusion, and delusion, Shaw distinguishes between exceedingly and excessively; effective, efficient, and effectual; urban and urbane; lie, lay, and lain; wake, awake, awaken, awoke, awoken; felicitous, fortuitous, and fortunate; meticulous, scrupulous; ingenious, ingenuous, and naive; inhuman, unhuman; precedence, precedent; and decent distinctions between (not among) myth, fable, and legend.

I've long since given up correcting people who all too often opt for the word literally when they mean to say figuratively or practically or virtually, or, better yet, veritably. I no longer waste my time pointing out to the alleged educated the difference between evidence and proof. And I've become inured to a certain family member who unerringly errs with pronouns: “Between you and I ...” etc. However, I, too, was given a valuable education regarding other words I've misused. Egoism and egotism; dissemble and dissassemble; prescribe and proscribe. And for those who struggle with who, whom, whoever, and whomever, Shaw offers the easiest method I've found for understanding which pronoun to apply.

Some differences between the entries are minor or vary only in degree (refute and deny); some are interchangeable within certain contexts (relatively and comparatively); some appear similar but are antonyms (enervating and invigorating); and some entries are mildly amusing:

corespondent, correspondent. These words differ in spelling, meaning, and pronunciation. It is usually safer to be a correspondent (KOR i spon dent), one who writes letters, than a corespondent (KO ri SPON dent), one charged with adultery in a divorce proceeding.

With the exception of the above example and a few others, Shaw begins an entry by listing the similarities between the words in question, whether the words share a Latin, Greek, or Gaelic derivation, highlighting where they differ and in what way, frequently including the words in examples (phrases, sentences), and finally, occasionally providing synonyms for each. This book is a valuable resource. One I'll probably keep and refer to often. Four out of five stars. 

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