book reviews / words / writers resources

Book Review: Dictionary for Writers and Editors

Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and EditorsBryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors

by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Theodore Bernstein (author of seven books on grammar and usage) may be the acknowledged expert on English grammar, but Bill Bryson share’s his knowledge with a pinch of humility and humor.

I met Bryson reading his Short History of Nearly Everything. Therein lay the seeds of my initial distrust. How could an author who wrote such an enthralling historic book like Short History switch genres and write a successful dictionary? Shouldn’t that be the job of a bibliophile or Mr. Webster’s great grandson? Despite my misgivings, I decided to give it a try. Anyone who could distill history into 480 pages must have the see-the-forest-for-the-trees ability to decide on the need-to-know grammar required for a budding author. After all, I needed to spend the minutes stolen from my day job on what would quickly kick-start my authorial expertise. I’d get to ‘everything’ later.

So, despite misgivings and with a nod for the appeal of humor in the dry world of word study, I bought Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Broadway Books, 1994). It didn’t disappoint. As Bill Bryson notes, it will provide you with “the answers to all those points of written usage that you kind of know or ought to know but can’t quite remember.” It not only includes dictionary-appropriate word meanings, but factual details that writers might get wrong. On the one hand, he discusses the difference in meaning between ‘a’ and ‘an’, and then later, he shares the meaning of Au secours! (a cry for help). He seems to include 1) whatever struck him as interesting or relevant based on his own personal writing experiences, and 2) what he considers critical to be a successful writer–well-beyond plot, characters and story arc. Many entries have his notes/definitions/explanations, but some include just the word, there for a writers’ ruminations. To that end, the book is a fascinating stroll through Bryson’s writing mind.

Here are some of the gems I found:

  1. the difference between ‘autarchy’ and ‘autarky’
  2. the difference between ‘avenge’ and ‘revenge’
  3. difference between ‘before’ and ‘prior to’
  4. what BMW stands for
  5. what is carpaccio
  6. how to translate Chinese names to English
  7. difference between ‘compare to’ and ‘compare with’
  8. difference between ‘compel’ and ‘impel’
  9. what does ‘Dum spiro, spero‘ mean (‘While I breathe, there is hope.’)
  10. difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ (the former covers singular nouns; the latter, plural)
  11. the difference between ‘gibe’ and ‘jibe’
  12. what’s a ‘haggis’ (Scottish dish)
  13. ‘Lacy’ has no e
  14. ‘Laddie’ isn’t spelled ‘laddy’
  15. what’s a ‘macaronic verse’ (a type of poetry in which two or more languages are mingled)
  16. what’s ‘ochlocracy’? (government by mob)
  17. difference between ‘regretfully’ and ‘regrettably’

I’ve been known to read a dictionary when I have a few spare minutes. It’s a logical choice: I can complete a section in whatever amount of time I have. It takes little time to read a word and it’s definition. Bryson’s is now in that quick-read pile.

More book reviews on writing tasks:

Book Review: Elements of Style

Book Review: The Way We Never Were

Book Review: Born on a Blue Day–Insight into Learning




Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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17 thoughts on “Book Review: Dictionary for Writers and Editors

  1. Reblogged this on Writing Reconsidered and commented:
    Check out Jacqui Murray’s book review of Bill Bryson’s “Dictionary for Writers and Editors” — she highlights for us not only a new success in humor and style from the wonderful library of Bryson, but also a terrific new tool for the rest of the writing and reading world.

    Thanks, Murray!

  2. Pingback: 30 Essential Books for Every Writer | WordDreams...

  3. I had a dictionary for writers somewhere, but lost it when I moved. It was fantastic (I can’t remember who wrote it) so now I know what to replace it with. Thanks Jacqui ;)

  4. Pingback: 10 Tips Plus One More About Beautiful Words | WordDreams...

    • It’s one of those books you can read and enjoy–and feel like you’re learning from–in just the five free minutes (in your case, two minutes) available between this and that.

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