« The Fog Index | Home | The Scoop on Mobile Editions »

Three Mighty Useful and Interesting Books

Posted on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 1:28 PM

Aids for writers that you can put to use in your editorial department.

By Peter Jacobi

I bring to your attention three books that might prove mighty useful and, lo and behold, they proved mighty interesting to read.

A Dictionary for Writers and Editors

That may seem unlikely with a new dictionary for writers and editors, but the title of this particular lexicon is Bill Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Broadway Books). Bryson, whether he's writing an essay or a full-length nonfiction book or a work of fiction, always gives free access of his personality and imaginative mind to enrich whatever he tackles.

The opening paragraph of his preface tells you what to expect. In part, it says: "This book is intended as a quick, concise guide to the problems of English spelling and usage most commonly encountered by writers and editors. How do you spell supersede and broccoli and accessible? Do I write archaeology or archeology? What's the difference between a cardinal number and an ordinal number? ... Doesn't Calcutta have a new name now? (It does -- Kolkata.) What do we now call the Chinese river that I knew in my school days as the Hwang Ho?"

You'll find out, from Aachen to Vladimir Zworykin. And a punctuation appendix follows.

If you want to try the word "enormity" for size, don't. Bryson's dictionary says: "Enormity does not, as is frequently thought, indicate size, but rather refers to something that is wicked, monstrous, and outrageous ('The enormity of Hitler's crimes will never be forgotten'). If what you require is a word denoting large scale, try 'immensity' or 'vastness.'"

Queen Elizabeth II gets this treatment: "(1926-) Her formal title, though seldom used, is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Queen Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. She became queen in 1952; her coronation was in 1953."

It's a great guide, amazingly inclusive (continual/continuous, entente cordiale, hara-kiri, Illinoian, Mafeking/Mafikeng, mutual/common, Poseidon, sangfroid, saccharin/saccharine, tautology/redundancy/pleonasm/solecism, Teatro alla Scala, whether or not, zeitgeist). The answers or solutions are there, simply put, absolutely clear.

Debunking the English Language

Along also comes Origin of the Specious, subtitled Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, this by Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman (Random House). O'Conner is known for her bestselling Woe Is I. Kellerman is her husband, a former editor for The New York Times.

The two set about to debunk a book-full of "beloved ideas about English" that, they say, "are bunkum." They defend, for instance, a recent resident of the White House: "Nobody ever said the W in George W. Bush stood for Wordsmith. But our former President doesn't deserve the knuckle rapping that many wordies have given him for his famous pronunciation of 'nuclear.' The word has been mispronounced so often and so publicly that NOO-kyuh-lur is gaining a foothold in dictionaries." A thorough and brightly considered discourse follows.

Further along, amidst the profusion of set-straights, O'Conner and Kellerman state: "Perhaps you dis the verb 'disrespect,' snubbing it as a gangsta interloper from the world of hip-hop. Well, chill. This so-called bad boy is getting a bum rap. 'Disrespect' is a perfectly respectable verb that's been around since the 1600s." So, too, respectable, they insist, are other "African-American slang words that have come in off the streets and enriched the language" and "don't deserve to be dissed," such as "chill," "cred," "phat" (first-rate), "bling" (flashy jewelry), and "gangsta."

I'll share one more debunk, the initial paragraph in still another whack at grammar traditionalists: "If my email is any indication, half the English-speaking world lies awake nights, grinding its teeth because the other half says 'I could care less' when it means 'I couldn't care less.' If your enamel is starting to wear down, my advice is to care less. It's true that the original phrase was 'I couldn't care less,' which makes more sense. But since when do idiomatic expressions have to make sense?"

You get the tone employed, I'm sure: it makes for easy reading, and pleasant, even when you might disagree, as I do now and then, with the point being made. The points are numerous: acronyms, "crap," gender, foreign words and phrases, "paint the town red," "niggardly," malapropisms, spoonerisms, "octopi" vs. "octopuses," "irreligious" and "nonreligious," "ain't," and on and on.

Literary Quality Writing

Stephen Pyne's Voice & Vision, A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction (Harvard University Press) assumes a more serious style, but stuffy it is not. And although it focuses on the writing of history, author Pyne passes along recommendations that we all can use to our advantage. To write history requires scholarship, yes, but a historian, says Pyne, also must write literature.

Well, journalists create a form of history, an immediate one, and -- to gain and keep an audience -- they must, we know, aim for literary quality, for writing worthy of being read. Voice & Vision provides commendable assistance.

"There are only two rules specific to nonfiction," states Pyne. "The rules are nonnegotiable: you can't make anything up, and you can't leave out something that really matters -- meaning something that, if included, would alter our fundamental understanding." Need I say we work by the same rules?

Pyne, later on in the chapter, sums up his exposition. "Don't invent," he warns, "and don't leave out what needs to be in. Beyond these, rely on prudence, humility, boldness, wit, common sense, and a recognition that theme and design have to support each other. If one is wrong, it will pervert the other. A theme at odds with its expression will be unconvincing, even ridiculous."

We've spoken on a number of occasions about thesis/theme, development, and structure. That's what Pyne is arguing for. He also argues the importance of transition. It should occur "at all levels, in the movement from one sentence to another, one paragraph to another, one scene to another, one chapter or part to another." Does that sound familiar to you, my readers?

Aha, and further along, the author reminds us: "Drama is what keeps readers turning pages. The slickest transitioning, the wittiest voice, the most elegant phrasing will not hold their attention for more than a few sentences. What matters is their urge to know more, to see what comes next, to understand how the narrative or argument works out ... They must care what comes next. Why did that happen? How? What's the point? So what?"

Pyne doesn't simply pose these issues. He digs into them and gives us ways and means. Again, I think you'll find value.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

« The Fog Index | Top | The Scoop on Mobile Editions »