The most troublesome words in the English language (according to Bill Bryson)

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words¹ for some months now, on and off. It’s Bryson’s A to Z of the words he’s encountered in his career that appear to be the most troublesome for many of us. I’ve found it such an entertaining and educational read. I’ve shared some particularly interesting extracts with friends and family who, at first I thought may have been bored with the grammar trivia, but have asked for more, more, more!

On this basis, I’ve selected my favourite troublesome words from Bryson’s list and paraphrased his explanations for an A to Z summary below. I hope you find this short summary as grammatically enlightening as I found his entire book. If you enjoy this blog, I recommend you purchase the book as it’s a fantastic reference to some of the most troublesome words in the English language.

A to Z

All right. This is two words (because it’s not alwrong).

Barbecue. Every Ozzie or Kiwi should know how to spell this word; it’s not barbeque.

Celibacy. This does not indicate the abstinence from sexual relations. It means only to be unmarried.

Disinterested vs uninterested. A disinterested person is one who has no stake in the outcome of an event; an uninterested person is one who doesn’t care.

Effect vs affect. Effect means to accomplish; affect means to influence.

Farther vs further. Farther appears in the context of literal distance and further in contexts involving figurative distance.

Goodbye. One word.

Hanged. In the phrase ‘hanged to death’ the words ‘to death’ are redundant. Just like we need only say ‘starved’ and ‘strangled’.

I, me. The most common problem with I and me is deciding whether to use ‘It was I’ or ‘It was me’. If you are unsure, I would suggest googling this for an in-depth discussion and guidance.

Just deserts, not desserts. The expression comes from the French word for ‘deserve’ and has nothing to do with the sweet course after a meal.

Keenness. With –nn-. The same rule applies to all words ending in ‘n’ when ness is added.

Literally. All too often used when, literally, the opposite is intended, e.g., ‘She was so hot she was, literally, melting all over the floor.’ Really? This is a figurative expression.

Mischievous. Not mischievious. All too often mispronounced as well as misspelled.

Nation vs country. Nation refers to the political and social characteristics of a place and country to the geographical characteristics.

On to vs onto. Until the 20th century onto was one word in both Britain and America, and some British authorities still insist that on to should be two words. In America onto is used where the two elements function as a compound preposition (‘He jumped onto the horse’) and on to is used where on is an adverb (‘We move on to the next subject).

Plan ahead. The word ahead is redundant. Why would you plan behind? (Just like the phrase pre prepare I’ve heard many people say.)

Query, inquiry, enquiry. A query is a single question. An inquiry or enquiry may be a single question or an extensive investigation. Either spelling is correct, but inquiry is preferred in most British and American dictionaries.

Reckless. Not wreckless, unless you are describing a setting in which there are no wrecks.

Stationary vs stationery. Stationary is to stand still or in a fixed position. Stationery is sold at stationers, like envelopes, paper clips and other office materials.

Temperature vs fever. To say someone has a temperature, as in they are not well or sick, is incorrect. We have a temperature every day. The correct word would be fever.

Untimely death is a common but really quite inane expression. Whenever was a death timely?

Vitreous vs vitriform. The first describes something made, or having the quality of glass. The second means to have the appearance of glass.

Whet one’s appetite. Not wet. The word has nothing to do with heightened salivary flow. If come from the old English word, hwettan, meaning to ‘sharpen’.

X [Nothing troublesome with the letter X words according to Bryson, and, in my opinion, there aren’t many words that can be formed with this letter in the game of Scrabble.]

Year. A word of caution when describing the age of things or people. We are always one year ahead of our age in the sense of what year we are born in: a new born infant is in his or her first year, after his or her first birthday, in their second year, and so on.

Zoom. Strictly speaking, this word describes only a steep upward movement. To say a plane zoomed down would, technically, be incorrect.

1. Bryson, Bill Troublesome Words, 3rd edition. London, Penguin, 2002.

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