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.

From . : ; ! ? / to :-) (seriously?)

I’d like to thank Lynne Truss for the detailed punctuation history lesson in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Each chapter introduces a set of punctuation marks and provides background as to why we have the system we use today. I am a stickler for grammar, and Truss has given me permission to stand up and declare, publically, my love for punctuation. I am ready to defend our punctuation code. In this blog, I’ll take you on a short journey from when the first punctuation marks were introduced, i.e., the comma, colon and full stop, to the 21st century where emoticons, e.g., 🙁 and ;-o, are in danger of hijacking our traditional system. My objective is educational so you may too see the continued value in punctuation and be ready to stand in its defence.

The orator

The earliest writing had no capitalisation, vowels, spaces or punctuation. Greeksranalltheirletterstogether. Letters were written down not to be read to one’s self but to be read aloud; no one was expected to read or understand a text on first sight. This was the art of oratory in the centuries before Christ (BC). However, as writing evolved a system of dots was introduced around the 5th century BC. The dots were placed at the bottom, middle or top of each line and indicated a pause of increasing length between sections of speech. Today we know them as the comma, colon and full stop.


It wasn’t until anno Domini (AD), around the 6th century, when writing really took off and other types of punctuation marks were introduced. Why? Christianity was on the rise and the bible was being produced to help spread the word of God. Instead of reading aloud, people were reading to themselves and these new marks suggested changes in tone, like the question mark, as well as grammatical meaning. A unified alphabet of letters was devised, which differentiated between upper and lower case letters, and spaces between words were introduced.

The printing press

By the time the Renaissance rolled around in the 14th century, the punctuation system was fairly well established with writers. There was the mixture of ancient Greek dots; colons, question marks, and exclamation marks; and a few late comers such as the slash and dash. This was timely as the printing press was invented around this period, and the punctuation system, as we know it, was standardised. Punctuation then remained largely frozen in time … until the late 20th century.

Electronic technology

Everyone has had easy access to technology with the introduction of computers, which has enabled anyone to create their own published content. People have taken artistic license with punctuation rules, and, for the first time since the 14th century, punctuation is showing signs of life. Marks and symbols are being used to provide emphasis and emotions to words in place of traditional punctuation. Is this a good thing? It can be very *upsetting* to GRAMMAR STICKLERS who see this as a bastardisation(!!) of our punctuation code :-(. If people insist on taking liberties with punctuation and/or using emoticons, I hope they do so after they have learnt the importance and value of our traditional system, and they are ready to defend it. As Pablo Picasso said:

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Is good grammar important?

I first posted this article from my LinkedIn personal profile after a day of walking around the streets of Auckland noticing random and very unnecessary apostrophes included in words, and also the distinct absence of apostrophes where they were indeed needed.  I was thinking that maybe the world doesn’t care anymore about good grammar. Perhaps I’m just an old fashioned stickler for correct punctuation. Then two days later the BBC ran on story on The Apostrophiser, a grammar vigilante who has been going around the streets of Bristol at night for years correcting and cleaning up public signs in the city. I was overjoyed; I am not alone!

However, I’m still at a loss as to why we are faced with plummeting punctuation standards on a daily basis. In my opinion, good grammar is important for making a good first impression, and, consequently, is good for business. I would be very interested to hear what you have to say once you’ve read my blog.

“You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression”, Maggie Eyre 

We form opinions about people all the time. Establishing a good first impression is important, whether this is in a social or a professional context. We generally want people to like us, we may want someone to employ us, and we may want consumers to buy from us.

There are many factors we consider when we meet someone for the first time. Depending on the situation, we may be evaluating the person’s age, culture, physical appearance, accent, clothing, posture, facial expression, eye contact, etc. Grammar is also important, especially if you are presenting yourself via email or letter when none of the physical cues are present. I’ve read numerous résumés littered with grammatical errors and a noticeable absence of punctuation. If someone didn’t know the difference between except and accept after 20 years of education, then I’m not comfortable with that learning curve, and I’m definitely not confident in the applicant’s professional ability to perform.

Bad grammar is bad for business

I know this from first-hand experience with over 20 years working in creative advertising agencies. Months are spent by a team of strategy, creative and account handling experts producing campaign ideas and content. It takes even longer to earn the trust and respect of a client. All these efforts can be shattered in a matter of moments when work is presented to the client with one typo. Not only are reputations tarnished and the team’s credibility ruined, but it can, literally, cost an agency the account.

I also know that bad grammar is bad for business because, as a consumer, do I want to buy from a company calling themselves BBQ’S & MORE who can’t even spell BARBEQUE correctly? (Please note, no apostrophe in BBQS and no Q in the actual word BARBECUE – if the name wasn’t abbreviated it would be written BARBECUES AND MORE.) We are confronted with plummeting punctuation standards everyday by numerous companies selling their products and services. If a company doesn’t care enough to get their grammar correct, how do I know they care enough to manufacture a barbecue of quality?

It’s tough being part of the #GrammarPolice 

It is tough because sometimes I feel like it’s a losing battle. But if the #GrammarPolice don’t protect the English language, who will?

I also want to help businesses succeed in making a good first impression and maintaining a professional image with error-free and punctuation-perfect publications. I hope that any grammar sceptic reading this blog now agrees that good grammar is important!

Is this the end of the working bee?


I’m not referring to the actual worker bee. That is, the female bees who do most of the work in the hive, day in and day out; they work as a team performing specific jobs and duties in the pursuit of producing honey.

However, I’m sure the term working bee, which is widely used in New Zealand, derives from the worker bee because, instead of bees, it’s people who work together in a coordinated fashion to achieve a common goal. Working bees are typically organised by volunteers in the community to help local clubs, kindergartens and schools maintain and improve their property, grounds and equipment.

I have fond memories of attending working bees with my parents when I was a child. Mum and Dad would spend a weekend each term at my kindergarten, Constance Colegrove, and then my primary school, Vicky Avenue, painting murals on the driveway, erecting fences, scrubbing swimming pools and tending to the gardens. The kids had lots of fun as it was an opportunity to spend more time playing with our friends while our parents worked – hard!

As my mother recollects, it was always the same parents who volunteered; a bit like the female worker bees, I suppose:

“You’d see the same faces turning up each time bringing homemade scones or sandwiches to share for a lunch break. But they’re not as fashionable these days as more often than not both parents work, especially in the cities, and we don’t seem to have as much time on our hands to donate to such hands-on activities.”

Consequently, the community chores that were once performed by working bees are now performed by paid professionals, and the money is usually raised by increased annual subscriptions or fundraising events.

Question: So, is this the end of the working bee as we know it?

Answer: Perhaps … in New Zealand. But this is only the beginning for Working Bee Productions. It’s our objective to work together with marketing-led organisations and advertising agencies in a coordinated fashion to achieve a desired goal.