Cover image for Dictionary of problem words and expressions
Dictionary of problem words and expressions
Shaw, Harry, 1905-1998.
Personal Author:
Revised edition.
Publication Information:
New York : McGraw-Hill, [1987]

Physical Description:
ix, 368 pages ; 25 cm
Defines, explains, and illustrates more than 1500 of the most common mistakes in word use made in English. Includes a brief guide to more effective writing and speaking.
Format :

On Order



Defines, explains, and illustrates more than 1500 of the most common mistakes in word use made in English. Includes a brief guide to more effective writing and speaking.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Shaw has given us a compendium of caveats against problem words and expressions, the misuse of which brands the user as, at the least, sloppy at the most, illiterate. A lecturer, editor, and teacher, Shaw has updated his 1975 book to include new usages of old words and to discuss new words and expressions. Acknowledging his debt to Bernstein, Fowler, The Oxford English Dictionary, and The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Shaw begins with ``To the Reader,'' a plea for clear communication whether in speaking or writing. Following this is an essay called ``The Importance of Speech,'' which discusses speech as communication. In ``You and the Way You Talk and Write,'' he implores his readers to keep 10 important commandments in order to improve speech: from ``have something to say'' through ``look alive'' and ``be original'' to ``learn to listen.'' Other sections follow with advice on wordiness, triteness (with examples and exercises and six full pages of clichs), troublesome verbs (with the correct forms for present and past tenses as well as past participles), idiomatic usage, euphemisms, slang, and jargon and gobbledygook. Many of these sections contain lists of examples as illustrations. The body of the book is an alphabetically arranged list of more than 1,500 common problem words and their correct usage. Some that one might expect to find, such as divers/diverse, are not included, but nauseated/nauseous is there along with alright/all right, whiskey/whisky, ravel/unravel, and psychotic/neurotic/neurasthenic. Cross-references are numerous. The average entry is 75 words long but is not clearly organized like a dictionary entry. To find the part of speech of similar words (often the thing that identifies their use) such as advise and advice, one must read through the entry. Numerous synonyms are given, but, again, not always in the same pattern. Pronunciations, if important or difficult, are given in the body of the entry. Examples are often cited, but far too many are masculine references; the pronouns he and his as well as the masculine suffix -man abound; the masculine form of gendered words is most often used. Because there is no index, there is no way to locate phrases or words from the prefatory materials. Neither as elegantly chatty, well organized, and learned as Fowler or as good-humored and sensible as Bernstein, this book has a place in library collections but not in reference. It is a wonderful plea for clear verbal communication with excellent advice on how to go about it but needs to be read through rather than used as a handbook. Recommended for circulating collections. For reviews of other usage guides, see ``Guides to English Usage'' in RBB, November 1, 1986.

Choice Review

Shaw has collected a list, alphabetically arranged, of single words, words paired and grouped, and word phrases that have presented problems in writing and speaking. This work has authoritative definitions and makes clear distinctions among meanings and usages. It is most comparable to the sober presentation of Roy H. Copperud's American Usage and Style, the Consensus (CH, Sep '80). Compared to additional, recent titles in this area-John B. Bremner's Words on Words (CH, Dec '80), William and Mary Morris's Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd ed., 1985; 1st ed., CH, May '76), or Success with Words (CH, Jan '84)-Shaw's book is rather dry and can be overbearing, even priggish. There is nothing of the delight in language found in the others. Its authority and usefulness, especially for writing, cannot be denied; but rather than encouraging better speech-with its 10 commandments and nearly 20 pages, in double columns, of words and combinations to be avoided-it could lead to paralysis. One could read the introductory material and go mute. It is recommended as a title complementary to the others mentioned.-J.B. Ladley, Bowdoin College