Friday, June 24, 2011

The Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (Shaw)

Ever wanted to know when to use disk or disc? How about the difference between allusion, delusion, elusion, and illusion? Tidbit or titbit? How about the phrase, “that’s a plus.” Well? Is it correct or incorrect?

That’s why I’m reviewing a dictionary (again). This book is a goldmine of good information (notice my qualifier there; so much information today is not only not good, it’s overwhelmingly irrelevant). My particular volume is the revised edition by Harry Shaw, and dates to 1987.

By the way, because I know it would drive me crazy, there’s technically no difference between disc and disk; they’re interchangeable. Having said that, I personally cannot stand to use disk. It has nerdy connotations to me; it’s inelegant, for lack of a better word.

And speaking of words, I guess you know you’re busting some good ones out when MS Word asks your permission to send a list of your recently used words to Microsoft so that they can be added to some database or something. That happened to me not too long ago, and it’s partially because of this book.

It really all goes back to Jane Austen. I started reading through her novels a couple of years back, and something kept coming up that bugged me. She tended to use farther rather than further, almost always, and finally my curiosity got the best of me. My mom had shipped some old books to me, and Shaw’s Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions was included. I cracked it open and discovered that there is a difference between farther and further, and that most of us misuse it in everyday speech.

It turns out that Jane Austen was right. She used farther to denote a measurable distance, which is how it occurs most often in her writing. She used further correctly also, which is indicative of something being “greater in quantity, time, or degree, and also means ‘moreover’.” (p.158). Not that I was surprised to be wrong.

I harp on this often, but if we’re to be taken seriously as writers, or if we’re going to expect it, then we ought to know how to ply our craft. This dictionary is an immense help in that regard and I highly recommend it—or something like it—for your reference shelf.