Authors: Bill Bryson
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
? Do I write
? What's the difference between a cardinal number and an ordinal number? Is it
Reef National Park or
Reef National Park? What did Belize used to be called? Doesn't Calcutta have a new name now? (It doesâKolkata.) What do we now call the Chinese river that I knew in my school days as the Hwang Ho? In short, what are the answers to all those points of written usage that you kind of know or ought to know but can't quite remember?
It is a personal collection, built up over thirty years as a writer and editor in two countries, and so inevitablyâinescapablyâit reflects my own interests, experiences, and blind spots. You may not need, as I do, to be reminded that it is Anjelica Huston but Whitney Houston, or have occasion at any point in your life to write the name of the district of Sydney known gloriously and unimprovably as Woolloomooloo. But I very much hope that what follows is broad enough and general enough to be frequently useful to nearly everyone.
To keep it simple, I have freely resorted to certain short cuts. Pronunciations have been simplified. I have scorned the International Phonetic Alphabet, with its dogged reliance on symbols such as ?, e
, on the grounds that hardly anyone readily comprehends them, and instead I have attempted to convert tricky pronunciations into straightforward phonetic equivalents. Often these are intended as no more than rough guidesâanyone who has ever heard the throat-clearing noise that is a Dutchman pronouncing
(the formal name of The Hague) will realize what a feebly approximate thing my suggested version isâand I unhesitatingly apologize for any shortcomings in this respect.
I have also been forced on occasion to be arbitrary over spelling. Dictionaries are sometimes remarkably out of step with the rest of the world on certain matters of usage and orthographyâin this respect I can cite no better example than the
Oxford English Dictionary
's interesting but lonely insistence that
should be spelled
âbut there is usually a rough consensus, which I have sought to follow, though I try always to note alternatives when they are freely accepted.
I have tried also to keep cross-references to a minimum. In my view one of the more grating irritants of research is to hunt through several pages looking for “KhayyÃ¡m, Omar,” only to be told “See Omar KhayyÃ¡m.” So I have frequently put such information not only where it should be but also where a hurried reader might mistakenly look for it. The price for this is a certain repetition, for which I additionally apologize.
Some issues of styleâwhether you should write
, for instanceâhave been deliberately excluded. Such matters often are so overwhelmingly a question of preference, house style, or fashion that my choices would be simply that: my choices. I would suggest that in such instances you should choose what seems most sensible, and strive to be consistent.
In the updating and typing of this new edition, I am hugely indebted to Meghan Bryson and Felicity Bryson Gould, respectively my daughter-in-law and daughter, for their unstinting and good-natured help, and as always I am especially indebted to my dear wife, Cynthia, for her patience and support throughout.
City in Germany; in French, Aix-la-Chapelle.
Errors involving the indefinite articles
are almost certainly more often a consequence of haste and carelessness than of ignorance. They are especially common when numbers are involved, as here: “Cox will contribute 10 percent of the equity needed to build a $80 million cable system” or “He was assisted initially by two officers from the sheriff's department and a FBI agent.” When the first letter of an abbreviation is pronounced as a vowel, as in “FBI,” the preceding article should be
City in Denmark; in Danish, Ã rhus.
Toward the stern, or rear, of a ship.
(1935â) President of Palestinian National Authority (2005â).
American Broadcasting Companies (note plural), though the full title is no longer spelled out. It is now part of the Walt Disney Company. The television network is ABC-TV.
Abdulaziz International Airport, King,
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
(1947â) American basketball player; born Lew Alcindor.
Former capital of CÃ´te d'Ivoire.
(Lat.) “From the cradle.”
The concept that living matter can arise from nonliving matter; spontaneous generation.
In adding this suffix to a verb, the general rule is to drop a silent
) except after a soft
) or sibilant
). When a verb ends with a consonant and a
) change the
). Verbs ending in
drop that syllable before adding
There are no reliable rules for knowing when a word ends in
and when in
see Appendix for a list of some of the more frequently confused spellings.
(Lat.) “From the beginning.”
In the Old Testament, third son of David.
Novel by William Faulkner (1936).
Capital city of and state in the United Arab Emirates.
Capital of Nigeria.
Egypt; site of temples built by Ramses II.
Former name of Ethiopia.
French literary society of forty members who act as guardians of the French language; in English contexts,
is usually capitalized.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Institution responsible for the Oscars.
Singing without musical accompaniment.
Mexico. Officially, Acapulco de JuÃ¡rez.
Accademia della Crusca.
Italian literary academy.
Grace note in music.
Very often misspelled: note-
Capital of Ghana.
(1893â1971) American diplomat and politician; secretary of state, 1949â1953.
King of the Myrmidons, most famous of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War.
means tart or acidic.
Mountain in the Andes in Argentina, highest peak (at 22,835 feet; 6,960 meters) in the Western Hemisphere.
Portuguese spelling of
As a science, the word is singular (“Acoustics was his line of work”). As a collection of properties, it is plural (“The acoustics in the auditorium were not good”).
acquit, acquittal, acquitted.
A unit of land measuring 43,560 square feet, 4,840 square yards; equivalent to 4,047 square meters, 0.405 hectare.
is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of a group of words, as in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
Writing in which the first, and sometimes the last, letter of each line spells a word when read vertically; a type of word game based on the same principle.
In Greek mythology, a hunter who is turned into a stag by Artemis after he spies her bathing.
Often a sign of prolixity, as here: “The warnings followed a week of earthquake activity throughout the region.” Just make it “a week of earthquakes.”
These two are sometimes confused, which is a little odd, as their meanings are sharply opposed.
pertains to lingering conditions, ones that are not easily overcome.
refers to those that come to a sudden crisis and require immediate attention. People in the Third World may suffer from a chronic shortage of food. In a bad year, their plight may become acute.
(Lat.) “The year of the Lord.”
should be written before the year (
25) but after the century (fourth century
) and is usually set in small caps. See also
Even the most careful users of English frequently, but unnecessarily, refer to an “old adage.” An adage is by definition old.
Slowly, slow movement. Pl.
The first is one who adapts (as in a book for theatrical presentation); the second is the device for making appliances work abroad and so on.
(1912â1988) American cartoonist, long associated with
The New Yorker
(1860â1935) American social activist and reformer; Nobel Peace Prize 1931.
Capital of Ethiopia.
Capable of being proved.
(1866â1944) American playwright.
(1876-1967) West German chancellor (1949-1963).
(Lat.) Toward this, for a particular purpose.
(Lat.) Without limit, to infinity.
, “at will.”
, “at the place.” Note period after
Series of yachting races held every two years.
is nearly always wrong. You admit a misdeed; you do not admit to it.
To the point of nausea.
American depository (not
) receipt. A financial instrument.
is the preferred spelling, but
is common but always redundant. All planning must be done in advance.
means hostile and antagonistic (think of
means reluctant or disinclined (think of
In Greek mythology, the island inhabited by Circe.
Area of the Mediterranean between Greece, Turkey, and Crete.
Town and island off the southeastern coast of Greece.
Epic poem by Virgil.
Group of islands off northeastern Sicily; also called Lipari Islands.
Greek god of winds.
Former Peruvian national airline; ceased business in 1999.
French aviation company.
One of the lower levels of the atmosphere.
(c. 525âc. 450
) Greek playwright.
(Grk.). Roman and Greek god of medicine.
is normally the preferred spelling, though
Afars and Issas, French Territory of.
Former name of Djibouti.
affaire de coeur.
(Fr.) Love affair.
(Fr.) A duel.
As a verb,
means to influence (“Smoking may affect your health”) or to adopt a pose or manner (“He affected ignorance”).
as a verb means to accomplish (“The prisoners effected an escape”). As a noun, the word needed is almost always
(as in “personal effects” or “the damaging effects of war”).
as a noun has a narrow psychological meaning to do with emotional states (by way of which it is related to
In music, to play with feeling.
denotes a mutual relationship. Strictly, one should not speak of someone or something having an affinity for another, but rather with or between.
In music, speeding up.
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
(Lat.) With even stronger reason, all the more so.
The first is a language; the second a group of people.
). (1946â) President of Eritrea.
Chemical symbol for silver.
(Ger.) Roughly equivalent to
In Greek mythology, king of Argos and commander of the Greek army in the Trojan War; also (in italics) the title of a play by Aeschylus, the first part of the
Agassiz (Jean) Louis (Rodolphe).
(1807-1873) Swiss-born American naturalist.
(Fr.) To the left.