"The Dictionary of Disagreeable English," Robert Hartwell Fiske

Pros: Hilarious; fun; unbelievably informative
Cons: It’ll make you cringe (in shame!)
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 3/4/2005
Review book courtesy of F&W Publications/Writer’s Digest Books

I find the prospect of reviewing “The Dictionary of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon’s Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar,” by Robert Hartwell Fiske, intimidating. I know my grammar isn’t perfect. I know there are words that confuse me and constructions that boggle me. Thus, the prospect of reviewing a book by someone so accomplished at skewering those who misuse the English language is a little frightening; I’d hate to have my work viewed through his microscope.

However painful it would be to be the object of his scorn, however, it’s undeniably entertaining to see him take others to task. The “Dictionary” starts off with a lovely rant about “The Decline of the Dictionary,” in which Mr. Fiske bemoans the fact that so many dictionaries attempt to describe current usage, incorporating incorrect grammar and spelling, rather than setting down proper usage. He rips into Merriam-Webster with a long list of examples of “inexcusably shoddy dictionary making,” including the addition of “tho” as a variant spelling of “though” and the pronouncement that “flaunt” means the same as “flout” or “infer” means the same as “imply.”

Most of the book consists of a dictionary of misused, misspelled, and mispronounced words. Some of them surprised me; I was a little shocked to find out that, for example, people often misuse “accelerate” in place of “exhilarate.” Other entries made me cringe when I realized I’d been misusing them myself; I can’t remember any examples at the moment–I suspect I’ve blocked them out so as to spare myself the embarrassment of having to recount them in this review.

It would be enough to have this wonderfully useful dictionary at hand. I certainly plan to keep my copy near to where I work, so I can hopefully reduce the amount of “disagreeable English” to be found in my own writing. The book is made all the more entertaining, however, through the use of boxed examples from real writers’ and speakers’ work, always presented with an entertaining cartoon of a frustrated or exasperated “grammar curmudgeon.” The book is very recent–it was published in 2005–and it uses up-to-date examples that will appeal to the modern reader.

The only mild negative I can think of is that occasionally I wished for a little more clarification when two terms seemed very similar in meaning. The format typically consists of examples of the misusage, followed by an explanation of the differences between the words involved. Some of these entries would have benefited from further examples of the correct usage of the words in question.

“The Dictionary of Disagreeable English” is an entertaining and illuminating read, particularly for those who get frustrated by others’ bizarre grammar errors. It’s an invaluable reference work–one that I hope will clear up some of my own confusions. If you aren’t sure yet whether you could benefit from this book, then check out “The Vocabula Review,” which Mr. Fiske edits and publishes: http://www.vocabula.com/ This book is just plain fun for grammar curmudgeons and invaluable for those with imperfect grammar.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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