Book Review: Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors

Written by Jessie Laven; copy edited by Rebecca A. Coates

Review of “Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors ” by Bill Bryson (Doubleday Canada, 2008; Anchor Canada, 2009).

Image of the cover for Bill Bryson's book "Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors," which features one tall green book and a shorter blue book.

Bill Bryson is well known for his books on travel, science, history, and the English language. And this particular book of his, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, is an eclectic mix, reflecting the varied experiences of Bryson’s long and distinguished writing career. It’s different from his usual writings, and perhaps more dry, but no less valuable or insightful.

Before turning to writing, Bryson worked as an editor for several newspapers, including the Independent and the Times.  During this time, his manuscript began as a collection of notes that were assembled piece by piece over the years as he encountered questions or uncertainties. The resulting book is a useful guide for new writers and editors, answering questions they likely wouldn’t think to ask. It is driven by a desire to enlighten the reader and help them avoid common pitfalls.

Although titled as a dictionary, Bryson’s book is far from a complete reference book, nor is it intended as such. Bryson jokes that it might more accurately be called A Guide to Everything in English Usage That the Author Wasn’t Entirely Clear about until Quite Recently. The book highlights the idiosyncrasy of the English language and delights in its oddness. The topics are guided by Bryson’s unique interests and experiences in the industry rather than by a desire to systematically explore the English language. It features quotes from Hamlet, grammatical advice, and tips on how to address royalty. Some entries have only a few words or are included only to confirm a spelling. Others feature paragraphs of advice and information on usage.

Having seen this text as an e-book and as a paperback, I prefer the paperback version; it’s fun to crack it open to a random page and see what you can find. Arguably, the book has more in common with a coffee table book than a standard dictionary, as it’s better explored a few pages at a time, by dipping in and feeding your curiosity.

In some ways, this book is a little dated, as questions of spelling can now be answered with a quick search on Google, but this adds to its charm. It’s so much more than a dictionary—it provides a delightful insight into the workings of a very famous writer and skilled editor.

Fun facts

Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors has undergone many revisions since its first publication in 1984. Here are a few of its alternative titles:

  • The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words
  • The Facts on File Dictionary of Troublesome Words
  • Troublesome Words
  • Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right

When you flip through a copy of Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, you’ll see the range of subjects covered, from nonsense words in Shakespeare’s plays to the location of Napoleon’s tomb, as well as everything in-between.


Jessie Laven is based in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. Originally from England, she has a background in archaeology and museums and a passion for the written word.

Rebecca A. Coates is a freelance writer and copy editor who dies a little inside every time she sees “all right” spelled as one word. She has lived in Ontario, California, and Oregon, but Vancouver is her home, mostly because too much sunshine makes her burst into flames. She blogs about grammar—as well as aliens, werewolves, and pirates—at grammarlandia.com.

Image taken from publisher’s website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s