Word for Word

Title: Word for Word
Author: Stewart Clark & Graham Pointon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Consists of: A single volume
Reviewed by: Alex Case
Review date: July 2004

Word for WordThe first thing I should say about this book is that I learnt an awful lot from reading it, for example:

  • the original meaning of "endorse" was to write on the back
  • the spelling "email" is now more common than "e-mail"
  • "tuxedo" is American English for a white dinner jacket
  • a "duplex" is AE for a semi-detached house
  • the difference between "diagnosis" and "prognosis"
  • what "deliverables" means
  • the official name for "Seychelles" does not take the definite article
  • the difference between "syllabus" and "curriculum"
  • the difference between "contagious" and "infectious"
  • the various definitions of "a city" over the English-speaking world
  • when "Celtic" has an "s" sound
  • what "coach-class fares" are
  • where the expression "the bottom line" comes from
  • that "parentheses" only means round brackets
  • that "moped" comes from a blending of "motor" and "pedal"
  • that "feeling bullish" is connected to "a bull market"

I also learnt how to explain things I couldn't really explain before- such as the difference between "cellar" and "basement", "deceptive" and "deceitful", "contamination" and "pollution", "continual" and "continuous", "comical" and "comic", and "middle" and "centre". I should also say that I read through 60% of the entire book, even though it looks more like a reference book. As interesting as I found it myself, I did wonder whether any students could find it as readable and interesting as I did, and also how useful they might find it.

This book has 3000 (!) entries on mistakes in English that students might want to avoid. Most of the entries are pairs of easily confusable words such as "molten" and "melted". The problems it deals with include spelling, pronunciation, similar meanings, sexist and old-fashioned language, formality problems, differences between American and British English, expressions with ambiguous meanings that should be avoided, some common "false friends", punctuation, cliches and collocations. The entries are set out alphabetically, with 4 or 5 entries to a page. In addition, there are special boxes on topics such as "link words", which take up anything between 4 lines and a whole page.

To fit all of the above in 250 or so pages, there has obviously been a lot of selection of which points to choose- although, as the list of points I learnt about shows, these are not the most commonly heard questions from even high level General English students. How the points have been chosen is not instantly clear, and nothing on the book's cover or introduction gives any special clue. Only in looking closely at the bibliography and acknowledgements did I begin to see what students the publishers had in mind. The authors both work in universities in Norway, where they are obviously dealing with very high level students wanting Academic English and help with writing. This explains the major coverage given to points such as punctuation in academic papers. In my previous experience with such students, 50% of the questions they have and things they need correcting on are indeed things like this that most native speakers are also unsure about, such as the difference between "libel" and "slander". To answer such questions, the authors have referred to style guides for journalists and editors, as well as the obvious EFL sources such as Advanced learner's dictionaries and Michael Swan's Practical English Usage. The book does read somewhat like one of these writers' style guides (and quite a bit like Bill Bryson's "Troublesome Words"), but the authors have simplified the explanations well and added some more EFL-like descriptive information to the prescriptive rules. Examples of these "descriptive prescriptive rules" include: "in recent years 'convince' has started to mean 'persuade'" and "careful writers should avoid the comparatives 'more complete' and 'most complete'." A very unusual source is the ISO (which I only knew of as the organisation responsible for deciding exactly how much a kilogram is), which I assume is responsible for advice such as using spaces rather than commas when writing large numbers. The authors make use of cartoons and "amusing" errors to lighten the tone of all this serious information a little.

I really didn't have any students at all that I could try this book out on, but for people teaching very high level students, Academic English courses, writing courses, or who have particularly pedantic students, this book is recommended- both for the student's reference and as a reinforcement for the teacher. For this purpose, it is very easy to refer to and readable enough that people might find themselves browsing through it as well.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesAlex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.