1001 Words: An A–Z of effective vocabulary

MH Manser (Oxford University Press, 2014), 166pp, £7.99 (pbk)
ISBN 978 0 19871 770 6

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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In 2010, when this book first came out, my review of it was favourable and, as it was reissued with a new cover, it must be selling well. However, do I recommend that you as an editor, proofreader or writer spend your money on this book? In short, no. This is because on reading it this time around – having forgotten that I’d ever seen the book before, let alone written a review of it – my opinion in a nutshell was ‘What a pity! Plenty of very helpful information, but arranged in such a way as to make it virtually impossible for the intended user to access.’ So, am I getting old and cynical, or what? Let me explain.

In 2010, I wrote that I expected to use the book – indeed, I was looking forward to doing so. But I haven’t done so. And this time around, I can see that the reason why I’d forgotten all about it is that it has a major flaw in its overall structure. If you’re going to use this book to help you, as promised by the blurb, ‘achieve greater success in written and spoken tasks’, when turning to it you’re either going to have a word in mind and want to check its meaning, or you’re not going to know what word you might use.

Let’s take the first scenario. If you had any sense – and especially, of course, if you’re an editor or proofreader – you’d go straight to the main, alphabetical listing, giving you the best chance of finding your word. But in the English language there are tens of thousands of words, and so despite the author’s knowledgeable and informed selection of words – and his very helpful information under each entry – there’s an overriding chance your chosen word won’t be in the book at all. After a few hits and misses, you’d probably revert to a dictionary.

So it seems that this is not the intended use of the book. We’re left, then, with the second scenario; you’re hoping to find a word to fill a gap. The ‘How to use this book’ section is clearly aimed at such a user. Following its guidance, you turn to the Contents page to decide which of the subjects you’re going to pick; this subject could be topic-based, such as ‘CVs’, or style-based, such as ‘Good qualities’. Here we have the first inkling of the problems ahead; whether the subjects are topic-based or style-based, they are mixed together, listed in alphabetical order. Well, almost – the last two are out of order. But that’s not a problem here, with just 16 subjects to choose from.

The next point at which the lack of planning makes itself evident follows swiftly. You’ve picked your subject, and are instructed to turn to a page at the back of the book to find it within the subject list … er, the back of the book? To me this positioning – presumably generated by the inappropriate labelling of the subject list as an index – is another indication of the muddled thinking that makes this book so difficult to use.

Next, there’s the problem of finding the correct subject within said index, because at first glance the pages appear to be unnumbered. On closer inspection, the numbers turn out to be in the gutter. Rather discouraging. Having found your subject index, you peruse the list of words – under each subject heading there are up to 500 words, on the basis that they’re relevant to said subject. Good!

But they’re listed in alphabetical order – fine if you knew what word you wanted, but not helpful when, as in this scenario, you don’t. Here’s a short excerpt from the Interviews subject list: interest, interpersonal, leadership, modest, multipurpose, panache, participate. I’ve been using reference books for my editing work since 1993 but, when trying to find a word in this list to fit a concept I have in mind, I find myself swiftly outfaced by the incongruence of ideas generated by the alphabetical listings. I’d be interested to hear if anyone, whatever the level of their expertise in the use of English, has managed to penetrate effectively the thickets of this ill-considered verbiage to find the treasures relevant to them within the main listing.

I could spend my time suggesting how to restructure the book so that its superb content is more accessible. I have some ideas. If OUP offers me a fee for doing that, I’ll gladly accept.

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