The Right Word: A writer’s toolkit of grammar, vocabulary and literary terms

Writers’ & Artists’ (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 408pp, £12.99
ISBN 978 1472 986 95 5

Reviewed by Carrie O’Grady

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No matter how many years’ editing you clock up, or how many courses you take, you’ll always have a blind spot. A word or phrase that you can never recall how to use correctly, even though you’ve looked it up umpteen times. To this day, I can’t tell you whether my children are ‘dependents’ or ‘dependants’, although I’ll confidently type out that they’re my descendants. Others stumble on the difference between ‘which’ and ‘that’, or ‘compare to’ and ‘compare with’. One writer I used to regularly edit would often use ‘obtuse’ when he meant some combination of abstruse, obscure, oblique and abstract. It wasn’t wrong, exactly, but it was always a worry; what if a reader thought he was calling something (or someone) stupid?

He could have used a book like The Right Word, which picks apart the finer points of English vocabulary, usage and punctuation in close detail. It’s something of a whistle-stop tour (pause while I check that’s not listed in the ‘clichés to avoid’ section), since there’s far too much material for the writers to cover any category comprehensively, or in depth. Aspiring writers should note that it’s not a textbook. To really learn all these terms and concepts would require some weeks of study, reinforced by exercises. Even then, it might not make you a better writer; you might gain more from taking a well-written novel and reading it three times over.

Editors, though, may well find the book useful as a quick reference, a memory-jogger. The first part is a condensed grammar primer, handy for when something ‘sounds wrong’ but you lack the terminology to tell the client why it needs to change. It covers the basics, but leaves out some present-day subtleties, such as the use of ‘they’ as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, which has proved so useful as we adjust to a wider range of gender identities beyond the binary him/her. (Indeed, I’ve noticed some amateur novelists defaulting to ‘their’ as a catch-all singular pronoun, even when the character it’s referring to is unambiguously male or female, and fictional, so unlikely to take offence.)

The second part is perhaps the strangest of the three: a ‘vocabulary builder’ that explains the nuances of various synonyms – explaining, for example, how ‘funny’ differs from ‘hilarious’ or ‘droll’. Leafing through it is quite interesting, but as a practical tool, it’s not terribly useful. There are fewer than 50 words in each group (nouns, verbs, adjectives), which barely scratches the surface. And they are arranged in such a way that you’re unable to look up most of the words.

Also worth dipping into is the section on word families, which draws your attention to words linked through their Greek or Latin roots. I had no idea that, creepily, ‘sarcophagus’ comes from the Greek root phagein, meaning ‘eat’: the Greeks believed a certain kind of stone consumed corpses, and accordingly used it for their coffins. Fiction editors may nod their heads appreciatively upon learning that ‘parabola’ comes from the same root as ‘parable’, suggesting that the arc of a story is intrinsic to its nature.

The section on literary terms will mainly prove useful to editors of poetry and higher-minded fiction. The casual browser, though, may be pleased to learn that Yoda’s mangling of word order (‘Much to learn, you still have!’) has a name: hyperbaton. And finally, no doubt everyone will benefit from familiarising themselves with the ‘misuse of words’ section, which covers such beastly bugbears as ‘enormity’, ‘decimate’ and ‘endemic’. (No sign of ‘obtuse’, though; was it too abstruse?)

In summary, this is an engaging reference book to flip through if you’re interested in the finer points of language and usage, but its scope is too wide to make it an essential reference. Like many such books, it leaves you filled with awe at the nuance and breadth of the English language, with an accompanying pang of sympathy for anyone tasked with learning it from scratch.

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