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How to Tell Fate from Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions Paperback – Illustrated, October 23, 2018

4.4 out of 5 stars 49 ratings

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Editorial Reviews


Nervous word-choosers, rejoice! In this part-thesaurus, part-hilarious manual of style, Elster breaks down the most common mistakes of the English language. Organized alphabetically, mix-ups range from homonyms to synonyms to incorrectly used turns of phrase, and Elster's explanations are not just extremely useful but riotously fun to read. He uses humor to help commit the rules of the word world to memory, even going so far as including illustrations to make certain distinctions crystal clear. For example, one drawing shows two creatures wielding swords to indicate "fight," while the same two creatures gesticulate wildly in the next drawing to illustrate "altercation." Elster investigates many classic confusions ("forward" vs. "foreword") but also makes an effort to highlight lesser-discussed blunders, like "rack" vs. "wrack" vs. "nerve-racking" vs. "nerve-wracking"; "spay" vs. "neuter"; and, for the really particular linguaphile, "squalid" vs. "sordid." This book is an entertaining and necessary addition to any shelf. It's perfect for writers looking to double-check their instincts but also for the everyday speaker looking to communicate with clarity and confidence. -- Courtney Eathorne (Booklist)

Elster's entertaining and instructive resource offers helpful suggestions for distinguishing between words often misused in conversation or writing. Elster points out that even professionals are vulnerable to error, as in this quote from the Guardian: "Tweets are stored on the device so you can keep reading even if you loose [lose] your phone signal." In each of the book's alphabetical entries, he includes two or more words that are confused, accompanied by clear examples and detailed explanations of the distinction between them. For instance, he writes, "to convince" means to "make someone believe something," while "to persuade" means "to make someone take action." The book includes entries both for words commonly used in conversation or writing--such as "amount, number"; "its, it's"--and for those less commonly used-- "capacious, commodious"; "auger, augur." Elster can be cheeky, as when he decries the use of "empathy" as a "trendy substitute" for "sympathy": "Sympathy is what you should feel for someone who displays a flashy word when an ordinary one is called for. Empathy is what you should feel when you've been making the same stupid mistake yourself." This appealing book will help readers over countless lexical stumbling blocks, and encourage clearer and more precise speaking and writing. -- Publishers Weekly

The author of this charming and useful book has made a career out of literary finesse. In his latest effort to "clarify the mind and general discourse," the "professional distinctioneer" offers witty, wise advice on the right way to deploy some of the English language's trickiest words, from a and an to zero, zeros, zeroes. An example: is Elster really the "author"? Or is he simply the "writer"? (See page 298.) Study Elster's distinctioneering and it will no longer be your fate to be a sloppy writer. Even if you thought it was your destiny. -- Yale Alumni Magazine

About the Author

CHARLES HARRINGTON ELSTER is a nationally recognized expert on the English language. He is the pronunciation editor of Black's Law Dictionary and a consultant for Garner's Modern English Usage. His articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications, and he has published twelve books on the English language for a general audience.

Product details

  • Publisher : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Illustrated edition (October 23, 2018)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1328884074
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1328884077
  • Item Weight : 14.4 ounces
  • Dimensions : 8 x 5.31 x 1.25 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.4 out of 5 stars 49 ratings

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