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Book Review: That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

This book by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras is subtitled The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words And Their Tangled Histories. That’s a fair summary, but it could also be “Schadenfreude for Grammar Pedants.”

Not what you think cover with gordon meyer

This book discusses words that are commonly misused. Many of them are word pairs and often they are homonyms, in which case mistakes are somewhat understandable among those who don’t read very much. But many of them are just words that don’t get used very often. For example, some people confuse “podium” and “lectern.” In fact, until I read this book, I wasn’t completely sure how they are distinct. (Briefly, you stand on a podium, and behind a lectern.)

Another example is “per se,” which means intrinsically, but as the authors observe, “many people persist in sprinkling it incorrectly in their conversations, like a handful of croutons.” The authors also offer an interesting bit of trivia that the word “ampersand” derives from the phrase “and per se,” and alarmingly, Google reports that some ignoramuses are now writing “per say.”

“Peruse” is another word that stood out to me. It’s commonly misused to imply casual observation, but in fact means the opposite — to carefully examine.

The authors also discuss some regional differences, such as the word “revert,” which is commonly used in India to mean “reply.” Go figure. Just don’t try this at home. (Unless you happen live in India, in which case, even the O.E.D. says it’s OK.)

Two more examples: Oral means “pertaining to words,” and verbal means “spoken.” So if someone tells you to do something, they are giving you verbal instructions. And, a pair of oft-confused words that the disgraced Donald Trump might need to learn, venal means corrupt and venial means pardonable (usually relating to sin).

I can’t forget to mention that each word is accompanied by an example of where it has been used incorrectly. Interestingly, many of them are from the Huffington Post, but virtually no media or personality is spared. This alone will make this book appeal to self-appointed grammar police.

Finally, the production values of this book are outstanding. The binding, covers, design, and paper are of the highest quality. I know this an odd thing to mention, but this book just feels good to hold. I bought my copy at Judy Blume’s delightful Books & Books in Key West, but of course you can also find it the Amazon.


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