Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Usage and Abusage

The book Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge is a practical guide to the English language. It is also a surprisingly enjoyable read.

Usage and Abusage was first published in 1942, but the clearness of the writing gives it a more contemporary feel. The ‘Popular Penguin’ edition was revised by Janet Whitcut in 1994.

Usage and Abusage is laid out like a dictionary: each entry describes the correct, or incorrect, use of a particular word or phrase. Unlike a dictionary, however, we hear the author’s voice speaking to us from within the entries:

arm for sleeve is sometimes condemned, but as this sense (a natural one, after all) is passed as blameless by OED, it certainly is good English.

It is clear that Eric Partridge loves the English language. He is passionate about its correct use, and this passion can make his opinions seem precious or even pretentious. However, having spent some time with this book, I have decided that Partridge’s intention was not to patronise his readers but to educate them.

Usage and Abusage will take you on a journey. You will open the book at random and find an entry that reads “insipid. see vapid,” and you will go to vapid to find out what’s going on.

The book includes some excellent lists. My favourite of these is ‘Group Terms’ which lists ‘nouns of assemblage or company’. Some of these are Partridge’s own inventions: a group of lawyers is a surplus.

His list of common tautological expressions also makes for enlightening reading.

The Popular Penguin edition of Usage and Abusage costs A$10. Bargain.

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