Vol. 8. No. 3 R-7 December 2004
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Word for Word

Stewart Clark and Graham Pointon (2003)
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pp. vi + 250
ISBN 019-4327558 (Paper)

Many English words sound alike ("iron" name of a metal and "ion" molecule), are spelled alike ("bat" flying mammal and "bat" implement used to hit the ball in cricket) or look alike ("suit" matching jacket and trousers for a man and "suite" set of rooms), but they have multiple, different meanings that need to be used in the right context in order to convey the desired message. When talking or writing, it may be difficult to choose between "to use" and "to utilize", or the apparently equivalent "ability" and "capacity". Indeed, it is not always easy, both for learners and for native speakers, to choose the right word and to be aware of the difference between similar choices. "English is full of traps which are easy to fall into" (p. iv): hence the book's focal point, namely, helping language users to get the right meaning by making the right lexical choice.

As the amount of confusing words is considerable, and as even English native speakers may end up mixing them up, this volume aims at giving guidance on style and usage as well as offering practical tips on how to speak and write English successfully at all levels. The selection policy of the book is clear: about 3000 of the most common problem words (soundalikes, lookalikes) have been collected and offered to the user. Entries are arranged in alphabetical order, which enables a user to find the word quickly; as well entries are presented in pairs or groups for easy comparison.

Information provided about each word includes phonology, (the pronunciation of the word and its possible and most confusing variants in British and American English), syntax, semantics, context (example sentences and usage tips showing how words are used in everyday life), spelling (including the normal and relevant variant spellings of a word in British and American English), and usage, such as levels of formality and frequency. Typical mistakes (grammatical errors or incorrect choice of vocabulary) are graphically highlighted by placing a red triangle next to an example, attracting the attention of the user to what should be avoided. Finally, numerous tinted boxes offer practical notes on different aspects of language and culture. They include remarks on the most risky topics related to grammar, punctuation tips, register and style, but also include instructions and information on CV writing, false friends, sexist language, culture-specific issues (such as currency units, measurements, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree, use of titles and many other issues). All the topics are dealt with in a concise and clear way, which enables the user to get enough information to get by.

The book is handy and well structured: a concise introduction opens the volume; it illustrates its specific purpose as a tool that guides the reader towards the correct usage of several very similar words in English. A concise note on how to use the book helps the reader use it in a proper way and to exploit it to the best. A guide to pronunciation points out the choice of the authors to use the alphabet of the International Phonetic Association (IPA), and lists the IPA symbols followed by sample words illustrating the sound; a few notes about the phonetic conventions used by the authors complete this section. After the bulk of the work, a short bibliography, an index of all the words (and topics) defined in the book and a list of the usage notes on language and culture close the volume and make it a user-friendly tool that helps second-language learners develop an awareness of English vocabulary. [-1-]

The book is addressed to different groups of users who need to avoid the pitfalls of the English language when they talk and write; it is a very valuable guide for intermediate and advanced students and for those learning English as a second or foreign language. It is also recommended for native speakers and teachers of English and it is highly suitable for use as a handbook that leads users to reach independence in mastering vocabulary and in increasing the amount of lexical items of learners.

Word for Word, which represents an important tool for the study of English lexicology as the study of lexis, is not a totally comprehensive dictionary--no one is indeed (Jackson & Amleva, 2000)--but is a concise, very selective dictionary. It is a practical repository of problem words with an extensive amount of real language examples of spoken and written English that enables users to better master words--their pronunciation, forms and meanings--and understand vocabulary in context. This is a very important step towards active mastery of English that can be enhanced by considering the combinatory possibilities of words which can occur with a fixed range of other words to form collocations (cf. RILA 2003, Benson et al.1997).

The pleasant and functional visual impact and coupling of colours, as well as the well-studied layout make it enjoyable and easy to flip through, which leads the eye directly to the relevant sections. That is why the book is a must in the student's and in the teacher's library, as well as in the native speaker's one.


Benson, M., Benson, E., & Ilson, R. (Eds.) (1997). The BBI dictionary of English word combinations (Revised Edition). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.

Jackson, H. & Amvela, E. (2000). Words, meaning and vocabulary: An introduction to modern English lexicology. London: Continuum

Prandi, M. (2004). The building blocks of meaning: Ideas for a philosophical grammar. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.

RILA [Rassegna Italiana di Linguistica Applicata], (2003). Special Issue [Il Lexical Approach: una proposta utile?] Anno XXXV No. 1-2 (Jan. - Aug.).

Elisa Perego
University of Pavia

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