The Little Book of Confusables a review

The beauty of the English language is that it’s messy. A glorious mash-up of French, German, Latin, borrowed Hindi and more, English is basically a series of languages stacked in a raincoat. Elegantly chaotic. It’s no wonder that with so many words that look and sound alike, we get confused. 

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Sarah Townsend’s excellent new book, The Little Book of Confusables. Sarah’s previous book, Survival Skills for Freelancers, is one of my most used books and is permanently bookmarked and filled with post-it notes on my desk.

The Little Book of Confusables is a handy guide to swerving around language accidents that get the better of all of us. Do you mix up your homophones and homographs? Or maybe you get your homonyms tangled with your malapropisms. Confused? Don’t be.

The book’s tagline says it all: “Simple spelling and usage tips to help smart people avoid stupid mistakes”. When I first sat down to make notes on the book, I actually ended up filling pages of my notebook with my own confusables:

  • Adverse vs Averse
  • Affect vs Effect
  • License vs Licence
  • Practice vs Practise
  • Sleight vs Slight
  • Uncharted vs Unchartered

Why do we get these confused? For a start, some of them sound the same out loud — those are your homophones. All it takes is for you to use the wrong word once or twice and you’ve invented a language rule in your head. Without giving away the finer details, The Little Book of Confusables clears up the differences between lookalike and soundalike words, and the silly mistakes and misheard expressions we’re all familiar with.

As a kid, I used to keep a notebook of all the words I loved and couldn’t wait to use in something, whether it was a conversation or an essay. If you’re like me — a giant nerd cosplaying as an adult — you’ll love how easy the book is to dip into and learn a little snippet of knowledge.

This book is for anyone and everyone who works with, or is fascinated by words and language. I imagine writers with English as a second language would find it helpful too, as the book clearly untangles some of the silliest mix-ups in English.

Instead of furiously Googling the difference between ‘license’ and ‘licence’, you can just flip through the book. There are even handy tips for remembering the confusables in real life. I bet you didn’t know that most of the confusables with ‘-ce’ suffixes are the nouns and ‘-se’ suffixes are the verbs. Now I do, and so do you.

Other useful things:

  • Sarah’s written a handy guide that helps you and doesn’t berate you.
  • the tone is reassuring and warm and makes you feel like you’re learning something useful and easy to remember.
  • the book is dainty and travel-sized — or pocket-sized, depending on how big your pockets are.
  • The Little Book of Confusables has a bright mustard yellow front cover and colour co-ordinates with my office. Win-win.

English is equal parts fun, complex, and completely lawless (I’m looking at you, ‘Flammable’ and ‘Inflammable’ being synonyms — that’s just rude).

Even the most accomplished writers have a list of confusables, and even if you don’t, you can still pore* over Sarah’s book and find delightful anecdotes featuring Wario, a damp squid and a lead ashtray. I definitely recommend The Little Book of Confusables as a must-have for any writer’s desk.

*I actually used the wrong ‘pour’ while drafting. Confusables happen to us all!

PS. If you want a signed copy of the book — and honestly, why wouldn’t you? — you can get yours here.

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