Jumping off from this trans-Atlantic difference, the website includes a diagnostic quiz, which says, "If you don't get the questions right, this is the book you need." But seven of ten "usage" differences are simply spelling variations.
The physical book itself is a lovely hardback with a glossy cover, high-quality paper, and a thoughtful use of type faces. It appears sturdy and would likely endure a good deal of use.
And the contents then? I don't plan to actually read the book cover to cover, so the following observations will be somewhat scattered:
- On the positive side, Peters doesn't begin by assuming that you know what she's talking about. The entry for passive verbs, for example, is broken into three sections: 1 the grammar of the passive, 2 style in the passive, and 3 the passive in scientific writing, with part 1 being a reasonable explanation of what a passive verb is: "one in which the subject undergoes the process or action expressed in the verb."
- If we jump over to see what a subject is, however, we run into the usual problems: "the person or thing which operates the verb." This definition simply cannot logically coexist with the definition of the passive given above. Fortunately, the book does go beyond that, though, to mention that the subject governs subject-verb agreement.
- Skipping back to the entry for passive, we find that Peters repeats the general slander against this maligned voice. Passive clauses, "are not the stuff of lively narrative when you want to know who is doing what. Used too often as in some academic and official styles, they make for dreary reading." She at least admits that the passive has its place, but she gives no examples of these dreary passives. The only examples she does give seem contrived: "The employment of staff with less than six months service will be terminated" is said to be better than, "We, the senior management, will terminate the employment of staff with less than six months service."
- On the same spread as passive is an entry for parvenu or parvenue. Apparently this is one of the 4,000 entries that Peters though was disputed enough to include. To be honest, I don't think I'd even met the word before. The COCA says it occurs about 5-15 times per 100 million words with the BNC being at the upper range of that. So, hardly a common word. But is this actually a smouldering question: parvenu or parvenue? Hmm... (Mind you, it's not like this kind of trivial point seems to be displacing weightier issues. Never did I think to look something up only to find it not addressed.)
- I asked my wife what to look up, and she suggested conditionals. There is indeed a short entry on conditionals, though oddly enough it seems to focus on French and Italian, viz, "English verbs have no conditional forms, and instead the modal verb would is commonly used to translate conditionals from French and Italian," (should you have the opportunity to do so...). The entry goes on to say, "conditional statements in English are often attached to a conditional clause, prefaced by if, unless or provided that, which are a type of adverbial clause." I'm not sure whether this is a subject-verb agreement error (i.e., *a conditional clause are a type of adverbial) or a factual error (i.e., if, unless or provided that, which are a type of adverbial clause).
- As I typed viz, above, I thought, "now here's a chance to put this book to use." I looked it up, and learned that the z is actually the printer's substitute for ezh (ʒ), an abbreviation for -et. Interesting, but what I really wanted to know was, should I italicize it?
- The entry for logogram, logograph, logotype, and logo is pretty much all news to me, but ignores the meaning I do know: the type of writing system exemplified by Chinese characters (e.g., 手 is the logograph for hand). On the same page, we find loony or loonie, which correctly describes the situation here in Canada (loony = adj. crazy, loonie = n. one dollar coin.)
- The entry for decimate is generally quite good with clear examples showing the reduce-by-10% sense, the reduce-to-10% sense, and the more common, but less mathematical, meaning, along various others.
- Ravage or ravish is also well done. Of ravish, Peters writes, "the two kinds of meaning have their respective clichés in ravished virgins and ravished audiences, which are symptomatic of the fact that the word is usually either euphemistic or hyperbolic."