THE COLUMBIA GUIDE TO STANDARD AMERICAN ENGLISH, by Kenneth G. Wilson (Columbia University Press, 482 pp., $24.95). Those in search of the right word may find it in Kenneth Wilson's comprehensive but compact guide. In terse, often trenchant, alphabetical listings, Wilson defines the English language at many levels: written and spoken, formal and informal, American and British. He explains shades of meaning for related words and distinguishes between impeccably edited English and acceptable casual speech.
Purists will mourn the failure to reinforce pet distinctions such as the difference between "compared to" and "compared with," but this handbook seems likely to become a standard desk reference for anyone who wants to avoid "abusage."
Correct usage evolves. As Wilson makes clear, communication is more important than abstract correctness. In his summary on "Rules and Generalizations," he writes: "In much of English grammar, and almost always in English usage, you encounter not rules but generalizations that describe what conditions should govern your speech and writing. If the rule you break is truly a rule, you're likely not to communicate at all; if the generalization you break is fairly powerful, you may bring down much criticism on
your head, but rarely will you fail to communicate at all - although you may communicate some unflattering ideas about yourself."
DESCRIPTIONARY: A THEMATIC DICTIONARY, by Marc McCutcheon (Ballentine Books, 557 pp., $12 paper). If the word you are seeking is less a question of standards and more a matter of meaning, Marc McCutcheon's reference may be helpful. A kind of reverse dictionary, this glossary lists specific, sometimes highly technical, words in broad categories that are subdivided into narrower subgroups. "Transportation," for example, includes "Horse Drawn Carriages and Coaches of the 19th Century," where you will find 3 4 terms, from barouche to Victoria. Potentially useful for writers searching for the exactly right term, this reference also makes good browsing for readers who delight in linguistic serendipity.
THE DESCRIBER'S DICTIONARY, by David Grambs (W. W. Norton & Co., 412 pp., $22.95), also aims to help those trying to find a word they don't know (and therefore can't simply look up in a dictionary). But the focus here is the right adjective or descriptive language in each category chosen. And the added bonus is a selection of wonderful excerpts from the writings of a wide range of well-known authors. The complementary excerpts - a sentence or a short paragraph - are on the left-hand page, and the desc riptive words appear on the right-hand page, grouped under a general definition.
For example, the section called "Terrain and Landscape" opens with quotations from travel writers Bruce Chatwin, John McPhee, and Paul Theroux. The page opposite offers 11 concepts or images followed by one or more appropriate words. This novel combination may be more ingenious than practical, but it could inspire writers to freshen their prose.
THE AMERICAN HERITAGE COLLEGE DICTIONARY, THIRD EDITION (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1,630 pp., $21.95). Following the well-received unabridged American Heritage dictionary published last year, this more compact reference offers many attractive features: pictures in the side margins, narrow columns of clear type, erudite word histories, and helpful discussions of usage. Unlike the more liberal writer of The Columbia Guide to Standard American English discussed above, this dictionary's 173-member usage panel is
firmly holding the line on "compared to/with," insisting that "to" calls attention to similarities and "with" indicates that the speaker is noting differences. The publisher apparently hopes to compete with Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, the newest version of that best-selling desk reference (See story, above).
While the American Heritage provides a scholarly appendix on "Indo-European Roots," it lacks the handy biographical names list and gazetteer that have made Merriam-Webster a favorite with both copy editors and crossword-puzzle fans.