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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Jim Terry still rules the words in Show Me the Errors contest

By Maggie Walter
June 3, 2011 | 4:38 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — When I decide it's time to write a "bucket list," one of the top listings will be to meet Bill Bryson in person rather than just on the pages of his delightful books.

Back when I lived in New Hampshire, a neighbor, known for his love of hunting and a personality writ large, insisted that I read Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail."

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Knowing that Paul would rather spend hours in the deep forests than indoors to read a book was the tip-off that Bryson was offering something good.

And, he was. If you haven't had a chance to explore this record of a romp up the Appalachian Trail, give yourself a treat and read it to see if you, too, recall the spirit of Mark Twain in Bryson's writing.

Another worthy read is his general science book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything." It has won numerous awards from the scientific community. Bryson doesn't claim the book is perfect and has posted a list of nine reported errors in the book. Errors or not, it's admirable for its scope and conversational tone.

Soon after, I devoured other Bryson books, but it was just this spring that two more came into focus: "Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors" and "Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting it Right." 

Wit and logic abound in both books. In "Bryson's Dictionary," for example, here is his definition and advice for the word nemesis:

"A nemesis (from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of vengeance) is not merely a rival or traditional enemy, but one who exacts retributive justice or is utterly unvanquishable."

For demise in "Troublesome Words":

"But fears about the demise of the U.S. economy look exaggerated. ... They would just about have to. Demise does not mean decline, as is all too often thought. It means death. It applies to things that no longer exist."

We can only hope for the demise of the misuse of the word.

Both books are rich with similar examples and cheerful explanations of grammar and word usage tips.

Bryson is well qualified to write on such topics. While living in England for about 20 years, he worked as a copy editor (or subeditor, as the British refer to the job) and later was a copy desk chief for the business section of The Times. He returned to the U.S. for about a decade and lived in New Hampshire in the sublime community of Hanover. Bryson has since returned to England, and in 2005, he was appointed chancellor of Durham University.

If it sounds as if I have a crush — of the intellectual variety, that is — on Bryson, well, so be it. But as much as I admire his writing, it's that website listing of the errors in "A Short History of Nearly Everything" that seals the deal. 

That's the spirit of transparency espoused by the ColumbiaMissourian.com and its Show Me the Errors contest.

Started in October, the contest offers prizes — Roy Peter Clark's "The Glamour of Grammar" and a Missourian coffee cup — to readers who report errors they find at ColumbiaMissourian.com. There's a box at the end of each article to make it easy to submit entries.

For the May contest, our stalwart contestant, Jim Terry, takes the prizes with 43 submissions. Overall, there were 78 submitted corrections. Terry has now won seven times in the eight months of the contest.

I think Terry and Bryson would like each other, too.

If I ever get to meet Bryson face to face, I'll try to set it up so Terry could come along — it would be a meeting of the minds, I'm sure.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at the Missourian. She is also a former county spelling bee contestant, who was a bit peeved at her co-workers who wouldn't let her switch the television from women's softball to the National Spelling Bee competition.