Bugs in Writing:
A Guide to Debugging Your Prose

Lyn Dupré

Addison-Wesley 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995 http://dannyreviews.com/
Bugs in Writing contains 150 sections, each offering advice on an aspect of writing. Some deal with questions of word choice, punctuation, and syntax; others give advice on things as practical as writing a dissertation, preparing visual aids for presentations, or overcoming writer's block. Bugs is designed for browsing rather than use as a reference work: the sections are randomly arranged and there is no proper index, only conceptual and alphabetical lists of the section titles. Bugs is aimed at computer people, but almost all of it is applicable to those in other scientific and technical disciplines and most of it is quite general.

I found parts of Bugs in Writing useful, but overall I thought it a rather poor work. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it makes no attempt either to use underlying principles of grammar and syntax or to teach them, giving it a very ad hoc feel, as if it were simply papering over the cracks in narrowly scientific educations. I also found the use of large print, the long lists of examples and the categorisation of sentences as Bad, Ugly, Good or Splendid somewhat patronising. This wouldn't be so bad, except that other things in the volume make it unsuitable for primary school children. A compensating feature is that Dupré has a good sense of humour and has picked some amusing examples.

Judging by Dupré's introduction, she does understand that grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but she is still prepared to write "a split infinitive constitutes a grammatical error". This is just wrong (pedants are referred to Pinker's The Language Instinct). I actively disagree with many of her usage suggestions, too: I can live with preferring "one-half of" to "half", but "Max went hiking for 1/2 an hour" is ugly, while "Cosmo grabbed the bigger moiety of the cookie" is just bizarre. (I didn't know "moiety" was used outside anthropology; most people I ask don't know the word at all.) I am a strong believer in gender-neutral language, but I thought "parentboard" was just a joke, while there must be less verbose alternatives to "manhole" than "subterranean-access lid"!

There are some good things in Bugs in Writing, but I can't recommend it.

October 1995

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Related reviews:
- books about the English language
- books published by Addison-Wesley
%T Bugs in Writing
%S A Guide to Debugging Your Prose
%A Dupré, Lyn
%I Addison-Wesley
%D 1995
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0201600196
%P xxxiii,649pp