I was excited when I found out that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt wanted to send an advance reading copy of Charles Harrington Elster’s forthcoming book How to Tell Fate from Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions to Copyediting.com for a review. I’ve been a fan of Elster’s There’s a Word for It: A Grandiloquent Guide to Life for quite some time, cracking it open whenever I want to bask in the infinite variety of the English language.
In Fate from Destiny — part usage guide and part thesaurus, with a healthy dose of etymological dictionary — Elster clarifies some of the homophones, homographs, near synonyms, and other confusables that you’d expect from a usage guide — discreet and discrete or lose and loose, for example. But he also gives some next-level guidance on word choices you might not think of or even know exist. For example, where other usage guides might explain the difference between footnotes and endnotes, Elster includes an entry called footnote, endnote, marginalia, gloss, annotation, scholia — an impressive panoply of options. Other examples of unexpected elucidation include an entry for chuckle, giggle, cackle, chortle, titter, snicker, snigger, guffaw, cachinnate, and another one for shrew, Xanthippe, vixen, virago, termagant, harridan.
Being a book about “correct” usage, Fate from Destiny by necessity has a prescriptivist bent, which means seasoned editors and linguists will find something in here to disagree with. That’s true of all usage guides.
But Elster is no snoot. Throughout the book, you’ll find arguments for particular word distinctions along with Elster’s personal editorial preferences clearly marked as such (e.g., at different, differing: “My vote goes to different used for unlike or incompatible things, with differing being strictly reserved for people who differ, disagree”), as well as the acknowledgment that some usages aren’t settled and the reader must choose (e.g., at homonym, homophone, homograph: “I will give you some reliable guidelines, but after that, you’re on your own”) — the type of indefinite advice usage guide writers aren’t always comfortable giving.
That last example, along with the cartoon cover image, should give you an idea of the tone of and audience for the book. This is no academic reference text filled with the jargon of linguists, lexicographers, and grammarians. It’s written for the general public and is accessible to anyone who wants their writing to be both more interesting and more precise. Fate from Destiny also includes that most wonderful of features for books of this type — an index — making it a breeze to use.
Just before that index, Elster also includes a bibliographic list of authorities and sources quoted, which can be a great place to discover other great word books you might not know about. I’ve even heard that, ahem, some people plan to use it as a checklist for bulking up their own reference libraries.
How to Tell Fate from Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions won’t become a critical reference work for the professional copyeditor, but it was never meant to be. It’s a quick, handy, and interesting manual that’s more expansive than Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words (which seems to change titles with every new edition), more informative than a thesaurus, and more portable than Garner’s Modern English Usage.
It hits shelves on October 23, just in time for, I guess, Halloween?
SPOILER: Because I know some of my readers will be super curious about this:
Fate is an inevitable and often predetermined condition or outcome, especially a bad one resulting in destruction or death. … Your fate is your lot in life, the cards you were dealt and that you played. Destiny suggests an “invincible power conceived of as controlling human life and the operations of the universe.” … Your destiny is something that you may not understand but that you must find a way to interpret and accept.
This being an ARC, the exact wording of this passage is subject to change in the final printing.