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Check out this wonderful advance review from Booklist:


Nervous word-choosers, rejoice! In this part-thesaurus, part-hilarious manual of style, Elster breaks down the most common mistakes of the English language. Organized alphabetically, mix-ups range from homonyms to synonyms to incorrectly used turns of phrase, and Elster's explanations are not just extremely useful but riotously fun to read. He uses humor to help commit the rules of the word world to memory, even going so far as including illustrations to make certain distinctions crystal clear. For example, one drawing shows two creatures wielding swords to indicate fight, while the same two creatures gesticulate wildly in the next drawing to illustrate altercation. Elster investigates many classic confusions (forward vs. foreword) but also makes an effort to highlight lesser-discussed blunders, like rack vs. wrack vs. nerve-racking vs. nerve-wracking; spay vs. neuter; and, for the really particular linguaphile, squalid vs. sordid. This book is an entertaining and necessary addition to any shelf. It's perfect for writers looking to double-check their instincts but also for the everyday speaker looking to communicate with clarity and confidence.

— Courtney Eathorne

Here's a lovely endorsement from the Yale Alumni Magazine (Jan/Feb 2019):


The author of this charming and useful book has made a career out of literary finesse. In his latest effort to "clarify the mind and general discourse," the "professional distinctioneer" offers witty, wise advice on the right way to deploy some of the English language's trickiest words, from a and an to zero, zeros, zeroes. An example: is Elster really the "author"? Or is he simply the "writer"? (See page 298.) Study Elster's distinctioneering and it will no longer be your fate to be a sloppy writer. Even if you thought it was your destiny.

And here's a great advance review from Publishers Weekly:

Elster’s entertaining and instructive resource offers helpful suggestions for distinguishing between words often misused in conversation or writing. Elster points out that even professionals are vulnerable to error, as in this quote from the Guardian: “Tweets are stored on the device so you can keep reading even if you loose [lose] your phone signal.” In each of the book’s alphabetical entries, he includes two or more words that are confused, accompanied by clear examples and detailed explanations of the distinction between them. For instance, he writes, “to convince” means to “make someone believe something,” while “to persuade” means “to make someone take action.” The book includes entries both for words commonly used in conversation or writing—such as “amount, number”; “its, it’s”—and for those less commonly used—“capacious, commodious”; “auger, augur.” Elster can be cheeky, as when he decries the use of “empathy” as a “trendy substitute” for “sympathy”: “sympathy is what you should feel for someone who displays a flashy word when an ordinary one is called for. Empathy is what you should feel when you’ve been making the same stupid mistake yourself.” This appealing book will help readers over countless lexical stumbling blocks, and encourage clearer and more precise speaking and writing.

Finally, here's how one reader who posted a favorable Amazon review of How to Tell Fate from Destiny explained it to his seventh-grade daughter: "See honey, this is what we call a reference book. It's what we used to have before the internet."


Available in print and audio (narrated by Charlie). This is a draft cover. The published subtitle is "Building a Muscular Vocabulary in 10 Easy Steps."

"Another great book from Elster."
— T. Dreiling, in a five-star review at Amazon.com

"Yet another gem from the inimitable Charles Harrington Elster."
— Noor-Allah Noorani, in a five-star review at Amazon.com

"Charles Harrington Elster is a master of the English language and the top authority on vocabulary building. You won't find anything nearly as helpful as Word Workout. His interwoven advice on usage and style is also invaluable." — Jeremy D. Sexton, in a five-star review at Amazon.com

"Engaging narrative . . . fun mental flexing for those seeking alternatives to sudoku and crossword puzzles." — Library Journal

Of the audio edition of Word Workout, blogger Sara Strauss says that "Charles Harrington Elster's soothing and professorial voice . . . makes it easy to pay attention and makes it seem like you're taking a fun college class."

The Accidents of Style:
Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly

New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010.
(ISBN 978-0-312-61300-6)
Click on the title to read the introduction to the book.

"Sensible advice for both aspiring writers and word lovers."
— Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

Here's what my colleagues are saying about The Accidents of Style:

The Accidents of Style is eminently readable. And if you’re one of us who can’t always remember the difference between eminently and imminently—and more than 350 other thorny usage questions—you’ll want to buy it and keep it near. It is useful, nuanced—and funny, too.”
— Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax

“This book is perfect for people who want to take their prose from the pothole-filled side streets to the Autobahn. You’ll learn how to avoid errors, barbarisms, redundancies, and other drags on your style. It’s an essential addition to any language lover’s collection. After I read it, I felt like I’d just had my writing engines tuned by a master mechanic. The Accidents of Style is essential for anyone who’s serious about the written word.”
— Martha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us (Sic)

"The Accidents of Style by Charles Harrington Elster is a volume every writer should have at hand. It will help you polish your prose, express your ideas more clearly, and avoid numerous errors."
— Don Hauptman, author of Cruel and Unusual Puns and Acronymania

What in the Word?
Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions About Language

New York, San Diego: Harcourt, 2005.
(ISBN 0-15-603197-3)
Click on the title to read the book's introduction.

"Entertaining as well as informative. . . . Fun reading for verbomaniacs." — Booklist

Are you so sure about the plural of octopus or the difference between i.e. and e.g.? Do you know which word in the English language has the most definitions, or who put the H in Jesus H. Christ?

If you don't, be assured that Charles Harrington Elster does, and he tells all in this entertaining collection of provocative questions and authoritative answers about word and phrase origins, slang, proper style and usage, punctuation, and pronunciation. Every chapter features original brainteasers, challenging puzzles, and a trove of literary trivia, so be prepared to play while you read.

"Delightfully funny and informative. Every page is filled with amazing and amusing facts about our quirky language. The Wordbook of the Year!"
— Sol Steinmetz, author of Semantic Antics and coauthor of Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish

"This book is at once authoritative and lively. Elster knows how to have fun."
— Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner's Modern American Usage

"A cornucopia of linguistic fun. Fill your horn!"
— Anu Garg, creator of wordsmith.org

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations:
The Complete Opinionated Guide
for the Careful Speaker

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999, 2005.
(ISBN-13: 978-0-618-42315-6 ISBN-10: 0-618-42315-X)
Click on the title to read the introductions to the first and second editions.

"The best survey of the spoken field in years."
— William Safire, The New York Times Magazine, writing of the first edition in 1999

"The most readable, sensible and prescriptive guide to the words that trip us up . . . bang your shoe on the bookseller's desk until he orders it."
— William Safire, The New York Times Magazine, writing of the second edition in December 2005

This book is one man's informed opinion, based on a variety of reputable sources, about the proper pronunciations of hundreds of commonly mispronounced words and names. Here you will find some straight talk on where the stress should fall in harass(ment). You will find out why so many say nucular instead of nuclear, why you should think twice about sounding the "t" in often, and why the pronunciation for-TAY for forte (strong point) is a pretentious blunder. Words that unnerve or trip up many educated speakers—deluge, heinous, milieu, niche, plethora, clandestine, machination, philatelist, unequivocally, assuage, and zoology are but a few examples—you will pronounce hereafter with quiet confidence. In short, you will see how to air is human, to ur divine.

Test of Time: A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT

New York, San Diego: Harcourt, 2004.
(ISBN 0-15-601137-9)
Click on the title to read an excerpt from the book and
a review by Glenda Winders of Copley News Service

Q: What's better than a whole pile of loathsome test-preparation books?

A: The captivating SAT and ACT vocabulary-building novel Test of Time.

That's right. High school students can painlessly prepare for the SAT and ACT by reading this comedy-adventure novel featuring the inimitable Mark Twain transported via the Internet from 1883 to the 21st-century campus of a prestigious New England university. More than 2,000 essential test words are used in context, highlighted in boldface, and defined in a convenient back-of-the-book glossary.

"TEST OF TIME is a delight — an engaging, imaginative, beautifully written tour de force that pays homage most appropriately to the author who knew that 'the difference between the almost right word and the right word' is 'the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.' As lively and entertaining as it is educational, this is a book Mark Twain himself would have enjoyed."
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English and director of American Studies, Stanford University, editor of The Oxford Mark Twain, and author of Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture

"I am an SAT tutor and have found this book . . . valuable to my students. Charles Harrington Elster is a master of his craft; unlike some other books of this type, his vocabulary and grammar are impeccable. As a result, this book is very well written. What a great idea for a book — Mark Twain in 21st-century college America. Test of Time is informative and entertaining."
— posted at www.teen-books.com

"This compelling story . . . cleverly illuminates more than 2,000 essential test words by using them in context. If there's a college-bound youth in your life, this book will enable their comprehension by incorporating frequently encountered vocabulary words in a fast-reading story about the exploits of four college students and a garrulous, time-traveling Mark Twain. Exercises and a comprehensive glossary are incorporated, but the brilliance of this test aid is the fun, fast-reading tall tale. Highly recommended!"
— www.goodadvicepress.com

"Though a late learner in my forties, I bought this book a few years ago. . . . I've loved this unputdownable book for the plot, humour, wit and much more. This book was so brilliantly written that I bought other books by the same author, Charles Harrington Elster."
— Happy-go-lucky on Amazon.com

Tooth and Nail: A Novel Approach to the SAT

Written with Joseph Elliot.
San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1994.
(ISBN 0-15-601382-7)
Click on the title to read an excerpt from the book.

Say goodbye to word lists and read your way to a stronger SAT vocabulary!

Tooth and Nail is a full-length mystery novel designed to teach the words that appear again and again on the SAT. The book's "novel approach" represents a complete break from the boring SAT-preparation methods of the past. Instead of struggling to learn SAT words by rote, students can easily learn them the natural way, in context. A handy glossary in the back of the book allows the reader to instantly check definitions.

Tooth and Nail offers high school students a creative, innovative, and entertaining way to build their vocabulary, improve their reading comprehension skills, and enjoy a good story all at the same time. Since 1994 this book has been a consistent bestseller, enjoyed by students, recommended by parents, and endorsed by teachers all across the country.

In fact, the "novel approach" to learning vocabulary that Joe Elliot and I invented proved so effective and became so popular that other writers and publishers rushed to imitate it. One audacious person (whose lame idea of writing a vocabulary-building novel was to paraphrase all of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz using SAT words) even tried to steal credit for the innovation. And one lazy publisher — Kaplan, the test-prep outfit — took the parsimonious shortcut of reprinting 19th-century novels in the public domain, such as Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, with definitions inserted for the literary words.

With Tooth and Nail, and its companion novel, Test of Time, you're not getting paraphrases, gimmicks, or knockoffs. They're the real deal — original stories filled with hundreds of test words (gleaned from dozens of tests) and fun to read.

Verbal Advantage

New York: Random House, 2000. (ISBN 0-375-70932-0)
Click on the title to read an excerpt from the introduction.

This is a graduated, comprehensive vocabulary-building program for adults who are serious about using the English language correctly and with confidence. Mr. Elster takes you on an edifying and entertaining tour of the language, coaching you along the way on how to use words with greater clarity, precision, and style.

Here's what they're saying about Verbal Advantage:


"I'd like to thank you for the Verbal Advantage program. Back in 2000, I bought the cassette tape version and have applied the methods you taught me ever since. I listened to the tapes so many times I wore them out. I intend to introduce my high school age children to your books. I'll also give them copies of the program so they can develop the same habit of learning words with you as their guide. One reason I have a special regard for Verbal Advantage is that I've always been a reticent fellow. By developing a more robust and precise vocabulary, I was able to challenge my diffidence to a certain extent. Although I'll never be an extrovert, the confidence I gained with better diction helped greatly. Thank you again for the program. It's meant a lot to me in my life's journey." — Philip J. Passero III

"I'm quite pleased with my decision to purchase VA years ago, and . . . it has been very beneficial and enjoyable for me over the years. . . . [I]t's a brilliant accomplishment and truly an astonishing resource. Well done." — Chris Gardner

"I bought your Verbal Advantage program earlier in the year. It has had a profound effect on my life. I never realized how many words I did not know. . . . You have opened up a wonderful world to me and I find myself the new connoisseur of words at the office and at home. . . . I want to thank you for changing my life."
— Shane W. Doyle

"I’ve been reading your book Verbal Advantage and I’ve enjoyed every word of it. It helped me improve my GRE verbal score by 160 points, and I was only in Level 4 by then!" — Carlos Anderson

"I can’t tell you how much Verbal Advantage has changed my life by giving me confidence to interact with people everywhere in business and in my personal life. My husband is a golf pro and he feels the same way! We just love YOU to death!" — Antoinette Janeczko

"I want to thank Charles Elster for his book Verbal Advantage! I have been reading it for 6 months now and I can honestly say this has been one of the BEST investments of my life! I read it more than my college textbooks!"
— Glen Walden

"I just completed all ten levels of the Verbal Advantage program. It was even more edifying than the advertisements promised. I enjoyed every minute of it, and I review some of the disquisitions from time to time. I'm obsessed with words!"
— Reuben Wagler

"Verbal Advantage . . . revolutionized the way I think and communicate in English. I am a 24-year-old man, originally from a small town in India. Currently, I am a graduate student at USC. For a man who spoke no English until the age of 10, I feel very happy when people compliment me on my ability to use words with style and confidence. . . . We all know that there are several language improvement courses on the market. But, I can unequivocally contend that the program devised by you is emancipating people from the shackles of low vocabulary, mispronunciation and misuse of the English language."
— Aditya Moitra

"I'm a 22-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who lives in Sunnyvale, California and goes to college. I'm writing this letter to thank you for making the Verbal Advantage program. Building my vocabulary was a struggle at first, having to admit I don't know the exact meanings of words I hear at school. But, I am motivated when I remember what you said in Verbal Advantage, so I don't give up. Thank you, thank you, thank you! What your program has given me is like a second chance. I don't know how I can hold tears of gratitude inside."
— Danilo Salguero

"I love your Verbal Advantage program and it has helped me immeasurably in my day-to-day endeavors. I have seen a marked difference in the way I communicate orally and in writing."
— Stuart Mushala

“I am a Venezuelan graduate student in physics who is pursuing a Ph.D. program in the U.S. For this I have to take the GRE, which requires having both a large vocabulary and full command of the words you know. Last year I took the GRE and sadly I scored 360/800 in verbal (percentile rank 22). I knew I had to work on my vocabulary if I wanted to attain a better score. Some months ago I came across Verbal Advantage in a bookstore here in Venezuela. . . . No other vocabulary builder gave me more knowledge and insight into words than VA. After a year I took the GRE again . . . and I scored 700/800 (percentile rank 97). And so, I wanted to thank you for publishing such a comprehensive and entertaining book!”
— Pedro Montuenga

"[Verbal Advantage] has brought priceless personal and professional enrichment to my life. . . . I've sampled many, but Verbal Advantage is still #1 in my book."
— Ken Nero

"I won't importune you with some kind of magniloquent blandishment, but I want to give you credit for your inimitable program Verbal Advantage. I have listened to it four times in the last five months. I've also scrutinized such programs as Million$ Vocabulary, Executive Vocabulary, a complete series of Word Smart, Vocabulary Booster, Word Master, Barron's 550 Words You Need to Know, Verbal Success, Confidence in Context, and many others. All of them offer something useful, but they can only eat the dust of Verbal Advantage. Your program is much better than all of them put together."
— Roman from Ukraine

"I'm enjoying Verbal Advantage immensely. . . . You did a splendid job. I learned more in the first half than in all my years spent at college. — Frederick Vollmer

"Thank you for creating a wonderful masterpiece." — Theresia Thurman

There's A Word for It:
A Grandiloquent Guide to Life

New York: Pocket Books, 1996.
Revised & Updated Edition published July 2005.
(ISBN 978-1-4165-1086-4)
(ISBN 1-4165-1086-9)
Click on the title to take a grandiloquent quiz and read a selection of light verse from the book.

"Those who devour words will feast on it."
— Diane White, Boston Globe

"Charming and at times hysterical." — Booklist

"Words you never knew you needed—until now."
San Diego Magazine

This is not simply another book about obscure English words. It's an open-armed invitation to go on a mischievous, quirky, madcap expedition through the depths of our unabridged dictionaries, where you will learn about all the exceptional words you never knew you needed to know to live a fuller, more verbally enriched life. There's a Word for It! will help you plug gaping holes in your vocabulary and apply vibrant color to the blank spots in your picture of the world. The book also contains a dazzling selection of light verse by such famous (and fabulous) scribes as Hogden Gnash, Anais Numb, and G. B. Pshaw (click on the title above to read a selection).


The Right to Say No

Colin Kaepernick and Charles Harrington Elster have something in common: exercising their First Amendment rights.

The Curious Corporate Who

In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.

Pleonasm: A Word Every Writer and Copyeditor Should Know

Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.

Seven Steps to Word Power

Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.

A Way with Words:

Charlie explains why he left the public radio show.

The Wrong Pro-NOUN-ciation

Read one of Charlie's guest language columns for the Boston Globe, in which he takes the dictionaries of Merriam-Webster to task for "promiscuously sanctioning questionable pronunciations."

The Grandiloquent Gumshoe

At a loss for words? Give the P.V.I. (private verbal investigator) a call.
Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.

Things Are Against Us

Did you know there's a word for "seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects"? Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.

Charlie's Dictionary Recommendations

Looking for a new dictionary? Click here for some sage advice.

Celling Out

Charlie has some brave new words for our wireless world.

A Little Latin Is a Lovely Thing

Read one of Charlie's articles on language in SPELL/Binder.


Read Bill Manson's entertaining profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine.