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'The Toothpick'

By Henry Petroski

Knopf, $27.95

The author, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, has written many books on technology and culture. In treating something so common as the toothpick, Petroski deals with colorful characters, intellectual property battles, shady marketing practices and trade secrets.

He uses biography, business and industrial history to explore the toothpick in its manufacture and its usage in society. Of course, the toothpick seems the simplest of instruments — whether made of grass, gold, quill or wood. But it also represents how the extraordinary can be discovered in the ordinary.

In ancient Rome, the emperor Nero used a silver toothpick. Charles Forster became the father of the toothpick in late 19th-century Boston. He paid Harvard students to enter area restaurants and demand toothpicks with their food. Then Forster created a machine to make toothpicks out of "unreconstituted virgin white birch."

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'The Revenge of Anguished English'

By Richard Lederer

St. Martin's Press, $13.95 (softcover)

This is a book about "accidental assaults on the English language," better known as fluffs, flubs, goofs and gaffes, and it is written by the "king of language comedy." Since we are in a political season, some of the gaffes the author includes are by politicians, especially George W. Bush:

• "I know how hard it is to put food on your family."

• "Will the highways on the Internet become more few?"

• "We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile."

• "The senator cannot have it both ways. He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road."

Calvin Coolidge said, "When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results," and Gerald Ford is credited with, "Things are more like they are now than they have ever been."

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'Sister Bernadette's Dog Barking'

By Kitty Burns Florey

Harcourt, $14.95 (softcover)

This is a book about "the lost art of diagramming sentences," written by a veteran copy editor and author of nine novels. The author learned diagramming in the sixth grade from Sister Bernadette and sees the procedure as a cross between "art and mathematics." The author includes numerous examples of diagramming and explains its benefits.

She also offers opinions as to what diagrams of famous writers' sentences reveal about them. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner both were exposed to diagramming — and it shows up in their highly grammatical, powerful sentences.

Read them and see if yours measure up.