Write It Right

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Recently arrived in the mail: an advance copy of Jan Freeman's

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The celebrated cynic's language peeves deciphered, appraised, and annotated for 21st-century readers [NY: Walker & Company, publication date November 19]

(The subtitle of Bierce's 1909 booklet is A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, which should give you an idea of the tone of the thing.) Jan takes on WIR, item by item, with extensive annotations for each item, looking at the background for the proscription (in many cases its later history as well), trying to work out Bierce's motivation for it, and assessing the state of actual usage.

Jan wears her scholarship lightly, but it's considerable. In particular, she gives a lot of 19th-century (and sometimes 18th-century) background for Bierce's usage advice, and her discussions of usage and judgments on it are illuminating. All this in her usual commonsensical and often entertaining voice (p. 78, on Bierce on fix 'repair, prepare', which he reviled: "This is just loony.").

There are some themes that run through the book. Bierce was committed to a strong version of One Right Way with respect to word meanings; again and again, he insisted that expressions should be used only in what he believed to be their original meanings, and again and again he rejected extended and metaphorical senses of items, admitting only literal senses. (See, for instance, the discussion of dilapidated on p. 58.) He also defended what he took to be elite usages; he detested vernacular variants, and he had a special animus against expressions with a whiff of business and commerce ("trade") about them.

Some of his peeves — expressed in High Curmudgeon — were conventional ones at the time, but many were eccentric to the point of idiosyncrasy, and on these the Bierce-Freeman exchanges are especially delightful.

(And the back cover has fine blurbs from Steve Pinker, Erin McKean, Barbara Wallraff, and this parish's Geoff Pullum.)


  1. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Another piece of One Right Way that was dear to Bierce is the idea that since each word should have its own, unique meaning, different words should not overlap in meaning; distinctions must be preserved. Many usage writers spend a good deal of time discriminating between words, but it seems to have been a passion for Bierce.

    The idea no doubt contributed to Bierce's antipathy towards innovations in semantics and innovations of new forms.

  2. Composite puzzles « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    […] note: over on Language Log I've  posted about Jan Freeman's new book annotating Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. Bierce was […]

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