Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st Century Readers

Overview

One of America’s foremost language experts presents an annotated edition of A mbrose Bierce’s classic catalog of correct speech.

Ambrose Bierce is best known for The Devil's Dictionary, but the prolific journalist, satirist, and fabulist was also a usage maven. In 1909, he published several hundred of his pet peeves in Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults.

Bierce's list includes some distinctions still familiar today—the ...

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Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers

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Overview

One of America’s foremost language experts presents an annotated edition of A mbrose Bierce’s classic catalog of correct speech.

Ambrose Bierce is best known for The Devil's Dictionary, but the prolific journalist, satirist, and fabulist was also a usage maven. In 1909, he published several hundred of his pet peeves in Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults.

Bierce's list includes some distinctions still familiar today—the which-that rule, less vs. fewer, lie and lay — but it also abounds in now-forgotten shibboleths: Ovation, the critics of his time agreed, meant a Roman triumph, not a round of applause. Reliable was an ill-formed coinage, not for the discriminating. Donate was pretentious, jeopardize should be jeopard, demean meant "comport oneself," not "belittle." And Bierce made up a few peeves of his own for good measure. We should say "a coating of paint," he instructed, not "a coat."

To mark the 100th anniversary of Write It Right, language columnist Jan Freeman has investigated where Bierce's rules and taboos originated, how they've fared in the century since the blacklist, and what lies ahead. Will our language quibbles seem as odd in 2109 as Bierce's do today? From the evidence offered here, it looks like a very good bet.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"When the wisest language maven of this century takes on the wittiest (and most curmudgeonly) of the last one, the result is fantastically entertaining and insightful. You can dip into this book for pleasure, but you will also learn much about language, style, and the dubious authority of self-anointed experts."—Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought. "What fun to see an exceptionally commonsensical modern language critic give a famously crusty old one his due! They should sell tickets."

Barbara Wallraff, author of "Word Court" "There is much to admire in this little book: the thoroughness of Ms. Freeman’s research, her level-headed analysis of Bierce’s strictures, and — perhaps the enduring lesson — her insight into the foibles of usagists. If you as an editor or manager have the authority to set yourself up as a tinpot despot on usage (as I was for many years), put this book before you and learn humility."—John McIntyre, "You Don't Say" "Freeman, with her extensive explanations, comes off as the more practical and knowledgeable, but much of Bierce’s greatness lies in his biting, snooty formulations. 'Ancestrally vulgar,' he’ll sniff about one word, rolling his eyes … or 'irreclaimably degenerate.' What fun!" —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, "Book Bench," The New Yorker "[Bierce] 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.—Linguist Arnold Zwicky, "Language Log" "A hundred years ago, knuckle-rapper Ambrose Bierce cranked out a compendium of usage rules: Write It Right. Now Jan Freeman, language columnist for the Boston Globe, has published an annotated version of Bierce's bugbears: Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. You'll savor Freeman's bright and breezy commentary on Bierce's often daffy dicta."—Rob Kyffe, "The Word Guy" “Ambrose Bierce's classic little book of Victorian-era grammar-grouchery lays down the law in a series of opinions that range from the conventional to the goofy. Jan Freeman's light-hearted look at how his edicts have fared a century later will be an eye-opener to those who confuse their specific language peeves with eternal truths.”—Geoffrey K. Pullum, Head of Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh, coauthor of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and cofounder of Language Log "Bierce's collection of because-I-said-so strictures is an education in the persnickety side of English usage, but Jan Freeman's commentary on Bierce is truly enlightening, not just about the language but about how people judge the language."—Erin McKean, lexicographer, CEO of Wordnik

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802717689
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 11/10/2009
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,245,782
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), defined cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”—a description he strove to embody throughout his long and witty career. His writing includes journalism, poetry, satire, and fiction, much of it based on his Civil War experience. In 1913 he set off for Mexico, then in the throes of revolution, and was never seen again.

Jan Freeman has been writing “The Word,” the Boston Globe's Sunday language column, since 1997. A lifelong usage geek with a graduate degree in English, she has worked as an editor at the Real Paper, Boston and Inc. magazines, and the Boston Globe.. She lives in Newton, Mass.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 12, 2009

    Bierce may or may not be "right," but this book is always interesting

    As someone who enjoys reading books on language usage and word origins, I found this book quite interesting, a quick read. Ambrose Bierce's "Write It Right" was originally published in 1909 as a reference for proper (correct) language usage. Approximately 300 entries were arranged alphabetically. Today, many of the forms Bierce insisted were incorrect are, in fact, in common usage.

    Many of his entries are especially interesting, I think, simply because of his attempts to 'split hairs.' For example, "I am afraid it will rain" is incorrect, according to Bierce. You should instead say "I fear it will rain." Another entry goes into the difference between "generally" and "usually." He also thought the word "pants" (when used instead of "trousers") was vulgar. And he disapproved of using the words "forecasted" and "fix" among others.

    For this new edition of Bierce's book, Jan Freeman has annotated each entry to give more context to the original explanations of the language usage, showing quite often that Bierce was not the expert he claimed to be. For instance, Bierce complained in some of his entries of how America was corrupting the language, when the usage could be found in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (published 1700s), or even earlier. And he blamed "the weather bureau" for "forecasted," when in fact, it had been used since the 16th century.

    I thought Bierce's "Devil's Dictionary" was wonderful satire, but here he comes off as picky and condescending. (According to another Bierce rule of language, I just misused the word "but" in the sentence above.) Familiarity with Bierce's name is what caught my attention, but Freeman's annotation is what kept me interested in reading. "Write It Right" was first published 100 years ago, and a lot (or maybe not so much, after all) has changed since then.

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