Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults

Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults

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by Ambrose Bierce

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Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults

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Write It Right

A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Paul Dickson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11344-9



A for An. "A hotel." "A heroic man." Before an unaccented aspirate use an. The contrary usage in this country comes of too strongly stressing our aspirates.

Action for Act. "In wrestling, a blow is a reprehensible action." A blow is not an action but an act. An action may consist of many acts.

Admission for Admittance. "The price of admission is one dollar."

Admit for Confess. To admit is to concede something affirmed. An unaccused offender cannot admit his guilt.

Adopt. "He adopted a disguise." One may adopt a child, or an opinion, but a disguise is assumed.

Advisedly for Advertently, Intentionally. "It was done advisedly" should mean that it was done after advice.

Afford. It is not well to say "the fact affords a reasonable presumption"; "the house afforded ample accommodation." The fact supplies a reasonable presumption. The house offered, or gave, ample accommodation.

Afraid. Do not say, "I am afraid it will rain." Say, I fear that it will rain.

Afterwards for Afterward.

Aggravate for Irritate. "He aggravated me by his insolence." To aggravate is to augment the disagreeableness of something already disagreeable, or the badness of something bad. But a person cannot be aggravated, even if disagreeable or bad. Women are singularly prone to misuse of this word.

All of. "He gave all of his property." The words are contradictory: an entire thing cannot be of itself. Omit the preposition.

Alleged. "The alleged murderer." One can allege a murder, but not a murderer; a crime, but not a criminal. A man that is merely suspected of crime would not, in any case, be an alleged criminal, for an allegation is a definite and positive statement. In their tiresome addiction to this use of alleged, the newspapers, though having mainly in mind the danger of libel suits, can urge in further justification the lack of any other single word that exactly expresses their meaning; but the fact that a mud-puddle supplies the shortest route is not a compelling reason for walking through it. One can go around.

Allow for Permit. "I allow you to go." Precision is better attained by saying permit, for allow has other meanings.

Allude to for Mention. What is alluded to is not mentioned, but referred to indirectly. Originally, the word implied a playful, or sportive, reference. That meaning is gone out of it.

And so. And yet. "And so they were married." "And yet a woman." Omit the conjunction.

And which. And who. These forms are incorrect unless the relative pronoun has been used previously in the sentence. "The colt, spirited and strong, and which was unbroken, escaped from the pasture." "John Smith, one of our leading merchants, and who fell from a window yesterday, died this morning." Omit the conjunction.

Antecedents for Personal History. Antecedents are predecessors.

Anticipate for Expect. "I anticipate trouble." To anticipate is to act on an expectation in a way to promote or forestall the event expected.

Anxious for Eager. "I was anxious to go." Anxious should not be followed by an infinitive. Anxiety is contemplative; eagerness, alert for action.

Appreciate for Highly Value. In the sense of value, it means value justly, not highly. In another and preferable sense it means to increase in value.

Approach. "The juror was approached"; that is, overtures were made to him with a view to bribing him. As there is no other single word for it, approach is made to serve, figuratively; and being graphic, it is not altogether objectionable.

Appropriated for Took. "He appropriated his neighbor's horse to his own use." To appropriate is to set apart, as a sum of money, for a special purpose.

Approve of for Approve. There is no sense in making approve an intransitive verb.

Apt for Likely. "One is apt to be mistaken." Apt means facile, felicitous, ready, and the like; but even the dictionary-makers cannot persuade a person of discriminating taste to accept it as synonymous with likely.

Around for About. "The débris of battle lay around them." "The huckster went around, crying his wares." Around carries the concept of circularity.

Article. A good and useful word, but used without meaning by shopkeepers; as, "A good article of vinegar," for a good vinegar.

As for That, or If. "I do not know as he is living." This error is not very common among those who can write at all, but one sometimes sees it in high place.

As—as for So—as. "He is not as good as she." Say, not so good. In affirmative sentences the rule is different: He is as good as she.

As for for As to. "As for me, I am well." Say, as to me.

At Auction for by Auction. "The goods were sold at auction."

At for By. "She was shocked at his conduct." This very common solecism is without excuse.

Attain for Accomplish. "By diligence we attain our purpose." A purpose is accomplished; success is attained.

Authoress. A needless word—as needless as "poetess."

Avocation for Vocation. A vocation is, literally, a calling; that is, a trade or profession. An avocation is something that calls one away from it. If I say that farming is some one's avocation I mean that he practises it, not regularly, but at odd times.

Avoid for Avert. "By displaying a light the skipper avoided a collision." To avoid is to shun; the skipper could have avoided a collision only by getting out of the way.

Avoirdupois for Weight. Mere slang.

Back of for Behind, At the Back of. "Back of law is force."

Backwards for Backward.

Badly for Bad. "I feel badly." "He looks badly." The former sentence implies defective nerves of sensation, the latter, imperfect vision. Use the adjective.

Balance for Remainder. "The balance of my time is given to recreation." In this sense balance is a commercial word, and relates to accounting.

Banquet. A good enough word in its place, but its place is the dictionary. Say, dinner.

Bar for Bend. "Bar sinister." There is no such thing in heraldry as a bar sinister.

Because for For. "I knew it was night, because it was dark." "He will not go, because he is ill."

Bet for Betted. The verb to bet forms its preterite regularly, as do wet, wed, knit, quit and others that are commonly misconjugated. It seems that we clip our short words more than we do our long.

Body for Trunk. "The body lay here, the head there." The body is the entire physical person (as distinguished from the soul, or mind) and the head is a part of it. As distinguished from head, trunk may include the limbs, but anatomically it is the torso only.

Bogus for Counterfeit, or False. The word is slang; keep it out.

Both. This word is frequently misplaced; as, "A large mob, both of men and women." Say, of both men and women.

Both alike. "They are both alike." Say, they are alike. One of them could not be alike.

Brainy. Pure slang, and singularly disagreeable.

Bug for Beetle, or for anything. Do not use it.

Business for Right. "He has no business to go there."

Build for Make. "Build a fire." "Build a canal." Even "build a tunnel" is not unknown, and probably if the woodchuck is skilled in the American tongue he speaks of building a hole.

But. By many writers this word (in the sense of except) is regarded as a preposition, to be followed by the objective case: "All went but him." It is not a preposition and may take either the nominative or objective case, to agree with the subject or the object of the verb. All went but he. The natives killed all but him.

But what. "I did not know but what he was an enemy." Omit what. If condemnation of this dreadful locution seem needless bear the matter in mind in your reading and you will soon be of a different opinion.

By for Of. "A man by the name of Brown." Say, of the name. Better than either form is: a man named Brown.

* * *

Calculated for Likely. "The bad weather is calculated to produce sickness." Calculated implies calculation, design.

Can for May. "Can I go fishing?" "He can call on me if he wishes to."

Candidate for Aspirant. In American politics, one is not a candidate for an office until formally named (nominated) for it by a convention, or otherwise, as provided by law or custom. So when a man who is moving Heaven and Earth to procure the nomination protests that he is "not a candidate" he tells the truth in order to deceive.

Cannot for Can. "I cannot but go." Say, I can but go.

Capable. "Men are capable of being flattered." Say, susceptible to flattery. "Capable of being refuted." Vulnerable to refutation. Unlike capacity, capability is not passive, but active. We are capable of doing, not of having something done to us.

Capacity for Ability. "A great capacity for work." Capacity is receptive; ability, potential. A sponge has capacity for water; the hand, ability to squeeze it out.

Casket for Coffin. A needless euphemism affected by undertakers.

Casualties for Losses in Battle. The essence of casualty is accident, absence of design. Death and wounds in battle are produced otherwise, are expectable and expected, and, by the enemy, intentional.

Chance for Opportunity. "He had a good chance to succeed."

Chin Whiskers. The whisker grows on the cheek, not the chin.

Chivalrous. The word is popularly used in the Southern States only, and commonly has reference to men's manner toward women. Archaic, stilted and fantastic.

Citizen for Civilian. A soldier may be a citizen, but is not a civilian.

Claim for Affirm. "I claim that he is elected." To claim is to assert ownership.

Clever for Obliging. In this sense the word was once in general use in the United States, but is now seldom heard and life here is less insupportable.

Climb down. In climbing one ascends.

Coat for Coating. "A coat of paint, or varnish." If we coat something we produce a coating, not a coat.

Collateral Descendant. There can be none: a "collateral descendant" is not a descendant.

Colonel, Judge, Governor, etc., for Mister. Give a man a title only if it belongs to him, and only while it belongs to him.

Combine for Combination. The word, in this sense, has something of the meaning of conspiracy, but there is no justification for it as a noun, in any sense.

Commence for Begin. This is not actually incorrect, but—well, it is a matter of taste.

Commencement for Termination. A contribution to our noble tongue by its scholastic conservators, "commencement day" being their name for the last day of the collegiate year. It is ingeniously defended on the ground that on that day those on whom degrees are bestowed commence to hold them. Lovely!

Commit Suicide. Instead of "He committed suicide," say, He killed himself, or, He took his life. For married we do not say "committed matrimony." Unfortunately most of us do say, "got married," which is almost as bad. For lack of a suitable verb we just sometimes say committed this or that, as in the instance of bigamy, for the verb to bigam is a blessing that is still in store for us.

Compare with for Compare to. "He had the immodesty to compare himself with Shakespeare." Nothing necessarily immodest in that. Comparison with may be for observing a difference; comparison to affirms a similarity.

Complected. Anticipatory past participle of the verb "to complect." Let us wait for that.

Conclude for Decide. "I concluded to go to town." Having concluded a course of reasoning (implied) I decided to go to town. A decision is supposed to be made at the conclusion of a course of reasoning, but is not the conclusion itself. Conversely, the conclusion of a syllogism is not a decision, but an inference.

Connection. "In this connection I should like to say a word or two." In connection with this matter.

Conscious for Aware. "The King was conscious of the conspiracy." We are conscious of what we feel; aware of what we know.

Consent for Assent. "He consented to that opinion." To consent is to agree to a proposal; to assent is to agree with a proposition.

Conservative for Moderate. "A conservative estimate"; "a conservative forecast"; "a conservative statement," and so on. These and many other abuses of the word are of recent growth in the newspapers and "halls of legislation." Having been found to have several meanings, conservative seems to be thought to mean everything.

Continually and Continuously. It seems that these words should have the same meaning, but in their use by good writers there is a difference. What is done continually is not done all the time, but continuous action is without interruption. A loquacious fellow, who nevertheless finds time to eat and sleep, is continually talking; but a great river flows continuously.

Convoy for Escort. "A man-of-war acted as convoy to the flotilla." The flotilla is the convoy, the man- of-war the escort.

Couple for Two. For two things to be a couple they must be of one general kind, and their number unimportant to the statement made of them. It would be weak to say, "He gave me only one, although he took a couple for himself." Couple expresses indifference to the exact number, as does several. That is true, even in the phrase, a married couple, for the number is carried in the adjective and needs no emphasis.

Created for First Performed. Stage slang. "Burbage created the part of Hamlet." What was it that its author did to it?

Critically for Seriously. "He has long been critically ill." A patient is critically ill only at the crisis of his disease.

Criticise for Condemn, or Disparage. Criticism is not necessarily censorious; it may approve.

Cunning for Amusing. Usually said of a child, or pet. This is pure Americanese, as is its synonym, "cute."

Curious for Odd, or Singular. To be curious is to have an inquiring mind, or mood — curiosity.

Custom for Habit. Communities have customs; individuals, habits — commonly bad ones.

* * *

Decease for Die.

Decidedly for Very, or Certainly. "It is decidedly cold."

Declared for Said. To a newspaper reporter no one seems ever to say anything; all "declare." Like "alleged" (which see) the word is tiresome exceedingly.

Defalcation for Default. A defalcation is a cutting off, a subtraction; a default is a failure in duty.

Definitely for Definitively. "It was definitely decided." Definitely means precisely, with exactness; definitively means finally, conclusively.

Deliver. "He delivered an oration," or "delivered a lecture." Say, He made an oration, or gave a lecture.

Demean for Debase or Degrade. "He demeaned himself by accepting charity." The word relates, not to meanness, but to demeanor, conduct, behavior. One may demean oneself with dignity and credit.

Demise for Death. Usually said of a person of note. Demise means the lapse, as by death, of some authority, distinction or privilege, which passes to another than the one that held it; as the demise of the Crown.

Democracy for Democratic Party. One could as properly call the Christian Church "the Christianity."

Dépôt for Station. "Railroad dépôt." A dépôt is a place of deposit; as, a dépôt of supply for an army.

Deprivation for Privation. "The mendicant showed the effects of deprivation." Deprivation refers to the act of depriving, taking away from; privation is the state of destitution, of not having.

Dilapidated for Ruined. Said of a building, or other structure. But the word is from the Latin lapis, a stone, and cannot properly be used of any but a stone structure.

Directly for Immediately. "I will come directly" means that I will come by the most direct route.

Dirt for Earth, Soil, or Gravel. A most disagreeable Americanism, discredited by general (and Presidential) use. "Make the dirt fly." Dirt means filth.

Distinctly for Distinctively. "The custom is distinctly Oriental." Distinctly is plainly; distinctively, in a way to distinguish one thing from others.

Donate for Give. Good American, but not good English.

Doubtlessly. A doubly adverbial form, like "illy."

Dress for Gown. Not so common as it was a few years ago. Dress means the entire costume.


Excerpted from Write It Right by AMBROSE BIERCE, Paul Dickson. Copyright © 2010 Paul Dickson. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Write it right, a little blacklist of literary faults 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm sorry, but I'm scrapping the contest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So good Whisperkit...
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0 stars.
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