Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Bierce's "Write It Right," a Century Later

Jan Freeman, language columnist for the Boston Globe, has published a fascinating new book: an expanded edition of Write It Right, Ambrose Bierce's 1909 volume on English usage, "deciphered, appraised, and annotated for 21st-century readers." We caught up with Jan to ask how Bierce's century-old language peeves have held up, and what his work tells us about current usage struggles.

VT: How did you first decide to embark on this project?

JF: I had been dipping into Write It Right for years — it's printed as an appendix to Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, a usage book I've owned since my earliest copy editing days. Some of Bierce's peeves were familiar, of course — people still complain about aggravate for irritate — but lots of them were mysterious. "Do not say 'I am afraid it will rain.' Say 'I fear it will rain.' " But why? I wondered.

Then one day last year, it dawned on me that the book would be 100 years old in 2009, and that seemed like an excellent excuse to explore Bierce's rulings. I only wish he had been a little less thorough; if I've counted correctly, his "little blacklist" has 441 entries.

VT: How familiar were you with Bierce's work before you started?

JF: I only knew Bierce from The Devil's Dictionary, his collection of cynical definitions: "BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen." That's his most famous work — it even snagged him a Facebook fan club. But many people still read and admire his weird, Twilight Zone-ish short stories and his accounts of the Civil War, which he saw firsthand as a young Union soldier. And of course he was a famous opinion journalist in his prime, a sort of Maureen Dowd of the west.

VT: How have Bierce's pronouncements stood the test of time?

JF: Oh, probably half of them are irrelevant, mysterious, or utterly absurd today. Nobody now says gents, few people dislike pants, and men are no longer offended that women have appropriated the word dress for their own garment. The difference between insignificant and trivial is no longer one for the usage books, and endorse doesn't sound vulgar and commercial. (We have a new set of business buzzwords to despise.)  A handful of his peeves are familiar, especially among journalists — don't use "over 60," say "more than 60" — but many of them are real headscratchers.

VT: Why do you think so much of his advice has been rendered obsolete?

JF: It's not just his advice; when usage mavens devote their energy to stopping extensions of meaning, they generally fail. After all, Jonathan Swift was railing against mob, bully, and banter two centuries before Bierce wrote. And especially in Bierce's era, when neatening up the language was a widely shared ambition, usagists tried to impose distinctions that had never existed in practice — like assigning "I fear" and "I'm afraid" to different degrees of anxiety.

Words are constantly shifting and stretching their senses, and historically, the word police have taken note of a few of these changes and energetically opposed them. The reasons they give tend to come after the disapproval, and to be applied somewhat arbitrarily. Electrocute and reportorial were bad, in Bierce's day, because they couldn't properly be derived from Latin. Endorse used figuratively was vulgar commercial language. Bogus was slang. Ovation was "really" a minor Roman triumph, and should not be used for applause. Talented couldn't exist because there was no verb "to talent." Arguments like these may slow acceptance of a new sense, but it's hard to tell; words rise and fall in popularity for all sorts of reasons, whether they're opposed or not. 

VT: Was his "blacklist" simply based on idiosyncratic dislikes?

JF: Much of it was common wisdom among the popular usage writers of his time and the preceding decades, like Richard Grant White and Alfred Ayres. There was no shortage of borrowing, naturally — but most of the usagists had a few original peeves to throw into the mix, and Bierce was no exception.

VT: What are a few of his more befuddling peeves?

JF: Why did he think "a coat of paint" should be "a coating"? I couldn't find any other mention of that notion in the literature. He objected to stand for "endure" ("I can't stand it") and to say as in "have a say," both of them centuries old. And my favorite — an example of extreme Biercean literalism — is his ban on "spending time." We don't actually spend it, he says — it "goes from us against our will."

VT: Do you think Bierce's failure rate serves as a warning for current usagists?

JF: I think it should. Even before I did the book I had started pointing out, in my language column, that most word-usage peeves don't last long. A novel usage may disappear, or it may be accepted as standard, but relatively few  — like the ones Bryan Garner labels "skunked terms" — are bones of contention for decades or centuries. It's a waste of time and a distraction to spend your life looking out for misuses of enormity or hopefully, but the evidence suggests that lots of people need that  little hit of smugness that comes with pointing out the errors of others.

VT: How would you compare Write It Right to Strunk and White, in terms of style and tone?

JF: Strunk's original Elements of Style appeared in 1918, just nine years after Write It Right, and it shares Bierce's terseness, though not his brutality. Strunk lays down the law, but his audience is college students, not journalists and general readers. White's 1959 revision of Elements is equally dogmatic about the rules — even rules that have aged badly since Strunk's time — but White's additions give the project a gentlemanly gloss.

VT: Why do you think Elements of Style has been enshrined as a classic, but Bierce has largely been forgotten? 

JF: Bierce's book had a lot of competition. All through his adult life — 1860-1913 or so — usage was a hot topic, both in England and in America. And a century is a long time, after all. And though Elements has its share of ridiculous fetishes — some shared with Bierce, like "don't say 'six people,' say 'persons'" — the White-edited version is 50 years younger than Bierce's book. Aside from that, though, I'm not sure how Elements became a classic. Mass hypnotism, maybe?  

VT: Do you feel a certain sympathy with Bierce, or does he remain a distant curmudgeon?

JF: I had always vaguely assumed that Bierce's cranky persona was just an act. Learning about his life made me sadder but wiser. He had a tough time of it — he never finished high school and educated himself (pretty impressively); he took a bullet in the head fighting at Kennesaw Mountain; his two sons died young, in stupid ways; his marriage went bad; and he was never quite as famous as he thought he should be. I'm afraid — or is it "I fear"? — that "Bitter Bierce" wasn't just a jokey nickname.

Jan Freeman has been writing the Boston Sunday Globe 's weekly language column, "The Word," 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, Massachusetts. To learn more about her annotated edition of Ambrose Bierce's Write it Right , please visit the Walker Books website.

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Wednesday December 23rd 2009, 2:23 AM
Comment by: Bruce F. (South Londonderry, VT)
This sounds like an interesting book. I've always liked Ambrose Bierce, but haven't read him in a while, thanks for the reminder. I associate him with Samuel Clements, I think they palled (is that a word?) around for a while in the Gold Rush era in California.

By the way, I like "gents" and may start using it. Who knows?
Wednesday December 23rd 2009, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
My favorite piece of writing by Ambrose Bierce is A Harmless Visitor (from Fantastic-Fables), which being so short I’ll write below:

“AT a meeting of the Golden League of Mystery a Woman was discovered, writing in a note-book. A member directed the attention of the Superb High Chairman to her, and she was asked to explain her presence there, and what she was doing.
"I came in for my own pleasure and instruction," she said, "and was so struck by the wisdom of the speakers that I could not help making a few notes."
"Madam," said the Superb High Chairman, "we have no objection to visitors if they will pledge themselves not to publish anything they hear. Are you - on your honour as a lady, now, madam - are you not connected with some newspaper?"
"Good gracious, no!" cried the Woman, earnestly. "Why, sir, I am an officer of the Women's Press Association!"
She was permitted to remain, and presented with resolutions of apology.”

I always found it very witty and at the same time somehow still relevant for our times.
Thursday December 31st 2009, 6:16 PM
Comment by: Lois W. (Las Vegas, NV)
Although only a high school graduate, I fell in love with words and their usage through a dedicated English teacher at a very early age many, many years ago. Now at 78 years of age, I find myself, being a traditionalist by nature, resenting what today's technological wonders are doing to kill the beauty of language. Centuries of lilting poems, sorrowful dirges, expressions of happiness, loves, and losses in the living of life; no more to be experienced by the deliverance of words presented, words that capture exact meaning...oh, the pity. Oh, hey, by the way: has anybody seen my Blackberry??
Thursday January 7th 2010, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
This line taken from the text above:
"......but the evidence suggests that lots of people need that....'

I struggle with the use of 'lots' used here to mean 'many'?
Are 'lots' real estate, the large quantities offered by big box stores?

(Word usage intrigues me. Lois W. you and I are from the same era and the more years I accumulate the more interesting words become.) What is texting doing to our words?
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I have always remembered Bierce for a short story of his I read in seventh grade, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Taken together with "The Devil's Dictionary," I think a case could be made that Bierce occupies the intersection of Poe and Twain. A wonderful combination!

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Bryan Garner's take on English usage is one of "informed prescriptivism."
How "enormity" has become what Garner calls a "skunked term."
Bierce clung to the idea that "the United States" needed a plural verb.