Freeman, one of America's foremost language experts and acclaimed author of the "Boston Globe's" weekly column The Word, presents an annotated edition of Ambrose Bierce
's classic catalog of correct speech.
One of America’s foremost language experts presents an annotated edition of A mbrose Bierce’s classic catalog of correct speech.
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.
Jan Freeman has worked as an editor at The Real Paper, an alternative weekly; at Boston and Inc. magazines; and at the Boston Globe, where she was a science news editor when she launched “The Word,” her weekly column on English usage, in 1997. She lives in Auburndale, Massachusetts.