Write it Right: A very pedantic usage guide

Here is Madeleine Ibes’s second blog post:

Ambrose Bierce in 1882 (Wikipedia)

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) was an American short story author, journalist and satirist who authored books like The Devil’s Dictionary (1906/1909), which contained definitions like this one for grammar: “A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction” and other hilarities, such as birth (n): “The first and direst of all disasters”. Bierce became known for his humorous, but often bitter and cynical take on life, and this as well as other matters in his writings earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce”. In 1909, he decided to write a usage guide, entitled Write it Right, containing well over 100 usage problems in his “Blacklist”. The introduction is reminiscent of what many modern-day usage guide writers might say, but with a twist that is very distinctly “Bitter Bierce”:

Few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings lexicographers may think it worth while to gather from all sorts and conditions of men, with which to bloat their absurd and misleading dictionaries. This actual and serviceable meaning—not always determined by derivation, and seldom by popular usage—is the one affirmed, according to his light, by the author of this little manual of solecisms. Narrow etymons of the mere scholar and loose locutions of the ignorant are alike denied a standing.

He makes it clear later in his introduction that he is not drawing on research or even consensus to pass judgement on these usage problems. Meaning that none of what he is saying is based on authority; rather everything that he has to say is based solely on his own opinion.

Even by the standards of usage guide writers, the things that Bierce chooses to write about are outdated and odd. For example, he takes issue with last week as well as the past week and says the following in his entry for Last and Past:

‘Last week.’ ‘The past week.’ Neither is accurate: a week cannot be the last if another is already begun; and all weeks except this one are past. Here two wrongs seem to make a right: we can say the week last past. But will we? I trow not.

Other oddities include: dress for gown, ovation and fail. This latter entry is as hilarious as it is curious:

‘He failed to note the hour.’ That implies that he tried to note it, but did not succeed. Failure carries always the sense of endeavor; when there has been no endeavor there is no failure. A falling stone cannot fail to strike you, for it does not try; but a marksman firing at you may fail to hit you; and I hope he always will.

Bierce does, of course, take issue with some of the usage problems that other usage guide writers (both contemporary and later ones) comment on. His guide also contains usage problems such as: compare with, literally, can/may and aggravate. Some of his entries are short and succinct, and of little substance. However, it’s his odd choice in usage problems that make it an entertaining read for anyone who appreciates such books. To end our little discussion of Write it Right, here are a few more for you to enjoy:

Substantiate for Prove. Why?

Peek for Peep. Seldom heard in England, though common here. “I peeked out through the curtain and saw him.” That it is a variant of peep is seen in the child’s word peek-a-boo, equivalent to bo-peep. Better use the senior word.

Juncture. Juncture means a joining, a junction; its use to signify a time, however critical a time, is absurd. “At this juncture the woman screamed.” In reading that account of it we scream too.

Reportorial. A vile word, improperly made. It assumes the Latinized spelling, “reporter.” The Romans had not the word, for they were, fortunately for them, without the thing.


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