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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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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