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Ambrose Bierce's Write it Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers Hardcover – 21 Dec 2009

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Annotations to a Cranky Original 16 Feb 2010
By R. Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Decades ago, in a dusty used book store, I came across a real find. It was a little book by a writer I admired, Ambrose Bierce, who will forever be known as the author of the brilliant _The Devil's Dictionary_. It was a little book I didn't know existed. Bierce had written it 1909, _Write It Right_, his guide to avoiding the slang, vulgarities, and unhappy idioms he was horrified to see creeping into the English language (or even claiming long-term residence). He obviously loved English and could wield it with vigor. His book of guidance in language use was sharp and cranky and fun to read. It was more idiosyncratic and less universal than Strunk and White's _Elements of Style_. It was dated, but of course even White had to update Strunk. It was a bunch of decrees from a man who might be a cynic but who wasn't cynical enough to think language use could never be improved. Now Bierce is back, in an edition with commentary and notes. _Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers_ (Walker) has all of Bierce's short, pithy commandments, but is mostly commentary on each one by Jan Freeman. Freeman writes a weekly language column; she is one of the language mavens readers call upon to guide them through the complexities of speaking and writing properly. She doesn't have the biting wit of Bierce, but she has a good sense of humor, and an obvious affection for Bierce's indignation. This does not, however, keep her from pointing out when Bierce's advice is outdated; of course, Bierce could do nothing about inevitable changes in the language. She also does not refrain from pointing out when Bierce is dead wrong, which is distressingly often, though it must be said that Freeman has research tools, like the _Oxford English Dictionary_ to which she frequently refers, that Bierce would not have had at hand.

It is, in fact, seldom that Freeman can wholeheartedly accept a Bierce pronouncement. When he says, "Authoress. A needless word - as needless as `poetess,'" Freeman can answer "Indeed." But she often has to make corrections. Bierce wanted writing to have clarity. Unfortunately, he often wanted it at the expense of acceptance of the breadth of meaning a word could take. Wheeler points out this tendency toward literalism over and over again. Bierce writes of the mistake "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." Wheeler shows that not even the Romans had used the term literally, and (using the historic research tools she frequently cites) that "dilapidate" was used in the sense of "fritter away funds" even in the 15th century. She says, "Bierce enjoyed the role of etymological fundamentalist, but he was virtually alone in suggesting that wood and brick buildings could not be `dilapidated.'" Many of Bierce's other cautions are obsolete or irrelevant. American English has often found useful the changes Bierce decried. The use of "reliable" for "trustworthy" he said was "not yet admitted to the vocabulary of the fastidious," but it is certainly there now. He wanted people to continue to say "trousers," not "pants," of which he writes, "Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly." He wanted people to say "Joe was graduated from college," not "Joe graduated from college," a form that was creeping into use in Bierce's time and has become standard, even though Freeman points out that "... the Biercean orthodoxy was stoutly defended into the 1980s. And then, of course, along came `Joe graduated college' to scandalize traditionalists. The goalposts have moved, but the contest goes on."

This is an important point. None of us uses English perfectly, but some of us fret over usage more than others, and some of us fret over the usage of others more than our own. Freeman invites us to ask, looking at what are now Bierce's irrelevancies and superannuated bits of advice, whether we ought to be so vexed at the next misplaced apostrophe we see. "Would a little more historical knowledge help us keep our cool in the face of language change?" I don't think so; it is fun to spot others using the language in ways we don't think proper, and certainly Bierce had fun railing against usage mistakes, even when his barbs were misdirected. This edition is less a book of language advice than a partial portrait of a man who loved good language use. It is interesting, for instance, to read that Bierce, a proud Union veteran, wanted to make sure we did not use "jackies" for "sailors": "Vulgar, and especially offensive to seaman." It is fun to read him fulminating against commercial encroachments which he especially hated, like "casket" for "coffin": "A needless euphemism affected by undertakers." And sometimes, he is simply, practically right. He says not to use "partially" for "partly", as it is "A dictionary word, to swell the book." Wheeler corrects that "partially" was not dictionary padding since it had been in use since 1475, and that the words are interchangeable. They may be, but if they are interchangeable, there is nothing wrong with preferring the shorter one just as Bierce did.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Silly Old Bierce 31 May 2013
By Mick McAllister - Published on
I dunno what Ambrose Bierce ever did to Jan Freeman, but boy did she get even.

The more I read this book, the more it irritates me. Imagine, if you will, one of your books being reviewed by your ex-wife for a magazine she owns. That is Freeman's approach to Bierce's Write It Right: petty, oblivious, and narrow. As a quick example: The alphabetized entries for 'S' comprise 20 pages, at about 2-3 Bierce opinions per page. Of those 50-odd entries, for only one does Freeman concede that Bierce is right. When she does agree with him (Use 'say' not 'state'), she still manages to get in a dig. According to her, you should indeed use 'say' rather than 'state,' but "everybody knows that." All told, without rigorous calculation, you can assume that Freeman will point out that Bierce is wrong (or at fault anyway) in 90% of the book. What is more, typically her refutations are longer than Bierce's originals. For instance, his entry "Squirt for spurt: Absurd" elicits eight lines from her, in which she speculates about Bierce's squeamishness regarding 'squirt' but fails to note that 'squirt' was 19C slang for 'ejaculate.'

With the tenacity of a discarded spouse, Freeman scarifies everything in sight while the reader wonders, before long, "Why write this book?" After all, Bierce is not a grey eminence of usage like, say, Fowler or Bernstein. I've read a few armloads of usage, grammar and linguistics books, and I had no idea that Bierce had written one. I've also read, on and off, most of Bierce's fiction and never came across his "Devil's Usage Book." So demolishing his book is spectacularly unnecessary. In her introduction, she offers the lame justification that Bierce "got his turn in the spotlight" of usage writers when Write It Right was published in 1906. What spotlight? She doesn't offer any evidence that anyone read the book when it was published and concedes that in her own career as (according to Steven Pinker's puffery) "the wisest language maven of the century" she never took Bierce's advice very seriously. The introduction waxes eloquent about the importance of understanding how language and its rules change but, to borrow one of her favorite needles for Bierce, surely everybody knows that! (And besides, one of her favorite digs is that Bierce was wrong in his own time and usually, in her view, wrong since the beginning of time.)

There is one other problem with the book that compromises it pretty thoroughly. Freeman doesn't seem to have a firm grasp of who Ambrose Bierce is. She is continually lambasting him for saying something is wrong when she has the evidence -- Right Here! -- that people have been writing that for 300, 400, even in one case 1,000 years. Only once does she seem to realize what Bierce would say to that: Being wrong for 1,000 years doesn't make you right. Bierce's advice to writers is crusty, almost as funny sometimes as the definitions in The Devil's Dictionary (See his note on 'tantamount', which Freeman misses the joke in), and purely, unabashedly personal. In his discussion of 'locate,' he takes exception to the dictionary definition, snorting, "Dictionaries are funny" (The definitions of 'dictionary' and 'lexicography' in The Devil's Dictionary are more explicit.) He doesn't care if philologists disagree with him; he doesn't care if lexicographers disagree with him; he doesn't care if it's used in Shakespeare, Milton, or William Cullen Bryant's poetry. He certainly doesn't care of Freeman disagrees with him. He is stating his opinions, not mining the OED.

If Freeman had shown the slightest empathy for Bierce's intent -- which was to direct young writers to improve their craft, in part by stimulating them to look more carefully at language -- then the incessant potshots and needling might not have worn me out before I finished this sad little book.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Picky, yes, but is he right? 27 Feb 2010
By Pamela_reads - Published on
Format: Hardcover
As someone who enjoys reading books on language usage and word origins, I found this book quite interesting, a quick read. Ambrose Bierce's "Write It Right" was originally published in 1909 as a reference for proper (correct) language usage. Approximately 300 entries were arranged alphabetically. Today, many of the forms Bierce insisted were incorrect are, in fact, in common usage.

Many of his entries are especially interesting, I think, simply because of his attempts to 'split hairs.' For example, "I am afraid it will rain" is incorrect, according to Bierce. You should instead say "I fear it will rain." Another entry goes into the difference between "generally" and "usually." He also thought the word "pants" (when used instead of "trousers") was vulgar. And he disapproved of using the words "forecasted" and "fix" among others.

For this new edition of Bierce's book, Jan Freeman has annotated each entry to give more context to the original explanations of the language usage, showing quite often that Bierce was not the expert he claimed to be. For instance, Bierce complained in some of his entries of how America was corrupting the language, when the usage could be found in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (published 1700s), or even earlier. And he blamed "the weather bureau" for "forecasted," when in fact, it had been used since the 16th century.

I thought Bierce's "Devil's Dictionary" was wonderful satire, but here he comes off as picky and condescending. (According to another Bierce rule of language, I just misused the word "but" in the sentence above.) Familiarity with Bierce's name is what caught my attention, but Freeman's annotation is what kept me interested in reading. "Write It Right" was first published 100 years ago, and a lot (or maybe not so much, after all) has changed since then.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A fine, revealing dictionary of insights perfect for any general or literary collection! 14 Aug 2010
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Ambrose Bierce's Write it Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers is a fun 'must' for any general or language collection: it offers fun observations about applications of nouns, verbs and more, and is a fine, revealing dictionary of insights perfect for any general or literary collection!
6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Right Makes Might 27 Jan 2010
By Christian Schlect - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Here the author, Jan Freeman, takes Ambrose Bierce's century ago advice on the English language usage to task, word by word. And always wins.

If you are reading to obtain clear knowledge of correct current usage, there are many better books readily available. I think this book will confuse many with a number of language disputes that have long been settled.

If you will be reading for entertainment, I suggest you read books by Ambrose Bierce rather than Jan Freeman: Bierce clearly wrote in a more interesting and vibrant way.

Ms. Freeman's relentless and deadening way of going back in time for evidence by respected authors to show that Bierce was almost always wrong eventually became annoying to me. Bierce is dead and cannot defend himself. I think his long ago attempt to improve the language was noble, even if sometimes, if not often, he was wrong in his strongly held and colorful opinions.

Finally, Ms. Freeman does not care about keeping the word "unique" pure and unmodified. Why have any standards?
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