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Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers First Edition Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0802717689
ISBN-10: 0802717683
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Editorial Reviews


When the wisest language maven of this century takes on the wittiest (and most curmudgeonly) of the last one, the result is fantastically entertaining and insightful. You can dip into this book for pleasure, but you will also learn much about language, style, and the dubious authority of self-anointed experts. (Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.)

What fun to see an exceptionally commonsensical modern language critic give a famously crusty old one his due! They should sell tickets. (Barbara Wallraff, author of "Word Court")

Freeman, with her extensive explanations, comes off as the more practical and knowledgeable, but much of Bierce's greatness lies in his biting, snooty formulations. 'Ancestrally vulgar,' he'll sniff about one word, rolling his eyes … or 'irreclaimably degenerate.' What fun! (Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, "Book Bench," The New Yorker)

[Bierce] defended what he took to be elite usages; he detested vernacular variants, and he had a special animus against expressions with a whiff of business and commerce ("trade") about them. Some of his peeves -- expressed in High Curmudgeon--were conventional ones at the time, but many were eccentric to the point of idiosyncrasy, and on these the Bierce-Freeman exchanges are especially delightful. (Linguist Arnold Zwicky, "Language Log")

A hundred years ago, knuckle-rapper Ambrose Bierce cranked out a compendium of usage rules: Write It Right. Now Jan Freeman, language columnist for the Boston Globe, has published an annotated version of Bierce's bugbears: Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. You'll savor Freeman's bright and breezy commentary on Bierce's often daffy dicta. (Rob Kyffe, "The Word Guy")

Ambrose Bierce's classic little book of Victorian-era grammar-grouchery lays down the law in a series of opinions that range from the conventional to the goofy. Jan Freeman's light-hearted look at how his edicts have fared a century later will be an eye-opener to those who confuse their specific language peeves with eternal truths. (Geoffrey K. Pullum, Head of Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh, coauthor of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and cofounder of Language Log)

Bierce's collection of because-I-said-so strictures is an education in the persnickety side of English usage, but Jan Freeman's commentary on Bierce is truly enlightening, not just about the language but about how people judge the language. (Erin McKean, lexicographer, CEO of Wordnik)

About the Author

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; First Edition edition (November 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802717683
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802717689
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,062,105 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Mick McAllister on May 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover
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?
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 16, 2010
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.Read more ›
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Pamela_reads on February 26, 2010
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.
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