- 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: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,225,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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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" "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" "There is much to admire in this little book: the thoroughness of Ms. Freeman's research, her level-headed analysis of Bierce's strictures, and -- perhaps the enduring lesson -- her insight into the foibles of usagists. If you as an editor or manager have the authority to set yourself up as a tinpot despot on usage (as I was for many years), put this book before you and learn humility."--John McIntyre, "You Don't Say" "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
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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That Jan Freeman managed to so completely miss the purpose of Bierce's list in the process of reading, research, and annotation is hard to believe, but it's either that or she has deliberately done so in order to find more to disagree with.
Because she does find a lot to disagree with. In fact, almost every single entry's annotation is a litany of points against Bierce. Usually it is a precedent in the OED describing the proscribed usage's appearance well before Bierce's time, establishing it as "good English." Then a more recent lexicographer or critic disagreeing with Bierce, and lastly, what Freeman seems to consider a sort of requisite coup de grace, the banal revelation that few writers or readers make the distinction today.
Even before finishing the C's, I was tired of this monotonous and totally misguided assassination of Bierce's useful and very carefully-directed criticism.
As he explains in a foreword, Bierce's goal with the book is to promote precise writing and teach a habit of choosing the correct word, not just one that is used or will do.
"Capacity" may occasionally be used in place of "ability," even by skilled writers, but Bierce is right to point out that they mean different things, and one should be preferred in some cases, the second in others. When he distinguishes between "continual" and "continuous," or recommends "singular" over "curious," he is explaining that the words are being used without consideration for their meanings, and it is a better writer who understands the words he chooses. You could "deliver" a lecture, but because of the secondary (or rather, primary) definition of the word, your meaning may possibly be mistaken — so unless there is a good reason to use that particular word, say you "gave" the lecture, or just that you "lectured."
I find it educational and helpful even if I only take some of the advice, and the truly outdated or opinionated entries are obvious, if they aren't actually marked as "a matter of taste," to be regarded at will. But usually there is a kernel of critical difference that makes one think — how did I ever consider "chance" and "opportunity" as identical, when they have such different origins and connotations? Putting a large list of such items together helps show how Bierce himself wrote, what he considered good writing, and why.
Freeman, on the other hand, chooses to believe that the simple existence of a word or usage prior to Bierce's objection not only countermands that objection, but reduces it into a joke. And if a famous author made the error, it is no longer an error.
Throughout, she paints an ugly portrait of Bierce, depicting him not just as wrong, but embarrassingly wrong — an out-of-touch elitist as ignorant as he is prissy. It's distracting, inaccurate, and quadruples the page count of the book. No small part of that is her smug parting shots at the long-dead author:
"It's clear that there's a distinction here; what isn't clear is that there was ever a usage problem."
"Literally true, maybe; useful, no."
"Therer are differences, of course, but Bierce's rule wouldn't be much help to a writer with no sense of how the words are used."
"Bierce's objection — in which he is apparently alone — is silly."
These are not useful additions, many of them do not make sense, and Freeman's reasons for discarding or mocking Bierce's ideas about language have little consistency.
Avoid this edition of the book if at all possible. Get a free copy at Project Gutenberg, or a thrift edition that you can mark up yourself. It will be greatly improved by the absence of these worthless, irrelevant, and mean-spirited annotations.
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?
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.