Write It Right, Ambrose Bierce’s Blacklist of Literary Faults

In addition to his famous Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce also composed another dictionary of sorts, Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Sample entry:

Commit Suicide. Instead of “He committed suicide,” say, He killed himself, or, He took his life. For married we do not say “committed matrimony.” Unfortunately most of us do say, “got married,” which is almost as bad. For lack of a suitable verb we just sometimes say committed this or that, as in the instance of bigamy, for the verb to bigam is a blessing that is still in store for us.

Bierce’s tongue-in-cheek introduction is particularly funny:

The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern. It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should so write that his reader not only may, but must, understand.

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.

The plan of the book is more illustrative than expository, the aim being to use the terms of etymology and syntax as little as is compatible with clarity, familiar example being more easily apprehended than technical precept. When both are employed the precept is commonly given after the example has prepared the student to apply it, not only to the matter in mind, but to similar matters not mentioned. Everything in quotation marks is to be understood as disapproved.

Not all locutions blacklisted herein are always to be reprobated as universal outlaws. Excepting in the case of capital offenders—expressions ancestrally vulgar or irreclaimably degenerate—absolute proscription is possible as to serious composition only; in other forms the writer must rely on his sense of values and the fitness of things. While it is true that some colloquialisms and, with less of license, even some slang, may be sparingly employed in light literature, for point, piquancy or any of the purposes of the skilled writer sensible to the necessity and charm of keeping at least one foot on the ground, to others the virtue of restraint may be commended as distinctly superior to the joy of indulgence.

Precision is much, but not all; some words and phrases are disallowed on the ground of taste. As there are neither standards nor arbiters of taste, the book can do little more than reflect that of its author, who is far indeed from professing impeccability. In neither taste nor precision is any man’s practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply (as in making this book it has supplied) many “awful examples”—his later work less abundantly, he hopes, than his earlier. He nevertheless believes that this does not disqualify him for showing by other instances than his own how not to write. The infallible teacher is still in the forest primeval, throwing seeds to the white blackbirds.

Read/peruse/download Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right at Project Gutenberg.

Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors — Bill Bryson

That Bill Bryson’s Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (new this week in paperback from Anchor Books) should surpass utility and be loads of fun as well seems almost unfair. Aren’t dictionaries and style manuals meant to be dry? brysonBryson’s title here is pretty honest; he’s made a dictionary of hard-to-remember/easy-to-forget words, including plenty of commonly misspelled words. In the age of spell-check, it’s not so much Bryson’s spellings that are essential as it is the context in which he puts his words. For instance, do you know the difference between “gabardine” and “gaberdine”? (“The first is a type of worsted cloth, the second a long cloak”). Bryson goes further (not farther!) than mere distinctions between words like “creole” and “pidgin” or “bravado” and “bravery”: he actually gets into the fray of how one ought to use words. Consider the entry on “past”:

“Often a space waster, as in this example: ‘Davis said the dry conditions had been a recurrent problem for the past thirty years.’ In this sentence, and in countless others like it, ‘the past’ could be deleted without any loss of sense. Equally tautological and to be avoided are such expressions as past records, past history, past achievements, and past precedents.”

The exasperation is almost palpable! When I first picked up the dictionary, I immediately checked out what Bryson had to say on one of my own pet peeves, “couldn’t of” as the contracted form of “couldn’t have.” Here’s Bryson, in a solution that mixes humor with a bit of common sense:

“As a shortened form of ‘couldn’t have,’ couldn’t of does unquestionably avoid the clumsy double contraction couldn’t’ve, a form not often seen in print since J.D. Salinger stopped writing. However, I would submit that that does not make it satisfactory. Using the preposition of as a surrogate for ‘ve seems to me simply to be swapping an ungainly form for an illiterate one. If couldn’t’ve is too painful to use, I would suggest simply writing couldn’t have and allowing the reader’s imagination to supply the appropriate inflection.

As we see, Bryson’s interest isn’t so much on presenting himself as an absolute authority on the English language as it is in helping writers to be more lucid. We see this again–with the same wittiness–when discussing the differences between “Shakespearean” and “Shakespearian”:

“The first is the usual spelling in America and the second is the usual spelling in Britain, but, interestingly, don’t look to The Oxford English Dictionary for guidance on any spellings concerning England’s greatest poet. Perversely and charmingly, but entirely unhelpfully, the OED insists on spelling the name Shakspere, a decision it based on one of the six spellings Shakespeare himself used. It does, however, acknowledge that Shakespeare is ‘perhaps’ the commonest spelling now used.

While Bryson’s Dictionary is plenty of fun for word nerds, it’s utility and ease-of-use are really what make it a must-have for writers. Bryson devotes 11 pages of his short, useful appendix to punctuation, a section that every young (or not so young) writer should read (the three pages he devotes to comma use are particularly insightful). In sum, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors is a witty and intuitive aid that many a writer will love having on their desk. I know I do. Highly recommended.