“Write it Right” by Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce-1
Ambrose Bierce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist, writer, literary critic and satirist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most famous work is the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which is set during the American Civil War, a war in which Bierce served as a First Lieutenant on the Union side.

He is also at the center of one of the most intriguing mysteries of the literary world. Bierce disappeared without a trace just after Christmas, 1913 during a trip to Mexico. To this day no one is certain what happened to him or when he finally died.

In his day, Bierce was considered a master of the English language. He composed “Write it Right”in 1909, sub-titled “A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults” to, as he says, “teach precision in writing.” Known for his wit and sometimes biting criticism, Bierce was a stickler for the precise and correct use of words.

His ‘blacklist’ gives us a glimpse of English usage at the turn of the last century. Some of the things he considers capital offenses would hardly generate a parking ticket today, while others have maintained their status as grammatical felonies up to the present.

In many of the items on the list, we see Bierce’s wit on display:

Badly for Bad. “I feel badly.” “He looks badly.” The former sentence implies defective nerves of sensation, the latter, imperfect vision. Use the adjective.

Alleged. “The alleged murderer.” One can allege a murder, but not a murderer; a crime, but not a criminal. A man that is merely suspected of crime would not, in any case, be an alleged criminal, for an allegation is a definite and positive statement. In their tiresome addiction to this use of alleged, the newspapers, though having mainly in mind the danger of libel suits, can urge in further justification the lack of any other single word that exactly expresses their meaning; but the fact that a mud-puddle supplies the shortest route is not a compelling reason for walking through it. One can go around.

Here are a few other of my favorites:

Fix. This is, in America, a word-of-all-work, most frequently meaning repair, or prepare. Do not so use it.

Got Married for Married. If this is correct we should say, also, “got dead” for died; one expression is as good as the other.

Mistaken for Mistake. “You are mistaken.” For whom? Say, You mistake.

Seldom ever. A most absurd locution

Self-confessed. “A self-confessed assassin.” Self is superfluous: one’s sins cannot be confessed by another.

And of course my all time favorite and personal biggest language pet peeve:

Unique. “This is very unique.” “The most unique house in the city.” There are no degrees of uniqueness: a thing is unique if there is not another like it. The word has nothing to do with oddity, strangeness, nor picturesqueness.

For those who want to see Bierce’s entire list, the book can be downloaded free here at Amazon as well as here in several different formats at Project Gutenberg.