“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.

Why Do Old Books Smell?

If you’re a book lover, you know the smell. That musty aroma that greets you when you enter a used book store or the book section of your local thrift store. But why do old books smell? In this short video, Richard from AbeBooks answers that question.

As Richard says, some people hate the smell of old books, others love it. I tend to like it because I associate it with something pleasant – books.

What about you?

Five Reasons You Should Still Read Books

English: The main reading romm of Graz Univers...
The main reading room of Graz University Library (19th century)

In some ways, reading books has fallen on hard times. Information is so readily available that we can get any amount of it that we want at the push of a button or the click of a mouse. Why then would we choose to sit down with a book and spend the time required to read it through?

I’d like to suggest five reasons we should still read books, even in this age of unlimited, instantaneously available information.

  1. Books do more than just give us information. Mortimer Adler in his excellent work How to Read a Booksays there are at least three goals of reading – entertainment, information and understanding. Of those three, books are best suited for increasing our understanding. So if we want not just information but understanding, we should be book readers.
  2. Books expose us to the thoughts and opinions of those who’ve gone before us. Everything we see and hear via television and the internet is produced by our contemporaries for the most part. Books, on the other hand open up the world of the past to us through the eyes of those who lived it. Any time we read something written in the past, we learn something about the culture of the time, the way people thought, etc. – even if what we’re reading is not specifically a history book.
  3. Books discourage multitasking. Many studies have shown that there’s no such thing as true multitasking and that attempting to do it is bad for us – yet many of us still do it. For example, while writing this post I’ve checked my email at least once in response to the siren song of that little ‘ding’ on my iPhone. However, it is much more difficult to multitask while reading a book, especially a old fashioned paper copy. The reason, in my case, is that I tend to read books in different places than I interact with electronic media so the temptation is not as strong and it’s not as easy to move from one thing to another.
  4. Similarly, books build concentration. One of the consequences of the internet has been that people’s ability to concentrate has been weakened. When everything comes to us in sound-bites and bullet points we begin to expect not to have to concentrate on anything too long in order to get what we’re looking for. Read any guide on writing blog posts and you’ll be told to make it scanable and to include bullet points (like this post!). Books, however, require us to spend an extended period of time interacting with the text and, because of that, can be valuable in teaching or re-teaching us how to concentrate.
  5. Finally, books help us relax. Stress levels are higher today than ever before, in part because of our constant connectedness to media and the relentless barrage of information that brings. I don’t know about you, but one of the ways I can best disconnect and decompress is with a book and a beverage out on the deck in the afternoon. I love C.S. Lewis’ quote: “You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” And while I may quibble with him over his choice of beverage, the relaxing image conjured up by his quote would be destroyed with anything else substituted for a book.

Do you see reading books as an important activity still? If so, why?