Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, by Ambroe Bierce and Jan Freeman
This is a complicated book. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not necessarily a good thing as well. Once upon a time I came across a movie that was called Adaptation, and I watched it in theaters with a friend of mine. The movie happened to be about the adapting of a book into the screen and it proved to be something both more and less than what it was adapting, and the same is the case here. At the base level of text here is a book that Ambrose Bierce wrote in 1909 to encourage other writers, presumably other journalists, to write in a proper fashion that avoids slangy or commercial language. Admittedly, though, the author is a bit of a crank, and when one compares his guide to his own writing, one can see that Bierce is not particularly consistent and that he sometimes flagrantly violates his own supposed prescriptivist principles, making him about as consistent as the rest of us, I suppose. On top of this there is an extensive degree of commentary from Jan Freeman, who seems to take a much more laid-back attitude to matter of grammar and usage.
The book as a whole is a bit more than 200 pages, and it consists both of Bierce’s prescriptions, which are in alphabetical order, and Freeman’s commentary on each of those entries. For the most part, Bierce’s comments show him to be a bit of a crank, and hostile to the way that terms became heavily imbued with slang and commercialism over the course of the 19th century. In general, it appears as if he, like many other American writers, felt a bit of an insecurity complex as Americans speaking English speaking differently than folks in the olde country. Freeman appears to harbor no such insecurity and takes a look at a wide variety of similar guides as well as the history of word origins and usage and contemporary usage patterns in the United States and Great Britain as a way of gently mocking Bierce for his curmudgeonly tendencies. The mocking is gentle, though, because Bierce was part of a much larger group of critics of the use of the English language and in at least some cases the usage patterns ended up fixing some of the issues that Bierce complained about in his own writings.
And that is really what one gets out of a book like this, a sense of context about the ways in which people have used language and complained about how others use language. The rise of mass literacy and the continuing question of the prestige of regional and national dialects make for interesting reading even now, for a certain sort of person, and as a well-traveled writer who prided himself on his writing skill and who wanted to tweak younger rivals like Jack London, there is a lot of fascinating discussion here. What makes a particular word or use of a word problematic? Does its use in sports matter? Are there journalistic standards of the use of English that need to be kept up? Is it wrong to use terms that are regional in nature or Americanisms? For me, it is not so important what the answers people have as the willingness to engage in the questions, and even where I disagree frequently with the way an author goes about trying to defend the legitimacy of a certain sort of English language from others, it is still entertaining to read an effort like this that comes so truly out of a man’s bile.