Wednesday, 29 February 2012

How to write proper - sensationally fulsome praise for Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose "Bitter" Bierce
As will be obvious to regular readers, I quite often get words muddled up. Perhaps for this very reason, I derive masochistic pleasure from reading books about how to write proper. Last year, I got round to Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English, his last publication. Among other things, I learned that although jejune can mean juvenile, it derives from the latin word jejunus, and more usually means dry, arid, colourless, insipid etc (sorry, Frank!). Paramater is not a variant of perimeter (red cheeks all round). Malnutrition does not mean starvation – it refers to the effects of an unbalanced diet, and covers eating too much of one thing as well as too little (which I sort of knew).

We all have our pet hates, of course. Mine include fulsome to mean really full, emotive to mean emotional, decimate for destroy, disinterested for uninterested, literally for figuratively or metaphorically, less when it should be few, infer for imply (why does any educated person ever get this wrong?), abrogate for arrogate (mainly because I always have to think before committing myself to one or the other), and chronic for acute (anyone with a chronic illness will understand why this is so annoying).

Mind you, I did once write an angry letter to a literary agent, complaining that my last book had turned out to be a damp squid – and this glass house of a blog is no doubt littered with many equally dumb mistakes.

Of course, vulgar error often attains the status of standard usage over time. I suspect this tendency will accelerate as websites replace newspapers, state schools become increasingly swamped by immigrant children for whom English is barely a second language and the authorities continue to lie about pupils’ attainments, and universities are bullied into favouring estuarine applicants over properly-educated private school candidates.

The hopelessness of attempting to fix or correct general usage was brought home to me by reading the American writer Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, which was published in 1909. I’m glad Bierce didn’t live to see how futile his objections were to prove – at least 30% of the changes he abhorred are now accepted as standard usage (and probably were 93 years ago). Bierce – known as “Bitter” Bierce because of his jaundiced view of humanity, disappeared in Mexico at the age of 70, having travelled there to witness the revolution at first hand (he evidently got a bit too close).

Here are just some of the “mistakes” that got up Bierce’s no doubt contemptuously wrinkled nose:

Ovation is a full-scale Roman triumph, not a round of applause.

Donate is hifalutin.

Leniency is wrong – lenity is the right word.

Jeopardize is vulgar – the verb should be jeopard.

We don’t sit down to lunch – we sit down to luncheon.

“The army’s operations were confined to a limited area” is wrong, because all areas are limited – tell that to the Marines, Ambrose!

You don’t move to another house – you remove.

The things we can’t live without are necessaries, not necessities.

Obnoxious means exposed to evil – it does not mean offensive.

Numerous is not a synonym for many.

“Let’s get it over with” – omit with.

Men wear trousers, not pants (and still do in this country, of course).

Peculiar does not mean odd or unusual.

“Three people were killed” is wrong – it should be persons.

“The decision was practically unanimous” is wrong – the right word is virtually.

Preventative isn’t a word – preventive is (I think that one's still in the balance).

Rendition does not mean performance – it means a surrender, or a giving back. (God knows what Bierce would have made of extraordinary rendition.)

“They went to their respective homes” – it should be several.

Businesses are not run – they are managed or conducted.

Self-confessed is nonsense, as only the person themselves can confess.

There is no such thing as a sensational newspaper and nothing can cause a great sensation, as a sensation is a physical feeling.

You can’t settle a bill, you can’t give a sideways glance (it’s sidewise), and smart for bright or able is “an Americanism that is dying out”!

You can’t wet or bet in the past tense – it’s “he betted five pounds” and “he wetted the bed” (after liberally celebrating winning the bet, one assumes).

I think we can imply from this that all attempts by writers to abrogate to themselves the right to tell us how to write – even if they think our ability to communicate effectively will be decimated – is doomed, no matter how emotive the subject  is for them, or how chronic they feel the problem has become. Meanwhile, I would like to recommend Bierce’s book fulsomely. Write It Right can be found on Amazon and at Project Gutenberg.


  1. How about "coruscating" when people really mean "excoriating"? Mind you, a purist's stance like Bierce's is predicated on the assumption that language should be static and its usage not evolve. I think it's quite funny that my father used "gay" to mean brightly coloured, or in its secondary meaning a lady who liked a good time, my generation used it as a generic description of homosexuals and my children to denote a person or object deserving of contempt, as in "Oh God dad, you"'re so gay".

  2. Od dear, ex-KCS - I've been misusing "coruscating" for years. Oops! Thans for putting me right.

    As for "gay", children at my son's school are given detention for using it in its pejorative sense.