November 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers edited by Jan Freeman

With Ambrose Bierce, it’s like you’re either against him or you’re against him. Even if you love his long-curdled, tireless bitchiness -- even if it validates you and vindicates you and just plain makes you feel better -- you know that if he met you at a party or read your short story in Harper’s or The New Yorker, he would shrivel you and skewer you and make you sorry you’d ever tried to share his space on the planet. Meanwhile, Bierce’s own life seems to have been a bitter, strife-filled stew of self-fulfilling prophecy.   

His 1909 usage guide, Write It Right, shows that he had an unsurprising loathing for slang, vernacular, changes in the English language, and creative grammar. The surprising part is that, even in 1909, most of the violations that got Bierce’s panties all up in a twist were hopelessly outdated. Lots of them seem to have been broken by Shakespeare or Marlowe. Some of them seem to have been purely old “Bitter Bierce’s” own invention. The book demonstrates, as Jan Freeman writes in her introduction, that “indignation has charms that reason can’t match.” One could argue that the book was spectacularly irrelevant. On the other hand, his short, clear introduction makes a good defense: good writing is “clear thinking made visible,” and therefore, “precision is the point of capital concern.” He admits that it’s all fairly subjective and that he, himself is not impeccable. He clings to the value of this project even as he grimly sucks up its futility. 

Bierce was a master of irony, and I think that, as such, he would have adored this centenary edition of Write It Right. Jan Freeman, who writes a newspaper column on words in the early twenty-first century, at a moment when most of us can barely spell our own names, has gone through and annotated and refuted most of Bierce’s little rules and points, showing how they reflected his personal quirks. The project is painstaking and a tiny bit embarrassing -- she’s battling a long, long dead opponent. He’s not here to defend himself. And if he were here to cross swords with her over contemporary usage issues -- over guidelines for precision in this terrifyingly grammarless post-apocalyptic dystopia (LOL) -- he would probably just fucking vanquish her. On the other hand, who knows? Maybe Freeman would win, and Bitter Bierce would slink off to tilt at some windmills and pee in the Atlantic. My money is on the devil.

My own grammar is hopeless. In fact, that’s surely wrong. I’m supposed to say, I’m hopeless about my grammar? Right? Or something else entirely. I notice that my prepositions are wrong, that I end sentences with them, and I don’t really know what a “trope” is, and the more I think about this, or around this, the more I think this through, the worse it all gets. Minute points like “last week” versus “this past week” or “forebears” for “ancestors,” or the proper meaning of the word “appreciate,” are kind of lost on me, and probably on most readers. (Grammar, according to The Devil’s Dictionary: “A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.” Dictionary: “A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.”)

Write It Right probably won’t rescue the average user from murky language use or clunky imprecision. Freeman’s notes are funny and entertaining, but not exactly gratifying enough to attract a Devil’s Dictionary-like cult following. The great revelation of this annotated edition is that the battle for clear prose, at least in English, was lost before it even began. And Bitter Bierce would’ve appreciated that. 

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers edited by Jan Freeman
Walker & Company
ISBN: 0802717683
240 Pages