Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mr. Bierce's pronouncements

I met a reader of antique texts,
Who said—A brittle and well-foxed usage tome
is catalogued ... its yellowed pages stamped
With shattered rules and empty strictures,
And haughty tone, and sneers of cold command,
Telling how well its maker those prejudices
Expressed, now stamped on these lifeless things;
Every page proclaims its attitude:
My commandments reign supreme;
Heed my decrees, ye writers, or despair!
It lies dusty, untouched. Round the lapse
Of these disregarded edicts, boundless and full
The level shelves stretch far away.

Consider well, you mavens and self-appointed usage authorities, you who seek to remedy the lack of an Académie anglaise, with power over the English language to bind and loose, that the fate of an Ozymandias awaits you. Such a one was Ambrose Bierce.

Bierce, still known for his Devil’s Dictionary and the haunting short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” was a journalist and self-appointed usage authority who published in 1909 a little manual of blacklisted usages. Now the formidable Jan Freeman gives us Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers (Walker & Company, 229 pages, $24).

Ms. Freeman, language columnist for The Boston Globe and one of the best-informed and most sensible popular writers on language and usage we have, has done her research, examining not only Bierce’s little book of prejudices, but also eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuals by Robert Lowth, Richard Chenevix Trench, Henry Alford, and J. Lesslie Hall, among others. One of Bierce’s predecessors was William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, author of “Thanatopsis” (inflicted on generations of schoolchildren), and, apparently, in his Index Expurgatorius, responsible for the enduring superstition among journalists that over cannot be used in the sense of more than.

Some of the sources of nineteenth-century peevology she describes no longer trouble us. Now that so few students learn Latin and Greek, we tend not to be troubled when English does not match the classical languages (“etymological literalism,” she calls it). Thanks to H.L. Mencken and many linguists, we no longer feel abashed that American English differs from British (“status anxiety”). But some sources persist, particularly the suspicion of commercial language as vulgar and trendy. And the enduring but futile impulse to make English idioms and usage logical recurs in every generation.

Write It Right abounds in the distinctions, largely bogus, that continue to clutter manuals of usage and journalists’ stylebooks: anxious/eager, compare to/compare with, entitled/titled, hanged/hung, healthy/healthful, loan/lend, verbal/oral. People cannot be substituted for persons; no one can sustain an injury; transpire is not synonymous with occur. If you have been bothering yourself over these matters, I urge you to consult Ms. Freeman’s commentary on these entries for a succinct account of how you have been wasting valuable time.

Ambrose Bierce, however, is in a class by himself. Over and over, Ms. Freeman reports, his entries describe distinctions that only he can see. He appears to have been driven to prune the luxuriance of English so that its words could be limited to single, narrowly restricted meanings, as he says in his preface: “Few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings lexicographers may think it worth while to gather from all sorts and conditions of men, with which to bloat their absurd and misleading dictionaries.” It cannot be done, and is not worth doing.

There is much to admire in this little book: the thoroughness of Ms. Freeman’s research, her level-headed analysis of Bierce’s strictures, and — perhaps the enduring lesson — her insight into the foibles of usagists. If you as an editor or manager have the authority to set yourself up as a tinpot despot on usage (as I was for many years), put this book before you and learn humility.