Selected entries from Ambrose Bierce’s “Write It Right”

Ambrose Bierce was a good writer, but perhaps more important to him than the ultimate perceived quality of his writing was the pride he took in what he would call its precision. This quality he attempted to promote with a short usage volume entitled “Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults.”

Precision, he writes in the introduction, “is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should write so that his reader not only may, but must, understand.”

Thus, “capacity” should not be used when “ability” is meant, nor “continual” for “continuous,” and so on. The goal is not just successful communication, for which purpose even nonsense words will serve (and often do), but removing any possibility of misconstrual. It is worth noting that it is strictly for “serious discourse” such as news writing and letters that he advises, not poetry or other creative prose, in which creative or ambiguous usage is not discouraged (here, at least).

The “blacklist” he assembled is, admittedly, as often frusty and out of date as it is interesting and helpful, but a few examples that showcase Bierce’s wit or intelligently elucidate an error may convince those who enjoy them to seek out the rest (of which below). So here follow several of the most entertaining or insightful entries. (NB: The first item listed is the word to which Bierce objects, the second the preferred one. Also, “Everything in quotation marks is to be understood as disapproved.”)

Adopt. “He adopted a disguise.” One may adopt a child, or an opinion, but a disguise is assumed.

Avocation for Vocation. A vocation is, literally, a calling; that is, a trade or profession. An avocation is something that calls one away from it. If I say that farming is some one’s avocation I mean that he practises it, not regularly, but at odd times.

Banquet. A good enough word in its place, but its place is the dictionary. Say, dinner.

Both alike. “They are both alike.” Say, they are alike. One of them could not be alike.

Build for Make. “Build a fire.” “Build a canal.” Even “build a tunnel” is not unknown, and probably if the wood-chuck is skilled in the American tongue he speaks of building a hole.

Capacity for Ability. “A great capacity for work.” Capacity is receptive; ability, potential. A sponge has capacity for water; the hand, ability to squeeze it out.

Custom for Habit. Communities have customs; individuals, habits — commonly bad ones.

Doubtlessly. A doubly adverbial form, like “illy.”

Fail. “He failed to note the hour.” That implies that he tried to note it, but did not succeed. Failure carries always the sense of endeavor; when there has been no endeavor there is no failure. A falling stone cannot fail to strike you, for it does not try; but a marksman firing at you may fail to hit you; and I hope he always will.

Forecasted. For this abominable word we are indebted to the weather bureau — at least it was not sent upon us until that affliction was with us. Let us hope that it may some day be losted from the language.

Gentleman. It is not possible to teach the correct use of this overworked word: one must be bred to it. To use the word gentleman correctly, be one.

Head over Heels. A transposition of words hardly less surprising than (to the person most concerned) the mischance that it fails to describe. What is meant is heels over head.

Insignificant for Trivial, or Small. Insignificant means not signifying anything and should be used only in contrast, expressed or implied, with something that is important for what it implies. The bear’s tail may be insignificant to a naturalist tracing the animal’s descent from an earlier species, but to the rest of us, not concerned with the matter, it is merely small.

Just Exactly. Nothing is gained in strength nor precision by this kind of pleonasm. Omit just.

Kind of a for Kind of. “He was that kind of a man.” Say that kind of man. Man here is generic, and a genus comprises many kinds. But there cannot be more than one kind of one thing. Kind of followed by an adjective, as, “kind of good,” is almost too gross for censure.

Landed Estate for Property in Land. Dreadful!

Lengthy. Usually said in disparagement of some wearisome discourse. It is no better than breadthy, or thicknessy.

Leniency for Lenity. The words are synonymous, but the latter is the better.

Limited for Small, Inadequate, etc. “The army’s operations were confined to a limited area.” “We had a limited supply of food.” A large area and an adequate supply would also be limited. Everything that we know about is limited.

Literally for Figuratively. “The stream was literally alive with fish.” “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.

Militate. “Negligence militates against success.” If “militate” meant anything it would mean fight, but there is no such word.

Mistaken for Mistake. “You are mistaken.” For whom? Say, You mistake.

Only. “He only had one.” Say, He had only one, or, better, one only. The other sentence might be taken to mean that only he had one; that, indeed, is what it distinctly says. The correct placing of only in a sentence requires attention and skill.

Opine for Think. The word is not very respectably connected.

Pants for Trousers. Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly.

Phenomenal for Extraordinary, or Surprising. Everything that occurs is phenomenal, for all that we know about is phenomena, appearances. Of realities, noumena, we are ignorant.

Poetry for Verse. Not all verse is poetry; not all poetry is verse. Few persons can know, or hope to know, the one from the other, but he who has the humility to doubt (if such a one there be) should say verse if the composition is metrical.

Raise for Bring up, Grow, Breed etc. In this country a word-of-all-work: “raise children,” “raise wheat,” “raise cattle.” Children are brought up, grain, hay and vegetables are grown, animals and poultry are bred.

Ruination for Ruin. Questionably derived and problematically needful.

Squirt for Spurt. Absurd.

Substantiate for Prove. Why?

Such Another for Another Such. There is illustrious authority for this — in poetry. Poets are a lawless folk, and may do as they please so long as they do please.

To. As part of an infinitive it should not be separated from the other part by an adverb, as, “to hastily think,” for hastily to think, or, to think hastily. Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it. Our forefathers and we elder writers of this generation used it freely and without shame — perhaps because it had not a name, and our crime could not be pointed out without too much explanation.

Ways for Way. “A squirrel ran a little ways along the road.” “The ship looked a long ways off.” This surprising word calls loudly for depluralization.

Whip for Chastise, or Defeat. To whip is to beat with a whip. It means nothing else.

One last note: if you are interested in reading the rest, do not buy the common edition “annotated” by the patronizing and ignorant Jan Freeman. It is available for free on Project Gutenberg and can be found elsewhere without Freeman’s insulting commentary.