Jan Freeman has long been a LH favorite; her Boston Globe language column has been in my blogroll for years. Now she’s come out with a wonderful book her publisher, Walker & Company, was good enough to send me: Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers. When I first heard about the book, I assumed it would be a reprint of Bierce’s crotchety but amusing 1909 usage guide Write It Right (Project Gutenberg edition) with a well-written, sensible introduction. When I got it, however, I discovered that besides the well-written, sensible introduction, each of Bierce’s entries was followed by Freeman’s well-written, sensible update, saying pretty much what I would have wanted to say about each of his rants and shibboleths. Under “Less for Fewer,” she starts off discussing the history of the prohibition (which goes back only to the 18th century), goes on to describe the history of the usage (citing my preferred authority on these things, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage), mentions modern mavens who didn’t subscribe to the consensus disapproval, and finishes by talking about how it’s actually used (“when the number is thought of as a limit”).
The next entry is short enough I’ll quote the whole thing; the first paragraph is Bierce, the second Freeman:
Liable for Likely. “Man is liable to err.” Man is not liable to err, but to error. Liable should be followed, not by an infinitive, but by a preposition.
The critics of Bierce’s day worked hard at fine-tuning the uses of liable, likely, and apt, but the notion that liable could not be followed by an infinitive seems to be Bierce’s own hallucination. In fact, the construction had been in use for more than two centuries: “All would be liable to die,” wrote Thomas Creech, a British scholar, in 1682, and writers ever since have followed his example.
Anyone who enjoys well-grounded usage discussions and/or the great Bierce should run out and get this delightful little book.