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.


  1. I used to own a copy of the original edition of Write it Right, but ending up giving it away to a prescriptivist friend, a retired English teacher. I always thought of it as a kind of pedantic doppleganger to the Devil’s Dictionary.

  2. We need some captchas here to keep the spambots out.

  3. When I take a more prescriptivist leaning, the age of a particular error is particularly unlikely to dissuade me. This seems like a popular response; “That usage goes back to the seventeenth century.” So does treating illness with leeches.
    I’m less prescriptivist in vocabulary than in grammar, and I guess I don’t care which way you construe “liable”. Less/fewer drives me nuts, though, in a way that dragging fingernails across a chalkboard never did. I sometimes push back at “momentarily” for “soon”, in my more sarcastic moments (not infrequent) finding a way to use “momentary” to mean “imminent”; if I were sorting usage, I would throw this into the vocabulary bucket rather than the grammar bucket, but the principle is one of regularity, which is why I tend more prescriptivist in grammar in the first place.

  4. Bill Walderman says

    “the principle is one of regularity”
    Language is liable to be irregular and unprincipled.

  5. treating illness with leeches.
    That practice has been revived in the West over the past 10-15 years at least, with the sanction of government control bodies like the FDA in the States. I’ve heard leeches are excellent at cleaning up infected wounds, for instance.

  6. Specifically, leeches drain blood from wound, helping them heal faster.
    MY father, an MD, told me that maggots only eat dead flesh and can be used for cleaning out wounds too, but they’re rarely used.

  7. I believe flesh eaters like maggots are used to treat burn victims.

  8. Damn, I confused the uses of leeches and maggots. Yes, maggots are being used again these days to clean out wounds, especially burn wounds. But leeches are also being used again for something or other, see my link.

  9. treating illness with leeches
    I have seen leaches used in a hospital setting and have applied the leaches myself as part of job duties. The leech attaches to the skin for feeding, it drinks the blood. At the same time it releases s substance into the bloodstream that thins the blood. The case I saw was someone with fingers damaged from putting them under a running lawnmower. They were trying to save the fingers by increasing the blood circulation to the damaged areas. Every few hours one of the hospital staff would attach the leeches on an undamaged area of skin next to the damaged area and let them feed for a half hour or so then put them back in their jar.

  10. “Thins the blood” means reduces (breaks down) clotting factors, right? There is no literal “thinning”, as you would get by adding blood plasma (that clear stuff that contributes 90%+ of the volume)? The blood circulation is not “increased” by the prevention of clotting, but just kept from deteriorating due to clotting?

  11. This seems like a popular response; “That usage goes back to the seventeenth century.”
    Although, yes, you will see such statements often in these parts, they’re used to confute claims that certain usages are new (and, by ignorant extension, wrong) — not as ipso facto justifications. Prescriptivism is a hydra of misinformation; the many arguments you need to battle it are easily distorted. Also, your buckets are mislabeled.

  12. Something people don’t understand is that leeches and maggots have feelings too, so if you want them to do a good job, you should thyank them now and then. They’ve been abused for millions of years, and sometimes they just get depressed and give up.

  13. I think that a different angle on prescriptivism, rather than just plucking examples, is to ask yopurself which of your favorite authors wouldmake it past a prescriptivist censor or, as far as that goes, the guardians of house style of the various reputable publications. It’s really a very limited kind of writing that is being insisted upon.
    One of my beefs about E.B. White is that, while I love the New Yorker authors of his era, especially the early part, most of them are pretty minor.

  14. If I was doing the prescribing, I’d make it compulsory to use the word “necrotic” whenever one decently can. It is necrotic tissue that maggots eat, and good luck to them with that.
    Although I wouldn’t advise any passing AJPs to make a photoblog of it.

  15. “Thins the blood” means reduces (breaks down) clotting factors, right?
    Leech pharmacology: “Danaparoid is a heparinoid; desirudin and lepirudin are recombinant hirudins, developed from hirudin, the natural anticoagulant of the medicinal leech.”
    Anticoagulants like coumadin (warfarin) and heparin are commonly called “blood thinners” in non-medical jargon. WebMD on “blood thinners”.

  16. This is a very strange thread, but I’m used to that.

  17. This is a very strange thread, but I’m used to that.
    *sighs tragically in a mute appeal to Heaven*

  18. In times of crisis, turn to maggots, they are perfect bait to catch fish for dinner.
    There is a song in praise of leeches in Буратино, the Russian version of Pinocchio here

  19. The common housefly, Musca domestica, has a higher natural protein content than beef, fowl, fish or shellfish, Cockerum says. When dried, the per-ounce protein count is even higher.
    Every week, Oregon Feeder Insects ships millions of maggots, pupae and adult houseflies — dead and alive, whole and dried, ground and in-the-round — to the makers of pet food, bird seed and fish hatchery chow. His next market could even be maggot protein blocks produced for human consumption, Cockerum says.
    The flies he raises are strictly vegetarians. Cockerum disdains houseflies raised on meat, which he says exposes them to bacteria and other pathogens. Tillamook County manure comes from dairy cattle that graze in pesticide- and herbicide-free pastures, he says.
    I looked at dairy country up and down the West Coast, but all the time the purest manure was right here in our own back yard,” he says.
    When they’re ready for market, the maggots are taken outside and their feed is washed away on a large screen. Cockerum scalds them in steaming hot water because “it’s the most humane way to kill them,” he says. They’re then dried on trays inside a converted bakery box.

    Portland Oregonian, March 13, 2002

  20. Yeah, how much methane do you think those maggots & houseflies are going to be producing, Emmers? You’re not thinking environmentally.

  21. Your thinking is necrotic, Emms.

  22. The Norse were crushed to find that their manure was not the purest in the world, regardless of what Bjornson said. But facts are facts.

  23. Thanks for that, I’m currently writing a short piece on Norwegian trash.

  24. Friend, visiting Botanic Garden: “That plant is dead.”
    Expert: “Yes.”
    Friend, bending over to inspect: “What’s it died of?”
    Expert, bending over to inspect: “Necrosis”.

  25. Indeed, a very strange thread. I’m bursting with pride.

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