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Write It Right: A LITTLE BLACKLIST OF LITERARY FAULTS by Ambrose Bierce (Terripam Publishers Inc., 4616 Cahuenga, Suite 3, Toluca Lake 91602: $12.95; 73 pp.)

May 31, 1987|Jack Miles

Golf is distinguished, among games involving a ball, by the small size of the goal relative to the playing field. The end zone in football, the strike zone in baseball, even the hoop in basketball--these are gigantic by comparison with that little spot at the center of the green at the end of the fairway.

One might expect then that a certain affinity would exist between the golfer and the grammarian, for in language as in golf the object of attention can be tiny: a speck of punctuation, a particle of negation, a single indispensable letter.

And so it turns out to be in the case of Edward B. Gannon, caddymaster at Lakeside Golf Club and publisher of this fierce, embattled little book by the journalist Ambrose Bierce. A star in his turn-of-the-century day, Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1913, and this book of his nearly disappeared with him. Gannon, who read a borrowed copy decades ago and was impressed by the strict standards of "the only writer I couldn't edit," had to spend decades hunting down a second surviving copy for this new edition.

Bierce would have us be exact about the metaphors carried by individual words. Thus he blacklists " Hail for come . 'He hails from Chicago.' This is sea speech, and comes from the custom of hailing passing ships. It will not do for serious discourse."

As a blacklister is also, sometimes, of a slyly black humor. Thus he proscribes: " Got married for married . If this is correct, we should say, also, 'got dead' for died; one expression is as good as the other."

He is occasionally terse to the point of being nearly impenetrable as in the following entry, quoted in its entirety: " Squirt for spurt . Absurd."

But, above all, he is always both entertaining and instructive. Time may have overtaken some of his more peremptory blacklistings. For example, he regards the word stunt --evidently a new word in his day--as almost beneath comment, a word "in a reptilian state of evolution." But much of his advice still applies and could help nearly any writer bring to his prose some of the etched clarity and formality of Bierce's.

Thus: " Such for so . 'He had such weak legs that he could not stand.' The absurdity of this is made obvious by changing the form of the statement: 'His legs were such weak that he could not stand.' If the word is an adverb in the one sentence, it is in the other. 'H1696622963endure him.' Say, so great a bore."

Not everyone cares for the niceties of language, just as not everyone likes golf. But if you have ever puzzled over a point of usage or laughed at a mixed metaphor, here is a little book you may enjoy. We are in debt to the Lakeside Golf Club caddymaster, who knows as too few language professionals do, both the price and the pleasures of accuracy.

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