Nobody ever took this quite so far as the 19th-century writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce. He's best remembered today for his stories and his satirical Devil's Dictionary, but in 1909 he wrote a book calledWrite it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. It was republished for its centenary last year with entertaining annotations by Jan Freeman, who writes the language column for The Boston Globe. Bierce had a gift for discerning usage errors where no one else would have thought there was anything amiss.
Take the sentence,
"Since I made no money last year, I had to live in a dilapidated shack with a dirt floor with 10 other people."
By Bierce's lights, it contains five errors.
- You should say "earn money," not "make money";
- "last year" should be "the previous year";
- "dilapidated" shouldn't be used for a wood structure since it comes from the Latin word for stone;
- "dirt" shouldn't be used to mean earth;
- and you shouldn't use "people" with a specific number — it should be "10 other persons."
It's bad enough that that leaves students with the impression that mastering good usage requires learning an esoteric code.
'Equation,' 'Gingerly' And Other Linguistic Pet Peeves by GEOFF NUNBERG