COMPOSITION, PUNCTUATION, PARAPHRASING,
8. Our sentences should be perfectly clear. That is, the reader, if he is a person of ordinary common-sense, should not be left for a moment in doubt as to our meaning.
(i) A Roman writer on style says: “Care should be taken, not that the reader may understand if he will, but that he shall understand whether he will or not.”
(ii) Our sentences should be as clear as “mountain water flowing over a rock.” They should “economise the reader’s attention.”
(iii) Clearness is gained by being simple, and by being brief.
(iv) Simplicity teaches us to avoid (a) too learned words, and (b) roundabout ways of mentioning persons and things.
(a) We ought, for example, to prefer—
|Abuse to Vituperation.||Neighbourhood to Vicinity.|
|Begin " Commence.||Trustworthy " Reliable.|
|Commence " Initiate.||Welcome " Reception.|
(b) We ought to avoid such stale and hackneyed phrases as the “Swan of Avon” for Shakespeare; the “Bard of Florence” for Dante; “the Great Lexicographer” for Dr Johnson.
(v) Brevity enjoins upon us the need of expressing our meaning in as few words as possible.
Opposed to brevity is verbosity, or wordiness. Pope says—
“Words are like leaves; and, where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”
(vi) Dr Johnson says: “Tediousness is the most fatal of all faults.”
9. Our sentences should be written in flowing English. That is, the rhythm of each sentence ought to be pleasant to the ear, if read aloud. This axiom gives rise to two rules:—
Practical Rule III.—Write as you would speak!
(i) This, of course, points to an antecedent condition—that you must be a good reader. Good reading aloud is one of the chief conditions of good writing. “Living speech,” says a philosophic writer, “is the corrective of all style.”
Practical Rule IV.—After we have written our piece of composition, we should read it aloud either to ourselves or to someone else.
Thus, and thus only, shall we be able to know whether each sentence has an agreeable rhythm.
Practical Rule V.—“Never write about any matter you do not well understand. If you clearly understand all about your matter, you will never want thoughts; and thoughts instantly become words.”—Cobbett.
“Seek not for words; seek only fact and thought,
And crowding in will come the words, unsought.”—Horace.
“Know well your subject; and the words will go
To the pen’s point, with steady, ceaseless flow.”—Pentland.
10. Our sentences should be compact.
(i) That is, they ought not to be loose collections of words, but firm, well-knit, nervous organisms.
(ii) A sentence in which the complete sense is suspended till the close is called a period. Contrasted with it is the loose sentence.
(a) Loose Sentence.—The Puritans looked down with contempt on the rich and the eloquent, on nobles and priests.
(b) Period.—On the rich and the eloquent, on nobles and priests the Puritans looked down with contempt.
(iii) The following is a fine example of a loose sentence: “Notwithstanding his having gone, in winter, to Moscow, where he found the cold excessive, and which confined him, without intermission, six weeks to his room, we could not induce him to come home.” This no more makes a sentence than a few cartloads of bricks thrown loosely upon the ground constitute a house.
One object in style is to call the attention of the reader in a forcible and yet agreeable way to the most important parts of our subject—in other words, to give emphasis to what is emphatic, and to make what is striking and important strike the eye and mind of the reader. This purpose may be attained in many different ways; but there are several easy devices that will be found of use to us in our endeavour to give weight and emphasis to what we write. These are:—
1. The ordinary grammatical order of the words in a sentence may be varied; and emphatic words may be thrown to the beginning or to the end of the sentence. This is the device of Inversion.
Thus we have, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” “Jesus I know, and Paul I know: but who are ye?” “Some he imprisoned; others he put to death.” “Go he must!” “Do it he shall!” “They could not take their rest, for they knew Lord Strafford watched. Him they feared, him they trusted, him they obeyed.” “He that tells a lie is not sensible how great a task he undertakes; for, to maintain one, he must invent twenty more.” In the last sentence, the phrase to maintain one gains emphasis by being thrown out of its usual and natural position. But
Caution 1.—Do not go out of your way to invert. It has a look of affectation. Do not say, for example, “True it is,” or “Of Milton it was always said,” etc. And do not begin an essay thus: “Of all the vices that disfigure and degrade,” etc.
2. The Omission of Conjunctions gives force and emphasis.
Thus Hume writes: “He rushed amidst them with his sword drawn, threw them into confusion, pushed his advantage, and gained a complete victory.” We may write: “You say this; I deny it.”
3. The use of the Imperative Mood gives liveliness and emphasis.
Thus we find the sentence: “Strip virtue of the awful authority she derives from the general reverence of mankind, and you rob her of half her majesty.” Here strip is equal to If you strip; but is much more forcible.
4. Emphasis is also gained by employing the Interrogative Form.
(i) Thus, to say “Who does not hope to live long?” is much more forcible and lively than “All of us hope to live long.”
(ii) This is a well-known form in all impassioned speech. Thus, in the Bible we find: “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever?”
5. The device of Exclamation may also be employed to give emphasis; but it cannot be frequently used, without danger of falling into affectation.
Thus Shakespeare, instead of making Hamlet say, “Man is a wonderful piece of work,” etc.—which would be dull and flat—writes, “What a piece of work is man!” etc.
6. Emphasis may be gained by the use of the device of Periphrasis.
(i) Thus, instead of saying “John built this house,” or “This house was built by John,” we can say: “It was John who built this house;” “It was no other than John who,” etc.
7. Repetition is sometimes a powerful device for producing emphasis; but, if too frequently employed, it becomes a tiresome mannerism.
(i) Macaulay is very fond of this device. He says: “Tacitus tells a fine story finely, but he cannot tell a plain story plainly. He stimulates till stimulants lose their power.” Again: “He aspired to the highest—above the people, above the authorities, above the laws, above his country.”
(ii) Its effect in poetry is sometimes very fine:—
“By foreign hands thy dying eyes were closed;
By foreign hands thy decent limbs composed;
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorned;
By strangers honoured, and by strangers mourned.”
8. The device of Suspense adds to the weight and emphasis of a statement; it keeps the attention of the reader on the stretch, because he feels the sense to be incomplete.
(i) The suspense in the following sentence gives a heightened idea of the difficulty of travelling: “At last, with no small difficulty, and after much fatigue, we came, through deep roads, storms of wind and rain, and bad weather of all kinds, to our journey’s end.”
(ii) This device is frequent in poetry. Thus Keats opens his “Hyperion” in this way:—
“Deep in the shady sadness of a vale,
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon and eve’s one star—
Sat grey-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone.”
Here the verb is kept to the last line.
9. Antithesis always commands attention, and is therefore a powerful mode of emphasising a statement. But antithesis is not always at one’s command; and it must not be strained after.
Macaulay employs this device with great effect. He has: “The Puritans hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” Swift was very fond of it. Thus he says: “The two maxims of a great man at court are, always to keep his countenance, and never to keep his word.” Dr Johnson has this sentence: “He was a learned man among lords, and a lord among learned men.” “He twice forsook his party; his principles never.”
10. A very sharp, sudden, and unexpected antithesis is called an Epigram.
(i) Thus Lord Bacon, speaking of a certain procession in Rome, says that “The statues of Brutus and Cassius were conspicuous by their absence.”
Macaulay says of the dirt and splendour of the Russian Ambassadors: “They came to the English Court dropping pearls and vermin.”
(ii) The following are additional instances of truths put in a very striking and epigrammatic way: “Verbosity is cured by a large vocabulary” (because when you have a large stock of words, you will be able to choose the fittest). “We ought to know something of everything, and everything of something.” “He was born of poor but dishonest parents.” “When you have nothing to say, say it.” “He
had nothing to do, and he did it.” “The better is the enemy of the good.” “One secret in education,” says Herbert Spencer, “is to know how wisely to lose time.” “Make haste slowly.” “They did nothing in particular; and did it very well.”
(iii) But no one should strain after such a style of writing. Such an attempt would only produce smartness, which is a fatal vice.
1. One great secret of a good and striking style is the art of Specification.
Professor Bain gives us an excellent example of a vague and general, as opposed to a distinct and specific style:—
(a) Vague.—“In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulation of their penal codes will be severe.”
(b) Specific.—“According as men delight in battles, bull-fights, and combats of gladiators, so will they punish by hanging, burning, and crucifying.”
2. Specification or distinctness of style may be attained in two ways: (i) by the use of concrete terms; and (ii) by the use of detail.
3. A concrete or particular term strikes both the feelings and imagination with greater force than an abstract or general term can do.
(i) Let us make a few contrasts:—
|Building materials.||Bricks and mortar.|
|Old age.||Grey hairs.|
|Warlike weapons.||Sword and gun.|
|Rich and poor.||The palace and the cottage.|
|A miserable state.||Age, ache, and penury.|
|“I have neither the necessaries of life, nor the means of procuring them.”||“I have not a crust of bread, nor a penny to buy one.”|
(ii) Campbell says: “The more general the terms are, the picture is the fainter; the more special, the brighter.” “They sank like lead in the mighty waters” is more forcible than “they sank like metal.”
4. Details enable the reader to form in his mind a vivid picture of the event narrated or the person described; and, before beginning to write, we ought always to draw up a list of such details as are both striking and appropriate—such details as tend to throw into stronger relief the chief person or event.
The following is a good example from the eloquent writer and profound thinker Edmund Burke. He is speaking of the philanthropist Howard:—
“He has visited all Europe to dive into the depths of dungeons; to plunge into the infections of hospitals; to survey the mansions of sorrow and pain; to take the gauge and dimensions of misery, depression, and contempt; to remember the forgotten, to attend to the neglected, to visit the forsaken, and to compare and collate the distresses of all men in all countries.”
1. Avoid the use of threadbare and hackneyed expressions. Leave them to people who are in a hurry, or to penny-a-liners.
|At the expiration of four years.||At the end, etc.|
|Paternal sentiments.||The feelings of a father.|
|Exceedingly opulent.||Very rich.|
|Incur the danger.||Run the risk.|
|Accepted signification.||Usual meaning.|
|Extreme felicity.||Great happiness.|
|A sanguinary engagement.||A bloody battle.|
|In the affirmative.||Yes.|
2. Be very careful in the management of pronouns.
(i) Cobbett says: “Never put an it upon paper without thinking well what you are about. When I see many it’s in a page, I always tremble for the writer.” See also 2 Kings, xix. 35: “And when they arose early in the morning, behold they were all dead corpses.”
(ii) Bolingbroke has the sentence: “They were persons of very moderate intellects, even before they were impaired by their passions.” The last they ought to be these.
(iii) The sentence, “He said to his patient that if he did not feel better in half an hour, he thought he had better return,” is a clumsy sentence, but clear enough; because we can easily see that it is the patient that is to take the advice.
3. Be careful not to use mixed metaphors.
(i) The following is a fearful example: “This is the arrow of conviction, which, like a nail driven in a sure place, strikes its roots downwards into the earth, and bears fruit upwards.”
(ii) Sir Boyle Roche, an Irish member, began a speech thus: “Mr Speaker, I smell a rat, I see him floating in the air; but, mark me, I shall yet nip him in the bud.” A similar statement is: “Lord Kimberley said that in taking a very large bit of the Turkish cherry the way had been paved for its partition at no distant day.”
4. Be simple, quiet, manly, frank, and straightforward in your style, as in your conduct. That is: Be yourself!
1. Avoid tautology.
Alison says: “It was founded mainly on the entire monopoly of the whole trade with the colonies.” Here entire and whole are tautological; for monopoly means entire possession, or possession of the whole. “He appears to enjoy the universal esteem of all men.” Here universal is superfluous.
2. Place the adverb as near the word it modifies as you can.
“He not only found her employed, but also pleased and tranquil.” The not only belongs to employed, and should therefore go with it.
3. Avoid circumlocution.
“Her Majesty, on reaching Perth, partook of breakfast.” This should be simply breakfasted. But the whole sentence should be recast into: “On reaching Perth, the Queen breakfasted in the station.”
4. Take care that your participles are attached to nouns, and that they do not run loose.
“Alarmed at the news, the boat was launched at once.” Here alarmed can, grammatically, agree with boat only. The sentence should be: “The men, alarmed at the news, launched their boat at once.”
5. Use a present participle as seldom as possible.
(i) “I have documents proving this” is not so strong as “to prove this.”
(ii) “He dwelt a long time on the advantages of swift steamers, thus accounting for the increase,” etc. The phrase “thus accounting” is very loose. Every sentence ought to be neat, firm, and compact.
6. Remember that who = and he or for he; while that introduces a merely adjectival clause.
“I heard it from the doctor, who told the gardener that-works-for-the-college.” Here who = and he; and that introduces the adjectival sentence.
7. Do not change the Subject of your Sentence.
(i) Another way of putting this is: “Preserve the unity of the sentence!”
(ii) “Archbishop Tillotson died in this year. He was exceedingly beloved by King William and Queen Mary, who nominated Dr Tenison to succeed him.” The last statement about nominating another bishop has no natural connection with what goes before.
(iii) “After we came to anchor, they put me on shore, where I was welcomed by all my friends, who received me with the greatest kindness.” This sentence ought to be broken into two. The first should end with on shore; and the second begin “Here I was met and, etc.”
8. See that who or which refers to its proper antecedent.
“Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a yeoman, to whom he left his second-best bed.” Here the grammatical antecedent is yeoman; but the historical and sense-antecedent is certainly daughter.
9. Do not use and which for which.
(i) “I bought him a very nice book as a present, and which cost me ten shillings.” The and here is worse than useless.
(ii) If another which has preceded, of course and which is right.
10. Avoid exaggerated or too strong language.
Unprecedented, most extraordinary, incalculable, boundless, extremely, awfully, scandalous, stupendous, should not be used unless we know that they are both true and appropriate.
11. Be careful not to mix up dependent with principal sentences.
“He replied that he wished to help them, and intended to give orders to his servants.” Here it is doubtful whether intended is coordinate with replied or with wished. If the former is the case, then we ought to say he intended.
12. Be very careful about the right position of each phrase or clause in your sentence.
The following are curious examples of dislocation or misplacements: “A piano for sale by a lady about to cross the Channel in an oak case with carved legs.” “I believe that, when he died, Cardinal Mezzofanti spoke at least fifty languages.” “He blew out his brains after bidding his wife good-bye with a gun.” “Erected to the memory of John Phillips, accidentally shot, as a mark of affection by his brother.” “The Board has resolved to erect a building large enough to accommodate 500 students three storeys high.” “Mr Carlyle has taught us that silence is golden in thirty-seven volumes.”