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ON THE SELECTION OF WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS.
Besides grammatical correctness, the student who aims at being a good speaker and a good writer must pay attention to the style, or manner of expressing his ideas. Rules relating to this subject pertain to the science of rhetoric.
Perspicuity, (by which is meant clearness to the mind, easiness to be understood, freedom from obscurity or ambiguity) should be the fundamental quality of style; and the study of perspicuity and accuracy of expression requires attention, first, to words and phrases, and secondly, to the construction of sentences.
Of Words and Phrases.
The words and phrases employed in the expression of our ideas should have the three properties called purity, propriety, and precision.
Purity consists in the use of such words, and such constructions, as belong to the idiom of the language which we speak; in opposition to words and phrases that are taken from other languages, or that are ungrammatical, obsolete, newly coined, or used without proper authority.
Purity may be violated in three different ways. First, the words may not be English. This fault is called a barbarism.
Secondly, the construction of the word may not be in the English idiom. This fault is called a solecism.
Thirdly, the words and phrases may not be employed to express the precise meaning which custom has affixed to them. This fault is termed an impropriety.
Propriety of language consists in the selection of such words as the best usage has appropriated to those ideas which we intend to express by them; in opposition to low expressions, and to words and phrases which would be less significant of the ideas that we mean to convey
There are seven principal rules for the preservation of propriety.
4. Avoid the injudicious use of technical terms; that is, tcrms or expressions which are used in some art, occupation, or profession.
5. Avoid equivocal, or ambiguous words.
7. Avoid all such words and phrases as are not adapted to the ideas intended to be communicated.
Precision signifies the retrenching of superfluities and the pruning of the expression, so as to exhibit neither more nor less than an exact copy of the person's idea who uses it.*
The words used to express ideas may be faulty in three respects, First, they may not express the idea which the author intends, but some other which only resembles it; secondly, they may express that idea, but not fully and completely; thirdly, they may express it, together with something more than is intended. Precision stands opposed to these three faults, but chiefly to the last. Propriety implies a freedom from the two former faults. The words which are used may be proper; that is, they may express the idea intended, and they may express it fully; but to be precise, signifies that they express that idea and no more.
The great source of a loose style in opposition to precision, is the inju. dicious use of words termed synonymous. They are called synonymous because they agree in expressing one principal idea; but, for the most part, if not always, they express it with some diversity in the circumstances.t
While we are attending to precision, we must be on our guard, lest, from the desire of pruning too closely, we retrench all copiousness. To unite copiousness and precision, to be full and easy, and at the same time correct and exact in the choice of every word, is, no doubt, one of the highest and most difficult attainments in writing.
OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF SENTENCES. I
Sentences, in general, should neither be very long, nor very short; long ones require close attention to make us
* Précision is promoted by the omission of unnesessary words and phrases; and is opposed to Tautology, or the repetition of the same sense in different words; and to Pleonasm, or the use of superfluous words.
+ See Lesson XIX, The student who wishes for exercises on the subjects of purity, propriety, and precision, will find them in Parker and Fox's Grammar, Part III., pp. 78-86, or in Murray's Exercises, (Alger's Edition.)
| The substance of the remarks on this subject, is taken from Blair's Rhetoric. A great part of the langnage, also, is copied literally from that work.
clearly perceive the connexion of the several parts; and short ones are apt to break the sense, and weaken the connexion of thought. Yet occasionally they may both be used with force and propriety.
A train of sentences, constructed in the same manner, and with the same number of members, should never be allowed to succeed one another. A succession of either long or short sentences should also be avoided; for the ear tires of either of them when too long continued. A proper mixture of long and short periods, and of periods variously constructed, not only gratifies the ear, but imparts animation and force to style.
The properties most essential to a perfect sentence, are the four following:
The first requisite of a perfect sentence is clearness. This implies that the sentence should be so constructed as to present the meaning intelligibly to the mind, and without ambiguity.
The faults in writing most destructive to clearness are two, namely: a wrong choice of words, or a wrong collocation of them.
“ From the nature of our language," says Dr. Blair, “a capital rule in the arrangement of our sentences is, that words or members most nearly related should be placed as near to each other as possible, that their matual relation may clearly appear. This rule is frequently neglected, even by good writers. Thus, Mr. Addison says,
“By greatness, I do not only mean the bulk of any single object, but the largeness of a whole view.”
Here the place of the adverb only makes it limit the verb mean I de not only mean. The question may then be asked, “What does hy moro than mean?” Had it been placed after bulk, still it would have been wrong, for it might then be asked, “ What is meant beside the bulk?” Is it the color, or any other property? Its proper place is after the word object.
“By greatness, I do not mean the bulk of any single object only.” For then, when it is asked - What does he mean more than the bulk of a single object ? the answer comes out precisely as the author intends, “the largeness of a whole view."
This extract shows the importance of giving the right position to adverbs and other qualifying words. Particular attention must be given also to the place of the pronouns who, which, what, whose, &c., and of all those particles which express the connexion of the parts of speech. The following sentence is faulty in this respect.
" It is folly to pretend to arm ourselves against the accidents of life, by heaping up treasures, which nothing can protect us against, but the good providence of our Heavenly Father.”
Which, as it here stands, grammatically refers to the immediately preceding noun, which is treasures, and this would convert the whole period into nonsense. The sentence should have been constructed thus :
“It is folly to pretend, by heaping up treasures, to arm ourselves against the accidents of life, against which nothing can protect us but the good providence of our Heavenly Father.”
The unity of a sentence implies its oneness. The sentence may consist of parts; but these parts must be so closely bound together as to make an impression of one object only upon the mind.
There is generally in every sentence some person or thing which is the governing word. This should be continued so if possible from the begin ning to the end.
Another direction or rule to preserve the unity of a sentence may be thus stated : Never crowd into one sentence ideas which have so little connexion that they might well be divided into two or more sentences. It is the safer extreme to err rather by too many short sentences, than by one that is overloaded or confused.
A third rule for preserving the unity of a sentence is, keep clear of pa. rentheses in the middle of it.
In general their effect is extremely bad, being a perplexed method of disposing of some thought, which a writer has not art enough to introduce in its proper place.
The fourth rule for the unity of a sentence is, bring it to a full and perfect close.
In conformity with the first rule stated above, it may be observed, that if there are a number of nominatives, or subjects which cannot be connected by a conjunction, or thrown into some other case or form, the sentence must be divided, and the parts constructed in independent sentences.
To show the manner in which the rules now stated should be applied, the following extract is presented from “ The Quarterly Review."
“ The youth who had found the cavern, and had kept the secret to him self, loved this damsel; he told her the danger in time, and persuaded her to trust herself to him.” In this sentence there is perfect unity. The word youth is the governing word, and the pronoun he, its representative, to prevent tautology, is substituted, to avoid the repetition of the conjunction and. But the writer continues, " They got into a canoe; the place of her retreat was described to her on the way to it, these women swim like mermaids, – she dived after him, and rose in the cavern; in the widest part it is about fifty feet, and its medium height is guessed at the same, the roof hung with stalactites."
Here, every one of the rules of unity is violated. The nominative is changed six different times. Ideas having no connexion with each other, namely: Their getting into a canoe, -the description of the place of her retreat, — the swimming of the women, - her diving and rising in the cavern, - the dimensions of the cave, and the ornaments of its roof, are all crowded into one sentence. The expression, “These women swim like mermaids,” is properly a parenthesis, occurring in the middle of the sentence; and the clause, “the roof hung with stalactites," does not bring the sentence to a full and perfect close. The same ideas intended to be conveyed, may be expressed as follows, without violating either of the laws of unity.
" As they got into a canoe, to proceed to the cavern, the place of her retreat was described to her. Like the rest of her countrywomen, she could swim like a mermaid, and accordingly diving after him, she rose in the cavern ; a spacions apartment of about fifty feet in each of its dimen sions, with a roof beautifully adorned with stalactites."
The unity of a sentence may sometimes be preserved by the use of the participle instead of the verb. Thus: “ The stove stands on a platform which is raised six inches and extends the whole length of the room." This sentence is better expressed thus: “ The stove stands on a platform, six inches in height, and extending the whole length of the room."