W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

. (page 17 of 43)
Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 17 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the polite and the precise ; but he turns from these and directs his
attention to that great body of the users of the language in which
language lives and grows as it answers its immediate social needs,
and of this body he endeavors to become a sympathetic and active
member. His linguistic problems become then social problems,
problems in social adaptation, changing continually as the social
group and situation change, but offering always the same method
of approach. In determining his linguistic sympathies, he will
endeavor to keep his mind free from narrow theories and prej-
udices, from faddist and fashionable conceits, and will strive to
place himself in such an attitude of mind as to be able to realize
and to become a part of that central and broad movement in the
life of the language by virtue of which language becomes a com-
mon social possession of a people, a record of its life and its
being. It is here that he will find the feeling for the idiom pre-
served with a certainty and a sincerity that no amount of learned

• George Philip Krapp : A Social View of Language, The Fornm,
Vol XXXIX, p. 272,


by Google

The Study of Style 181

or aesthetic theorizing can impart Fashions may come and
fashions may go, theories may grow ancient and be replaced by
new ones; but there is one thing which has gcme on forever, and
that is the continuous current of the main stream of the life of
the language. From Beowulf to Chaucer, from Chaucer to Shake-
speare, from Shakespeare to the present day, there has been an
unbroken thread of life, a historical succession of the spirit which
makes Beowulf more intimately the possession of the English lan-
guage than it ever can be of the French, Italian, or even the
German. How shall we find that thread of life in the language
of to-day? For certainly it will be the desire of every one to
follow its leadings wherever they may go, to become a part of the
life of the present which is to be a part of the life of the future.
In endeavoring to answer this question we may find light in a
paragraph from Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare, in which he is
discussing the language of Shakespeare's comedies:

If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a style which
never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant
and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language
as to remain settled and tmaltered, this style is probably to be sought
for in the common intercourse of life, among ^ose who speak only
to be understood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always
catching modish innovations, and the learned depart from established
forms of speech in hope of finding or making better; those wt»o wish
for distinction forsake the vulgar when the vulgar is right; but there
is a conversation above grossness and below refinement, where pro-
priety resides and where this poet seems to have gathered his comic

"A conversation above grossness and below refinement, where
propriety resides," what is this but the conversation of the great
body of the normal intelligent members of the linguistic com-
munity, of those who care little for arbitrary and theoretical
standards, but who, with open and unprejudiced minds, accept
what is effective and expressive wherever tfiey find it? Here, in
this body, the speaker will find the source of authority for the
colloquial speech, and to it the literary artist must always return
as to the origin of all that is sane, expressive and beautiful in
the language. In the end, he who wishes to settle the question of
his responsibility toward the language, toward his fellows in the
linguistic state, and toward those who shall come after him, must


by Google

i82 English Composition and Style

recognize the duty of an understanding of the linguistic will of
this social body and the duty of an intelligent cooperation with it.

2. Good style, in like manner, uses a syntax that is Eng-
lish ; its sentences and constructions are English. One is not
likely actually to use a foreign grammar in writing his own lan-
guage, but occasionally a foreign manner of phrase or sentence
slips in, or odd arrangement may, indeed, as with Carlyle, be a
matter of constant affectation. Sentences in English may
move in a variety of ways, but they should run like English
sentences. The foregoing quotation also applies to the struc-
ture of sentences as a part of language.

3. Good style also contemplates the thought, which it aims
to present as clearly as possible, either in an exact way or, at
the other extreme, by making its import or effect immistakable.
A style is not good, if, using entirely " authorized " words and
good sentences, it nevertheless does not represent its thought

4. Good style, finally, varies with the audience and the occa-
sion. What language, what form of sentences, — we always
revert to language and sentences, — is good for one occasion is
not good for another. A form of expression, wholly good as
English, may not be suitable for an occasion or a particular
audience. Following this fact, certain so-called types of style
are sometimes recognized, as the oratorical, the journalistic,
etc., all loosely corresponding to the more or less conventional-
ized occasions that we have before examined. This matter is
of slight moment, however, compared with the first three. One
is, generally, on the safe side, if he expresses himself as ac-
curately as possible in the current tongue.

Within these limits style may be about anything. A max-
imum of meaning for the number of words would probably
represent the aim of style. This maximum might be expressed
in terms of exactitude, of personality, of beauty, according to
various conceptions. Language may be as varied as possible ;
a positive ideal may be to acquire "regularity, uniformity,


by Google

The Study of Style 183

precision, balance," • to be rid of all " surplusage " *® to weave
a beautiful " pattern " ** in words, to " economize the attention
of the reader," ^* or one may affect style coupi or style soutenu,
the epigrammatic or sententious manner, the deliberative man-
ner, or what not, — always, of course, under the penalties be-
fore mentioned and the limitations imposed by the language.
One is bound in style as in human affairs: he may do as he
pleases with his property, but if he rebels against tfie govern-
ment in which his land lies, or makes himself obnoxious to his
neighbors, or does things that are not fairly normal and sen-
sible, he is likely to get into more or less serious trouble.

The description of style. A matter of great practical im-
portance in the study of style is the finding of terms or cate-
gories that shall successfully characterize the phenomena.
The object of such terms and categories is, obviously, so far as
practice is concerned, to call the attention of the student or
the reader or the writer to certain matters on which his atten-
tion should be generally or particularly fixed. Two chief
methods exist: the first describes style by its details, through
analysis of its component parts ; the other names general effects.
These must be briefly explained.

I. The first method is usually followed in rhetorical study.
Style is analyzed into its elements or media, that is, into words,
sentences, and also paragraphs, and these are characterized
from different points of view. The style of any writer is taken,
be he a writer of great literature or a writer of college themes,
and observations are made on his vocabulary, and his sen-
tences. The description of the diction usually relates to the
length and simplicity of the words, to their correct usage, to
their derivation, to their accuracy, to their number, copiousness,
and variety, to their clearness or their suggestiveness, their
dignity or their familiarity or their commonness, their abstract-

• Matthew Arnold : Emerson,
10 Walter Pater: Style,
" R. L. Stevenson : On Style in Literature,
12 Spencer : The Philosophy of Style,


by Google

184 English Composition and Style

ness or concreteness, and other classes more or less opposed
to one another. With sentences^ the chief points of observa-
tion contemplate length, grammatical correctness, looseness or
periodicity, balance, unity of subject, emphasis of word or
phrase, coherence in the arrangement of ideas, and such like,
all partly concerned with grammatical, partly concerned with
rhetorical effects. From these observations certain prevailing
matters may be noted in any particular piece of writing, as
objects for praise or for reform, or simply for characteriza-
tion. A writer's style may be conspicuous for its Latin words,
as with Sir Thomas Browne, for its purity and simplicity of
diction, as with Swift, for its carefully wrought balances, as
with Arnold, for limited vocabulary and loose sentences, as
with very many men. From many descriptions of this kind,
of good and of poor writers, inferences are made and ideals
are promulgated as to what various aspects of a good English
style and of the common run of mediocrity in writing may be.
Again, constant and conspicuous use of certain characteristics,
as simple words, loose sentences, long words, short sentences,
produce certain effects, to be cultivated or avoided by the en-
couragement or the repression of the trait in question.

2. Style is also characterized by general effects and by gen-
eral fashions. Thus styles are described by a variety of gen-
eral terms, which name, often the quality of the writer, often
the effect on the reader or hearer, often something that seems
to be part and parcel of the writing itself, often something of
an epoch. A style may be warm, glowing, austere ; it may be
monotonous, stimulating, or charming; it may be jerky, in-
volved, or smooth ; it may be early Victorian, Eighteenth Cen-
tury, Carlylesque, and great many different things. It is con-
venient oftentimes to use such terms in criticism, leaving the
writer to apply them as he sees fit, but for further study of
these effects one is usually thrown back on the analytical
method before described to get the answer to the question.

Both of these methods, especially when used in conjunction,
are very useful ; probably no better means have yet been found


by Google

The Study of Style 185

for describing style. But they evidently come far short, in
many respects, of effecting their purpose. Two writers may,
for example, be very much alike when accounted for analytic-
ally; they may be about equally periodic, may use an equal
proportion of native words; and yet may differ much in
effect. Conversely, many of the effects named may be due to
very different causes. Again, analysis may be pushed to ex-
tremes that are valueless and misleading. To tell us that
Macaulay's sentences, for example, average about twenty-three
words in length is to describe nothing important so far as style
is concerned ; for it is plain that any individual sentence may
and probably does vary much from this average, and that varia-
tion certainly goes far toward making style agreeable. The
only fact of value is that an average of twenty-three words is
not very long, is possibly a short sentence, whereas, an average
of two or three times that, as with Ruskin, might be esteemed
a high average. Nor, again, is the fact that a writer uses
thirty per cent, or twenty per cent, of Latin derived words
in discourse, and another only ten per cent., of any practical
importance; it merely suggests the cause for an effect. All
arbitrary or doctrinaire prescriptions and inferences about such
matters, as that a good style contains such and such a per-
centage of native words, are valuable only in so far as they
call attention to wording. We all know that effective style
depends very largely on qualities that cannot be analyzed, upon
turns of phrase, — unexpected rather than commonplace, — on
many individual ways and means of expression, on fullness of
meaning, and therefore all these methods really do no more
than to call attention to phenomena and suggest various inter-
esting things.

Method of this study. In the following study of style we
shall consider words and sentences separately, for the sake of
finding out the meaning of the usual terms and categories that
are employed with reference to them. These once appre-
hended, it becomes a much more important matter to consider
words in their combination into sentences, for then only style


by Google

i86 English Composition and Style

begins to appear. Words standing alcHie have rarely value as
style or as sense ; it is only when they arc combined, when we
begin to say and think things about them that there is any pos-
sibility of style or of sense. " Alien," for example, is a wholly
good English word, doubtless of Latin derivation — it may
have come over with the Conqueror. Standing by itself it
may suggest Chinese, foreigners, Ellis Island^ natives, aborig-
ines, and many other things. Only in its association with
other ideas does it come to mean an3rthing of importance.
That association is conveyed by other words in sentences, and
the whole matter takes on a different aspect; thus:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.^*

Here the word probably reaches in maximum of meaning in
-corded English literature, — until another poet gives it an
even greater suggestiveness. The problem of style, in short,
is to make language, — that is, words combined into sentences,
and expressing feelings and perceptions and ideas, — yield the
maximum of meaning that is consonant with the object or
purpose that the writer has in view.


1. In any of the foregoing extracts or the essays that have
been referred to in Part I, tell which you find most satisfactory
as regards manner of expression.

2. Try to show what particular aspects of the style or manner
you find most satisfactory. Tell what is particularly good.

3. Explain what seems to you to be constantly characteristic
of the style of any of these extracts.

4. Describe the style of Swift, Burke, Johnson, Lamb, De
Quincey, Newman, Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, Macaulay, Addison,
Bacon, Emerson, Stevenson, and other illustrious prose writers.
Give reasons for thinking, — if you so think, — that one of these

i» Keats: Ode to the Nightingale,


by Google

The Study of Style 187

writers makes better prose than another. (See Matthew Arnold's
Emerson for a statement of reasons of one sort.)

5. How far has the style of any one of these authors, as
Bacon, Addison, or Macaulay, to do with characteristics that you
may have noted?

6. Read commentaries on the style of these and other authors
noting how the style is described and noting also statements for
which you cannot see the evidence. (For example. Pater's Lamb,
Arnold's Wordsworth.)

7. State the gist of Spencer's Philosophy of Style, Pater's
Style and Stevenson's On Style in Literature. What does Spencer
mean by the ** economy of the reader's attention," Pater by " sur-
plusage," and "good" style? Stevenson by the "pattern?"


by Google



About any piece of writing, whether formal work, stated
school exercise, or merely a personal letter, certain questions
are always likely to arise. The first question is always im-
minent, and it may be asked of any writing whatsoever; the
others are rather more special and learned. The questions are :

1. What is meant by this word or expression? or. Does this
word say what you intended?

2. Would not some other word or phrase more forcibly or
agreeably convey the idea?

3. Cannot all this be said in fewer words? or, conversely.
Are there enough words to make the meaning clear?

These we, are sure to ask in criticizing formal exercises
when we are specifically dealing with words. In the case of
practised writers, we usually assume that they use the words
that they mean, and consequently we agree or disagree with
their ideas or their morals, in a variety of ways. Where we
are predisposed to admiration, the three questions usually take
the form of exclamation, and we may cry, " How accurate his
language is! How forcible and charming! How terse!*'

It is evident that in some cases identical things might give
rise to any one of the foregoing questions; nevertheless, they
furnish a convenient starting-point for the study of words.
In order to get the maximum of meaning out of language,
one must use words as accurately as possible, or as forcibly
and pleasantly as may be suitable to the occasion, and one
should also use as few words as he can. Before passing
to these matters, something must be said about that group
of words which are ordinarily regarded as outside the limits



by Google

Words 189

of good style. These are called barbarisms and they are by
no means uncommon.

Barbarisms are words not English, i. e., words that are actu-
ally foreign or words that were once good English or words
which are new coined on English analogy but which cannot
yet be said to form part of the body of language described in
the preceding chapter. A barbarism, in short, is a word not
in good use. A satisfactory classification of barbarisms is
the following : ^

Foreign Words — for which there are good English equivalents.
Artist (for actor), distingue, furore, in medias res, n6e, role

Obsolete Words, Foreword (an affectation for preface), for
to, gotten (for got), quoth.

New Coinages. Baseballist, burglarize, bike, combine (noun),
educationalist, suicide (verb), trolley (for trolley-car).

Slang, Invite (noun), nit, size up, squelch (snub), steal
(noun), stunt.

Technical Words, Luff, go in stays, cut on th6 bias, home-run.

Localisms. Carryall, homesteader, illy, sightly.

Abbreviations. Cap (captain), exam, gent, gym, prexy, prof.

Vulgarisms. Ain't, everywheres, tasty.

If any of these words were used in serious writing (outside
of dialogue and quotation) either of the first two foregoing
questions might properly be asked. But not all these expres-
sions are equally un-English, equally objectionable. Furore
is not so bad as distingui, gotten as foreword, trolley as base-
ballist or educationalist (it for one reason is shorter than
trolley-car, whereas educationalist is much longer than edu-
cator) ^ size up and squelch as nit, carryall as homesteader,
gym as gent, and the technical words are indispensable in
their place ; luff and home-run cannot be dispensed with either
in usage or in practice.

^ Quoted from A. H. Thomdike's Elements of Rhetoric and Compo-
sition, p. ^00.


by Google

190 English Composition and Style

I. The Meaning of Words.

The first thing in giving style its fullest meaning is evi-
dently accurate use. If, for example, as in much modem
discourse, dandy or some class, or classy, is the favorite ad-
jective of praise, fierce or rotten of blame; grab the familiar
verb of acquisition, bunch the common collective noun (e.g.,
" a big bunch of concrete work," " a bunch of drunks," i. e., a
group of tipsy people) discourse is likely to suffer in point of
accuracy and elegance. So, too, with more pretentious, less
vigorous phrases, as " the beautifully located stucco home of
Mr. Jones" and its companions in cheapness. Nearly all
these are known as

Improprieties, which are good English words used in a sense
that is not English. They are much more common than bar-
barisms. It is evident that if our vocabulary contains very
few words we stand in danger of making one word do work
for which it was never intended; dandy, fierce, bunch, home,
scandal (=any bit of college news) and a host of such words
are examples of this fact. Conversely, a large and loosely
used vocabulary may result in much inaccuracy; hence we
have such stodc improprieties as aggravate for provoke or
vex, transpire for happen, and even such misses as malign
for benign. These examples indicate the variety of sources
from which improprieties may spring, as the slang habit, pre-
tentiousness, affectation, aphasia, and much else.

Vague words and definite words. The best way to avoid
improprieties is evidently to use words in as definite a sense
as possible. A word is definite when the limits of its mean-
ing are well understood. A vague word or an ambiguous
word is one in which the boundaries of meaning are not at
all clear or to which several meanings may be given in any
one passage. Context, as we shall see later, has much to do
with the matter of vagueness, ambiguity, and indefiniteness.
Aside from context, the shorter, more familiar, and more
specific word is likely to be more definite than the long, the


by Google

Words 191

pompous, and the general word; burn or eat is usually more
definite than consume; fall, throw, or hurl than precipitate;
coffin than casket; legs than lower limbs; go to bed than re-
tire. But there are evidently many instances where the longer
word is entirely definite : in science and mathematics, for ex-
ample, all words, — as precipitate in chemistry, — have to be
used to mean certain things. Obviously, too, one cannot al-
ways say go to bed instead of retire, since retire means other
things as well, or coffin for casket. The point is that any word
should be saved for its most usual, and hence its most ordi-
narily definite meaning. Hence, to revert to our former ex-
amples, it is not well to say bunch when we mean mass or
group or party or clique, or to say dandy when we mean pleas-
ant, good, excellent, or refined or any other meritorious thing
or quality. To use words as definitely as possible is a matter
of so great importance that exact writers are at pains, often-
times, to define precisely what they mean by an important term.
Instances will occur to any one; Mill has furnished us one
on page 71. Indeed many essays and books are nothing but
explanations of the way in which a writer is going to use
a word and the information or the suggestions that arise there-
from. What IS Mr. Bryce's American Commonwealth but a
long explanation of a term, which reduces a vague concep-
tion to a series of definite facts and observations, or Emer-
son's The American Scholar but an attempt to give to the term
definition and suggestiveness ?

It must be remarked that many words in wholly good use
and as common as can be, are not definite. Several such words
have already been spoken of, — courage, style, honesty, and
there is a legion of others. They are proper, legitimate, and
wholly indispensable. What they do is really to provide us
with short cuts or convenient labels of approbation or disap-
proval. Somebody does a specific thing, and we call him a
sneak, a coward, a brave fellow, or we cite him as an example
of meanness, timidity, or courage. The general meaning of
the terms is often exceedingly hard to define, and yet we are


by Google

192 English Composition and Style

right in not refusing to use them. Here again, however, a
careful person will discriminate between, say, cowardice and
timidity, or courage and bravery, and in such instances some
knowledge of the history of the word may be of value.

General words and specific words. Something like the
difference between definite words and vague words is the dif-
ference between general words and specific words. General
words name the genus, the division, the class, specific words,
the species, the variety, the individual. Animal, died, good, are
very general words ; man, kill, honest, are less general ; doctor,
murder, punctilious, are pretty specific ; and as we get further
down toward the individual we find very specific words like
hanged or the barbarism electrocuted. Evidently, much defi-
niteness is gained by the use of specific words, iince each is
more likely than the general word to call up an exact image.
Thus the chances are that it is better to say walked or strolled
or ran or marched or whatever else it may have been, than to
say went. But this is not always so, for the general word, as
went, may enable us to cover a great deal of unimportant
matter. If we were obliged to enumerate all specific acts and
things we should never get anywhere. Whoever, in re-
mote ages, first hit upon the idea of these general, inclu-
sive words was one of the great benefactors of the race; no
modern invention is anything like it in importance. Yet the

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 17 of 43)