W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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fact remains that most of us in writing are not likely to err
in being too specific or in using general words in too definite
a sense.

One cannot here speak of all the interesting things about
word usage, but one curious, and, stylistically, vicious custom
may be noted ; since it seems to be especially common in col-
lege writing. This is the habit of using a pretty specific word
to cover a number of specific acts best described by different
specific words. Grab supplies the best instance in point.
In much college English as it is to-day grab is the maid-of-
all-work for touch, seize, take, take up, assume, lift, lay hold
of, steal, purloin, remove, and many other entirely good words.


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Words 193

The only other h)rpothesis on which the prevalence of grab
can be accounted for, aside from the handmaid theory, is that
the word really represents a decline in manners, — that we
do now, for the most part, among the younger generation,
violently seize things to the detriment of the rights of other
people, instead of gently lifting them, touching them, or carry-
ing them. In one sense, this is the formula for all slang, the
desire to get more meaning out of a word than nature or usage
ever thought of putting into it, of making it do all manner
of work. Thus it is just now popular in baseball reports
to use the verb to spear, or to stab as " He came in on the dead
run and speared (or stabbed) the sphere with his ungloved
hand amid the plaudits of the crowd."

Ehiphemism and "fine writing/* These are, so to speak,
standard sins against definiteness and concreteness. A
euphemism is a linguistic palliative for facts thought to be
disagreeable, and it is usually objectionable, in good style, on
the ground that it employs general terms where specific and
definite words are really needed. Certain people seem to
have an innate or inculcated objection to using such words as
born, dress, go to bed, die, hen, washstand, and for these and
other entirely good words are likely to say, by way of timidity,
or prudishness, or pretentiousness, came, arrived on the scene,
ushered into the world; robe oneself, assume one's attire, attire
oneself, don the quotidian vestment; retire, turn in, seek the
M Orphean couch, depart from this scene of daily activity; pass
away, shuMe off this mortal coil, approach the moment of dis-
solution; domestic fowl, mistress of the roost; lavatory, altar
of ablutions, etc. Certain euphemisms are necessary to convey
bad news in the gentlest way, and many words, undoubtedly
once euphemisms, have pushed into the regions of lowness and
vulgarity certain words doubtless more used than now. But
euphemisms are generally to be avoided.

For " fine writing " there is little excuse. Arising from love
of pretentiousness or a mistaken sense of humor, " fine writ-
ing" substitutes general words, pompous phrases, circum-


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194 English Composition and Style

locutions, for the words that would ordinarily be employed.
The perfectly awftd's, perfectly terrible's, the awfully funny's,
the tremendous's, the stunning's the magnificent' s, and all the
exaggerated phrases of youthful and " elegant " discourse, illus-
trate the cruder side of fine writing; the desire is to produce
a great effect, or, more sincerely, to satisfy one's own mind that
something really has happened when one has torn along, rushed
madly or found candy or soda water fascinating. On the more
elevated side, "fine writing" sometimes calls for much in-
genuity, and may lead to passing laughter, but in well-regulated
societies the style that abounds in disastrous conflagrations,
fatal chairs, downy couches, accelerations of the motion of the
aqueous fluid is likely to be extremely tiresome. These are
sins against clearness and definiteness, and also, as we shall
see, against taste, because they take up the reader's attention
with unnecessary matter. The baseball reporter who said that
he knew seventy-seven synonyms or circumlocutions for the
technical term base-hit was not necessarily enriching the

Denotation. The gist of the matter is that the first step
in the acquisition of a good style is to gain meaning by keep-
ing the meaning of words as definite and exact as possible.
The term denotation is so often used in this connection that
it may be briefly explained. A word denotes the objects
that are included within the meaning of the term; horse, for
example, denotes more than trotting horse, which in turn de-
notes more than, say. The Harvester or Ulhan ; so man denotes
more than John Smith. Now to keep the objects denoted in
one term as well separated from the objects denoted in another
term, is evidently to make the word clearer. It is therefore
best for clear writing to choose those words of which the deno-
tation is as definite as possible, whether the words be long or
short, specific or general, abstract or concrete. Ambiguity
and vagueness are offenses against accuracy of denotation.
Specific words are ordinarily likely to have a more definite
denotation than general words. In short, use most words as


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Words 195

they are ordinarily used, and if the meaning departs from the
ordinary, explain your meaning. Avoid pretentiousness and
smartness and vulgarity.

2. The Increment of Meaning.

Meaning is increased in a variety of ways, of which the
most important seem to be the effect of certain classes of words,
the added attractiveness that ccnnes from variety, and the very
important matter of suggestiveness. Some of these matters
are in opposition to what has been said above, so that it be-
comes a question of judgment whether one shall sacrifice, say,
accuracy to variety, or variety to accuracy, or definiteness to
suggestiveness. Therefore, there is no hard and fast line be-
tween what has gone before and what now comes.

Latin words and Saxon words; long words and short
words. Provided one expresses one's meaning it makes no
real difference what the origin or the length of one's words
may be. So-called " native " words, however, — words, that
is, of mainly Anglo-Saxon origin, — are likely to be shorter
and more specific than the words of Latin or romance deriva-
tion, to which class belong also many of our familiar words,
as act, add, army, etc. With good present-day style etymology
has almost nothing to do, and it gives us only little chance to
better our writing. So far as exactness of meaning goes, it
makes very little difference whether I say, "little chance to
better our writing," or only an "occasional opportunity to
improve our style," and from this point of view neither phrase
is preferable. But the first contains thirty letters, the second
thirty-eight. The simpler and on the whole more Saxon
diction of the first phrase is preferable because of its simplicity
and shortness. But, other things being equal, greater dignity
of effect may sometimes be gained by the use of the longer
and more general vocabulary, — when dignity is necessary.
Such addition of effect is sometimes important, for the mean-
ing grows toward its maximum. Ordinarily, the fewer words
and the shorter words the better ; for long, learned words are


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196 English Composition and Style

likely to lead to pompousness and loquacity. Where one's
work is paid for by the word, the value of the short vocabulary
is, as Mark Twain suggested, very evident, — especially when
one has also a nice competence in circumlocution.

Variety. Meaning may also be helped by variety in word-
ing. Constant repetition becomes monotonous, is likely to tire
the reader's attention. A small vocabulary is also liable to
become overstrained and hence to set the reader guessing the
variations of meaning of the repeated words — all of which
consumes his energy. The new phrases, provided they do
not alter the meaning, are pleasant and restful. They have
other advantages also. "The morality of style goes deeper
* than dull fools suppose.' When Comte took pains to prevent
any sentence from exceeding two lines of his manuscript or
five of print; to restrict each paragraph to seven sentences;
to exclude every hiatus between two sentences, or even be-
tween two paragraphs; and never to reproduce any word,
except the auxiliary monosyllables, in two consecutive sen-
tences; he justified his literary solicitude by insisting on the
wholesomeness alike to heart and intelligence of submission
to artificial institutions. He felt, after he had once mastered
the habit of a new yoke, that it became the source of continual
and unforeseeable improvements even in thought, and he per-
ceived that the reason why verse is a higher kind of literary
perfection than prose, is that verse imposes a greater number
of rigorous forms." * To test the tediousness of much repeti-
tion, it is necessary merely to read aloud, with emphasis of
the repeated words. The continual repetition of, say, /, or
some small noun, or some adjective of blame or praise, will
show the crudeness of the repetition ; whereas, if the repetition
is necessary for exactness, such extra stress on the repeated
word will serve merely to bring out the meaning. Matthew
Arnold gives us perhaps the best examples of reasonable
repetition ; good instances, as " sweetness and light," " reason
and the will of God " occur in Culture and Anarchy. These

• John Motley : Macaulay, in Critical Miscellanies, Vol. I.


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Words 197

phrases are texts on which the author spits his discourse, —
structure en brochette, so to speak.

Tropes. Certain predominating kinds of words add certain
general effects, variety adds pleasure and often accuracy;
tropes or figures of speech add suggestiveness to writing, in-
crease its meaning by suggestion. Tropes are so called be-
cause they turn words from their literal to a figurative mean-
ing. Many tropes have been named, but the only ones of much
practical importance are these :

Synecdoche and metonymy. There is no great reason for
remembering the difference between these two tropes, but the
distinction may be stated. " In synecdoche a part is put for
the whole or an individual for the class ; as * sail * for ship,
or 'some village Hampden' for some village patriot. In
metonymy something is designated by an accompaniment, a
cause, an effecbut noting unfamiliar words and uses,
which could later be looked up and transfixed.

Summary ; Examples of vocabulary. As with compositions
and paragraphs, excellence or defect in wording is likely to be
either an impression of general adequacy or a matter of specific
excellence or defect. It is not wholly satisfactory to say of
a passage that the words are varied, or simple, though such
conmients are doubtless of help. The truth is that wtfen one
is dealing with so delicate a matter as wording, a matter that
is infinitely varied and subtle, general types are likely to re-
main general types and to miss the essential value of specific
passages. Each passage in prose or in verse is good or should
be recast for particular reasons. Furthermore, ordinary and
even exceedingly good writing is not noticeable in any special
way. The illustrative passage, as usually presented, is the
(extraordinary passage. It is a setter of bounds rather than
a suggester of what is within bounds, that is, the great mass
of well-written, sound, but inconspicuous style. To study
wording by so-called typical examples of specificness, gen-
erality, prolixity, and other classified phenomena, is to stake
out style or to stretch a series of stylistic life-lines beyond
which the learned will not venture. Now words are of all
kinds, are good because well used under certain restrictions or
because expressive of the idea they have to convey. Let us
illustrate the matter by a number of passages, which, chosen
almost at random, are evidently in different manners. This
is the process that we have followed with paragraphs. The
end in either case is the illustration of actual writing rather
than the illustration of categories. A totally different set of
passages would answer as well. The gist of the matter is that

•G. H. Palmer: Self-CultwaHon in English,


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206 English Composition and Style

no two passages in existence can actually illustrate the same
thing. The classifications that we use are far grosser than the
phenomena presented by literature. We may group the selec-
tions as

A. Passages of commonplace kind : —

1. Directly he had been informed of the aggravating event that
had transpired, he called for his automobile and rode away into
the dim distance.

This merely means that as soon as he had heard the sad (or
vexatious or provoking) news he rode away in his automobile.
Aggravating and transpired are incorrectly used for pro-
voking and happened, and directly as used is not good in
America. Event that had happened equals news, and called
for and into the dim distance are superfluous.

2. Walter Collett, head waiter at , has been victimizing

his employer for some time, so it appears. On Friday afternoon
of last week, Collett took his leave of the place, and with him
went $80 from the till and safe which he had broken open. The
matter was promptly referred to the police, but Collett has not yet
been found.

An example of wholly commonplace English. Victimising
is barbarous; so it appears and which he had broken open
are superfluous.

3. Boating at Harvard has taken a more decided stand this
fall. Mr. Robert C. Watson, '69, has been engaged for three years
as a permanent coach. The class crew are out on the river
daily and expect to row until late in the month. The college men
are glad to get the services of Mr. Watson who was a member
of the famous six-oared crew of 1879. In 1876 he coached the
crew which was beaten by the Yale eight in which Bob Cook
rowed. In '81 and again in '88, Mr. Watson coached the Harvard

Also wholly commonplace, but such items, naturally, can have
little " distinction." The opening figure, however, is uncom-
monly thoughtless, or, possibly, humorous.


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Words 207

4. Please be so kind and send me check for the above amount.
You have gone back on your best friends that helped you in the
Presidential chair and now you have only affiliated yourself with
combines, trusts, millionaires, syndicates, etc. You won't be a
second Lincoln.

Much ordinary writing is like this. And is carelessly used in
the phrase so kind and send, into is probably meant instead
of in, gone back on hardly runs with aMiliated, combines
is evidently a barbarism. The passage is not without vigor
of a chiding kind.

5. The bride, a petite blonde, wore a robe of white ivory
satin, with duchesse lace trimmings, and carried a huge bouquet
of lilies of the valley.

She was escorted up the aisle by her father, and at the chancel

rail the bridal party was met by Dr. and President

of College, together with the groom and his attendant, Mr.

, and to the time of the " Bridal Chorus," from Lx>hengrin, the

service was read, at the close of which the company was driven
to the bride's home. No. 14 Garden Street, where, amid beautiful
floral surroimdings, Mr. and Mrs. heard good wishes ex-

Mrs. , mother of the bride, wore a handsome toilet of nickel

gray silk.

As ordinary as can be in all ways.

6. Dear Sir — For several years I tried, and tried hard, to break
into major league company. I was considered one of the best
young pitchers that ever threw a ball to a batter in East Orange,
and it breaks my heart to think that I haven't been able to show
some of these conceited major league persons my ability. I have
a good curve, and a good in curve, and I can always put them
across the plate if they keep the plate clear of debris. I should
dearly love to break in, because I feel that it is there that my
future is, and I want to break in for the sake of my parents and
friends that are waiting and watching for me to break in. How
shall I break in?



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2o8 English Composition and Style

The flippant advice of the editor, "Dear Ignatz — Get a
jinuny!" is not without point, since the would-be pitcher
has as hard a time with his phrase break in as with the fact.
Considered, though very common as here used, is not the best
word: thought, deemed, regarded as, would be more choice,
and in any event if considered is retained as should follow.
Debris is pretentious. Dearly love might be moderated, but
otherwise the passage is not bad.

7. A short time ago I took a trip to Bedloe's Island and learned
a few interesting facts about the Statue of Liberty. This Bartholdi
statue was presented to America by France and erected in 1886.
The dimensions of the statue impressed me wonderfully.

The writer probably wanted to say something like this:
" At Bedloe's Island a short time ago, I was much interested
in the dimensions of the Bartholdi Statue of Liberty, given
to America by France in 1886," though the last detail and " a
short time ago" could be omitted. The passage is wordy
and the trouble comes from the writer's way of thinking in
predications rather than in phrases and words.

8. She was a girl who had been brought up with the strictest
regard for proprieties to such a degree that she was utterly in-
capable of taking the initiative in a direction contrary to her pre-
cepts. By some strange coincidence, however, she was traveling

This could probably be said in fewer words, thus : " Though
she had been brought up with such strict regard for proprieties
that she was incapable of doing anything by herself, she hap-
pened to be traveling alone." Utterly incapable, and strange
coincidence, are somewhat inaccurate, romantic, and noisy.

9. Superstition has perhaps a larger share in general kinship
than any other one thing and people who differ in every con-
ceivable point, act in spontaneous harmony when confronted with
anything so trivial as a mere street ladder.

Here the wording plays havoc with one of those half-truths
so common in " young " style. It is rather hard to tell what


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Words 209

the phrase does mean ; probably this will answer : " However
much people may differ in opinion, they are united in their
superstitions; all will act alike, if, for example, they run into
a street ladder," or, " All people, however different in opinions
and superstitions, will avoid street ladders." It is very hard to
fathom the profundity of this idea.

10. The World and Journal should come under the same head,
as their only difference lies in the corresponding degree of degen-
eration, and this difference is not great; although their intellectual
and moral stamina do not warrant it, their influence upon the
masses is so manifest, that they demand a place beside the rep-
utable newspapers of the city. As to their intellectual turpitude
and moral degeneration, we have not to say, as this is merely a
matter of opinion. It is generally conceded to be unscrupulous as
to obtaining news, and their only aim seems to be rapidity, instead
of reliability. They both have a wide circulation. The World
was founded by some " Christian gentlemen, that there might be
at least one pure paper in New York City."

Here again the writer makes hard work. With a much more
definite idea than that of the preceding selection, he makes
havoc of his phrases. Cutting out the implied repetitions, one
might say that the passage came down to this : ** The World
and the Journal should come under one (not the same) head,
since (not as) the slight difference between them lies in the
degree of badness. Yet, in spite of their character, their in-
fluence on the masses is so manifest that, in any article, they
have to be treated with the reputable newspapers of the city.
Just how bad they are is a matter of opinion. It is agreed that
they (not it), are unscrupulous in getting news, that they care
more for haste than accuracy, and that they have a wide circu-
lation. The World," etc. Throughout, the writer uses words,
— corresponding degree, degeneration, stamina, turpitude, and
even such simple words as same, as, it, — which are altogether
too big for him, or which he does n't know the meaning of.
But he is ambitious — in a confused way.



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210 English Composition and Style

11. It is true, there is no real "type" but, nevertheless,

by her third year or even her second, a girl has undergone

a change by which she has a similarity to all other students.

If we consider this change we will find it is in her manner of
dressing. This is not so much in the exact clothes she wears as
how she carries them and the particular tone, as it were, that
they possess. How to dress seems evidently one of the things
to be acquired at college for certainly the Freshmen do seem
odd when they come in and the oddness cannot be attributed to
their strangeness in anything so much as to their clothes. It is
true that Freshmen of any institution are apt to look " queer " and

that people of one community dress similarly but here at it

is more pronounced. For if we see a strange face here, we can
easily tell in some way whether she is a girl or an out-
sider — we may add doubtfully that, " She may be a Freshman."
And the way we tell is by a something in the general character
of her clothes.

This passage has the loquacity and the desultoriness of much
talk, especially when people are grappling with an idea and are
in danger of being thrown. Here three ideas and three sen-
tences, properly worded, would do the matter ; thus : " Though

there is no real * type ' yet a girl, by her third or

even her second year, acquires some similarity to all other

students. This change comes less from her clothes than

from the way in which she wears them, or from the uniformity

of tone. The fact that Freshmen at look uncommonly

odd, is largely due to the fact of which I have been speaking,
and is an illustration of it.''

12. They claimed they had never flunked an exam, though they
had never been grinds and many of the courses were far from
being snaps.

Flunked, exam, grinds, and snaps are technical college slang,
which would hardly be understood by other than college men
or women. Claimed is an impropriety for maintained, asserted,
or said. The passage is ordinary rather than pretentious.


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Words 211

13. H. P. Headley's smart filly, Harlem Lane, started matters
pleasantly for plungers who had the nerve to play her down to
even money in a field of thirteen. The race was down the last
five furlongs of the Futurity course and they hove into view with
the second choice, Ondurdis, showing the way. O'Connor made
his bid on the flat with Harlem Lane and she won with a lot of
speed in reserve, by a head. Annie Thompson, one of the de-
spised outsiders, hung on in third position and shut Welsh Girl
out of a length. The winner was entered to be sold for $900, a
figure which Mike Clancy considered so small that he bid $1,500.
The owner protected his filly and retained her after the Irish
King stopped at $1,700. It was an expensive victory for the new
flyer and she is likely to be entered closer to her actual value here-

This is more or less technical race-track slang, in more ways
than can be specified. The student should look up the words
that seem to be local in usage. Like the preceding selection,
the passage is nowise pretentious; for the writer gets over
his ground rapidly and in a way entirely comprehensible to
the readers to whom the passage is addressed.

14. The wildest enthusiasm — indeed a perfect furore — arose
when Mr. Sacheverell in terms that evinced the deepest emotion
called the gentleman down for his mordaiit irony in the face of
events so trying to the friends of the departed.

This is pretentious, but the writer had n't his vocabulary, and
the result is a few extravagant or commonplace phrases, as
wildest enthusiasm, deepest emotion, friends of the departed,
the barbarism, perfect furore, mingled with the pretentious
mordant irony and the colloquial calUd the gentleman down.

15. The Yankees did n't have a chance to do things on the
Hilltop yesterday afternoon. A steady rainfall, that began early
in the morning and stuck it out until too late in the afternoon,
kept all of our best young rooters away. They are saving all
the pepper up, don't worry. If this afternoon is a fair afternoon,
they '11 be turning them away up on the Heights.

As things now stand, the Yankees have a very sweet chance

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 18 of 43)