W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

. (page 2 of 43)
Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 2 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

branch and flower into fine ideas and solid facts. It is, of
course, impossible to write without beginning somewhere, and
some event, some familiar idea or quotation furnishes such an
opening. It is doubtful whether writers as a rule have very
fully thought-out schemes. Perhaps a set of topics, like the
table of contents of a book, arranged in any one of several
interesting orders, is as far as most writers go. Certainly
great novelists like Scott, Thackeray, and Trollope, have taken
more care to keep the story moving under their hands than to
know beforehand where it was coming out But some arrange-
ment is doubtless good. This is composition, a term that may
be briefly explained.

Composition is the art or act of arranging ideas so that they
will best go together and make the best eflfect; more particu-
larly, both in art and literature, it is the act of bringing into
special notice or relief what is deemed by the artist or the
writer to be the more important parts of his work, and of


by Google

12 English Composition and Style

subordinating other matters and all details to that. In writ-
ing it is a plan or scheme of ideas, and is, in application, a
very various matter, as we shall see later. Literary composi-
tions, that is writing with composition, may be variously short
or long. They may, on the one hand, consist of single short
sentences, or, on the other hand, they may be affairs of sev-
eral volumes, like Gibbon's famous composition The Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire. In writing as actually prac-
tised, and also in speaking, the term does not usually apply to
single words of exclamation, interjection, or isolated fragments
of dialogue, nor again, to compendiums of information, such as
almanacs, guide-books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, any
more than it would be given to a gallery of miscellaneous pic-
tures, however well-composed individually. A piece of writ-
ing, or, as it is sometimes called, a composition, may evidently
have good composition or bad composition. It is important
that these two uses of the term, composition as any piece of
writing and composition as arrangement, should be kept in
mind; for it is obviously in the latter sense that the term is
here used. Many so-called " compositions " have no composi-
tion. Composition, to repeat, is simply good planning, and
good planning may evidently take many forms and be greatly
varied according to the material or the occasion.

2. Writing. However much antecedent planning may be
done, it is evident that the process of first writing is usually
carried on as rapidly as possible. If it is a short matter,
one may finish it and several others at a sitting, — or dictate
them to his stenographer. On the other hand, what may be
done at one " go " may perhaps be but a small part of the
whole. In the cases of the celebrated writers just mentioned,
the differences in rapidity of writing were probably consider-
able. They all wrote as much as they wanted to say, at pre-
sumably very different rates of speed. But they wrote, it may
be presumed, with an eye on the facts to be produced rather
than to the immediate finish of the style. Falling, as all writers
will, into a sort of gait, they afterwards retraced their steps


by Google

What Writing Actually Is 13

more or less carefully, with a view to better expression. This
is the process of

3. Revision. Here the sensible practice is to revise until,
within reasonable limits of time, a thing is said as well as a
writer knows how to say it. The only kinds of composition
which do not actually have much revision are the business
letters of trained letter-writers, which are of course carefully
read before signing, and personal letters, though, even here,
few are rash enough to post letters without rereading. A very
lucid and punctilious man, John Stuart Mill, was accustomed
to rewrite all his letters, and that practice is not uncommon
in important matters. Even rapidly written editorial articles
are subject to proof-reading, and all published work of a more
leisurely sort goes through two or three revisions in proof
after it leaves the personal revisions of the author. It is im-
possible, m actual practice, to escape revision. Such revision
is wholly necessary for accuracy of style, as well as for im-
provement in the arranging of ideas.

Application of rhetoric to actual writing. It is evident
that rhetoric, as a formal study, does not apply with equal
importance to all the processes of actual writing analyzed
above. It can suggest subjects and tell in a general way how
to gather material, but these are evidently the concern, diiefly,
of individual or scientific interests. Notfiing that a text-book
on rhetoric could tell with regard to, say, the collection of
material for a short article or a long treatise on botany or
politics, could possibly compare in value with what a teacher
of either subject could refer you to. An experienced pub-
lisher or newspaperman could tell more in a few minutes about
what would actually " go " than it would be possible to enun-
ciate in any text-book on the subject But rhetoric may lay
down some general principles of suggestive value and may
point out some ways of collecting material and of stimulating
inventive processes.

In matters of arrangement and general composition, rhetor-
ical analysis can elucidate principles that will be of help to


by Google

14 English Composition and Style

the beginner, but it would hardly aspire to instruct really ac-
complished writers in the mastery of their art ; for it is, indeed,
from the practice of such writers that the principles have been
obtained. Nor are the principles particularly potent unless
supplemented with considerable practice; and here, again, the
special interference of the teacher or the practical editor is

Nor is it best for one to pay much attention to rhetoric in
the actual process of writing. One should write with his eye
on the subject, with a sole desire to make it as clear and forci-
ble as possible, to free his mind of his idea. It is to be hoped
that his previous habits and training will cause him to say the
thing well rather than ill, without taking thought.

It is in the matter of revision that rhetorical laws and ex-
pedients are chiefly useful. A rhetorical text-book supplies
suggestions and rules for procedure. Properly applied, it
shows how the effect of a word may be heightened, how a
sentence may be better rounded, how a composition may be
more firmly arranged, and a variety of other matters founded
on good example and precept. A well-ordered text-book of
rhetoric enables a writer readily to find these facts for him-
self, but they may also be had from the criticism of friends
or teachers or other competent persons. Rhetoric is, therefore,
simply the application of certain principles to the expression
of ideas and the statement of certain matters of usage, and a
rhetorical text-book is merely a compendium of such prin-
ciples and such facts. As related to actual writing, rhetoric,
along with common sense and experience, wherever picked up,
is simply a means of making such writing better. It works
chiefly in the matter of revision of writing, as Professor
Wendell has pointed out,' but also in the arrangement of ma-
terial and to some degree in the selection thereof.

Before passing to the subject of college writing, one mor^
matter regarding the relation of rhetorical study to actual writ-

9 English Composition,, page ii6. New York, 1893.


by Google

What Writing Actually Is 15

ing should be mentioned. That is, that formal study of rhet-
oric is, on the whole, a study for beginners. The moment a
writer has, thrpugh the aid of rhetoric, if not by nature, and
tact, become a skilled and competent writer, he abandons rhet-
oric except as a very sporadic study. He proceeds to write
as he thinks wise and sensible and as his habits have formed.
He employs rhetoric, to be sure, but it is usually as an informal
act in accordance with his predilections and habits. For it
must not be forgotten that rhetoric is both (i) the art of writ-
ing and speaking well and (2) the facts and principles that
have to do with the art of writing and speaking well. When
you have the former you may afford to forget the latter.


by Google



The great question, '*What shall I write about?" is an-
swered in the actual world of discourse by one's desires, inter-
ests, and mental resources, by a knowledge of an audience
and the call of an occasion or an editor. In school and college
courses in rhetoric it is usually answered by the selection of
subjects suitable for training at a special stage. Evidently the
more nearly the latter conditions may imitate the former the
better. For convenience in this chapter we may say that good
subjects for training comprise (i) reproductions of what is
already in print, as translations and summaries, (2) personal
subjects, taken from one's experience or interests and involving
observation and imagination, and (3) learned subjects which
call for some reading and research. This classification is less
accurate and complete than suggestive, but it will be found to
be not very far from what authors are actually writing about,
though the varieties in each class are legion.

Translation and summary. The function of these forms in
the world of writing is to make more accessible facts expressed
in an unknown tongue, or what is of too great length for the
reader with limited time, or, in longer works, to serve as illus-
tration. This last function needs further explanation; the
necessity for the others is evident. Of the use of summary to
illustrate a point, the following example will serve. Walter
Bagehot, in a brilliant essay entitled, Wordsworth, Tennyson
and Browning; or, Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art in English
Poetry,^ used his poets to illustrate his idea of the three
kinds of art. Of " ornate art " he says :

1 Literary Essays,



by Google

Subjects and Titles 17

The extreme opposite to this pure art is what may be called
ornate art. This species of art aims also at giving a delineation
of the typical idea in its perfection and its fulness, but it aims at
so doing in a manner most di£ferent It wishes to surround the
type with the greatest ntunber of circumstances which it will bear.
It works not by choice and selection, but by accumulation and
aggregation. The idea is not, as in the pure style, presented with
the least clothing which it will endure, but with the richest and
most involved clothing that it will admit.

We are fortunate in not having to hunt out of past literature
an illustrative specimen of the ornate style. Mr. Tennyson has
just given one admirable in itself, and most characteristic of the
defects and the merits of this style. The story of Enoch Arden,
as he has enhanced and presented it, is a rich and splendid com-
posite of imagery and illustration. Yet how simple that story is
in itself! A sailor who sells fish, goes to sea, is wrecked on a
desert island, stays there some years, on his return finds his wife
married to a miller, speaks to a landlady on the subject, and dies.
Told in the pure and simple, the unadorned and classical style,
this story would not have taken three pages, but Mr. Tennyson
has been able to make it the principal — the largest tale in his new
volume. He has done so only by giving to every event and inci-
dent in the volume an accompanying commentary. He tells a great
deal about the torrid zone, which a rough sailor like Enoch Arden
certainly would not have perceived; and he gives to the fishing
village, to which all the characters belong, a softness and a fascina-
tion which such villages scarcely possess in reality.

In this passage, Bagehot used the striking summary of the
poem and also the very brief accounts of Tennyson's descrip-
tion of English village life not only in a purely illustrative
way, but also to bring into active relief the thesis on which he
is bent, the ornate character of a certain kind of writing best
illustrated by Tennyson. The summary is here completely
subordinated to the thesis and becomes an integral part of the
composition. It grows out of the composition and is natu-
rally introduced. Too frequently summaries do not compose
with the rest of the work and have no real function to perform.

Translation offers no chance and simimary very little chance


by Google

i8 English Composition and Style

for practice in composition. In translation the composition is
ready made ; the translator merely has to understand the ideas
and to express them in as good English as possible, either lit-
erally or with sufficiently free rendering to make them appear
like English passages of a corresponding class. Translation is
good for training in style. Many briefs are held for various
theories of translation, but truth to the ideas and, when possi-
ble, to the effect^of the original, and good JEnglish expression
are the things most commonly called for. Chiefly to be
shunned, apart from factual falsity, is the so-called "trans-
lation English," illustrated by the schoolboy's Virgil:

O Muse, rela'te to me the causes, which, divine will having been
vexed, or grieved at what, the queen of the gods compelled a man
of so great renown, to undergo the round of so many chances and
to perform such labors. Is such wrath to celestial minds ?

Summary, like translation, has its composition furnished,
and many summaries are no more than running digests of facts
or ideas arranged in the order of the original. But for the
ease of an audience, it is often better to recast the order, be-
ginning with a statement of the purpose and gist of the matter,
especially in summaries incorporated in longer work. Here
there is some field for ingenuity, but a young writer had best
be chary of trying to improve on the order of Mill, Newman,
and other lucid writers. Except in running narrative it is
often a good plan, other things being indifferent, to begin with
a statement of the main idea and to introduce qualifications
as may be necessary. Practice in summary is of undoubted
value in all note-taking, debating, thesis-writing, and the like.


I, Translate a few paragraphs from a notable piece in any
foreign language, trying to reproduce the effect of the style.
Translate a short poem and a few stanzas from a long poem, in
prose, and also, where possible, in verse. Cf. Part IV, Versifica-


by Google

Subjects and Titles 19

2. Make short summaries, of, say, two or three pages, of the
following passages : ^

1. Parkman's account of the capture of Quebec, in chapter 4 of
the Conspiracy of Pontiac nnd the Indian War after the Con-
quest of Canada,

2. J. S. Mill's early education, in chapter i of the Autobiography.

3. The Siege of the Round-House. Chapter 10 of Stevenson's

4. Dobbin's Fight with Cuff. Chapter 5 of Vanity Fair.

5. A Dog and His Master. From Jack London's The Call of the

6. Arnold's account of the reasons for Wordsworth's unpopu-
larity. From Essays in Criticism: Second Series.

7. Learned Words and Popular Words. Chapter 3 of Greenough
and Kittredge's Words and Their Ways in English Speech.

8. Huxley's exposition of the three hypotheses regarding the
formation of the universe. Lecture i of Three Lectures on

9. The Pathetic Fallacy. From part iv., chapter 12 of Ruskin's
Modern Painters.

la The central idea of Wordsworth's Ode on the IntimaHons of
Immortality, or of Browning's The Statue and the Bust.

3. Describe briefly any one of the following poems:

1. Tennyson's The Lotus Eaters.

2. Longfellow's Hiawatha.

3. Shelley's Alastor.

% Byron's A Vision of Judgment.

5. Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

1 Several passages cited in the following exercises have actually been
tested and have worked well, but others would evidently be quite as
satisfactory. For the convenience of the student it may be remarked
that certain passages in exercises ^, 5, and 6 are reprinted in the fol-
lowing books of selections.

Carpenter, G. R. American Prose.

Carpenter, G. R. and Brewster, W. T. Modern English Prose.

Brewster, W. T. Specimens of Narration.

Brewster, W. T. Specimens of Modern English Literary Criticism,

Bouton, A. L. The Lincoln and Douglas Debates.

Baker, G. P. Specimens of Argumentation.

Lament, H. Specimens of Exposition.

Gardiner, J. H. The Forms of Prose Literature:


by Google

20 English Composition and Style

4. What is the central idea of the following plays:

1. Shakspere's Hamlet

2. Sheridan's The Rivals.

3. Byron's Manfred,

4. Pincro's Trelawney of the Wells.

5. Ibsen's A Doll's House.

5. State briefly and concisely, but with distinctness, what the
following books are about:

1. George Eliot's Silas Marner.

2. Kipling's Plain Tales from the HUls.

3. Meredith's The Egoist

4. Hawthorne's The Marble Faun.

5. Scott's Quentin Durward.

6. Mill's The Subjection of Women.

7. Arnold's Culture and Anarchy.

8. Stevenson's The Amateur Emigrant

9. Plato's Crito.

la William James's The Will to Believe.

6. Combine short summaries of the following subjects, by
whatever method may seem most fitting, into statements of a
general idea: (Compare Bagehot and Huxley in the passages re-
ferred to on pages 16-17 and 19, exercise 2, 8.)

I. The home training of Mill, Franklin, and Trollope, as de-
scribed in their autobiographies.

a. Newman's theory of a university compared with the facts
expressed in Gibbon's Memoirs, Carlyle's Sartor Resartus,
Darwin's Autobiography, or what you yourself know.

3. Arnold and Pater on what criticism is. Compare The Func^
tion of Criticism at the Present Time in Arnold's Essays in
Criticism, with Pater's preface to the Renaissance.

4. Two roseate views of Shakspere: De Quincey's Shakespeare
and Lamb's On the Tragedies of Shakespeare.

5. Keats's delight in beautiful objects as expressed in the Ode to
the Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, and Ode to Autumn.

6. Arnold's Morality, Self ^Reliance, and Dover Beach.

7. Kipling's Stalky and Company and Owen Johnson's The Eter^
nal Boy.

8. The opening speeches of the Lincoln and Douglas debates.

9. James and Stevenson on fiction (see Henry James's The Art
of Fiction, and R. L. Stevenson's A Humble Remonstrance).

10. Two plans for the New York Subway.

11. Political platforms in the Presidential election of 1912.


by Google

Subjects and Titles 21

Personal subjects, and subjects depending on observation
and imagination. These are evidently as varied as people.
What you have done, what you see about you, what you think
of things that you see and hear of, the products of your imag-
ination, supply a host of suggestion, some of which may turn
out to be readable and interesting sketches and stories. It
is quite impossible to separate subjects of this very inclusive
class from its neighbors ; for evidently many subjects in which
we feel keen interest take some alien utterance for a point of
departure, and that may call for a summary. On the other
hand, any careful analysis of personal subjects not infrequently
involves research, if one is at all curious. Almost anything is
good, provided it interest the writer and has a remote chance
of interesting a reader, and therefore, in theory, no subjects
suitable for communication may be deemed improper. But
experience shows that certain subjects are not likely to be
good. Character sketches and stories of personal experience
are excellent, but such subjects as, " How I spent my va-
cation," by reason of its staleness; descriptions of people in
the street cars, because of their customary superficiality ; and
accounts of the bizarre, — of, say, cripples, idiots, and other
abnormal t3rpes, — from their likelihood of degenerating into
the merely obvious, are less good than more humdrum things
that make some demand on one's observation and thinking.
A little reflection or experimentation will show at once that
certain subjects, good in themselves, will not pan out. Noth-
ing is a bad subject so long as it can be made interesting, but,
for the majority of young writers, the facts of every-day expe-
rience, and what one thinks about these facts, are likely to be
more worth while than matter of remote interest and uncertain
knowledge. " What do I think about this? " is a fine question
to ask, and constant practice in devising subjects will b^et a
host of notions and situations.


by Google

22 English Composition and Style


1, Write short themes on the following subjects:

1. My room.

2. What happened at the class meeting.

3. The view from my window.

4. Fraternities.

5. What a good book is.

6. The new chapel.

7. Some characteristics of my college class.

8. A favorite novel.

9. My next-door neighbor.

10. Football : its merits and defects.

11. Football : how to play it

12. How I write a theme, or, How I study (a comparison between
advice or the ideal and actual fact).

13. Professional and amateur baseball.

14. My course of study.

2. Comment on the following phrases in any way that seems
interesting to you, — as to meaning, truth, etc.

1. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

2. Proverbs are the conventional lies of civilization.

3. It is a duty that a man owes to society to lie to one who asks
impertinent questions.

4. Home is the girl's prison and the woman's workhouse.

5. The love of economy is the root of all virtue.

6. When it comes to rendering service, what counts most in the
college man, as with every other man, is not intellect, not hon-
esty or courage, but character.

7. It is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to waste it
like a miser.

8. That low man seeks a little thing to do,

Sees it and does it;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue.

Dies ere he knows it
That low man goes on adding one to one«

His hundred 's soon hit :
This high man, aiming at a million,

Misses a unit
g. Why be this juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a snare?
A blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a curse, why then who set it there !


by Google

Subjects and Titles 23

3. Compose such motifs as the following into short narratives:

1. Pleasant day ; pleasant companion, quickly moving vehicle, in-
creasingly interesting talk, sudden interruption, unexpected bath.

2. Intense rivalry; equal number of victories; final conflict; wav-
ering fortunes; critical episode; display of heroism, counter-
balanced by skill; general uncertainty; crushing defeat at the
very end ; joy and applause.

4. Write a short story accounting for the presence of an empty
canoe gp-ounded on the shore of a small pond. (Take any other
circumstance, but do not kill your characters if you can possibly
avoid it.)

5. Write short stories illustrating, through the character of
some person, such motives as selfishness, bravery, stupidity, etc.,
but in so doing, try to avoid preaching.

6. In separate themes describe and characterize some person
from the following points of view:

1. The impression he makes on you ; your own likes and dislikes.

2. An account of the picturesque facts at your disposal

3. An interpretation based on his attitude towards various ideas
and objects.

Learned subjects. Under the preceding head would be
classified practically all the literature of entertainment and a
good deal of the literature of information and instruction,
especially that of an informal kind. The present group of
subjects deals with information and persuasion; amusement
and entertainment are secondary and incidental. In the actual
world such subjects make up the bulk (stories excluded) of
our more serious magazines, of our books, of our treatises,
of all works of published research and criticism, and the greater
part of serious speeches and sermons. They may be merely
explanatory, or expository, or they may involve argumentation
of critical, logical, and persuasive sorts. In whatever way one
may come by the idea for the subject, good work calls for
looking up the facts wherever they can be found; if not in
print or in personal possession, then, so far as may be, by
experimentation and original inquiry. This is the way in
which additions to human knowledge are made or a new mean-


Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 2 of 43)