W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

. (page 20 of 43)
Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 20 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

14. There is none like to the God of Jeshurun, who rideth
upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency in the sky. The
eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting
arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and
shall say. Destroy them. Israel then shall dwell in safety alone:
the fountain of Jacob shall be upon a land of com and wine;
also his heavens shall drop down dew. Happy art thou, O Israel :
who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord, the shield
of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! and thine
enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread
upon their high places. Deuteronomy, xxxiii.

Technically, this celebrated passage is on the whole made up
of simple words of Saxon origin, but among these there are
such learned words as " excellency." There are both general
and specific words, as "the eternal God is thy refuge," and
" drop down dew." Many other observations might be made
on the vocabulary, which, however, would throw little light
on the wild and exultant hymn, famous for such figures as
" underneath are the everlasting arms."


1. What is a Barbarism? Make a list of words that you
deem barbarisms and verify it with a dictionary. Find good
English equivalents and show, in each case, why the equivalent
is preferable.

2. Define the term Impropriety? What is the usual meaning
of the following terms frequently misused. When needful make
sentences to illustrate the correct use. For what terms are they
sometimes misused?

Accept, acceptance, acceptation, affect, aggravate, allow, allude,
alone, among, anent, appreciate, apt, as, avocation, awful, balance,
bam, between, borrow, bring, calculate, can, capacity, carry, cause,
claim, complement, conclude, confess, contemplate, contemptible,
contemptuous, continual, continuous, council, counsel, credible,


by Google

Words 225

creditable, credulous, cunning, date, deal, decide, decided, decisive,
depot, deprecate, depreciate, discover, demand, different, down
(verb), don't, distinct, distinctive, effect, elegant, eliminate, emi-
grant, except, exceptional, exceptionable, expect, expectance, ex-
pectation, factor, feature, fine, fix, flee, fly, flow, frighten, func-
tion, gentleman, get, grand, guess, heap, home, human, humane,
ideal, if, ilk, immigrant, individual, induct, induction, indulge,
lady, last, latest, lay, lead, learn, leave, let, liable, lie, like, likely,
less, line, lines, loan, locate, location, love, mad, majority, mean,
miss (noun), most, mutual, neither, nice, no use, notable, no-
torious, observance, observation, of, oral, pair, partake, party,
per, person, phase, piece, point, predict, predicate, portray, post,
propose, proposition, proposal, prescribe, preventative, preventive,
proscribe, provided, providing, purpose, put in, quite, raise,
rarely, real, reason, respectfully, respectively, revered, reverend,
ride, run, same, scholar, settle, shall, shape, should, show, set,
sit, snap, some, stay, start, stop, subject, such, swagger, swell, take,
team, topic, transpire, trend, ugly, up, verbal, vim, vocal, want,
well, when, while, whole, wire, without.

3. Find examples of tropes and tell how apt they are in point
of freshness, spontaneity, and consistency.

4. Comment on the character and size of the vocabulary in the
passages cited on pages 1 16-139 and 159-172. Are the words spe-
cific, definite, simple, varied, fresh, hackneyed, in good use ? When
possible suggest improvements in wording and excise unnecessary
words. Look up the meaning of any words with which you are

5. Find passages illustrating . specific merits and faults of the
kind last noted in the text and also examples illustrating other
matters that seem to you to be noteworthy.



by Google



Sentences as planned or as subjects for revision are likely
to be criticized, if at all, because they are ungrammatical or be-
cause they fail to bring out their meaning in the most eflfective
way. As words in any piece of writing should conform to
English usage, so sentences should be grammatical ; the syntax
should ordinarily be in accord with accepted English syntax.
Within this limit sentences may be varied, but they will be
good in proportion to the skill, — that is, the clearness and
effectiveness, — with which the idea is brought out. The rhe-
torical effort with sentences, as with words, is to get as
much meaning out of them as possible. This meaning, as
with words also, is not merely a matter of clearness; it is a
matter, too, of the ease and pleasure of the reader and of the
vigor with which an idea may be expressed. These things so
far as they relate to matters of grammar and form will be con-
sidered in this chapter. In the following chapter the matter
will be presented as an actual rather than as a formal problem.
It is assumed that the student is aware of the fact that a
sentence contains a subject and a verb or that it makes a com-
plete statement of some kind.

Solecisms. A solecism is, broadly, an error in grammar,
that is to say, if the relations of words to one another is not
the accepted relation, according to English syntax, a solecism
results. Solecisms may arise from errors in inflection, as who
for whom; from failure of adverbs to agree with verbs, ad-
jectives, or other adverbs, or of verbs to agree with their sub-
jects, or nouns to agree with verbs, as in "The phenomena
is " ; from the use of adjectives for adverbs, as " She dances



by Google

Sentences 227

beautiful " ; or the reverse, the use of adverbs for adjectives,
as "She looks beautifully"; or from the wrong sequence of
tenses in principal and subordinate clauses, as " I should have
thought that it will rain to-day." The confounding of certain
similar words, as lay and lie results in solecisms, and, in like
manner, the failure to distinguish between shall and will and
should and would, — though evidently the confusion of the
future auxiliary forms is more common, and hence decidedly
less grievous and objectionable than such confusions as lay
with lie or sit with set. Certain solecisms relate to the place
of words, as not only and but also, either and or, which should
have equivalent phrases behind each; only, a very commonly
misplaced modifier ; the superfluous use of which, in the phrase
and which where there has been no previous zvhich to keep
the clause from being both dependent and principal at the same
time. A good many are errors of meaning, as " The secretary
and treasurer," which does not mean the same thing as " The
secretary and the treasurer," or "Can I open the window?"
which has different sense from " May I open the window ? "
Confusions of prepositions, from for than, or the reverse, with-
out for unless or except, or the reverse, are illustrations. The
so-called " split infinitive " is often termed a solecism but any
objection thereto lies in usage rather than logic or syntax.
For further information on the subject, the reader should refer
to the Appendix, where the more important are classified.

The classification of sentences. The grammatical classifi-
cations of sentences into declarative, interrogative, exclamative,
and imperative have no special significance in rhetoric and
need not detain us. We are so wholly likely to use a declara-
tive sentence when we say something, an interrogative sentence
when we ask a question, and the other forms in their proper
places, that from this point of view rhetorical and logical ques-
tions rarely arise. The only matter of interest is that many
questions, many exclamations, many commands, introduced
into discourse are likely to become wearisome. These odd
sentences are more common in oratory of various kinds than


by Google

228 English Composition and Style

in writing for the eye. It is safe always to use the declarative
sentence unless special call comes for another kind.

Simple, compound, and complex sentences. This customary,
grammatical classification has much to do with rhetoric A
succession of simple sentences, i.e., sentences each with one
subject and one verb, is likely to be jerky, to give the impres-
sion of haste, and simple sentences are, moreover, unfitted for
expressing complex ideas. They are, however, much used in
certain kinds of work, as in telegraphic despatches, where con-
ciseness and lack of ambiguity are very important A series
of compound sentences, i. e., sentences each containing at least
two independent subjects and predicates, are likely to drag very
much; in narrative they may lead to the "and then" style.
The complex sentence, which contains at least one dependent
clause with its subject and verb, in addition to the principal
clause or clauses, is capable of much variety and is highly
useful in expressing intricate relations of thought Style is
pleasanter, and is likely to be more accurate and expressive,
if sentences of all kinds are freely employed and well varied.

Long and short sentences. This is a loose rhetorical classifi-
cation of no grammatical significance whatsoever. The classi-
fication is loose because the line between long and short is
hard to draw. The average English sentence now-a-days is
said to contain about thirty words; any sentence over fifty
words would probably be called long, any sentence under
twenty words would be termed short Moreover, if a writer
habitually used sentences averaging over fifty words his sen-
tences would be conspicuous for their length ; if an average of
twenty, the reverse would be true. Actually, in any writing,
sentences are very much varied; the more one conformed to
an average the more monotonous his writing would be.
" Prize " sentences occur in Ruskin ; Mr. Harrison points out
as the longest on record one of 619 words in Modern
Painters ^ but there is one in Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age *

^F. Harrison: Ruskin as a Master of Prose, in Tennyson, Ruskin,
Mill and other Literary Estimates,
^ In the sketch of Coleridge.


by Google

Sentences 229

of 848 words. To produce these periods requires very great
skill, and a good general practice is to keep sentences pretty well
down to the thirty average and to be sure that any sentence
of over forty or fifty words could not be bettered if reduced.
Short sentences are likely to produce a choppy eflfect; long
sentences, like compound sentences, tend to become monoto-
nous, obscure, and often illogical.

Loose sentences and periodic sentences. In a loose sentence
ideas or modifiers come in after the sentence may be gram-
matically complete; in a periodic sentence the grammatical
structure, i. e., the sense or statement, is not complete till the
end — the idea and the grammar come out even, so to speak.
" We are likely to use a declarative sentence when we say
something** is technically loose, though not logically so; the
periodical form would be, " When we say something we are
likely to use a declarative sentence." Sentences may be made
periodic not only by inversion, as in the example cited, but in
any way that causes the completion to be suspended : correla-
tives, as either and or, not only and but also, for example,
may hold the sense back. In the present chapter up to this
point (if we reckon colons and semicolons as equivalent to
periods) there are 34 sentences that would be classified as
loose and 21 that would be called periodic ; the student would
do well to note the various ways of obtaining periodicity in this
or any piece of writing. Generally speaking, it is well to cul-
tivate periodicity ; it usually gives writing a firmer texture than
a succession of sentences where ideas are tacked on to one an-
other; but, on the other hand, if slovenliness is the vice of
excessively loose writing, stiffness and formality are likely to
occur where very many periodic sentences are used. A fair
proportion of loose to periodic is often stated to be one to
three, but any set scheme is likely to be somewhat arbitrary.
The periodic sentence surely compels the writer to handle his
modifiers with attention and for that reason is good practice.

Balanced sentences. In these sentences, ideas of similar
nature or value are put in similar constructions, either as


by Google

230 English Composition and Style

parallel or as antithetical to one another. The sentence " Man-
hattan Island is like a tongue of land ; the tip is the Battery,
while the blade lies in the region near Central Park, the roots
being in Harlem," is as badly made as can be ; the three spec-
ifying ideas ought to be in parallel constructions, as, " Man-
hattan Island is like a tongue of land: the tip is at the Bat-
tery, the blade in Central Park, and the roots in Harlem,*' or
in any other way that makes sense. Of the antithetical
structure, the sentence already cited on page 218 from Viscount
Morley, is an excellent example: "If Mill taught some of
them to reason, Macaulay tempted more of them to declaim,"
etc. Most balanced sentences, however, are not of this formal
and elaborate character. A writer who uses complex and
compound sentences with skill will inevitably obtain quietly
well-balanced sentences. Few ideas offer truthful oppor-
tunities for striking oppositions ; but many are sufficiently alike
to allow themselves to be expressed in similar ways.

Principles of construction in sentences. A good sentence,
that is a sentence which makes its mark most effectively or
carries along the idea of the paragraph in the most dutiful
way, will, whether for the sake of the idea or the ease of the
reader, conform to three well-recognized principles of infinite
variety in application. These principles are unity, coherence,
and emphasis, which we have examined in r^ard to para-
graphs, and which need further illustration in their applica-
tion to sentences. Ease and harmony are also deemed im-
portant matters in sentences; for it is evident that sentences
may be pretty well constructed in accordance with the prin-
ciples named and yet be ungainly and wanting in charm.

Unity. In accordance with this principle a sentence should
be about one thing, that is to say, it should contain one main
idea. This does not mean that all sentences should be simple
declarative or interrogative sentences, but that one idea should
dominate the sentence, however much that idea may be lim-
ited and modified. Indeed, a series of short sentences may
violate unity for the reason that some of the ideas, properly


by Google

Sentences 231

subordinate to others and properly to be included with them,
are given independence; nothing is thrown into the shade.
Several of the very long sentences quoted above, as that from •
Morley (p. 218) or that from Arnold (p. 51) are entirely
well unified, though doubtless such sentences could often be
broken without making any appreciable difference in the
unity. The f oUowng sentence, though much shorter, evidently
lacks unity:

The foregoing argument which was advanced by many people
whose political opinions were known to be sound and upright,
which opened up a discussion which appalled the conservative,
found great favor with him.

It lacks unity because the reader has trouble in seeing what
it is about. The writer probably njeans (still an ungainly,
though a clearer sentence),

The foregoing argument, which was advanced by many people
of sound and upright political opinions, found great favor with
him. Yet it opened a discussion appalling to the conservative.

Or, it may mean.

The foregoing argument found great favor with him. To the
conservative, however, the discussion which followed it, though
supported by many people of sound political opinions, was ap-

Evidently a great many other forms could be devised for the
idea, and a student would do well to experiment with them.
The fundamental trouble is that we do not know what the
sentence means, or rather, what the writer intended to say.
Neither, probably, did he.

Knozving what you wish each sentence to say, enabling the
reader to see what the sentence is about, — that is, of course,
the first rule of sentence writing. This is largely a matter of
unity. Make up your mind what each sentence is to do, and
save irrelevant ideas for other sentences or banish them en-
tirely. If the sentences of any of the good writers hereto-


by Google

232 English Composition* and Style

fore quoted (pp. 1 16-139) are examined from this point of
view, each will be seen to be about a pretty definite thing.
• Coherence. Coherence in sentences means that the relation
of the parts should be made as clear as possible, that ideas
which belong together should go together and so far as possi-
ble be cemented together. Incoherence is an anno)ring or a
somewhat ludicrous thing, and is probably much more preva-
lent and subtle a sin than lack of unity. A sentence is likely
to be incoherent from any one or all of several causes : it may
be ungrammatical ; the connective words may be inaccurately
used; the modifying clauses may not be where they belong;
ideas belonging in similar phrases or clauses may be dressed
in harlequin attire. Ungrammatical sentences are evidently
incoherent in that they violate fundamental English relation-
ships, though the meaning may not be seriously or even
slightly obscured. Among connective words when, as, so,
with, and, but, are likely to be loosely used, e. g., " He is very
homely with an expressionless face and bulging eyes," or, " I
had always supposed bookkeeping to be a very simple matter,
so was glad for the opportunity to take my friend's place for
a day in her father's office." The result may even be ambi-
guity, as in the sentence, " Gabriel and Evangeline were to
be married when the English officers came and ordered the
people out of the place." Illustrations of badly used pronouns
and wrongly placed modifiers are stock, as that about the
nursing bottle, " When the baby is done drinking, it must be
unscrewed and uncorked and laid in a cool place under a tap.
If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk it should be boiled,"
or, "A lady sat threading a needle with a Roman nose."
This kind of incoherence is much commoner in subtler forms,
as in the sentence, " They were seated in the street car, a tall
elderly woman and her daughter, distinctly German in type,
with what I consider a common German characteristic, a very
patronizing and self-satisfied air." The use of It or They to
begin a sentence, followed at some distance by the subject of
the pronoun is a very common modern affectation, probably


by Google

Sentences 233

introduced by Mr. Kipling and since much imitated in anec-
dotes and short stories. The advantage of like constructions
for ideas of similar value is best seen in parallel constructions,
which have already been illustrated (p. 229).

Lack of coherence is not likely to result in any such posi-
tive obscuring of sense as lack of unity. In incoherent sen-
tences we can usually figiu"e out what the writer meant to
say, whereas badly unified sentences are often totally obscure.
On the other hand, incoherence is likely to waylay the writer
at any moment, and the successful avoidance of the vice is a
good test of careful writing. An attentive writer who re-
vises carefully will hardly make mistakes in coherence. They
are perhaps rather distracting than obscure, but by diverting
attention they sin against fullness of meaning.

Emphasis. The application of this principle to any sen-
tence means that superfluous words and ideas will be stricken
out and, again, that the most important ideas will be given
the most conspicuous places. These are evidently the begin-
ning and the end of the sentence. In short sentences em-
phasis is comparatively simple. " He ran " cannot be bettered,
for the onl}r possible change would make a very un-English
sentence, " Ran he.'' When modifiers are added, the question
of position, with all respect to coherence, becomes important
Though it is normal to put the subject first and the predicate
last, it may be better emphasis, as in the present sentence, to
open with a dependent clause, for the sake of contrast. Gen-
erally speaking, the periodic sentence is likely to be better
emphasized than the loose sentence ; it is apt to carry its own
emphasis. The following loose sentence, typical of much
careless writing, can be easily revised through periodicity:

During the night, these perplexing and sorrowful reflections
came only the more frequently, it seemed to me.

The last phrase is so unimportant that it should certainly be
buried in the sentence or omitted entirely. It is hard to see


by Google

234 English Composition and Style

that it adds to the sense, and certainly does not deserve its
conspicuous position :

During the night, it seemed to me, these perplexing and sorrow-
ful reflections came only the more frequently,

or even more emphatically,

Only the more frequently during the night came these perplexing
and sorrowful reflections.

A good practice, therefore, to follow in seeking for better
emphasis, is, first, to strike out all unimportant ideas, that is,
to get as good unity as possible ; next, to arrange the sentence
in as coherent a manner as possible, following the periodic
form ; lastly, to make any inversions where phrases and clauses
seem important enough to be thrown into very conspicuous

These fundamental principles of unity, coherence, and em-
phasis evidently appear in a great variety of ways both in single
and in consecutive sentences and have infinite applications.
Good sentences will conform to these principles, bad sentences
will not. That is but another way of saying that good sentences
convey their meaning as clearly and as vigorously and with
as few impediments as possible, that bad sentences do not do
these things. For unity relates largely to the definiteness and
purity of the idea, coherence to the sequence and cohesiveness
of the thought, and emphasis to the sharpening of its edges.

The movement of sentences. Looked at from another
point of view the principles of construction in sentences are
but matters for bettering the movement. In reality, words
may not be separated from sentences, but if one insists on a
functional distinction between them, it might be said that
words are the coin of ideas, that sentences keep the coin in
motion. We have seen (p. 195) how the use of words may
add to the life of style, and we have, in the present chapter,
observed also how the form of sentences, how the position
of words, and the number of ideas also affect this matter.


by Google

Sentences 235

Now, over and above their grammatical form or their neat-
ness of construction, the prime duty of sentences is that they
should keep discourse in motion, that they should be doing
something all the time, that they should continually and really
add bits of thought. As a sentence winds from idea to
idea, from clause to clause, it should pick up something new
at each turn. Careful attention to unity, coherence, and em-
phasis, will often be all that is necessary, but the matter may
be approached from a somewhat diflferent point of view.

What is meant is suggested, in a somewhat extravagant man-
ner, by the following paragraph from Stevenson's essay On
Style in Literature.^

Music and literature, the two temporal arts, contrive their pat-
tern of sounds in time; or, in other words, of sounds and pauses.
Communication may be made in broken words, the business of
life be carried on with substantives alone; but that is not what
we call literature; and the true business of the literary artist is
to plait or weave his meaning, involving it around itself; so that
each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind
of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve
and clear itself. [The reader should note how the foregoing sen-
tence and also the following illustrate the principle.] In every
properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot
or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to
expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases. The pleasure
may be heightened by an element of surprise, as, very grossly,
in the common figure of the antithesis, or, with much greater
subtlety, where an antithesis is first suggested, and then deftly
evaded. Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and be-
tween the implication and the evolution of the sentence there

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 20 of 43)