W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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of clearness may frequently be gained if a writer tells what
he is going to talk about, and announces the order in which
he will take up his topics. Macaulay does this in the open-
ing pages of his History, after his announcement of purpose
(see page 70). In long expositions, such as treatises, text-
books, and various other kinds of writing, carefully made
tables of contents, analytical summaries of matter in the con-
tents, announcements at the opening of each chapter of the
facts in the chapter, are all familiar variations of the idea
of formal opening partition.

2. The use of illustration, also, not only for the purpose
of clearness, but also for throwing the most important matters
into the completest exposition, is another method. For ex-
ample, Newman's thesis in the exposition^ already sufficiently
cited (p. 243), is that a university is founded on the principles
of oral teaching and personal association. The idea could be
stated in a very few words, but so important does it seem to
Newman that he is at pains to emphasize it by repeated illus-
trations, to such an extent, indeed, that the illustrations take
up the major part of the essay. In expositions where maps
and diagrams are possible, these are things not merely for
adding clearness to the text, but also for carrying home the
most important parts of the discourse. For it is safe to say
that, since ever3rthing cannot be illustrated, does not need to
be illustrated, the use of illustration will be confined to the
essential matters, that is, to affairs which are particularly cru-
cial or particularly difficult of apprehension without the aid of

3. Emphasis as well as clearness may be gained by throw-
ing matters into relief by contrast witii one another or by
comparison of the unknown thing with the known. Thus
Newman contrasts book with oral learning, Huxley throws the


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Exposition 361

microscopical appearance of chalk against the ordinary ap-
pearance, Burke contrasts religion in the Northern colonies
with manners in the Southern; thus Messrs. Shaw, Chester-
ton, Belloc, and many others contrast their own ideas with
those previously held; thus Emerson contrasts the free with
the bookish idea in scholarship, consistency with self-reliance,
nature with strenuousness. Contrast is indeed so common a
devise for securing clearness and emphasis that it is the prop-
erty of no one kind of writing.

Style in exposition. Of this little need be said, beyond
what has already been said on the general subject of style.
Clearness is the main thing that good expository style should
possess, and clearness is best obtained by the use of words with
definite meanings or the making of the meanings definite when
necessary. This latter is frequently done by the illustrations
and explanations of which we have already spoken.

Simwnary. Exposition being conceived as the explanation
of the unknown, of whatever description, for the information
of people or groups of people not conversant with the facts,
it follows that the main effort of exposition is to make the
information clear. This clearness is primarily a matter of
classification, which may be done in a pretty thorough and
scientific manner, if the object is to make a complete presenta-
tion of the facts, or it may be made from any special point of
view, according to the kind of information called for. In any
event, the subject of the information should be clear, and a
good test of the unity of an exposition is the ease and com-
pleteness with which an expository article or book may be
compassed in a general definition or thesis. Careful planning
is essential to good exposition ; and such order may be furthered
by the arrangement of the details in order of time, in pro-
gression from the general to the particular, from the principle
to the illustration, from the best known to the least known.
Clearness may be heightened and interest increased by the use
of illustration, of comparison, of contrast, as well as by such
devices as tables of matter, formal partitions and the like.


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362 English Composition and Style

Clelimcss in wording and coherence in sentences are indis-
pensable to the style, which does not differ from any good style
except in the matter that it attempts to convey.


1. Classify various pieces of exposition with which you are
familiar according to the purposes and the material with which
they deal.

2. In the following expositions of various kinds, or others
like them, state briefly (i) the facts with which they deal, and
(2) the purpose. (3) State briefly also the gist of each. (4)
Make an analysis of the beginning and also of the ending, and
show what steps are taken in the progression from opening to
conclusion. (5) Explain the system of classification. (6) What
methods do the writers employ to make the meaning clear?

a. E. T. Stiger : How Books are Made.^

b. A. E Kennelly: A Simple Explanation of Wireless Teleg-


c. J. R. Green: The Character of Queen Elizabeth.

d. James Bryce: National Characteristics as Molding Public


1 The foregoing essays, among others equally good, are for conven-
ience cited from Percival and JelH fife's Specimens of Exposition and Ar-
gument, Lamont's Specimens of Exposition, Carpenter and Brewster's
Modern English Prose, and Brewster's Modern English Literary Crit-
icism. The specific references are as follows :

a. The Independent.

b. The Independent.

c. A Short History of the English People.

d. The American Commonwealth. Chap. 80.

e. The Yosemite Guide-Book.

i. Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion.

g. Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews, and also in Methods

and Results.
h. The Wealth of Nations.
I. Present College Questions.
j. Modern Painters, part iv, chap. 12.
k. The Spirit of Modern Philosophy.
1. Appreciations,
m. and n. Works.


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Exposition 363

e. J. D. Whitney: The Origin of the Yosemite Valley.

f. JohnTyndall: Glacier Ice.

g. T. H. Huxley : The Physical Basis of Life.
h. Adam Smith: The Division of Labor.

i. C. W. Eliot : A New Definition of the Cultivated Man.

j. John Ruskin: The Pathetic Fallacy.

k. Josiah Roycc : The Doctrines of Spinoza.

1. Walter Pater : Charles Lamb.

m. R. W. Emerson : The American Scholar.

n. Charles Lamb : On the Tragedies of Shakspere.

3. Examine expository passages already quoted on pages 159-
172, with a view to the possible improvement of style. Do any
terms seem to be vague and obscure? If so, in what ways might
the passages be improved?

4. Make briefs or analyses (see page 79) of any of the fore-
going expositions.

5. Write expositions, as long as may be necessary, explaining
a process, expanding a definition, making clear a classification,
setting out your opinions on a book or an author. Classify the
writings of any author with whom you are familiar, setting out
carefully the groups into which his works may be divided, ex-
plaining (i) the characteristics of each group and its comparative
importance, and (2) illustrating each group by reference to a
particular book that may be called representative. In any exposi-
tion dealing with a considerable number of separate objects, apply
these grouping and typifying methods.


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Argumentation is often held to be the most important
form of writing that we have, and this view is supported by
the comparatively great amount of time devoted to the formal
study of the subject. One particular manifestation, the inter-
pretation of the law, has its own multitudinous schools, and
the amount of general writing on the theory and practice of
argumentation, in its various aspects, — criticism, debating,
brief-making, evidence, etc., — probably exceeds all the writ-
ing on all the other forms. Even narration does not call for
so many and diverse expositions. The reason for the great
importance of the form is that, to a very large degree, any
speaking or writing that has to do with our beliefs and our
conduct is a matter of argumentation, and whereas, conduct
is greatly influenced by narrative examples, — by fables, by
pictures of goodness and of badness, — such methods are often
merely ancillary to an argumentative thesis.

As narration deals chiefly with the unusual, and exposition
with the unknown, so argumentation may be said to have as
its province the uncertain or the unbelieved. Wherever there
is room or occasion for a difference of opinion, a difference
of interpretation of fact, a choice in action or conduct, there
is a possible field for the inroad of the germ of argument;
so that he who would avoid the form, must of necessity sit
still, merely listening to amusing stories or looking at the
landscape as a matter of pure sensation. Whenever a doubt
arises, there is a matter for argument in the resolving of the
doubt. What argumentation attempts to do is to resolve the



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Argumentation 365

doubt, to make certain what was uncertain, to make as sure
as may be in a changing world what was unbelieved.

All of us therefore argue daily, that is, we make up our
minds, we reach conclusions, come to new views, decide to
do one thing or another. All this implies argumentation,
chiefly of a very informal and casual kind. On the other
hand, we have occasion^tUy to go through long and compli-
cated processes to arrive at results of much diversity and
complexity. At all events, the world about us bristles with
arguments. The reason for the study of the subject is that
we may learn to arrive at right conclusions in matters de-
manding attention, that, in short, we may confront such mat-
ters in a careful rather than a casual manner. To explain
some of the main points in this process is the object of the
following exposition.

The object of argumentation. Broadly speaking, the rea-
son for any argument whatsoever is the discovery of the
truth. That is a splendid thing to say : it at once lends dignity
to the subject The remark must be qualified, however, by
saying that the term truth has to be taken in a pragmatical
rather than an absolute sense. For the truth is not only the
exact fact, — the number of distance units between the earth
and the moon, the sum of the angles of a triangle, the mor-
tality of man, a demonstrable fixed order of the universe, —
truth is also a matter of workability, of practical value.
What is the true answer to the question, " Shall I take the
subway or the elevated to get to Wall Street ? " or of a query
as to the advisability of voting for the Republican candidate,
or attending the inauguration ball, or avoiding certain kinds
of food at that function? In all these instances truth has
no tincture of absoluteness but is found in terms of simple
human convenience, the desire to reach Wall Street as quickly
as may be, the belief that the Republican party will yield the
best administration, lack of interest in receptions, a judicious
concern for one's digestion or tranquillity in sleep, or of course
the reverse of all these things; or again, a great many dif-


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366 English Composition and Style

fcrcnt sets of diflFerent reasons. Most matters of argumenta-
tion are matters of mere daily concern, and in all such
instances truth is not conformity to any abstraction of what
is fundamentally and eternally best, but to what is most handy,
convenient, or useful.

Classification of argumentation. Since argumentation is,
like narration, description, and exposition, a shifting htunan
affair, impossible of pinning down into a set of rules and
formulas, it also gives opportunity for the exercise of the in-
stinct for dichotomy. Arguments as actually written and
spoken may be classified in several ways, and since this may
make the subject clearer, a short account of some of these
may be given.

Perhaps the commonest of these is the division of argu-
mentation into conviction and persuasion, the former of which
addresses itself to the intellect with the object of getting a
thing believed, of ascertaining the fact, the latter of which,
by addressing the will, aims to get things done. Of facts
that do not quite agree, of different theories to account for
a group of phenomena, of the existence or the non-existence
of certain things, which fact or explanation is the most likely,
— that is a matter of conviction, which may, evidently, have
much incidental bearing on conduct. What should be done
under certain circumstances, — with the arrangement of one's
career, of one's studies, of one's buyings and sellings, — all
such matters are likely to be open to persuasion, to an appeal
to the will or the emotions.

From a somewhat different point of view argumentation
may be pursued for ideal ends, as the acquisition of knowl-
edge; or it may serve entirely personal purposes, often of
no high order. In the latter aspect it may be mere disputa-
tiousness, the desire at all hazards to win a game in debating ;
one may think, as Stevenson says of certain fellow travelers,
"only to argue, not to reach new conclusions, and use
[one's] reason rather as a weapon of offense than as a tool


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Argumentation 367

for self-improvement/'* So also argumentation may be, and
too frequently is, in the hands of an adroit and unscrupulous
person, the means of depleting one's personal treasury in
exchange for articles of doubtful value. To induce a man
" to buy a gold brick," is very unjust, but the process of in-
ducement is none the less argumentation.

There is also scientific argument and popular argument, or,
more accurately, argument as carried on scientifically and
argument as ordinarily practised in daily affairs. Scientific
argument tries to take account of all the facts concerned in
a given question, to weigh them carefully, to come to the most
truthful conclusion possible at the time. It is slow, cautious,
reserved, scrupulous, impersonal. Much of our every-day
argument, on the other hand, is, of necessity, quick, hasty,
teeming with instant decision, based on the facts that may
be snatched at or "grabbed," reversible half an hour later,
good only for the immediate occasion. To a very large ex-
tent in popular practice, we argue wholly from our desires.
The desires come first, and we want something, and much
of our argumentation is, as Mr. Bernard Shaw rightly re-
marks, the finding of reasons for doing what we like, for
justifying ourselves after the event. No one can properly
understand the nature of argumentation as currently carried
on if one does not make allowance for this fact, that our de-
sires come before our reasoning, and that much actual argu-
ment is mere self- justification.

Arguments may be formally and elaborately presented, the
pleas, the debates, the briefs, the addresses, the exhortations,
the editorials, the treatises, of formal occasions, written sys-
tematically with attention to arrangement, method, and style;
or they may be, and probably in most cases are, mere informal
affairs. One may, of course, treat every-day matters formally
and elaborately if one wishes, just as motions may be formally
made, seconded, and put by a punctilious chairman at a meet-

1 The Amateur Emigrant,


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368 English Composition and Style

ing of two or three people. The effect is usually amusing.
It is quite possible, of course, to debate the question of going
to a dance, by reducing the matter to the issues, first, of duty
and, secondly, of pleasure: if duty says "Thou must not,"
the youth replies " I will not go," but if duty leaves the coast
clear, then the second question of pleasure arises, and may
be formally decided by an analysis of the relative delight of
going to the dance or doing something else. This is again
amusing; for the question is usually settled by the youth's
going if he wants to, and if he is n't stopped.

All this amounts to saying, it may be remarked incidentally,
that most subjects though involving argument, are not suit-
able for training in argumentation. Much actual argument
is of too trivial and personal a nature to be worth subjecting
to formal processes or to inflict on other people by way of
ink and paper. Hence, in the study of argumentation, only
the more elaborate and formal and important matters are
available. Any knowledge thereby gained may be later ap-
plied to daily matters as one may wish.

Argumentative Method. All argumentation is essentially
a matter of comparison. Two or more lines of conduct are
compared, — "To be or not to be, that is the question," — or
a line of action is compared with an end to be gained, an
ideal to be followed, a notion of right or wrong. Two things
or more may be compared, — ^"Look here upon this picture,
then on this," — a person may be measured by reference to
another person, or to, say, the theological virtues or the seven
deadly sins, or to his alleged duty to society, or to his family,
or to his own notions of right, justice, success, pleasure.
Particular action may be put against human experience for
a resulting judgment. Two or more theories may be set
against the facts contemplated therein to see which squares
best. It is argued that something will work well because
something like it in certain respects has worked well. It is
inferred that the victim met his death by blows from an ax
because the marks on his body are comparable to those known


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Argumentation 369

to be made by the blows of an ax on human tissue. The ax
found near by could or could not have been the weapon of as-
saulty because its shape and the marks on it do or do not corre-
spond to the wounds on the body. Socrates is mortal, because
we know him to be a man and because we compare him with
other men, whom we know to be mortal. By comparison
also, we know Socrates to have been wise, dispassionate, full
of fortitude, Silenus-like, because we conlpare him with other
men or with standards derived from experience. Inductions
of all kinds are based on comparisons of how a thing works
under one set of circumstances and how it works when the
circumstances are in some respects altered. In all cases, by
some use of comparison, we arrive, more or less swiftly, at
some fact, some belief, some line of conduct, that did not
exist before, or that existed before in a more tentative state.
Now exposition deals with the undebatable or, from another
point of view, — that of motive, — with the unknown, with
things that have merely to be told as facts for human en-
lightenment. If there is any doubt about them the argimienta-
tive process is at once set up.

We are now in a position to go on with a more exact study
of the subject. For reasons already mentioned, there is no
object in treating of argument at all except on its rather more
formal side. Even on this side it may be considered as a
matter of winning a proposition in actual contest, or as an
impersonal attempt to ascertain the truth, to do the best one
can with the facts in the interests of knowledge and hap-
piness, — to play against an intellectual " Colonel Bogey "
rather than to indulge in the generalship of skilful match play.
Certain essentials of argumentation, some of the processes to
be followed, questions of arrangement and of style may there-
fore be dealt with.

The elements of argumentation. As certain elements are
found in all narration, so all argumentation contains certain
expressed or implied essentials. These are:

I. A question with two sides, that is to say, something not


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370 English Composition and Style

fixed and determined. It is idle to argue questions of a purely
fictitious character, as that the moon is made of green cheese,
or even such questions as are not open to reasonable doubt,
— except in strictly scientific matters, where anything short
of absolute certainty may, if sufficiently important, be rein-
vestigated, or left as something not wholly settled.

2. A proposition. Now suitable questions for argumenta-
tion are usually put in the form of propositions. A proposi-
tion consists of a predication about a term, or, more simply,
a declarative sentence, that is, a subject and a verb with neces-
sary modifiers to complete the predication: "The moon is
made of green cheese," " The Italian-Turkish war is a back-
ward step in civilization," and many other things are proposi-
tions (cf. page 8i). The important thing to remember is
that there must be more than a term merely: you cannot
argue the terms moon, cheese, war, civilization, backward
step, etc., until you predicate a debatable something about each
of these terms, as, "The moon influences the weather,"
" Cheese is the best bait for rat-traps," " War is the last of
the great menaces now left in the world," " Civilization is ad-
vancing," " Backward steps are never desirable."

Now it must be admitted that some of the foregoing propo-
sitions are extremely silly; it is, of course, possible to make
thousands and thousands of propositions merely by diflFerent
combinings of words. Consequently there must be some
limitation in our eagerness to make and debate propositions.
Two tests are helpful, (i) Can the proposition, when
phrased as a question (i. e., "Is civilization advancing?")
be regarded as a reasonable question? But its reasonableness
depends not only on its freedom from absurdity (cf., " Is the
moon made of green cheese?"), but also (2) on the possi-
bility of its being understood. Thus, " Is cheese the best bait
for rat-traps," is comparatively easy, because one may readily
explain what cheese and other baits are. But civilization is
a very difficult term to define, and the term backward step


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Argumentation 371

is not only vague but has the additional disadvantage of be-
ing a metaphor.

3. Definition. Definition is therefore essential in all ar-
gument, but this remark, it is hoped, will not set the reader
running to the dictionary to look up civilusation and backward
step. Obviously, one may, if one wishes, look up terms in
the dictionary and, provided one can teU what they mean
from the dictionary definition, may frame questions and de-
bate them pro and con. But that is not what is meant by
definition; that is putting the cart before the horse. Defini-
tion must be looked at in a more general sense, to which the
dictionary use of the term is subordinate, — that is, as the
giving edge, definiteness, sharpness of outline to the term,
thing, idea, notion, concept, that we have in mind. In the
simple question, " Shall I go to the dance? " it would evidently
be absurd to run to the dictionary to see what the term dance
means. The term needs no special definition; for it is un-
derstood in the question, " Shall I go to the dance? " that the
term dance means a dance given by a particular person or
group of persons at a particular time to which the maker of
the question has probably been asked, and it means nothing
else. This information cannot be had from a dictionary.

What is true of this question is, in varying degrees, true of
all questions. The meaning of a term is what a writer or
speaker means by a term, has in his mind when he uses a
term, not what the dictionary says about it. Now what the
writer or speaker has in mind may be, like dance, entirely
simple, — though the unexpected uncle might ask, "What
dance?" — a question leading to the definition of dance, as
Mrs. Smith's dance, to-morrow. But terms like civilization
are not so easy, and the only way to do will be to explain at
some length what is contemplated by the writer or speaker
in using the term; for of such large terms no two people are
likely to hold the same idea. But if two people are debating
a proposition about civilization, it is important that they


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372 English Composition and Style

should mean the same thing by civilization; for otherwise
they will not be talking about the same thing. One speaker
may expound the term so well that it will in future debates
and discussions be used in this sense and get into the dictionary
in this sense. In any case it is obvious (i) that definition
means the clear understanding or explanation of what we
have in mind when we use a term, in short, what we are talk-
ing about, and (2) that such explanation may be derived from
previous explanations or current explanations, or it may be
an entirely or a somewhat new conception of the term.
Hence it is often very necessary to go into the history of

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 32 of 43)