W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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1. Jot down briefly what you know about the life of Shakspere,
the Reign of Terror, the first battle of Bull Run, Natural Selec-
tion, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and other such subjects, and
then read any authority on the subject, as Mr. Sidney Lee for
Shakspere, Mr. Hilaire Belloc for the French Revolution, etc.

2. What is the gist of the following essays and books? State
the main principles and the chief illustrations that are used to set
out these principles : *

1. An Apology for Idlers, by R. L. Stevenson.

2. Liberty, by J. S. Mill.

3. What is a University f by J. H. Newman, in the Rise and Prog^
ress of Universities.

4. The New South, by H. W. Grady.

5. The Strenuous Life, by Theodore Roosevelt

6. The Social Value of the College-Bred, by William James in
McClure's Magazine for February, 1908.

3. In the following essays and books discriminate between
what is fact and what is opinion, however derived or however

1. The Life and Writings of Addison, by Macaulay.

2. The Philosophy of the Short-story, by Professor Brander

3. On a Piece of Chalk, by T. H. Huxley.

4. Compensation, by Emerson.

5. The Division of Labor from The Wealth of Nations, by Adam

^ Some of the essays cited are reprinted in the books referred to on
page 19 and others will be found in R. C. Ringwalt's Modem Amer-
ican Oratory and Fercival and JelliflFe's Specimens of Exposition and


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The Collection of Material 37

4. Try to ascertain the sources of material in the foregoing
and other essays; in other words, try to find out how the writers
came by their facts and their opinions, and why the facts are
sound or not sound and the opinions true or not true.

5. Test your own notes taken in any lecture to see if they
discriminate between fact and opinion as uttered by the lecturer,
and to see if they keep gist and illustration apart.

6. Assemble notes that you have made from different sources
on one subject and note similarities, differences, and the relative
importance of different points, in the treatment by different writers.


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What conventions are* Conventions are the ideas, S3rm-
bols, and practices, — among any group of people, in the world
at large, or in the realm of the intellect, — that are commonly
accepted and agreed upon. They constitute a kind of com-
munal or class habit, though they are often more a matter
of consciousness than are most personal habits. Like habits,
they are extremely useful in that they save us a great deal of
trouble and leave our minds free for other matters. Again,
despite the customary railing against conventions, they are
usually founded on some entirely reasonable, though often
forgotten, experiences and judgments. Like customs, they
tend to grow outworn, and it is when in this musty state that
they become irksome, for the simple reason that they do not
keep pace with fact and practice. But conventions will al-
ways exist and every art will have them and will so habituate
us to them that we shall confound them with reality. They
are, indeed, a part of reality. Artistic conventions are perhaps
seen most palpably in the apparently arbitrary symbolism of
allegorical pictures and heraldic emblems. In literature, it is
a constant convention that a story or a drama shall have a
beginning and an end, and all writing whatsoever also exem-
plifies that convention, but it is doubtful if any form of life,
from which the facts are taken, goes on in any such way. In
the drama the conventions of stage limitations and practice
usually cause a writer to begin with an exposition or presen-
tation of situation, antecedent to the main action, though not
prophetic of it. Such a scene, as a matter of fact, is carefully
picked out from the thousand things that probably did



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The Conventions of Composition 39

happen, and it is picked out with a view to how it will tell
in the end. This evidently in no wise corresponds to the
usual way things move in life. Unity, coherence, and
emphasis, so much insisted on in composition, are conventions,
but they are of high importance for the adequate transmission
of ideas of any considerable complication. Indeed, in one
sense, the entire study of rhetoric and composition is a study
in the sign manual, so to speak, of writing. But any sensible
rhetoric would discriminate between the useful and the out-
worn conventions.

Just here, however, we are concerned with those more ele-
mentary and mechanical conventions, which, like evening
clothes and soldier's uniform, tend to forestall remarks on
irrelevant things or to prevent mortal confusion. These are
what the advanced student should know before beginning to

Grammar and usage in words. These are important and
fundamental. They are the bone and marrow of expression.
Grammar is, so to speak, the racial order of thought; usage,
the racial choice of words. A writer's words must be Eng-
lish words, used in an English way, and his sentences must
conform to English syntax, that is, to the way words are put
together in English. The chief penalty for the violation of
these conventions is the liability of a serious misunder-
standing. Again faulty grammar and an excessively local or
slang diction are held to be signs of illiteracy and are marks of
a deficient education and inadequate c(Mnmand of the very in-
strument of one's discourse, of proper sense for the mother

Grammar, as applied to composition, simply means that the
relation of various facts and ideas in any piece of writing shall
be indicated by the usual forms of the words, — that objects
shall take the customary forms of nouns, ideas of action those
of verbs, etc., — and that any unit of thought shall assume the
customary manner of an English sentence, — shall have a sub-
ject and a predicate. Within these and similar grammatical


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40 English Composition and Style

restrictions, there is evidently the greatest possible range for
individual variation in the manner in which the relationships
are shown and in the ideas to be expressed. The practical and
esthetic values of such variations are matters of rhetorical
study, and will be treated more at length under Style in Part
II of this book. For this reason, and because a knowledge of
the essential rules of grammar is presupposed in everybody
who has been through elementary schools, the matter need
not detain us here.

Word usage is at least an equally important subject of
rhetorical study; for the accurate use of words, in their most
widely accepted sense, is the foundation of all good style.
This also will be treated in Part II. As with grammar, the
moment conformity to the somewhat changing convention is
attained, there is much freedom for individual skill.

Spelling. From any sensible point of view this is a much
less important matter than grammar, wording, or even punctu-
ation. Bad spelling rarely results in a lack of clearness and
is never the sign of unsound thinking or a seriously defective
education. It is obviously absurd to speak as follows:
" Grant always had distinct limitations as a writer. He was
a bad speller, and occasionally he lost himself in a loose gram-
matical construction " ^ even though one or two other unim-
portant limitations are also noted. Spelling is but the husk
of words, and yet is, on the whole, the most highly con-
ventionalized part of written composition. Fewer departures
from a norm are "permissible" (though many more are
actually made by all classes of writers) than are allowed even
in grammar or wording. To spell badly is to invite reproof.
The conventional system of English spelling, far less exact
and logical than that of other civilized languages and existing
in its present state largely for the convenience of printers, —
or arising from a common sentiment of the desirability of con-
formity in all matters, — is an extremely difficult thing to

1 Hamlin Garland : Ulysses S, Grant in Carpenter's American Prose,
p. 406.


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The Conventions of Composition 41

master. Probably very few college themes are free from
error, and few manuscripts, until passed upon by the type-
setters, are in that immaculate state. Difficult as is the
mastery of the convention, our customary spelling can prob-
ably be acquired by any one with patience, industry, and suffi-
cient propulsion. But in many cases such insistence, except
as a means of discipline, seems to be disproportionate to the
value of the acquisition. Signs are many that our con-
ventional spelling will have to undergo some changes in the
interests of simplicity.

Capitalization. The conventions here are logically of little
importance, but violations of them make pages appear very
odd. Fortunately, the rules of capitalization are very few and
are easy to remember. The general principle is to avoid
capitals unless there is custom in favor of them. The classes
of words calling for capitals tend constantly to become fewer ;
that excellent writer, the late William James, for example, in
SOTie of his later books, wrote "french," "english,"
" baconian," etc, and there is some authority for quoting titles
m small letters. Proper names and their accompanying titles
(c.g., June, Mr. Smith, Radcliffe College, etc.) ; the first word
of each sentence, or of a direct quotation (e.g.. She said, " I
am aweary,") ; the first word of a line of poetry; and the
"I" and the "O," are about the only matters of capitali-
zation in which uniform practice remains. The customary
rules for capitalization are given in the Appendix.

Punctuation. This is a matter of great importance, par-
ticularly for clarity of expression and for style. Bad punc-
tuation can clog the meaning of composition far more than
the grossest of mistakes in spelling; for the sense is usually
to be discerned in spite of spelling, whereas the misplacing
of a comma may entirely distort a sentence. Singularly, bad
punctuation is no such popular mark of flagrant illiteracy as
are bad grammar and bad spelling, nor is the wilful misplac-
ing of a comma or a period, which may be a moral and in-
tellectual vice of great magnitude, so severely frowned upon


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42 English Composition and Style

as the so-called " comma-sentence " (e.g., " He was sick, there-
fore he could not come"), which is seldom obscure in mean-
ing unless it happens to involve a squinting construction. The
punctuation marks, twelve in number, have eacli vatious
uses ; the more common of these are treated in the Appendix
of this voliune. The most important marks of punctuation,
those which are indispensable and in which the convention
is most rigorous, are the comma, the period, and the quota-
tion mark. The others are more special, but are highly im-
portant. How necessary they are can be seen by the simple
experiment of trying to express a moderately long sentence
in English, without punctuation. For in English, punctua-
tion does a good deal of the work of the closer syntax of Latin
and Greek and ot^er highly inflected languages.

Forms of address; letters. Human relations prescribe cer-
tain conventions for different occasions, as that we shall say,
in addressing an audience, " Ladies and Gentlemen," or some
other courteous phrase, by no means necessarily corresponding
to the truth in all particulars. Thus a writer has been known,
after curtly saying, " I have no desire to join your club and
cannot imagine why you thought I should," to sign himself,
" Cordially yours." These conventions and the reasonableness
of them are best illustrated in letters. Not to know the very
common conventions of communications is justly esteemed
a mark of insufficient breeding, and, conversely, the ability
to write a good letter always creates a favorable impression.
As an example of the truth of this assertion, the following
letter, wrong from all points of view, was sent to a lady,
whose husband, in a spirit of friendliness, turned it over to
the department of English in a certain college with the fol-
lowing comment : " Might not the appropriate instructor in
composition take this letter as a text on * How not to do it ' ? "
Here is the letter: it is given as written with the suppres-
sion of proper names. The letter had neither address nor
date :


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The Conventions of Composition 43

The Qass of 19. . of College presents their Junior

Play, , on Saturday November 16 at 2.15 and

at 8.15 and we hope that you will become a patroness. Tickets
will be one dollar apiece, and if you purchase ten or five, your
name will be among the list of patronesses.

We hope to hear from you soon in regard to this,
Sincerely yours.

Undergraduate Mail Box

Without pausing to analyze the crudeness of the foregoing
epistle, one may say that a good letter is what the foregoing
conspicuously is not: that is, it makes clear whence, when,
and to whom it is written, as well as the relationship in which
the correspondents stand. It is (i) correct in its forms of
address, (2) courteous in tone, and (3) it states its busi-
ness, simply, briefly, and clearly.

These matters require further explanation, which for con-
venience may be given under the following heads: (i) place
and date, (2) opening address, (3) body, (4) close, and
(5) address on the envelope. The use of these forms, again,
is determined by the nature of the communication, and from
this point of view letters may be divided into two classes,
business and pertonal, which will be dealt with later on.

I. The place and date. These usually go at the upper
rig^t hand comer of the opening page, well down from
the top. The reason for putting them there is that they can
be seen at once and easily referred to afterwards. It is not
infrequent also, particularly in personal and semi-personal
letters, to put the place and date on the left hand, slightly
below the name of the writer which comes on the right hand
of the page. In all cases where this information is not in-
cluded in a printed letter head, it is customary to put the date
on a line below the place, thus.

New York City,
October i, 191 1.


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44 English Composition and Style


Boston, Massachusetts,
October i, 191 1.

and the reason is that two things with different uses are kept
apart. Where printed letter heads are used, everything
usually goes on one line, the distinction between date and
place being visible through the contrast between printing
and handwriting, typewriting, or the ubiquitous rubber stamp.
2. The opening address. The degrees of formality and
familiarity usual in the United States may be thus repre-
sented, in order of stiffness :

a. To public officials, newspaper editors, and other peo-
ple of extreme public importance, in official capacity thus:

To the President of the United States,

District of Columbia.


To the Editor of the New York Evening Post,

b. To all strangers or to any one whose relations with
you are of a purely business kind:

Mr. John Smith,

I West 23rd Street,
New York City.
Dear Sir, —

This may, naturally, be varied to read according to one's usual
title, as

John Smith, Esq., etc.,
Hon. John Smith, etc.,
Rev. John Smith, etc..
Dr. John Smith, etc..
Reverend Dr. John Smith, etc..


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The Conventions of Composition 45

and rather more formality may be given by saying " My dear
Sir " in place of " Dear Sir." In addressing a woman, whether
married or mmiarried, ''Dear Madam" takes the place of
''Dear Sir." In addressing bodies of people, as firms,
councils, etc., the plural of "Dear Sir," is usually "Gentle-
men." This is preceded by " Messrs. — and — ," etc, or " To
the Honorable Board of Aldermen," etc., or " To the Committee
on Admissions," etc, or whatever most fittingly describes the
body addressed.

c. To any one with whom one has acquaintance, whether
in a business or a friendly way, the f or^noing is also the entirely
safe address, but lessening degrees of formality are repre-
sented by the following :

John Smith, Esq.,

I West 23rd Street,
New York City.
My dear Mr. Smith, — or
Dear Mr. Smith, — or
My dear Smith, — or
Dear Smith, — or
My dear John, — or
Dear John, — or
Dear Jack, — or
Dear old Man, — etc.

In proportion as letters gain in familiarity, the

John Smith, Esq.,

I West 23rd Street,
New York City.

tends to be dropped, or to be transferred to the lower left-
band comer of the page, on a line below the writer's signature.
3. The body. The main point here is to state the busi-
ness briefly and clearly and to be courteous, — when necessary,
firmly courteous, — in tone. Do not adopt a tone of famil-
iarity when it would be out of place (as with the President,
particularly if you are asking for an office), or of austerity


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46 English Composition and Style

with your most intimate friend. Treat your correspondent
as a person of sense and intelligence. A point of departure
is usually supplied by what has gone before or by some
matter of business. In any event, there is no reason, the
antiquated convention to the contrary, why one should not
begin a letter with the personal pronoun of the first person.
Conventional beginnings are usual, as "In reply to your let-
ter [avoid 'esteemed favor'] of October i, I beg leave
to say," ["I would say" is quite as good, certainly better
than "I have the honor to say" — but avoid "would say"
without a pronoun] ; or, where there has been no previous
business, "I write to ask if you will kindly," etc.; or, in
ordering goods, "Kindly (or. Please) send me, at this ad-
dress," etc. The main point is to get started as soon as pos-
sible. Other aspects of letter-writing are a matter of general
composition and will be treated as such, but it may be here
remarked that it is convenient, in all business letters, to keep
each item of business in a separate paragraph. Long para-
graphs tend to confuse readers who are in hast^

4. The close. As with the opening, there are various
degrees of formality now in vogue, which have taken the place
of the very severe, " Obedient Servant " style of former years.
These are, in order of formality : —

a. Corresponding to 2a preceding,

I am, Sir, (or, I remain, Sir),

Very respectfully yourSy

b. Business letters: .

Respectfully yours, or
Very truly yours, or
Yours truly,

c. As indicating various degrees of familiarity or inti-
macy :

Yours truly,

Yours very truly, or Very truly yours.


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The Conventions of Composition 47

Sincerely yours.

Cordially yours,

Faithfully yours.


As always, etc.

or these same things with such personal variations as one feels
himself warranted in making.

Any one of these forms may, of course, be preceded with
such conventional or sincere wishes of good-will and esteem
as one wishes to send, as,

I am, with kind regards to you and your family,
Sincerely yours.

As " Dear Sir " is the safe, normal form of address, which
should be used unless there is reason for not using it, so, of
these subscriptions, ''Yours truly," or "Very truly yours,"
is the safe ending which should not be departed from without
reasons of formality, taste, or preference.

In all cases the name of the writer follows the closing form.
This is accompanied by whatever information is necessary.
Thus is a business letter to which a reply is called for,

I am, with the request for a reply at your convenience.
Very truly yours,
(Miss or Mrs.) Mabel H. Jones.

to which the particular address may be added if it has not
already been given. If the writer were married and her hus-
band were living she would probably sign her name

Mabel H. Jones,

(Mrs. William M. Jones)

and add the address, if necessary. In certain letters a writer's
title is called for, as president, manager, dean, and this, of
course, follows the name, usually on the line below. The use
of rubber stamps in signature is not conventional in the more
intimate or important forms of closure.


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48 English Composition and Style

5. The address on the envelope is designed to cany the
missive to its destination and should be no longer than is
necessary for this end. Thus

John Smith, Esq.,

I West 23rd Street,
New York City

is probably adequate, but the addition of a special room, or
the care of some firm or person, might be necessary. Generally,
abbreviations are to be avoided, both on the envelope and
in the letter itself, on the ground that they hint at haste,
and hence may be discourteous, as well as for the reason that
they are less clear to mail-handlers. Certain fashionable re-
finements and affectations, as " Town " for the full name
where the address is local, are harmless and need not detain

In all cases the punctuation used in the foregoing examples is
the usual punctuation.

Business and personal letters. The line between these
commonly denoted classes cannot be exactly drawn, for many
letters are both. Business letters have to do with affairs;
personal letters with human relationships. Letters ordering
goods, asking for information, inviting delinquents to call at
the dean's office, and all such, are business letters. Per-
sonal letters go between people for their entertainment and
the expression and satisfaction of their affection or enmity.
Personal letters permit of much greater latitude of expres-
sion and address than do business letters, and the same man
may evidently write you a business letter, on official matters,
at one moment and a pleasantly personal one at the next One
kind of letter, in form very specially a business letter, in sub-
stance often implying friendship and the prospect of enter-
tainment, admits of very little variation. This is the social
invitation and the reply to it. The form, with variations ac-
cording to the event and the circumstance, is usually as fol-


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The Conventions of Composition 49

Mrs. John Smith requests the pleasure of the
company of Mr. Joseph Brown at dinner on
Saturday, the tenth of October^ at half after

16 West 93rd Street
The reply:

Mr. Joseph Brown accepts with pleasure (or
regrets that he is unable to accept) the kind
invitation of Mrs. John Smith for Saturday,
October tenth.

October First, 191 1.

References. Students should learn the customary form
for references; for the citing of authorities is indispensable
in scholarly work. A carefully made reference gives (i) the
author's name, (2) the title of the book to which reference
is made, (3) the place, (4) date, and, if necessary (preceding
the place) the edition, of the publication ; thus :

Mackail, J. W., Lectures on Greek ' Poetry. London, 1910.


Jowett, B., The Dialogues of Plato translated into English.
Second edition. Oxford, 1875.

When necessary, chapter, volume, and page references are
added, as in all references to magazine articles and in page
references to books in quoting facts or words; thus,

Tucker, William Jewett Undergraduate Scholarship. The At-
lantic Monthly, June, 191 1, p. 740. Or Vol. 107, p. 740.

Lists of references are usually arranged in alphabetical order
according to the names of the authors. When a reference
directly follows one by the same author, it is customary to
write Ibid, followed by the name of the book or merely by the


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50 English Composition and Style

number of the page when the book is also the same as in the
preceding reference.

Form of themes. This is a minor matter for the con-
venience in filing material in college courses from a large body
of students. The directions are usually as follows :

1. A theme should be legibly written, in black ink, on paper
eight by ten inches (approximately) in size.

2. It should be written on one side of the paper only.

3. On the left side of each page a margin of at least one
inch should be left blank.

4. The pages should be numbered in regular order.

5. The theme should be folded once lengthwise. On the
upper right-hand quarter of the outside of each theme should
be written : (i) The name of the course ; (2) the name of the
student; (3) the number of the theme; and (4) the date on
which it is due. Nothing else should be written on the out-
side of the theme. The following is an example :

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 4 of 43)