W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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Rhetoric B.
/. Q. Anderson.
Theme /.
October 16, i8pp.

The first four of these directions might properly apply to the
preparation of any manuscript that is submitted for reading
or printing — except personal letters.


I, Note the value of the correct use of the comma or the
period in the following sentences, and point out the difference in
meaning between the two. Find other examples in which a » change
of punctuation alters the meaning of a passage:

1. In 1876 I visited the Centennial, the year after I had my college

2. In 1876 I visited the Centennial. The year after I had my col-
lege degree.


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The Conventions of Composition 51

2. Punctuate and capitalize the following passage as seems
most in accordance with the meaning. Then compare the original
passage with your version :

Do not doubt my secrecy mine host said tressilian i will retain
besides the deepest sense of thy service and of the risk thou dost
run remember the ring is my sure token and now farewell for it
was thy wise advice that i should tarry here as short a time as
may be scott kenilworth chapter viii.

3. Try to express the ideas of the following sentences without
any punctuation marks, except the period:

1. The universal dead-level of plainness and homeliness, the lack
of all beauty and distinction in form and feature, the slowness and
clumsiness of the language, the eternal beer, sausages, and bad
tobacco, the blank commonness everywhere, pressing at last like
a weight on the spirits of the traveler in Northern Germany,
and making him impatient to be gone, — this is the weak side;
the industry, the well-doing, the patient, steady elaboration of
things, the idea of science governing all departments of human
activity, — this is the strong side; and through this side of her
genius, Germany has already obtained excellent results, and is
destined, we may depend upon it, however her pedantry, her slow-
ness, her fumbling, her ineffectiveness, her bad government, may
at times make us cry out, to an immense development Matthew
Arnold : Celtic Literature.

2. A young Irish gentleman of the numerous clan O'Donnells,
and a Patrick, hardly a distinction of him until we know him, had
bound himself, by purchase of a railway ticket, to travel direct
to the borders of North Wales, on a visit to a notable landowner
of those marches, the Squire Adister, whose family-seat was where
the hills begin to lift and spy into the heart of black mountains..
George Meredith; Celt and Saxon.

3. Captain Duncan made a good speech; he made the only good
speech of the evening. He said :

"Ladies and Gentlemen: — May we all live to a green old age,
and be prosperous and happy. Steward, bring up another basket
of champagne."

It was regarded as a very able effort "Mark Twain": The
Innocents Abroad.

4. Recast the following passage so as to permit the use of
other punctuation besides the periods and the three commas.


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52 English Composition and Style

Women were not then allowed upon the stage. Women's parts
were played by boys. Some have thought that this must have
taken from the excellence of the performances. It is highly likely
that it added much to them. Nearly all boys can act extremely
well. Very few men and women can.

The playing of women's parts by boys may have limited Shake-
speare's art. His women are kept within the range of thought
and emotion likely to be understood by boys. This may account
for their wholesome, animal robustness. There is no trace of the
modern heroine, the common woman overstrained, or the idle
woman in her megrims, in any Shakespearian play. The people
of the plays are alive and hearty. They lead a vigorous life and
go to bed tired. They never forget that they are animals. They
never let any one else forget that they are also divine. John
Masefield: William Shakespeare,

5. Write the following letters, taking care that they are cor-
rect in form and tone and that the business which they contain
is matter proper for the consideration of the persons to whom the
letters are addressed. Put each letter in a properly addressed en-
velope :

1. An order of goods.

2. A petition or request to a college official.

3. An invitation to a dance.

4. An answer to this invitation.

5. A personal letter.


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The importance of composition. We have now some
knowledge of the usual occasions for writing, of subjects for
writing, of the gathering of material, and the most important
of the necessary conventions to be followed. In certain of
these last, Httle opportunity is given for judgment or orig-
inality. We now approach a division of the subject of rhetoric
in which there is much opportunity for constructive thought,
where it is impossible to do much more than to lay down gen-
eral principles and give suggestive illustrations, where exact
and rigid rule gives way to individual thinking, to tact, and to

Looked at in one way, much actual composition is sub-
ject to particular regulation. For example, there are, as we
have seen, in general, loosely prescribed lengths for diflferent
fomis of discourse and, in particular, certain forms proceed
in a prescribed way, as sermons from texts of scripture and,
less rigidly, after-dinner speeches from what the toastmaster
has said by way of introduction or frcMn some apposite story.
These are mere matters of conventional convenience, of which
a writer or speaker would be foolish not to take advantage.
On the other hand, the larger part of our verbal intercourse,
partictdarly our oral interchange of ideas, takes place without
any apparent composition at all, is designed merely to exchange
facts and opinions, or, more subtly, to play upon the mood
of the interlocutor for selfish or unselfish ends. In all this
there may be much art> but we rarely think of the matter
as composition. Manifestly, too, in these informal matters,
style, or telling expression, is usually a much more potent



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54 English Composition and Style

matter than composition. We begin to think of composition
only when as writers or readers we have larger and more
related bodies of fact to master. But it is also evident that
some skill in composition is of aid in our more casual moods.
The importance of the matter is manifest in the great amount
of disjointed, loose, indeterminate writing and speaking that
confronts us. To give us bad composition is usually to waste
our time and frequently to mislead us. As a rule, inexperi-
enced writers and speakers compose badly, that is to say, they
do not know how to arrange what they have in mind ; they are
diffuse, roundabout, and irrelevant; often matter for five
minutes may occupy an hour. It is an encouraging sign that
more and more time is being given to the study of com-
position, and comparatively less excessive preponderance to the
study of style; for, important as is the latter subject, it cannot
be taught except in an elementary way, whereas, composition,
or the arrangement of ideas, can be more happily inculcated.
There is no better sign of a well-trained — not necessarily a
rich or imaginative mind — than the ability to compose well.

The best method of studying composition, on its more
formal side, is by means of well-constructed pieces of litera-
ture, such as are to be found, in wholesome variety, in any of
the numerous books of selections that have latterly been edited
for class work. These should naturally be supplemented
by much practice, in all of which structure, order, arrangement,
should be insisted on. At this moment hardly more can be
done than to make a general analysis of composition in vari-
ous forms and to suggest exercises. Now there are two
capital questions that may be, and actually are, asked in refer-
ence to any piece of writing whatsoever, be it published work
or class theme or letter. These, which will serve as a basis for
discussion in this chapter, are:

1. What is the writer driving at? which deals with the
substance, the idea, or the mood, and

2. How does he get to his point? which deals with the order
or method of the piece.


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Composition 55

Kinds of composition. If, in answer to the foregoing ques-
tions, any one is at pains to examine a considerable number
of pieces of literature, — editorial articles, stories, novels,
speeches, scientific treatises, books of travel, biographies,
volumes of essays, — he will find that they all separate into
four loosely defined types. These types are not pure, since
any two, and all four even, may enter into any one piece of
writing, and therefore, they indicate tendencies rather than
classes. But they are evidently as pure as the familiar cate-
gories of the so-called forms of discourse, — narration, descrip-
tion, exposition, and argumentation, — and like these are to be
employed as a matter of convenience. It must always be
borne in mind that actual writing, like all classification and
categorizing in any branch of knowledge, except mathematics,
cannot quite correspond to the variety and shade of reality.
So with the present pigeon-holing process.

These four manners of composition may be called (i)
Composition by Enumeration or Division, (2) Composition by
Progression or Composition by Movement, (3) Composition
by Theme or Thesis, and (4) Composition by Prevailing
Mood. Evidently the two last may employ the two first, the
first and second may combine, and other tilings may happen;
so that one could, if one wished, make a further classification,
but this is not important; our object is to make clearer the
nature of composition in literature, and to this end some
further explanation of the meaning of these classes is all
that is necessary.

I. Composition by enumeration or division. This is very
common, perhaps the most evident method of composition.
It is useful chiefly in making explanations of nearly every
kind. It is the method of recipes, directions, — as of how
to swim or how to reach the Pennsylvania Station, — and of
very learned treatises, such as Mr. Bryce's The American
Commonwealth, or various chapters thereof. It is the method
of many sermons, with " first," " secondly," and " thirdly,"
and it is handily illustrated by the present discourse on this


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56 English Composition and Style

subject; or by any text-book. To make the matter fully
clear, however, the classic example from Burke's Speech on
Conciliation may be briefly considered as the most familiar
instance that we have. The opening and the closing para-
graphs are given entire and the opening sentences of each
intermediate paragraph :

In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the
predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole;
and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your colonies be-
come suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they sec the
least attempt to wrest from them by force or shuffle from them
by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for.
This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies
probably than in any other people of the earth; and this from a
great variety of powerful causes; which to understand the true
temper of their minds, and the direction which this spirit takes,
it will not be amiss to lay open somewhat more largely.

First, the people of the colonies are descendants of English-
men. —

They were further confirmed in this pleasing error by the form
of their provincial legislative assemblies. —

If anything were wanting to this necessary operation of the
form of government, religion would have given it a complete ef-

Sir, I can perceive by their manner, that some gentlemen object
to the latitude of this description, because in the southern colonies
the Church of England forms a large body, and has a regular
establishment It is certainly true. There is, however, a circum-
stance attending these colonies, which, in my opinion, fully coun-
terbalances this difference, and makes the spirit of liberty still
more high and haughty than in those to the northward. It is,
that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of
slaves. —

Permit me, Sir, to add another circumstance in our colonies,
which contributes no mean part towards the growth and effect of
this untractable spirit. I mean their education. —

The last cause of this disobedient spirit in the colonies is hardly
less powerful than the rest, as it is not merely moral, but laid


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Composition 57

deep in the natural constitution of things. Three thousand miles
of ocean lie between you and them. —

Then, Sir, from these six capital sources: of descent; of form
of government ; of religion in the northern provinces ; of manners
in the southern ; of education ; of the remoteness of situation from
the first mover of government; from all these causes a fierce
spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of
the people in your colonies, and increased with the increase of
their wealth; a spirit, that unhappily meeting with an exercise
of power in England, which, however lawful, is not reconcilable
to any ideas of Hberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this
flame that is ready to consume us.

Each of these intermediate sentences is followed by an ex-
planation of what is meant by that part of the subject and often
by an illustration thereof; all this by way of developing the
ideas more succinctly stated in the summary. With the same
general method of composition one would write on such a sub-
ject as, say, " Methods of Cooking Ham " ; but here, under
each head, the idea would conveniently develop with more
reference to time, — as " First, you take," etc. In the class
of writing of which Burke and Mr. Bryce furnish excellent
examples, the material is gathered from wide reading, thought-
ful observation, and generous ideas; in the latter case from
experience, gathered by hearsay and garnered in cook-books,
of many generations of burnt fingers and upset stomachs. But
diverse as the material and the style and the occasion may be,
a vast body of actual writing follows this method, the enumera-
tion of the characteristics and the classes, and the explanation
of these, with no necessary reference to how they came about.

2. Composition as progression or movement. Unlike the
fomier method, which divides things by topics without refer-
ence to time, the method of progression implies that the com-
position proceeded as a series of acts or stages or processes,
having relation to each other in time. It is hence the primary
method of composition in all narrative, and is well illustrated
by chronicle histories, as, say, much of the narrative of the


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58 English Composition and Style

Old Testament. But it is also indispensable to all those forms
of explanation which involve a process, as the making of gun-
powder, or directions that have to be sequential. Famous
books do often little more, as composition, than follow this
method: Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, for example,
simply records the doings and saying of the famous doctor
from year to year, and the conventional "Life and Letters
of " is rarely little more ; the composer merely has to ex-
ercise some tact in editing the material supplied by the corre-
spondence, or, if, like Boswell, he is devoted and industrious,
by his own notes and recollections.

Certain useful modifications and refinements of this method
may be noted. In dealing with a large body of facts which
stand in a certain fixed relation to each other, it is sometimes
convenient for the writer to do the moving, and, though the
phenomena, as presented, have no relation to time, neverthe-
less to attach them to time through the movement of a htunan
being, actual or assumed. In descriptions of landscape, and
especially those of regions so vast that the eye cannot take
them all in from one spot, such movement is about the only
way. The classical instance is Gibbon's description of Byzan-
tium, but instances can be found in any book of travel or of
rambles, as Peary's The North Pole or Stevenson's Travels
with a Donkey, Or again, matters may be treated as moving
from cause to effect, and here you have a logical as well as a
temporal progression.

Chronicle histories are not much thought of now as composi-
tion and, in this method of progression, modern taste usually
asks for some disguise ; even the straightforward, dignified ac-
count of very interesting facts that you find in such a book as
Grant's Personal Memoirs has been termed " almost tediously
truthful." Especially in fictitious narrative of adventure is
there often a deliberate derangement or complication of the
time order for the purposes of mystification. Detective stories,
for example, consist essentially of three stages (i) something
queer happens or a man acts oddly; (2) baffled, the ordinary


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Composition 59

people consult the superior person, who examines the circum-
stances, does a few curious and exciting things, and lands a
thug or a pot of gold; (3) amid universal wonderment he
tells the superficial observers what really happened. Here
there are obviously two stories progressing side by side, first
(i) and (2), what apparently happened, and, second (3) what
really happened. The disguises are stylistic and circumstan-
tial; the doubling of the movement is the means of the com-

3. Composition as thesis or theme. The foregoing methods,
which are very widely and of necessity employed, are natural
methods for handling a large body of facts of any kind.
Wherever the fact is important, one of these methods is likely
to be used. Now ideas about facts, or interpretations of facts,
wherein the idea or the interpretation becomes the important
thing, evidently call for a somewhat different method of com-
position from the foregoing, largely by reason of greater refine-
ment and subtlety. Among the examples cited above, Mr.
Bryce has no thesis to sustain, so far as the facts are concerned,
any more than has a cook book ; he presents his facts, so far
as is possible, as scientific facts. The American Common-
wealth is not a thesis about the United States, but a statement
of facts about it, of scientific value in so far as such matters
can be made scientific. Boswell has no more thesis than that
Johnson was a very marvelous man, the greatest that ever was.
There is, of course, more thesis in Burke, who, though a care-
ful observer, presses his exposition into the service of the thesis
that England should conciliate. A novel may be constructed
from facts within the writer's observation, without any domi-
nant idea, or the facts may be bent to set up and illustrate a
general view of things. Novels of the first class are likely to
be what is usually called " realistic," those of the second class
are more likely to be what is commonly called " idealistic."
Where you are concerned, not so much with the facts, as
with your own idea of the facts, where you try to make a point,
in short, you pursue the composition by thesis.


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6o English Composition and Style

It is evidently very hard alwiiys to distinguish between the
type of composition with which we are now dealing and those
that have preceded ; composition by thesis may frequently em-
ploy one of the preceding methods. But the distinction may
be made clear by an illustration. Boswell's Johnson, for ex-
ample, is a skilfully selected omnium gatherum of the events
of Johnson's life ; except in a very few short passages it con-
tains no " views " of the author and, as a whole, no thesis
whatsoever. A critical essay on Johnson, however, would be
likely to defend or explain a thesis, that is to say, a dominant
idea of Johnson, whether it were on a general subject like
Johnson as a writer, or on a restricted subject, for example,
Johnson as a critic of Shakspere. Even so, essays on these
subjects might be merely enumerations of facts falling under
the proper topics. Titles like The Homeric Spirit in Scott
and The Will to Believe evidently suggest the presence of a
thesis, and almost all argumentation is essentially the develop-
ment of a thesis. Thesis composition is always well illustrated
by the writings of people who have notions about things and
who love paradox; for such writers are likely to place their
own ideas in opposition to other ideas on the same subject.
Mr. G. K. Chesterton, that entertaining writer, exemplifies this.
The first ten essays in his book Varied Types may be expressed
as the following theses :

1. Charlotte Bronte. The usual gossip about Charlotte Bronte
and her sisters is irrelevant, because, Jane Eyre is perhaps "the
truest book ever written," because true to the essential expectation
of joy in life.

2. Morris, Great as he was in quickening esthetic sense, he
nevertheless failed in that he tried to restore ancient life, did not
render modern things beautiful, and missed the joie-de-vivre,

3. The Optimism of Byron, The onslaught of Byron upon the
world was the result, not as is commonly thought of pessimism,
but of optimism, in that he painted the world black to give his
spirit fiercer play.

4. Pope and the Art of Satire, It is necessary to measure the


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Composition 6l

strength of one's opponent and to accept it — as did Pope — in
order to satirize effectively, not in a merely vituperative manner.

5. Francis, The fact that ascetism is the price of denial which
we are willing to pay for a purchase that we hold excessively
dear is illustrated in the life of St. Francis, who saw the world
optimistically and imaginatively, and believed in himself and other

6. Rostand. " Cyrano de Bcrgerac *' is properly called a heroic
comedy in that "the spiritual sentiment mounts increasingly till
the last line."

7. Charles II. This monarch had some moral value in that he
exemplified a reaction from the intellectual completeness of Puri-
tanism to the more human incompleteness.

8. Stevenson. In spite of critics, Stevenson had the genuine
idea of romance, delight in objects and the possibilities of objects ;
hence the various aspects of his life were unified.

9. Carlyle. Though inadequate in that he believed in himself
and not, like really great reformers, in men, Carlyle nevertheless
did good service in attacking fundamental assumptions and in
seeing the real value of the human soul. He insisted so much
on consistency that he often forgot real human needs and became

10. Tolstoy. Though it is a fact that there is a general return
to simplicity of a fundamental sort, Tolstoy mistook the conditions
of this return to simplicity and nature and became too theoretical
in his love for humanity.

The foregoing brief summaries suggest several things about
composition by thesis. As composition, the aptness with which
the main idea may be summarized, gives some inkling of the
clearness of the construction. If it is painfully hard to disen-
tangle the main idea of what is manifestly thesis work from the
mass of matter, the composition is doubtful. If the thesis oc-
cupies a book where it should occupy a magazine article, its
composition is also bad.^

^As for example, the various books on American colleges by Mr.
Clarence Birdseye, Women and Economics by Mrs. Charlotte Perkins
Gilman, and the various works of Mr. Horace Fletcher on nutrition.
There are many others. Such books suggest a possible fact — that


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62 English Composition and Style

Thesis writing is probably the most taking that we have out-
side of narrative. To have ideas about things and to put them
plausibly and brilliantly is a fine thing, — unless the reader is
wrapped up in a liking for facts. The great danger of thesis
writing is not that the composition may be too lucid, — most
of us cannot be too clear, — but that the thesis may be pushed
beyond the bounds of intellectual safety; the escaping fancy
may crawl over the intellectual dead line. This is a matter
that will be treated at considerable length under argumenta-
tion, and it is sufficient here to give merely one illustration.
Matthew Arnold, notable as a writer of theses of great interest
— as the value of poetry and the need of culture, — wrote an
essay on Gray in which he attributed Gray's scantiness of pro-
duction, — the fact " that he never spoke out," — to the poet's

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