W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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of the speaker or writer. Good writing ultimately rests on its
own feet and the public will not be interested in some subjects
despite the tJiunder of the captions and the shouting. The
matter may be dismissed with a quotation from Mark Twain.
In the preface to the uniform edition of his works, he very
sensibly says:

So far as I remember, I have never seen an Author's Preface
which had any purpose but one — to furnish reasons for the pub-
lication of the book. Prefaces wear many disguises, call them-
selves by various names, and pretend to come on various busi-
nesses, but I think that upon examination we are quite sure to


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74 English Composition and Style

find that their errand is always the same; they are there to apolo-
gize for the book; in other words, furnish reasons for its pubUcai-
tion^ This often insures brevity.

Introductions to stories and nbvels form a special class to
which the foregoing observations do not now apply, since the
formal introductions of, say, the fashion of Sir Walter Scott
(e.g., Ivanhoe, Queniin Durward, etc.), have given place to
the more crisp, direct method of a striking opening scene. So,
too, the '* While the events of the last chapter were going oti,
a different scene was enacting at the house of the Duchess,"
style of transition has, on the whole, given place to a more
direct, a less explanatory method. This we shall see more
in detail in the special study of narrative.

On the whole, it is in the interests of good composition to
take the introductions as simply as possible. Excessive length
and tediousness should be shunned. Consider that you are in-
troducing one friend to another and leave matters so that they
can go on. The introduction that does not introduce, that
forms an impasse or ctd de sac, whence the writer must beat
a retreat and endeavor to find a more propitious means of en-
trance, are particularly common with young writers. The
" interest " introductions, spoken of above, often belong to this
class. So do the following examples from students* themes:

In these latter days, when fiction (fiction, I mean, which has the
necessary characteristics to make it literature) is entering upon
its death grapple with science, a final novel penned by the hand
of one whom this great reading public not only loves, but regards
with a certain personal gratitude; viz., Robert Louis Stevenson, is
greeted with almost hero worship.

In these degenerate days, when vaudeville tends to usuip the
stage, and high kicking is more appreciated by the multitude than
good acting, good new play$ are exceedingly scarce, etc.

Possibly the writers meant to be funny, but it is quite as
likely that a few scattered newspaper and lecture ]()hrases stuck
in their memories and were later disgorged, chaos indigestaque


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Composition 75

moles. This style of introduction has been once for all
satirized by Swift in the opening to A Tale af a Tub.

Thus far we have been speaking of those introductions
which are part and parcel of the composition. The word
**prefjK^e" used in the foregoing quotation from Mark
Twain suggests another kind of introduction to which, not
that this is likely to trouble college students in their own
compositions, a word should be given. These are the pre-
liminary discussions^ called variously " preface " and " intro-
duction," of which the former is fotmd in nearly every book,
the latter in many. Neither is an essential part of the work ;
their attempt is to give the composition, otherwise more or less
perfect^ additional setting and clarity. Both are usually post
hoe fqcto; the preface is usually the last word of the writer,
is one way more of emphasis; the introduction may be done
years later by another hand, as, for instance, in the familiar
schoc4 editions of English masterpieces "edited, with an intro-

ductioo and notes^ by '' Though both extra information,

prefaces and introductions usually differ in these respects:
the preface is about the book, the introduction about the sub-
ject of the book; the preface is usually less formal and often
^rter than the introduction; the preface is very nearly al-
ways by the author, the introduction not necessarily so. In
the main, the preface does as Mark Twain says; the in-
troduction may be an account of other work on the sub-
ject, as in the beginning of Darwin's Origin of Species, and
this may be treated historically, critically, or controversially,
or the introduction may be a biographical or critical sketch
of the author, as with Professor Brander Matthews's
Biographical Criticism prefixed to the uniform edition of the
works of Mark Twain^ or it may be a description of the
author's dims and literary ways, as with the introductions by
Fielding, Scott, and Mr. Henry James to their own novels,
or those of Mrs, Ritchie to the novels of Thackeray. All
introductions are by way of extraneous <xMnment on the
work or the subject; they are usually very interesting, espe-


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76 English Composition and Style

daily when by the author. Their danger is length, as when a
recent editor took twice as many words to introduce Burke,
as Burke himself needed to state the great principle of

2. The body. Of this little can be said ; for this is the facts
that are presented, facts of millions of different kinds. In
general, what has preceded concerning the methods of com-
position (pp. 55-69) relates to the body of the theme and
need not be repeated here. The body is the main part If
the preliminary work is well done, this main part progresses
easily as composition, though not necessarily as substance.
The character of the body is usually indicated by tables of
contents and by preliminary analyses, by prefaces, introduc-
tions, and other devices. Occasionally, especially in argu-
mentative writing and debating, as, for example, in law
courts, it is well, for the sake of clearness, to make an ex-
plicit statement of the topics included in the subject and of
the order of treatment " In the following argument, we
shall endeavor to show, first," etc., is a common and useful
formula, provided that the promise is made good. Such an
outline is called the partition of the subject Whether it be
regarded as a part of the introduction or as the beginning
of the body of the theme, or as an interloper, useful in various
kinds of writing, is a matter of no importance. The point
is that the material should be developed in some way, and
if it happens to be convenient and desirable to make a formal
partition of the subject, a partition should be made. Indeed,
beginners might do well always, so far as possible, to tie them-
selves to the apron-strings of formal partition. It tends to
clarify ideas and to ease the reader.

Examples of development will be so common as we pro-
ceed that space for illustration need not be taken here. It is
convenient to remember that the body of a piece of writing
is that part which contains the body of fact to be presented.
The introduction leads to these facts; the ending, which will
now be considered, gets from them.


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Composition 77

3. The ending. The natural thing when done speaking or
writing is to stop, but all of us experience the difficulty of
getting to, or getting in, the last word. Furthermore, the ideal
of nicely rounded composition seems to be founded on a
genuinely human demand for rather more ceremony than an
abrupt termination permits. The trait we see in the practices
that spring up about leave-taking and letter-writing. Again,
endings may serve intellectually useful as well as pleasantly
useful purposes. To illustrate these matters, in a different
order, the summary of the points that have been made, as
in the preceding quotation from Burke (p. 56) is a most
excellent method of carrying home the idea, provided that
it is, as with Burke, a real summary. Indeed, one of the
good tests of most kinds of composition is the clearness with
which they may be summarized; if you cannot tell in topics
what you have said your composition is probably not very

An ending may also be a conclusion, that is, it may say
what the outcome of the preceding discussion is, what it
all amounts to. In other words, the body of the theme may
have been stating facts and arguments ; the conclusion, follow-
ing a summary, it may be, looks at the whole matter in the
large and emphasizes its general bearing. Obviously, the
common vice of such conclusions is that they do not con-
clude, that they do not follow from the facts. That is a
matter of logical composition. As a matter of arrangement,
a not uncommon defect of compositions is that the conclusions
will have so seeped into the presentation of the facts, that
there will be nothing left at the end.

An ending may also be, not a summary or a logical con-
clusion from the facts, but an aspiration, a hope, a heighten-
ing of style to carry the reader emotionally beyond the sphere
of the fact or the thesis. Ruskin, Newman, and many other
winning writers are replete with endings of this kind, and
this is always likely to be the type of ending in public ad-
dress. It is given, however, only to writers and speakers pos-


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78 English Cotnpositioii land Style

sessed with a genuine enthusiasm or a burning cdritempt, to
be really successful with this type. A little heightening is not
amiss; but restraint is the safe niethod to pursue.

Narrative endings are of a different kind from those fhstt
have been described, which are more suitable to exposition,
argumentation, and persuasive writing. Natrative of fact, as
history, does, to be sure, frequently make lise of these methods,
but fiction usually assumes a different kind of logic. Usually
in novels and plays, we call for happy endings, whire the
good people are satisfied and a pleasant system of riewards
and punishments is fully set in operation. But. there is also
the tragic ending, depending on character and assumed to be
inevitable. Hamlet*s intellectual temperament causes him to
hesitate too long, and consequently the State itnd himself are
involved in a common ruhl ; Maggie Tulliver, of a temper-
ament far too sensitive and groining for her crude and com-
monplace surroundings, finds no haven of happiness, nor could
have found one among her unimaginative people, even if she
had not at the last been drowned in a somewhat supere-
rogatory flood; Hedda Gabler, bored to death and craving ro-
mantic excitement, sees her last hope of emotional satisfac-
tion depart in the ignoble, unromantic death of her lover, and
shoots herself; the Master of Ballantrae, always on the los-
ing side, blights everything he touches, — his home, his king's
cause, the friendly pirates, his brother's household, himself,
and, after death, his brother's life. All these endings are in
the realm of higher modem art ; a ^eat many novels and
dramas do hardly more than stop when they are done, are
a series of events with no very well defined terminus a quo.

Units of composition. We have seen in Chapter I what
some of the forms of actual writing are, and in the present chap-
ter we have seen also that a composition may be a single sen-
tence. The idea of composition may be made Somewhat clearer
if we pause for a minute to enumerate some of the units into
which composition may ordinarily fall. Complete composi-
tions may obviously be of any length, but in the longer com-


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Composition 79

positions, as treatises and novels, and in most short
compositions, certain conventional and comfortable sub-
divisions are made, which undoubtedly help the reader to follow
the thought and the structure of an article or a book. The
paragraph is the commonest of these units, and to this special
study will later be given. The others, to arrange them in
what is usually the inverse order of length, are known as
sections, chapters, parts, and books. (Volumes are not a unit
of composition; they are the bookbinder's device for not
making any one mass of matter too heavy for the bindings or
too bulky for the reader to handle ; hence, too, there may be
volumes of different-sized pages, and various kinds of
typography to meet various conditions.) Each of these
divisions or imits is an aggregation of a number of the
smaller units that have preceded, and each presents one aspect
of the subject and follows, roughly, the principles of unity,
coherence, and emphasis. Sections, parts, and books, are less
likely to be used in novels than in long narratives dealing with
fact and in treatises ; George Eliot, for example, is one of the
few novelists who divides her novels into books. Books could
be written without any of these aids, and, indeed, many
of them are of comparatively recent invention, but all of
them when corresponding to natural divisions in the thought,
are undoubtedly a great help. Special imits of composition
occur in the acts of a play and the cantos of an epic poem.

0^tlining.^*^ A student will gain considerable knowledge of
the structure of composition, that is, of the relative importance
of the various parts and their connection with one another
by outlining a few pieces, particularly of an expository or an
argumentative kind. Stories and plays and poems do not
outline so well ; the better method with these forms is to make
a running summary or to state the " argument " of the piece,
or, even, to construct a scenario. Clearness is the main object
of the outline and this may be obtained by the use of any one

io The Principles of Outlining by Margaret Ball, Ph.D., is a con-
venient hand-book on this subject.


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8o English Composition and Style

of three methods: the topical analysis, the paragraph sum-
mary, and the " brief " of the ideas. These will be explained
in detail and will be illustrated from the quotation from Burke

(p. 56).

1. Topical analysis. Here the main idea is stated and
the instances and arguments in illustration and support thereof
are used as subdivisions. This is the simplest form of out-
line. Thus :

I. The uncommonly strong spirit of liberty among the English
colonists in America proceeds from the following causes:

1. Their descent from the freedom-loving English people;

2. The great popularity of their form of government;

3. The very independent form of their religion;

4. The presence of slavery in the Southern colonies ;

5. Their popular education; and

6. Their distance from the seat of English government
II. This spirit must be seriously reckoned with.

This may, naturally, be carried further into detail, as will be
done in the "brief" analysis. Such a form as this is use-
ful in two ways: it is convenient for the speaker as notes
for an address, if he has the facts at his command and wishes
merely to guide his memory, and it is useful for the student
as a starting-point to see what has to be done by way of
amplification, development, and style to make a discourse in-

2. The paragraph summary. Here the gist of each para-
graph IS, so far as possible, summarized in a single sentence.
The practical value of the form is slight; for it does not
show the connection of ideas so clearly as a topical analysis.
Nor would it be so useful for a speaker — unless he were
to adopt it as an exact wording for the opening sentence of
each paragraph, in order to get his transitions quite exact
(compare p. 102) . Thus :

I. The predominating love of freedom among the English col-
onists has arisen from a variety of causes which should be enu-


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Composition 8i

2. The great love of liberty which they have inherited from
the English manifests itself especially in this matter of taxation.

3. Their popular government has inspired them with lofty sen-
timents about liberty.

4. Historical causes show that no religion is so liberty-loving
as theirs; it may be called "the dissidence of dissent and the
Protestantism of the Protestant religion."

5. The Southern colonists, though members of the Anglican
church, nevertheless find in the spectacle of their own slaves a
powerful incentive to personal freedom,

6. The common knowledge of law and the large number of
lawyers among the colonists have fitted them by manner of edu-
cation to be very much on their guard against oppression.

7. They live at such a distance from the English government
that they are of necessity self-reliant and accustomed to govern

8. These six reasons show that their temper is not to be trifled

The difference between this and the former, it should be
repeated, lies in the explicitness of the propositions, that is,
the sentences, as compared with the terms, or the words and
phrases, of the first. Paragraph analysis is good practice in
the disengaging of ideas from style, and some familiarity
with it may well precede the more complicated and now more
often employed method of the " brief."

3. The brief. This method consists in putting in all the
facts and propositions that there are, — though obviously,
one may draw his brief on a large or a small scale, — and
indicating the relation of these propositions to one another.
This relating is called correlation; it shows the structure and
coherence of the thought. It is obtained by the use of con-
nectives and a scheme of lettering. Words like " for ** and
"because" are used to connect propositions that depend
logically on each other ; words like " as follows " in enumera-
tions following a proposition. The lettering of ideas and
propositions follows any system so long as it is carried out
consistently. For example, we may use Roman capitals to



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82 English Composition and Style

indicate the main propositions, Arabic numerals to indicate
the propositions following these, Arabic small letters to carry
the next order of propositions, and any one of these in brack-
ets or parentheses, italics, or what-not, for further subdivi-
sions. The scheme should be followed out consistently, that
is, as consistently as possible, for it is impossible to make an
absolutely final brief of all the propositions in any essay, nor
would any two briefmakers agree on the relative importance
of the details. No writing, except mathematical processes,
is so clear as that, so devoid of style. The envelope for the
propositions might be as follows:

A for

I because

a. and


2. and

3 for

a and

b for

(I) for

(a) and

(b) for

I ^ and



c for



B , for, etc.

This may be illustrated by the following brief of the Burke
passage :

A. The Americans tend to become restless whenever they think
their liberty threatened, for

1. A love of freedom is their predominating trait, and

2. An ardent is always a jealous disposition.


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Composition 83

B. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger among the Americans
than elsewhere in the earth, for

1. Their descent has fostered the idea of liberty, for

a. They are the descendants of liberty-loving Englishmen.

b. The question of taxation, the one of present impor-
tance, is the one of all others on which English ideas
of liberty are manifested.

2. Their government is one of direct popular representation.

3. The religion of the Northern colonies tends to make the
Americans liberty loving, for

a. Religion is always a principle of energy, and

b. The colonists are Protestants, an essentially liberty-
loving persuasion.

c. Their Protestantism was one of a character in which
the desire for liberty was particularly strong.

d. Furthermore they left England when the struggle for
religious liberty was at its height.

4. In the Southern colonies the practice of slavery offsets
any allegiance to the Church of England that may be
there, for -

a. It is a matter of common human nature that in slave
States those who are free and those who own the slaves
are particularly jealous of liberty.

5. Education tends to make the colonists jealous of their
freedom, for

a. Law is a very general study, for

(i) The lawyers are numerous and powerful in all the

(2) Nearly everybody has some smattering of law.

b. A knowledge of law is likely to make its possessors keen
to scent any possible tyranny.

6. The distance between England and the colonies tends to
make them disobedient, for

a. The passage of the ocean may cause many weeks to
elapse between an order and its execution.

b. It is a law of nature that government is not so effective
at a distance as near the seat of government.

C. The descent, the form of government, the religion of the
Northern colonies, the manners of the Southern, the edu-


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84 English Composition and Style

cation, the remoteness, are six causes which make conces-
sion necessary if England is to live harmoniously with the
spirit of liberty in the colonies.

It IS to be noted (i) that a greater minuteness of subdivision
here would be entirely possible ; a brief might insist on every
particle of evidence, every proposition, every fact, but all this
is unnecessary for the purposes of illustration. (2) Again,
another scheme, somewhat different .in detail, would be equally
good; Burke's main emphasis is clear, but the more one
went into detail, the more divergence of opinion there would
be as to the exact bearing of each fact; some bear several
ways. (3) It would be quite possible to state this matter as
a series of topics, correlated with "as follows," etc., with
almost the same minuteness that we have in the propositional
brief. Doubtless a perfect piece of work, perfect structurally,
say the pons asinqrum in geometry, would not permit these
differences in any one of its several demonstrations, would be
quite unambiguous. (4) The main point is for the student
to get used to examining the structure of thought, and for
this purpose an outline is a very handy thing.

Stunmarjr. Composition, the attempt to relate ideas so that
they will form well-rounded bodies of thought or will convey
information and impressions of one kind to the reader, is a
very important matter in writing. The point of any piece of
writing may, however, be made in a variety of ways, according
to the nature of the subject and the purpose of the author.
The simplest kinds are? those in which the facts follow some
arrangement by topics or a time order; the handling of an idea
or thesis or the presentation of a uniiform tone or impression
is a more difficult method. The principles or tests of good
composition are unity, coherence, and emphasis, the successful
application of which ensures unified thought and good structure.
Perhaps arrangement of some kind is the most important
thing that a composition may possess, and this arrangement
is aided by certain modem devices, as paragraphs, sections,
chapters and books, each of which should compose prop-


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Composition 85

erly. Arrangement, along with style, being the most impor-
tant thing that a writer may acquire, — after the ideas, — it
behooves a student of composition to analyze masterpieces
of composition, by summaries or outlines, to note how various
pieces are put together. One should never forget that " com-
position'* cannot satisfactorily be treated in the abstract or
in any way transcendentally ; it is a wholly practical matter.
Composition is good arrangement. Good arrangement evi-
dently is not the same in any two pieces of work, and there-
fore the only sound method of studying the subject is to
examine examples of what we have come to regard as good
arrangement, and to practise, under competent direction, the
composing of feasible subjects of various kinds.


1. What is composition? Can you give a short definition that
will cover the various applications of the word? Wherein does
it differ from style?

2. What kinds of composition are spoken of in the preceding
pages? Can you add any to the list?

3. What is the purpose of the following compositions? What
kind of composition do they illustrate?

Poe's The Cask of Amontillado,

Hawthorne's The Great Carbuncle,

Kipling's The Brushwood Boy,

Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad,

Stevenson's An Inland Voyage.

Scott's Ivanhoe,

Diunas's The Three Musketeers.

Balzac's Eugenie Grandet.

George Eliot's Silas Marner,

Meredith's The Egoist,

Lamb's Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist,

Emerson's Self -Reliance,

Lowell's Democracy.

Mill's The Subjection of Women,

Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native,

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 7 of 43)