W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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H. G. Wells's The History of Mr. Polly.



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86 English Composition and Style

G. B. Shaw's Candida.

Stevenson's The English Admirals,

Stopford Brooke's Primer of English Literature.

Edward Dowden's Shakespeare,

F. W. Hirst's The Stock Exchange,

Ruskin's A Crown of Wild Olive.

Plato's Symposium,

Gibbon's Memoirs,

Milton's Areopagitica.

Macaulay's Milton,

Thoreau's Walden,

Carlyle's French Revolution.

Arnold's On Translating Homer.

Pater's Leonardo da Vinci.

Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger,

Any other well-written books whatever will also answer the
purpose, the attempt being to get some phrasing of the purpose
of any author which will state the general subject and account
for the method by which the author goes to work.

4. Characterize the methods employed by various authors in
any volume of selected essays with which you are familiar.

5. Define unity, coherence, and emphasis, and explain how
they apply to whole compositions. What is the difference between
a proposition and a term?

6. In any of the expository essays that you have been con-
sidering, explain any changes of order that you think would make
for clearness and soundness of composition. Do you note any
obscure passage? How would you make these clearer, as by ex-
plicit emphasis, further illustration, etc.?

7. In the foregoing essays of an explanatory or argumentative
sort, show how much might be called beginning, how much body,
and how much the end? Exactly what does the introduction do?
What does the ending say? How does this differ from the be-
ginning? What has taken place meanwhile in the body of the
theme? How does the author get from beginning to ending?

8. Analyze The Cask of Amontillado or other tale or novel in
the same way, with a view to seeing what has happened between
the beginning and the ending.

9. Outline in whatever way seems most suitable an essay or
two from any clear expository writer, as Newman, Arnold, Hux-



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Composition 87

ley, Fiske, Mill. Good examples will be found in Lamont's Speci-
mens of Exposition, Baker's Specimens of Argumentation, Gardi-
ner's The Forms of Prose Literature, Lewis's Specimens of the
Forms af Discourse, Carpenter and Brewster's Modern English
Prose, Brewster's Studies in Structure and Style, and many other
books of selections.



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CHAPTER VI
paragraphs: compositions of several paragjl/vphs and

OF ONE paragraph

What paragraphs are. The foregoing principles of com-
position may be further discussed, from a somewhat different
point of view, in their relation to paragraphs. These units
of discourse have been many times defined and in a variety
of ways, and in not a few instances the ideal and the method of
paragraph-making have been pressed beyond the point of
utility or the facts of actual writing of an entirely adequate
kind. It must not be forgotten that, as of literary composi-
tion, so of paragraphs, there are no " laws " in any strict sense
of the word, as there are said to be in the realm of natural
science. Certain principles of composition, based on human
convenience and wholesome literary tradition, are about all
that is general and positive with regard to paragraphs. They
are matters of the utmost freedom, and the more one experi-
ments in variety of arrangement and freshness of phraseology
in paragraphing the better one's writing is likely to be. If
further illustration of this fact were called for, one has merely
to be referred to actual literature, where paragraph types are
much less common than we are sometimes led to suppose.
The best way to study paragraphs is to read widely in well
varied writing of all kinds with heed to paragraph sense.

Paragraphs may be best understood historically. It is not
necessary to define them formally; for no definition really
takes account of all the facts, unless it is so general as to be
of no practical usefulness. Now paragraphs are of compara-
tively recent origin: not nearly so much attention was given
to them three hundred years ago as at present, and such para-

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Paragraphs 89

graphs as were attempted were usually, like sentences, longer
than those of to-day. Paragraphs are, in the first place, simply
frequent breaks in a longer body of work which enable the
eye to rest and the mind to make a fresh start. Many good
writers follow no other principle than this — to make a
paragraph to about a page of manuscript. With the help
of some common sense and skilful wording, nothing more
may be necessary in paragraphing beyond this simple division.
In order to make the matter clear let us examine this primary
value of paragraphing, — this convenient breaking, — in two
simple, and somewhat conventional instances, the business let-
ter and the narrative dialogue. In the business letter clearness
is undoubtedly gained by putting each item in a separate
paragraph, and, since clearness is the main thing, this is no
unimportant matter. Thus :

Dear Sir, —
I have your letter of the 15th of August. In reply I would
say that I am not quite sure what you mean when you speak of
the extension of my credit. Will you kindly let me know at your
early convenience? The shipment of goods which you say you
sent last Tuesday has not yet arrived; it was to have been here
yesterday, if I understood you correctly. Will you please forward
me a case of your best " Sunlight " brand of bottled pickles ?

Very truly yours, etc.

This is evidently less clear than the following version, where
each item has a separate paragraph :

Dear Sir, —
I have your letter of the 15th of August. In reply I would
say that I am not quite sure what you mean when you speak of
the extension of my credit. Will you kindly let me know at your
early convenience?

The shipment of goods which you say you sent last Tuesday has
not yet arrived: it was to have been here yesterday, if I under-
stood you correctly.

Will you please forward me a case of your best " Sunlight "
brand of bottled pickles?

Very truly yours, etc.



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90 English Composition and Style

The matter being one of practical utility, the second form is
evidently preferable to the first, since each item stands out by
itself, and the desirability of such division grows greatly as
the number of items increases. The eye, and hence the mind,
catches each, and all items can, if necessary, be checked up.
In more formal language the paragraph unity and emphasis
of the second arrangement are better than of the first.

The foregoing is not literature, but in literary writing, too,
the same principle obtains, though in a great variety of ways.
It is best seen in dialogue, where the convention, founded, as
frequently, on some real need, calls for a separate paragraph
for each speaker. This may be on the ground that the unity
changes with each speaker, but a simpler reason is that broken
dialogue is much easier to read. Thus :

It is all very well for a man to boast that, in all his life, he
has never been frightened, and believes that he never could be so.
There may be men of that nature — I will not dare to deny it;
only I have never known them. The fright I was now in was
horrible, and all my bones seemed to creep inside me; when lying
there helpless, with only the billet and the comb of fern to hide
me, in the dusk of early evening, I saw three faces in the gap;
and what was worse, three gun muzzles. " Somebody been at
work here — " it was the deep voice of Carver Doone ; " jump up,
Charlie, and look about ; we must have no witnesses." " Give me
a hand behind," said Charlie, the same handsome young Doone I
had seen that night; "This bank is too devilish steep for me."
" Nonsense, man ! " cried Marwood de Whichehalse, who to my
amazement was the third of the number; "only a hind cutting
faggots; and of course he hath gone home long ago. Blind man's
holiday, as we call it. I can see all over the place; and there is
not even a rabbit there." At this I drew my breath again, and
thanked God I had gotten my coat on.

Here is the original:

It is all very well for a man to boast that, in all his life, he
has never been frightened, and believes that he never could be so.
There may be men of that nature — I will not dare to deny it;
only I have never known them. The fright I was now in was



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Paragraphs 91

horrible, and all my bones seemed to creep inside me; when lying
there helpless, with only a billet and the comb of fern to hide
me, in the dusk of early evening, I saw three faces in the gap;
and what was worse, three gun muzzles.

" Somebody been at work here — " it was the deep voice of
Carver Doone; "jump up, Charlie, and look about; we must have
no witnesses.*'

" Give me a hand behind," said Charlie, the same handsome
young Doone I had seen that night ; " this bank is too devilish
steep for me."

" Nonsense, man I " cried Marwood de Whichehalse, who to my
amazement was the third of the number; "only a hind cutting
fagots; and of course he hath gone home long ago. Blind man's
holiday, as we call it. I can see all over the place; and there is
not even a rabbit there."

At that I drew my breath again, and thanked God I had gotten
my coat on. Blackmore: Lorna Doone.

In a way, letter-writing and dialogue are exceptional. But
the principle applies in all writing. If paragraphs are very
long they are likely to be wearisome, monotonous, and even
confusing; if very short, if, say, very frequently (except
in dialogue) no longer than sentences, they are likely, accord-
ing to our modem taste, to seem scattering, to produce a dis-
jointed effect. According to modem taste, be it repeated ; for
it would doubtless be quite possible for the general common
mind to accommodate itself to long paragraphs, especially in
sustained discourse, or to very short paragraphs, especially in
rapid narrative, as is now not uncommon in certain cheap nar-
ratives of the " penny-dreadful *' order. There is a ques-
tion of taste or sense in paragraph length which will be dis-
cussed later.

Granted then that a piece of writing is in good order, is well
arranged, according to any of the methods that have been
spoken of in the preceding chapter, the primary question of
paragraphing is a comparatively simple one. It simply con-
sists in making a number of convenient breaks, containing
matter of moderate length.



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92 English Composition and Style

But evidently, as in most matters of himian convenience,
these breaks are capable of various refinements of a nature
both practical and artistic. These refinements have to do with
(i) the place of a paragraph in a longer composition, that
is to say, with the matter that the paragraph contains, (2)
the method of getting from one paragraph to another, in
other words, with the transitions, with (3) the arrangement or
movement of the ideas in a paragraph, and (4) the method
of connecting these ideas. There is also a fifth matter, which
is so important that it will require a special chapter, the
tone, style, and common sense of a paragraph. These mat-
ters will be treated separately.

Kinds of paragraphs. Before dealing with these mat-
ters in detail, however, it will be well to call attention to the
kinds of paragraphs actually in use in writing. Evidently
paragraphs may be composed of single sentences, but this form,
though common enough even outside of dialogue, is actually
less common than where several sentences are required for
a complete composition; examples of one-sentence paragraphs
and compositions are to be found among letters, news items,
as under the " Sporting Gossip " of the daily press, and other
short compositions. Compositions of one paragraph of several
sentences are particularly common in editorial notes, book
notices, news items, and in many other parts of papers and
periodicals. To such paragraphs is sometimes applied the
name of " isolated " in distinction to the " related " para-
graphs of longer compositions. The distinction is of no great
importance, except for convenience in treatment; few writers
stop to think about it any more than did M. Jourdain of
the fact that he had to speak in prose or in verse. In writ-
ing one thinks, or ought to think, of his idea, which may be
related to other ideas or may stand on its own feet; which
may require much space or few words, for expression. Again,
even when one is obliged to analyze and classify paragraphs,
it should be remembered that from almost any actual composi-
tion certain paragraphs may be taken out bodily to form



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Paragraphs 93

complete compositions by themselves. In their place they
add force, clearness or impressiveness to the body of the com-
position, and very likely do themselves gain value by re-
maining where they were written. Yet they illustrate com-
positions of one paragraph just as well as paragraphs actually
intended to stand alone. The following extract from the
preface to the second edition of Ruskin's Modern Painters
will serve as a particularly good example, since Ruskin was
usually a constructor of many paragraphs intended to hang
together :

Perhaps there is no more impressive scene on earth than the
solitary extent of the Campagna of Rome under evening light
Let the reader imagine himself for a moment withdrawn from
the sounds and motion of the living world, and sent forth alone
into this wild and wasted plain. The earth yields and crumbles
beneath his foot, tread he ever so lightly, for its substance is
white, hollow, and carious, like the dusty wreck of the bones of
men. The long knotted grass waves and tosses feebly in the
evening wind, and the shadows of its motion shake feverishly
along the banks of ruin that lift as if the dead beneath were
struggling in their sleep; scattered blocks of black stone, four-
square, remnants of mighty edifices, not one left upon another,
lie upon them to keep them down. A dull, purple, poisonous haze
stretches level along the desert, veiling its spectral wrecks of
massy ruins, on whose rents the red light rests like dying fire on
defiled altars. The blue ridge of the Alban mount lifts itself
against a- solemn space of green, clear, quiet sky. Watch-towers
of dark clouds stand steadfastly along the promontories of the
Apennines. From the plain to the mountains, the shattered aque-
ducts, pier beyond pier, melt into the darkness, like shadowy and
countless troops of funeral mourners, passing from a nation's
grave.

The foregoing is a very beautiful paragraph, more beau-
tiful perhaps as an example of style than as an instance of
paragraph development. It suggests, incidentally, the ques-
tion of style or sense in paragraphing, to which, as has been
said, a separate chapter must be devoted. But there are count-



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94 English Composition and Style

less other excellent paragraphs which do not resemble this
in the least. An inquiry naturally arises as to what a good
paragraph is, and this question again, following the division
into " related " and " isolated " paragraphs, may be split into,
" What is a good paragraph in relation to other paragraphs? "
and, "What is a good paragraph in itself?"

Good paragraphing. These questions are answered by
reference to the four points indicated above. All four apply
to " related " paragraphs ; but to the " isolated " paragraph
only the last two apply.

I. The arrangement and content of paragraphs. This mat-
ter depends wholly on the composition, and need hardly
be enlarged upon here. If we look at examples cited in the
preceding chapter, we shall see that Burke uses eight para-
graphs, one for his introduction, one for his conclusion and
the intervening six for a seriatim statement of his six causes.
His paragraphs are very unequal in length ; he gives as much
time as he thinks fit to each statement. His endeavor is to make
it clear and impressive. Mr. Bryce in the example already
named (p. 55) does the same sort of thing: he pins each princi-
ple to his main theme, as does Burke, but sometimes he
uses one paragraph for principle and illustration both, some-
times he puts the principle into one paragraph and the illus-
tration into the next. There is no reason why a writer should
be uniform in this matter.

But evidently all composition, as we have seen in the pre-
ceding chapter, does not move in the same way as do
those instances just cited. Indeed the arrangement of para-
graphs in the passages from Burke and Mr. Bryce, is, struc-
turally, like two clothes-poles between which a number of
interesting intellectual garments float in a more or less breezy
way. The garments may be pinned up in almost any order,
and if Burke happens to use a more ornate and gilded
clothes-pin than Mr. Bryce, that is a personal affair of style.
Or to use a figure more befitting the very real eminence of
these two men, the selections are, structurally, like a series



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Paragraphs 95

of stepping-stones from one river bank to another. But
this figure implies an idea of progression which does not
enter into the foregoing expository examples. Time order,
in this latter figure, rather than the juxtaposition of similar
ideas, is the determinant in the order of the paragraphs.
These again may be separated from one another by the matter
that they contain : if the events can be made to group, a para-
graph may be made; if there are too many of them for one
paragraph, it will simply have to be broken in two at some
point. The following illustration of several " related " para-
graphs from Froude*s History of England will serve. It
is quite possible to find better narrative than this passage;
it is a rather rapid account of the doings of Sir Francis Drake
and it covers a niunber of months, in a short space. The
first paragraph deals with the cause and occasion of Drake's
expedition and its opening events, the second with illustra-
tions of his method of freebooting, the third with further
events, and the last with his return home and a few of the
eflFects of his voyage.

Before returning to the Queen and her diplomacy, it will be
agreeable to remain a little longer in the company of Sir Francis
Drake. Elizabeth, it will be seen, was negotiating with Parma
for permission to Drake to return to England unpunished. Drake
was caring better for himself, and for England, and for the
Queen also, if she could have but rightly known it Before the
Spanish Council had collected their senses, he had been down at
the Canaries. He had gone from the Canaries to Cape de Verde.
He missed the Indian fleet by twelve hours only, "the reason
best known to God," as Drake put it, laying the blame upon the
weather; but on the 17th of November, as a celebration of Eliza-
beth's accession, St George's cross was floating over St. lago,
and the plunder of the town was secured in the holds of his
cruisers. From St lago he flew westwards before the trade
winds, and after a few days' rest at St. Christopher's, he made
direct to St. Domingo, the first city in the Indian dominions.
His name bore victory before it. St Domingo was carried by
assault The entire town being too large for the English to oc-



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96 English Composition and Style

cupy, they quartered themselves in the central square, taking pos-
session of castle, palace, and town hall, where Philip's scutcheon,
a horse leaping upon a globe, with the haughty motto, Non suMcit
orbis, preached a sermon to conquerors and conquered on the
pride of fools.

Drake was no destroying Vandal. He was unwilling to sack St.
Domingo if the inhabitants were prepared to redeem its safety.
He remained at his leisure, holding the threat of pillage over them
till they would consent to terms with him. A month was spent
in debate, and he had now and then to remind them who he was,
and that he was not to be played with. One day he sent a negro
boy to the Governor with a flag of truce. A Spanish officer struck
the lad with a lance. He came back wounded for an answer, and
died in Drake's presence. Monks and priests were believed, not
without reason, to be at the bottom of all the misery which was
distracting the world. Drake selected a couple of friars from
among his prisoners, sent them down with a provost-marshal and
a guard to the place where the crime had been committed, and
promptly hung them there; and he informed the Governor that
he would hang two more on the same spot every day till the
offending officer was given up and punished. The effect was in-
stantaneous. The officer was brought in. To make the example
more instructive, the Spaniards were compelled to execute him
themselves; and thenceforward they knew with whom they had
to deal, and were more careful. As they were long in coming
to a resolution, there was every day less for them to save. Each
morning two hundred sailors were told off to burn and destroy till
the ransom money was paid. At length they offered twenty-five
thousand ducats, which the English accepted and departed.

Having left his mark on St Domingo, Drake went next to the
second great city, Carthagena. This, too, he took, burnt partially,
and ransomed the rest for £30,000, intending afterwards to go on
to Panama for the chance of a convoy of bullion. Yellow fever,
however, broke out in the fleet. The mortality became extremely
great. Every third man was dead or dying, and very reluctantly
Drake was obliged to abandon the hope of further exploits. As
regarded prize money the voyage had been a failure, and barely
covered its expenses; but the plunder of Vigo, the storming of
St. lago, St. Domingo, and Carthagena, and the defiant coolness
with which the work was accomplished, did more to shake the



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Paragraphs 97

Spaniards' confidence in themselves, and the world's belief in their
invincibility, than the accidental capture of a dozen gold fleets.

Drake had done his part to make diplomacy difficult It was not
easy to maintain the fiction of a defensive war, after the taking
and holding to ransom of Spanish cities. He now came home at
his leisure, entirely indifferent to the Armada which had been
sent in search of him; but long before his arrival all Europe was
ringing with reports of his success.

In the more subtle kinds of composition that have been
spoken of, — compositions which depend on the development
of a thesis and compositions with a prevailing mood, — there
would probably be a closer union of paragraphs: for in the
development of a thesis the question of the mutual order of
paragraphs, that is, of the main ideas and the illustrative de-
tails, is of considerable importance ; in " effective " writing
paragraphs are likely to occur where little heightenings are
necessary, where a group of facts makes one impression which
may be a continuation of, or a contrast to, a preceding impres-
sion. In any event the paragraphing is determined, so far
as content goes, by the immediately prevailing tone that is
desired.

Several of the essays that have heretofore been referred
to (p. 20), particularly Mill's essay on The Subjection of
Women, Newman's various chapters in the Idea of a Univer-
sity, Arnold's essay on Gray, are excellent examples of the
order of paragraphs in the development of a thesis, as are
also such familiar affairs as Burke's Speech on Conciliation
and Reflections on the Revolution in France. The best short
illustration is probably Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which
is so familiar as not to need quotation. The point is that,
whereas it would have been possible for Burke or Mr. Bryce,
so far as can be seen, to have put their illustrations in a
diflferent order, with certain necessary changes of detail, it
would be impossible to rearrange Lincoln's three paragraphs
in any other order whatever ; the order is, as it were, inevitable.
If the student has practised the principles of outlining dis-



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98 English Compositipn and Style

cussed in the preceding chapter this aspect of paragraphing will
be clear to him.

Of paragraphs in compositions with prevailing effects
Ruskin furnishes an excellent example in his well-known de-
scription of St. Mark's cathedral in Venice. The structure
depends on the contrast that he wishes to bring out ; each para-
graph accordingly deals with a group of facts designed to
set out a certain effect, and one set of these paragraphs
is thrown into opposition to a set of paragraphs in the con-
trasting effects ; in a final paragraph the point of the contrast-



Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 8 of 43)