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By Herbert Spencer


i. The Principle of Economy.

§ 1. Commenting on the seeming incongruity between his father's
argumentative powers and his ignorance of formal logic, Tristram Shandy
says: - "It was a matter of just wonder with my worthy tutor, and two or
three fellows of that learned society, that a man who knew not so much
as the names of his tools, should be able to work after that fashion
with them." Sterne's intended implication that a knowledge of the
principles of reasoning neither makes, nor is essential to, a good
reasoner, is doubtless true. Thus, too, is it with grammar. As Dr.
Latham, condemning the usual school-drill in Lindley Murray, rightly
remarks: "Gross vulgarity is a fault to be prevented; but the proper
prevention is to be got from habit - not rules." Similarly, there can
be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon
acquaintance with its laws, than upon practice and natural aptitude.
A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far
towards making all rhetorical precepts needless. He who daily hears and
reads well-framed sentences, will naturally more or less tend to use
similar ones. And where there exists any mental idiosyncrasy - where
there is a deficient verbal memory, or an inadequate sense of logical
dependence, or but little perception of order, or a lack of
constructive ingenuity; no amount of instruction will remedy the defect.
Nevertheless, some practical result may be expected from a familiarity
with the principles of style. The endeavour to conform to laws may tell,
though slowly. And if in no other way, yet, as facilitating revision, a
knowledge of the thing to be achieved - a clear idea of what constitutes
a beauty, and what a blemish - cannot fail to be of service.

§ 2. No general theory of expression seems yet to have been enunciated.
The maxims contained in works on composition and rhetoric, are presented
in an unorganized form. Standing as isolated dogmas - as empirical
generalizations, they are neither so clearly apprehended, nor so much
respected, as they would be were they deduced from some simple first
principle. We are told that "brevity is the soul of wit." We hear styles
condemned as verbose or involved. Blair says that every needless part of
a sentence "interrupts the description and clogs the image;" and again,
that "long sentences fatigue the reader's attention." It is remarked by
Lord Kaimes, that "to give the utmost force to a period, it ought, if
possible, to be closed with that word which makes the greatest figure."
That parentheses should be avoided and that Saxon words should be used
in preference to those of Latin origin, are established precepts. But,
however influential the truths thus dogmatically embodied, they would
be much more influential if reduced to something like scientific
ordination. In this, as in other cases, conviction will be greatly
strengthened when we understand the why. And we may be sure that
a comprehension of the general principle from which the rules of
composition result, will not only bring them home to us with greater
force, but will discover to us other rules of like origin.

§ 3. On seeking for some clue to the law underlying these current
maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them, the importance of
economizing the reader's or hearer's attention, To so present ideas that
they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the
desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point. When we
condemn writing that is wordy, or confused, or intricate - when we praise
this style as easy, and blame that as fatiguing, we consciously or
unconsciously assume this desideratum as our standard of judgment.
Regarding language as an apparatus of symbols for the conveyance of
thought, we may say that, as in a mechanical apparatus, the more simple
and the better arranged its parts, the greater will be the effect
produced. In either case, whatever force is absorbed by the machine is
deducted from the result. A reader or listener has at each moment but a
limited amount of mental power available. To recognize and interpret the
symbols presented to him, requires part of this power; to arrange and
combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part
which remains can be used for realizing the thought conveyed. Hence,
the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each
sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained
idea; and the less vividly will that idea be conceived.

§ 4. How truly language must be regarded as a hindrance to thought,
though the necessary instrument of it, we shall clearly perceive
on remembering the comparative force with which simple ideas are
communicated by signs. To say, "Leave the room," is less expressive than
to point to the door. Placing a finger on the lips is more forcible than
whispering, "Do not speak." A beck of the hand is better than, "Come
here." No phrase can convey the idea of surprise so vividly as opening
the eyes and raising the eyebrows. A shrug of the shoulders would lose
much by translation into words. Again, it may be remarked that when
oral language is employed, the strongest effects are produced by
interjections, which condense entire sentences into syllables. And in
other cases, where custom allows us to express thoughts by single words,
as in _Beware, Heigho, Fudge,_ much force would be lost by expanding
them into specific propositions. Hence, carrying out the metaphor that
language is the vehicle of thought, there seems reason to think that
in all cases the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its
efficiency; and that in composition, the chief, if not the sole thing
to be done, is, to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest
possible amount. Let us then inquire whether economy of the recipient's
attention is not the secret of effect, alike in the right choice and
collocation of words, in the best arrangement of clauses in a sentence,
in the proper order of its principal and subordinate propositions, in
the judicious use of simile, metaphor, and other figures of speech, and
even in the rhythmical sequence of syllables.

ii. Economy in the Use of Words.

§ 5. The greater forcibleness of Saxon English, or rather non-Latin
English, first claims our attention. The several special reasons
assignable for this may all be reduced to the general reason - economy.
The most important of them is early association. A child's vocabulary is
almost wholly Saxon. He says, _I have,_ not _I possess_ - -_I wish,_
not I _desire;_ he does not _reflect,_ he _thinks;_ he does not beg
for _amusement,_ but for _play_; he calls things _nice_ or _nasty,_
not _pleasant_ or _disagreeable._ The synonyms which he learns in after
years, never become so closely, so organically connected with the ideas
signified, as do these original words used in childhood; and hence the
association remains less strong. But in what does a strong association
between a word and an idea differ from a weak one? Simply in the greater
ease and rapidity of the suggestive action. It can be in nothing else.
Both of two words, if they be strictly synonymous, eventually call up
the same image. The expression - It is _acid,_ must in the end give rise
to the same thought as - It is sour; but because the term _acid_ was
learnt later in life, and has not been so often followed by the thought
symbolized, it does not so readily arouse that thought as the term sour.
If we remember how slowly and with what labour the appropriate ideas
follow unfamiliar words in another language, and how increasing
familiarity with such words brings greater rapidity and ease of
comprehension; and if we consider that the same process must have gone
on with the words of our mother tongue from childhood upwards, we shall
clearly see that the earliest learnt and oftenest used words, will,
other things equal, call up images with less loss of time and energy
than their later learnt synonyms.

§ 6. The further superiority possessed by Saxon English in its
comparative brevity, obviously comes under the same generalization. If
it be an advantage to express an idea in the smallest number of words,
then will it be an advantage to express it in the smallest number of
syllables. If circuitous phrases and needless expletives distract the
attention and diminish the strength of the impression produced, then
do surplus articulations do so. A certain effort, though commonly
an inappreciable one, must be required to recognize every vowel and
consonant. If, as all know, it is tiresome to listen to an indistinct
speaker, or read a badly-written manuscript; and if, as we cannot doubt,
the fatigue is a cumulative result of the attention needed to catch
successive syllables; it follows that attention is in such cases
absorbed by each syllable. And if this be true when the syllables are
difficult of recognition, it will also be true, though in a less degree,
when the recognition of them is easy. Hence, the shortness of Saxon
words becomes a reason for their greater force. One qualification,
however, must not be overlooked. A word which in itself embodies the
most important part of the idea to be conveyed, especially when that
idea is an emotional one, may often with advantage be a polysyllabic
word. Thus it seems more forcible to say, "It is _magnificent,_"
than "It is _grand._" The word _vast_ is not so powerful a one as
_stupendous._ Calling a thing _nasty_ is not so effective as calling it

§ 7. There seem to be several causes for this exceptional superiority
of certain long words. We may ascribe it partly to the fact that a
voluminous, mouth-filling epithet is, by its very size, suggestive of
largeness or strength; witness the immense pomposity of sesquipedalian
verbiage: and when great power or intensity has to be suggested, this
association of ideas aids the effect. A further cause may be that a
word of several syllables admits of more emphatic articulation; and as
emphatic articulation is a sign of emotion, the unusual impressiveness
of the thing named is implied by it. Yet another cause is that a long
word (of which the latter syllables are generally inferred as soon as
the first are spoken) allows the hearer's consciousness a longer time to
dwell upon the quality predicated; and where, as in the above cases, it
is to this predicated quality that the entire attention is called, an
advantage results from keeping it before the mind for an appreciable
time. The reasons which we have given for preferring short words
evidently do not hold here. So that to make our generalization quite
correct we must say, that while in certain sentences expressing strong
feeling, the word which more especially implies that feeling may often
with advantage be a many-syllabled or Latin one; in the immense majority
of cases, each word serving but as a step to the idea embodied by the
whole sentence, should, if possible, be a one-syllabled or Saxon one.

§ 8. Once more, that frequent cause of strength in Saxon and other
primitive words-their imitative character may be similarly resolved into
the more general cause. Both those directly imitative, as _splash, bang,
whiz, roar,_ &c., and those analogically imitative, as _rough, smooth,
keen, blunt, thin, hard, crag,_ &c., have a greater or less likeness to
the things symbolized; and by making on the senses impressions allied to
the ideas to be called up, they save part of the effort needed to call
up such ideas, and leave more attention for the ideas themselves.

§ 9. The economy of the recipient's mental energy, into which are thus
resolvable the several causes of the strength of Saxon English, may
equally be traced in the superiority of specific over generic words.
That concrete terms produce more vivid impressions than abstract ones,
and should, when possible, be used instead, is a thorough maxim of
composition. As Dr. Campbell says, "The more general the terms are, the
picture is the fainter; the more special they are, 'tis the brighter."
We should avoid such a sentence as: - "In proportion as the manners,
customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the
regulations of their penal code will be severe." And in place of it we
should write: - "In proportion as men delight in battles, bull-fights,
and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the

§ 10. This superiority of specific expressions is clearly due to a
saving of the effort required to translate words into thoughts. As we
do not think in generals but in particulars - as, whenever any class of
things is referred to, we represent it to ourselves by calling to mind
individual members of it; it follows that when an abstract word is used,
the bearer or reader has to choose from his stock of images, one or
more, by which he may figure to himself the genus mentioned. In doing
this, some delay must arise some force be expended; and if, by employing
a specific term, an appropriate image can be at once suggested, an
economy is achieved, and a more vivid impression produced.

iii. The Principle of Economy applied to Sentences.

§ 11. Turning now from the choice of words to their sequence, we shall
find the same general principle hold good. We have _a priori_ reasons
for believing that in every sentence there is some one order of words
more effective than any other; and that this order is the one which
presents the elements of the proposition in the succession in which they
may be most readily put together. As in a narrative, the events should
be stated in such sequence that the mind may not have to go backwards
and forwards in order to rightly connect them; as in a group of
sentences, the arrangement should be such, that each of them may be
understood as it comes, without waiting for subsequent ones; so in
every sentence, the sequence of words should be that which suggests
the constituents of the thought in the order most convenient for the
building up that thought. Duly to enforce this truth, and to prepare the
way for applications of it, we must briefly inquire into the mental act
by which the meaning of a series of words is apprehended.

§ 12. We cannot more simply do this than by considering the proper
collocation of the substantive and adjective. Is it better to place
the adjective before the substantive, or the substantive before the
adjective? Ought we to say with the French - un _cheval noir;_ or to say
as we do - a black horse? Probably, most persons of culture would decide
that one order is as good as the other. Alive to the bias produced by
habit, they would ascribe to that the preference they feel for our own
form of expression. They would expect those educated in the use of the
opposite form to have an equal preference for that. And thus they would
conclude that neither of these instinctive judgments is of any worth.
There is, however, a philosophical ground for deciding in favour of the
English custom. If "a horse black" be the arrangement, immediately on
the utterance of the word "horse," there arises, or tends to arise,
in the mind, a picture answering to that word; and as there has, been
nothing to indicate what _kind_ of horse, any image of a horse suggests
itself. Very likely, however, the image will be that of a brown horse,
brown horses being the most familiar. The result is that when the word
"black" is added, a check is given to the process of thought. Either the
picture of a brown horse already present to the imagination has to be
suppressed, and the picture of a black one summoned in its place; or
else, if the picture of a brown horse be yet unformed, the tendency to
form it has to be stopped. Whichever is the case, a certain amount of
hindrance results. But if, on the other hand, "a black horse" be
the expression used, no such mistake can be made. The word "black,"
indicating an abstract quality, arouses no definite idea. It simply
prepares the mind for conceiving some object of that colour; and the
attention is kept suspended until that object is known. If, then, by the
precedence of the adjective, the idea is conveyed without liability to
error, whereas the precedence of the substantive is apt to produce a
misconception, it follows that the one gives the mind less trouble than
the other, and is therefore more forcible.

§ 13. Possibly it will be objected that the adjective and substantive
come so close together, that practically they may be considered as
uttered at the same moment; and that on hearing the phrase, "a horse
black," there is not time to imagine a wrongly-coloured horse before the
word "black" follows to prevent it. It must be owned that it is not
easy to decide by introspection whether this is so or not. But there are
facts collaterally implying that it is not. Our ability to anticipate
the words yet unspoken is one of them If the ideas of the hearer kept
considerably behind the, expressions of the speaker, as the objection
assumes, he could hardly foresee the end of a sentence by the time it
was half delivered: yet this constantly happens. Were the supposition
true, the mind, instead of anticipating, would be continually falling
more and more in arrear. If the meanings of words are not realized as
fast as the words are uttered, then the loss of time over each word
must entail such an accumulation of delays as to leave a hearer entirely
behind. But whether the force of these replies be or be not admitted,
it will scarcely be denied that the right formation of a picture will
be facilitated by presenting its elements in the order in which they
are wanted; even though the mind should do nothing until it has received
them all.

§ 14. What is here said respecting the succession of the adjective and
substantive is obviously applicable, by change of terms, to the adverb
and verb. And without further explanation, it will be manifest, that
in the use of prepositions and other particles, most languages
spontaneously conform with more or less completeness to this law.

§ 15. On applying a like analysis to the larger divisions of a sentence,
we find not only that the same principle holds good, but that the
advantage of respecting it becomes marked. In the arrangement of
predicate and subject, for example, we are at once shown that as
the predicate determines the aspect under which the subject is to be
conceived, it should be placed first; and the striking effect produced
by so placing it becomes comprehensible. Take the often-quoted contrast
between "Great is Diana of the Ephesians," and "Diana of the Ephesians
is great." When the first arrangement is used, the utterance of the word
"great" arouses those vague associations of an impressive nature with
which it has been habitually connected; the imagination is prepared to
clothe with high attributes whatever follows; and when the words, "Diana
of the Ephesians," are heard, all the appropriate imagery which can, on
the instant, be summoned, is used in the formation of the picture:
the mind being thus led directly, and without error, to the intended
impression. When, on the contrary, the reverse order is followed, the
idea, "Diana of the Ephesians" is conceived with no special reference to
greatness; and when the words "is great" are added, the conception
has to be remodeled: whence arises a loss of mental energy and a
corresponding diminution of effect. The following verse from Coleridge's
'Ancient Mariner,' though somewhat irregular in structure, well
illustrates the same truth:

"Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony."

§ 16. Of course the principle equally applies when the predicate is a
verb or a participle. And as effect is gained by placing first all words
indicating the quality, conduct or condition of the subject, it follows
that the copula also should have precedence. It is true that the general
habit of our language resists this arrangement of predicate, copula
and subject; but we may readily find instances of the additional force
gained by conforming to it. Thus, in the line from 'Julius Caesar'

"Then burst his mighty heart,"

priority is given to a word embodying both predicate and copula. In a
passage contained in 'The Battle of Flodden Field,' the like order is
systematically employed with great effect:

"The Border slogan rent the sky!
_A Home! a Gordon!_ was the cry;
_Loud were _the clanging blows:
_Advanced - forced back - -now low, now high,
_The pennon sunk and rose;
_As bends_ the bark's mast in the gale
When _rent are_ rigging, shrouds and sail,
It wavered 'mid the foes."

§ 17. Pursuing the principle yet further, it is obvious that for
producing the greatest effect, not only should the main divisions of a
sentence observe this sequence, but the subdivisions of these should be
similarly arranged. In nearly all cases, the predicate is accompanied by
some limit or qualification, called its complement. Commonly, also,
the circumstances of the subject, which form its complement, have to be
specified. And as these qualifications and circumstances must determine
the mode in which the acts and things they belong to are conceived,
precedence should be given to them. Lord Kaimes notices the fact
that this order is preferable; though without giving the reason. He
says: - "When a circumstance is placed at the beginning of the period, or
near the beginning, the transition from it to the principal subject is
agreeable: it is like ascending or going upward." A sentence arranged in
illustration of this will be desirable. Here is one: - "Whatever it may
be in theory, it is clear that in practice the French idea of liberty
is - the right of every man to be master of the rest."

§ 18. In this case, were the first two clauses, up to the word "I
practice" inclusive, which qualify the subject, to be placed at the
end instead of the beginning, much of the force would be lost; as
thus: - "The French idea of liberty is - the right of every man to be
master of the rest; in practice at least, if not in theory."

§ 19. Similarly with respect to the conditions under which any fact is
predicated. Observe in the following example the effect of putting them
last: - "How immense would be the stimulus to progress, were the honour
now given to wealth and title given exclusively to high achievements and
intrinsic worth!"

§ 20. And then observe the superior effect of putting them first: - "Were
the honour now given to wealth and title given exclusively to high
achievements and intrinsic worth, how immense would be the stimulus to

§ 21. The effect of giving priority to the complement of the predicate,
as well as the predicate itself, is finely displayed in the opening of

"_Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon and eve's one star
Sat_ gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone."

Here it will be observed, not only that the predicate "sat" precedes the
subject "Saturn," and that the three lines in italics, constituting the
complement of the predicate, come before it; but that in the structure
of that complement also, the same order is followed: each line being
so arranged that the qualifying words are placed before the words
suggesting concrete images.

§ 22. The right succession of the principal and subordinate propositions
in a sentence manifestly depends on the same law. Regard for economy of
the recipient's attention, which, as we find, determines the best order
for the subject, copula, predicate and their complements, dictates that
the subordinate proposition shall precede the principal one when the
sentence includes two. Containing, as the subordinate proposition does,
some qualifying or explanatory idea, its priority prevents misconception
of the principal one; and therefore saves the mental effort needed to
correct such misconception. This will be seen in the annexed example:
"The secrecy once maintained in respect to the parliamentary debates,
is still thought needful in diplomacy; and in virtue of this secret
diplomacy, England may any day be unawares betrayed by its ministers
into a war costing a, hundred thousand lives, and hundreds of millions
of treasure: yet the English pique themselves on being a self-governed
people." The two subordinate propositions, ending with the semicolon and

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Online LibraryHerbert SpencerThe Philosophy of Style → online text (page 1 of 3)