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William Shepherd.

Systematic education: or Elementary instruction in the various departments of literature and science; with practical rules for studying each branch of useful knowledge (Volume 1) online

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selves : the latter was probably the Dean's meaning, and the
arrangement should have been " The Romans understood
liberty, as well, at least, as we."

There are, in common use, certain phrases which are
themselves equivocal, and are calculated to produce ob-
curity, as, not the least, nothing less, &c. Thus, " He aimed



STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES. 10?

at nothing less than the crov/n ;" which may imply, that he
was far from aiming at, or it may signify, that nothing less
Mould satisfy him.

In common conversation, the tone and emphasis made use
of in pronouncing such adverbs as onli/, wholly, at hast, shew
the meaning at once ; and on this account we often acquire a
habit of throwing them in, without due attention in the course
of a period. But in written discourses, which address the eye,
and not the ear^ greater accuracy is requisite ; and they should
be so connected with the words they are intended to qualify, as
to prevent every appearance of ambiguity.

2. Words, expressive of things connected in thought, should
be placed as near as possible ; because, when objects are ar-
ranged according to their connexion, we have a sense of
order : when they are placed, as it were, by chance, we have
a sense of disorder. This rule is very important, since it is
chiefly by the connective parts of sentences, that the train of
thought, and the course of reasoning in continued discourse, is
laid open. ;,

Examples. " The English are naturally fanciful, and very
often disposed, by that gloominess and melancholy of temper,
which is so frequent in our nation, to many wild notions and
visions, to which others are not so liable." Spectator. In this
sentence, the verb disposed is separated unnecessarily from
the subject to which it refers. The sentence should run
thus : '

" The English are naturally fanciful"; and, by that gloomi-
ness and melancholy of temper, which is so frequent in our
nation, are often disposed to many wild notions," &c.

" Our English is, among those dialects, one that I think
more capable of improvement than any other." Monboddo on
Language. It would be better : " Our English is one, among
those dialects, that I think," &c.

3. Great attention is required in the proper disposition of
the relative pronouns who, zehich, what, and whose, and of
those particles which express the connexion of the parts of



108 BELLES LETXnES.

speech with one another ; because all reasoning depends on
these ; and a small error in this respect, may render a whole
sentence obscure, and ahnost uninteUigible.

Examples : In one of Dr. Sherlock's sermons, is the fol-
lowing passage, " It is folly to pretend to arm ourselves against
Uie accidents of life, by heaping up treasures, >\hich nothing
can protect us against, but the good providence of our heavenly
Father." According to the rules of grammar, the word which
refers to treasures; this would, however, make nonsense of the
x^-faole period ; and the sentence should run thus : " It is folly
to pretend, by heaping up treasures, to arm ourselves against
the accidents of life ; which nothing can protect us against,
but the good providence of our heavenly Father."

" Solomon, the son of David, who built the temple," &c. ;
and " Solomon, the son of David, tcho was persecuted," &c.
The relative, in the first sentence, refers to Solomon, and in
the second to David ; and yet it is similarly situated.

** Many act so directly contrary to this method, that, from
a habit of saving time and paper^ which they acquired at the
university, they write in so diminutive a manner, that they can
hardly read what they have written." Swift. This should have
run thus : " From a habit, which many have acquired at the
university, of saving time and paper, tliey write," See.

^* 1 allude to the article Blind, in the Encyclopedia Britan-
nica, published at Edinburgh, in the year 1783, vrbich was
written by him." Mackenzie's Life of Blacklock. By this
arrangepient of the sentence, Blacklock might be considered as
the sole author of the Encyclopedia ; whereas the writer of
his life meant to say he was author of the article Blind only ;
and, therefore, the sentence would have been better, " I al-
lude to the article Blind, which was written by him, and
published at Edinburgh, in the year 1783, in the Encyclopedia
Britannica."

Other instances mjght be enumerated ; but these are suffi-
cient to make the rule understood, that, in the construction
of sentences, one of the first things to be attended to is, th



STRljeTlXRE OF SENTENCES. 109

marshalling of the words in such order, as shall most clearly
mark the relation of the several parts of the sentence to one
another ; particularly, that adverbs always be made to adhere
closely to the words which they are intended to qualify : to
which may be added, that in cases in which a circumstance is
thro<\n in, it shall never hang loose in the midst of a period,
but be determined by its place to one or other member of it
and that every relative should instantly present its antecedent tp
the reader, without the smallest obscurity.

It may be further added, that obscurity frequently arises
from the too frequent repetition of relatives, particularly of the
words, who, they, them, and theirs.

Examples : " And ihet/ did all eat, and were filled, and
they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets
full." The last they is not obvious : it may refer to the mul-
titude, or to the disciples.

" They were summoned, occasionally, by their kings, when
compelled by their wants, and by their fears, to have recourse
to their aid." When the personsil pronouns crowd in too fast
upon us, there is often no other method left, but to change
entirely the whole form of the sentence.

All languages are liable to ambiguities ; but Quintilian says,
that a sentence is always to be deemed faulty, when the ar-
rangement of the words is ambiguous, though the sense njay
be easily discovered. In the following sentences, the true
meaning cannot be ascertained, without attending to the con-
nexion in which they are found : " Statuam auream hastam
tenentem :" upon this it became a dispute at law, whether the
whole statue, or the spear only, was to be made of gold :
" Chrementera audivi percussisse Demeam," from this mode
of construction, it cannot be known whether Chremes or
Demea struck the blow.

" This work, in its full extent, being now afflicted with an
asthma, and finding the powers of life gradually declining, he
had no longer courage to undertake." Johnson's Life of
Savage. . . ^



110 BELLES LETTRES.

From this we may imagine, that it was the work, and not
llie author, that was afflicted with the asthma. It should
stand thus : " Being now afflicted with an asthma, and find-
ing the powers of life gradually declining, he had no longer
courage to undertake this work in its full extent."

" The minister, who grows less by his elevation, like a little
statue placed on a mighty pedestal, will always have his jea-
lousy strong about him." Tliis would be much better : "The
minister, who, like a little statue placed on a mighty pedestal,
grows less by his elevation, will always have his jealousy strong
about him."

The relation of every word and member of a sentence should
be marked in the most proper and distinct manner ; which will
give not only clearness, but grace and beauty to a sentence ;
making the mind pass smoothly and agreeably along all the
parts of it.

The Uniti/ of a sentence is next to be considered. There
must always be some leading principle to form a chain of con-
nexion between the component parts of every composition,
and there must be the same connecting principle among the
parts. In a single sentence, above all, the strictest unity is re-
quired ; for the very nature of a sentence implies one proposi-
tion' to be expressed. It may consist of parts ; but these parts
ought to be so closely bound together, as to make an impres-
sion upon the mind of one object, not of many.

To preserve unity in a sentence, the following rules have
been laid down by Dr. Blair.

1. The scene, the subject, and the person, should be changed
as little as possible. There is commonly, in every sentence,
some person or thing which is the governing word. This
should, if the case admit of it, be continued from the beginning
to the end of it. The following sentences are violations of
this rule.

Examples : " Cicero was oppressed by a new and cruel
affliction, the leath of his beloved daughter, TuUia, which
happened soon after her divorce from DolabeUa, whose man-



STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES. Ill

iiers'and humours were entirely disagreeable to her." Middle-
ton's Life of Cicero.

The chief object in this sentence, is the death of Tullia,
the cause of Cicero's affliction. The time in which it hap-
pened was quite proper ; but the introduction of Dolabella's
character destroys the unity of the period, by presenting to the
reader a new picture.

" After we came to anchor, they put me on shore, where I
was welcomed by all my friends, who received me with the
greatest kindness." Here, by shifting so often the place, and
the persons, we, they, I, and who, the feeling of connexion
and unity is nearly lost. It would have been better thus:
*' Having come to an anchor, I was put on shore, where I was
welcomed by all my friends, and received with the greatest
kindness."

2. We should never crowd into one sentence, things that
have so little connexion, that they could bear to be divided
into two or more sentences.

Examples : Archbishop Tillotson, speaking of a person
lately deceased, says, " He was exceedingly beloved both by
King William and Queen Mary, who nominated Dr. Tennison,
bishop of Lincoln, to succeed him." In this sentence, there
is no connexion whatever between the latter part and the
former : it would have been more natural to have given some
proof of the fact, tliat he had been the object of their majes-
ties' affection, than to have spoken of his successor.

Plutarch, speaking of an army, says, " Their march was
through an uncultivated country, whose savage inhabitants
fared hardly, having no other riches than a breed of sheep,
whose flesh was rank and unsavoury, by reason of their conti-
nual feeding upon sea-fish." In this sentence there is a sad
jumble of objects, but very slightly related to each other,
which cannot be comprehended under one view : the march
of the Greeks : the description of the inhabitants of the coun-
try through which they passed : an account of their sheep,
and the reason of the ill taste of their flesh.



112 BELLES LETTRES.

Authors, who are fond of long periods, are apt to fall into
errors of this kind, of \rhicli we have a multitude of instances
iu Burnet and Clarendon ; and though punctuation may some-
times remedy the evil, yet commas, colons, &c. cannot make
the proper divisions of thought ; they only serve to mark those
Mhich arise from the mode of the author's expression ; and
they are proper or not, as they correspond to the natural -divi-
sion of the sense.

3. Parentheses ought not to be introduced in the middle
of sentences. On some occasions, a parenthesis may be fitly
introduced, when prompted by a certain vivacity of thought,
which can glance aside as it is going along ; but, in general,
their effect is extremely bad, and should be avoided, being, as
it were, wheels within wheels, or separate sentences within
other sentences.

Examples : " When the parliament sat down (for it de-
serves our particular observation, that both houses were fuH
of zeal for the present government, and of resentment against
the late usurpations), there was but one party in parliament ;
and no other party could raise its head in the nation." Boling-
broke.

The same author says, " It seems to me, that, in order to
maintain the system of the world, at a certain point, far
below that of ideal perfection (for we are made capable of
conceiving what we are incapable of attaining) but, however
sufficient upon the whole to constitute a state easy and happy,
or at the worst tolerable ; 1 say, it seems to me, that the Au-
thor of nature, has thought fit to mingle from time to time,
among societies of men, a few, and but a few, of those
on whom He is graciously pleased to bestow a larger propor-
tion of the ethereal spirit, than is given in the ordinary course
of his providence to the sons of men."

Into this sentence, by means of the parenthesis, and other
circumstances thrown in, the author has so involved so many
things, that he is obliged as it were, to begin again, with the
words / say, which, wheuever they occur, may be assumed



STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES. 113

as a sure mark of a clumsy and ill-constructed sentence,
unpardonable in any one who pretends to neatness in style.

The best modern writers avoid all parentheses, as keeping
the mind in suspense, and rendering the composition less clear,
uniform, and agreeable. Long and frequent parentheses are
intolerable, as rendering the discourse dull and languid. The
proper characteristic of a parenthesis is, that it may be taken
in or left out, without injuring either the sense or grammar.
In speaking, the words in a parenthesis are pronounced in a
different tone of voice ; and in writing, they are enclosed
between brackets, or between two commas.

4. Sentences ought never to be extended beyond their
natural close. Every thing that is one, should have a begin-
ning, a middle, and an end. An unfinished or imperfect sen-
tence is no sentence at all. But some sentences are too full,
and when we have arrived at what we supposed would be the
conclusion, unexpectedly some circumstance occurs, which
ought to have been omitted, but which is left dragging behind.
Such additions tend very much to destroy the beauty, and to
diminish the strength of a period.

Examples. Swift, in speaking of the writings of Cicero,
says, " With these writings, young divines are more conversant,
than with those of Demosthenes, who, by many degrees, ex-
celled the other, at least as an orator." The natural close of
the sentence is at the word other: the sense was complete,
and the succeeding clause was quite unnecessary. H^^fC'-^



VOL. I.




CHAP. VI.



ON THE STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES,

Continued.



Strength A necessary quality of a ^ood sentence Obtained by divesting
it of redundant words By tlie moderate use of copulatives, relatives, icc.
By the proper disposition of the capital words By the arrangement
By not concluding with an adverb, or other inconsiderable words and
by making the language correspond to the things described.

Jr ERSPICUITY and unity, though of the most importance
in the construction of sentences, are not the only things neces-
sary ; we must make such a disposition of the words and
members, as will render the impression, which the period is
designed to make, most full and complete, and give every
word, and every member, their due weight and force. In this
consists the strength of a sentence. To attain to this perfec-
tion in writing, the following rules should be attended to.

1. A sentence ought to be divested of all redundant
words, because these are never consistent with strength. All
words that do not add some importance to the meaning of a
sentence, always injure it.

Examples : " Being content with deserving a triumph, he
refused the honour of it." Bolingbroke.

" Never did Atticus succeed better in gaining the universal
love and esteem of all men." The word being, in the first
sentence, may advantageously be omitted ; and in the second,



STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES. 115

one of the words in italics must be left out, because the same
idea is included in universal and all.

" How many are there, by whom these tidings of good news
were never heard?" This is tautology; it would be much
better, " by whom these good tidings were never heard."

" I returned, full of a great many serious reflections." The
words in italics should be omitted. Hence, says Dr. Blair,
" I consider it, therefore, as one of the most useful exercises
of correction, upon reviewing what we have written or com-
posed, to contract that round-about method of expression,
9ad to lop off those useless excrescences which are commonly
found in a first draught. Here a severe eye should be em-
ployed ; and we shall always find our sentences acquire more
vigour and energy when thus retrenched, provided we do not
run into the extreme of pruning so very close as to give a hard-
ness and dryness to style."

As sentences should be free from redundant words, so also
of redundant members. Every member should contain a new
thought ; and should not be a mere echo of the former, or the
repetition of it in a different form. Mr. Addison says, " It is
impossible for us to behold the divine works with coldness or
indifference ; or to survey so many beauties, without a secret
satisfaction and complacency." The second member of the
sentence adds but little to the first.

" Neither is any condition of life more honourable in the
sight of God than another ; otherwise He would be a respecter
of persons, which He assures us He is not." Swift.

The last clause weakens the thought, as it implies, that
without the assurance of God to the contrary, we should con-
clude that he sustained a character different from what was
given by the preacher.

2. In constructing a sentence, particular attention is to be
paid to the use of copulatives, relatives, &c. These little words
are frequently the most important of any ; they are the joints or
hinges on which all sentences turn, and of course much, both
of the gracefulness and strength, must depend upon such par-



116 BELLES LETTRES.

tides. The varieties in using them are, indeed, so numerous,
that no particular rules respecting them can be given. The
best way of attaining to accuracy is, to study writers who excel
in neatness and elegance of style, and to observe, with critical
attention, the effects produced by a different usage of those
particles. The following observations may be of use to young
people.

The splitting of particles, or separating a preposition from
a noun which it governs, is always to be avoided.

Example : " Though virtue borrows no assistance from^
yet it may often be accompanied by, the advantages of for-
tune." Here we are put to a stand in thought, being obliged
to rest a little on the preposition from, by itself, which haa
no significancy, till joined to its proper noun.
~j We should not needlessly multiply demonstrative and rela-
lative particles, by the use of phrases like this : " There is no-
thing which disgusts us sooner than the empty pomp of lan-
guage." This may be proper, when it is introductory to an
important observation ; but, in common cases, it is better to
say, "Nothing disgusts us sooner than tlie empty pomp of
language." It is not only shorter, but more simple.

We should not omit the relative ; as in the following

Examples : " The man I love :" *' The dominions we
possessed :" " The soldiers in the camp were prepared for
the part they were to act."

Though this elliptical style be intelligible, and is allowable
in conversation and epistolary writing, yet it is not to be tole-
rated in grave and dignified compositions : in these, relatives
must be used : *' The man whom I love." " The dominions
which we possessed." " The part which they were to act."

With regard to the copulative particle and, it may be ob-
served, that an unnecessary repetition of it enfeebles the style.
It has a similar effect in writing, as the frequent use of the
phrase and so, in telling a story in common conversation. It
is, however, wortliy of observation, that though the natural
use of the conjunction and be, to join objects together, and



STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES. 117

thereby to make their connexion more close ; yet, in fact, by
dropping the conjunction, we often mark a quicker succession
of objects, than when it is inserted between them, of which an
example is found in the famous expression " Veni, vidi, vici,"
" 1 came, I saw, I conquered." Another example of the
same kind is taken from Xenophon : " Closing their shields,
they were impelled, they fought, they slew, and were slain."
By this means, sentences, artfully divested of conjunctions,
drop smoothly down, and the periods are poured along in such
a manner, that they seem to outstrip the very thought of the
speaker. Voltaire, in the Henriade, has endeavoured to shew
the hurry and confusion of a battle in this same way, by omit-
ting all copulatives,

Fran9ois, Anglois, Lorrains, qae la fureur assemble,
Avan^oient, combattoient, frappoient, monroient ensemble.

The eagerness of Dido, at the idea of Eneas's departure, is
shewn in the precipitate manner in which she commands her
servants to endeavour to stop him :



Ferte citi flammas, date vela, impellite remos.



-Ite



Haste, ban] my gallies ont ; pursue the foe ;
Bring flaming brands, set sail, and quickly row.

Dryden.

There are cases, in which copulatives may be multiplied with
peculiar advantage and grace, as when we are making an enu-
meration, in which we wish that the objects should appear as
distinct from each other as possible, and that the mind should
rest for a moment on each object by itself; thus: Lord JBo-
lingbroke says, " Such a man might fall a victim to power ;
but truth, and reason, and liberty, would fail with him."

An attention to the several cases, when it is proper to omit,
and when to redouble the copulative, is of considerable im-
portance to all who would write well, or become judges of
good composition. It is a remarkable peculiarity in language,



118 BELLES LETTRES.

that the omission of a connecting particle should sometimes
serve to make objectii appear more closely connected ; and
that the repetition of it should distinguish and separate them,
in some measure, from each other. Oa this account, the
omission denotes rapidity ; and the repetition of it is designed
to retard. The reason seems to be, that, in the former case,
the mind is supposed to be hurried so fast through a succes-
sion of objects, that it has not leisure to point out their con-
nexion ; it drops the copulatives in its hurry, and crowds the
whole series together, as it were but one object. Whereas,
when we enumerate, with a view to retard, the mhid is sup-
posed to proceed with a more slow and solemn pace : it marks
the relation of each object to that which succeeds it ; and, by
joining them together with several copulatives, leads one to
imagine that the objects, though connected, are yet in them-
selves distinct ; that they are several, not one. As an illustra-
tion of this reasoning, Dr. Blair gives the enumeration of the
apostle Paul, to shew what additional weight and distinctness
is given to each particular, by the mere repetition of a con-
junction : " I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor
angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor
things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature,
shall be able to separate us from the love of God."

3. Another rule for promoting the strength of a sentence
is, to dispose of the capital word or words, in that place of the
sentence, where they will make the fullest impression; this
place will, however, vary with the nature of the sentence. lo
all cases, perspicuity is principally to be attended to ; but ge-
nerally, perhaps, the important words are placed in the begin-
ning of the sentence, thus : " The pleasures of the imagination,
taken in their full extent, are not so gross as those of the sense,
nor so refined as those of the understanding:" It seems
the most plain and natural order, to place that in the front,
which is the chief object of the proposition to be laid down.
Sometimes effect is given to a sentence, by suspending the
meaning a little. Thus, in Pope's preface to Homer, we



STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES. 119

have the following sentence, which is illustrative of the posi-
tion : " On whatever side we contemplate Homer, what
principally strikes us is, his wonderful invention."

By some English writers, inversion is practised with success;
but, in general, those who have had frequent recourse to it,
have become harsh and obscure. By inversion. Lord Shaftes-
bury's style is characterized for strength, dignity, and varied
harmony ; but Mr. Addison's sentences are constructed in *
quite different manner ; he always proceeds in the most na-
tural and obvious order of language, and if, according to the
observation of Dr. Blair, by this means he has less pomp and
majesty than Lord Shaftesbury, he has more nature, more ease



Online LibraryWilliam ShepherdSystematic education: or Elementary instruction in the various departments of literature and science; with practical rules for studying each branch of useful knowledge (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 44)