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Force is the distinguishing quality of a style that holds the attention. It
DURING the past ten years I have been chiefly occupied in teaching, to undergraduates of Harvard College, the principles of English Composition. In the course of that time I have been asked a great many questions concerning the art, mostly by friends who found themselves writing for publication. Widely different as these inquiries have naturally been, they have possessed in common one trait sufficiently marked to place them, in my memory, in a single group: almost without exception, they have concerned themselves with matters of detail. Is this word or that admissible? Why, in a piece of writing I once published, did I permit myself to use the apparently commercial phrase "at any rate”? Are not words of Saxon origin invariably preferable to all others ? Should sentences be long or short? These random memories are sufficient examples of many hundreds of inquiries.
They have in common, as I have just said, the trait of concerning themselves almost wholly with matters of detail. They have too another trait: generally, if not invariably, they involve a tacit assumption that any given case must be either right or wrong.
These two traits — the one indicative of rather surprising ignorance of the nature of the matter in hand, the other of a profound error — are what has prompted me to prepare this book. Year by year I have seen more and more clearly that although the work of a teacher or a technical critic of style concerns itself largely with the correction of erratic detail, the really important thing for one who would grasp the subject to master is not a matter of detail at all, but a very simple body of general principles under which details readily group themselves. I have seen too that although a small part of the corrections and criticisms I have had to make are concerned with matters of positive error, by far the greater, and incalculably the more important part are concerned with what I may call matters of discretion. The question is not whether a given word or sentence is eternally right or wrong ; but rather how accurately it expresses what the writer has to say, - whether the language we use may not afford a different and perhaps a better means of phrasing his idea.
The truth is that in rhetoric, as distinguished from grammar, by far the greater part of the questions that arise concern not right or wrong, but better or worse; and that the way to know what is better or worse in any given case is not to load your memory with bewilderingly innumerable rules, but firmly to grasp a very few simple, elastic general principles. Consciously or not, these principles, I believe, are observed by thoroughly effective writers. Of course, nothing but long and patient practice can make any. body certain of writing, or of practising any art, well. Of course too if the principles I state be, as I believe them, fundamental, whoever practises much cannot help in some degree observing them; but the experience of ten years' teaching leads me more and more to the belief that a knowledge of the principles is a very great help in practice.
I may best begin, I think, by stating these principles as briefly and as generally as I can. Then I shall try to show how they apply to the more important specific cases that present themselves to writers. Each case, I think, presents them in a somewhat new light.
I Certainly, without considering them in various aspects we can hardly appreciate their full scope. First of all, it will be convenient to fix a term which shall express the whole subject under consideration. I know of none more precise than Style. A good deal of usage, to be sure, and rather good usage too, gives color to the general impression that style means good style, just as criticism is often taken to mean unfavorable criticism, or manners to mean civil behavior. Very excellent authorities sometimes declare that a given writer has style, and another none; only a little while ago, I heard a decidedly careful talker congratulate himself on having at last discovered, in this closing decade of the nineteenth century, a correspondent who, in spite of our thickening environment of newspapers and telegrams, wrote letters that possessed style. I dwell on this common meaning of the word