Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

IV.

PARAGRAPHS.

a

In discussing both words and sentences, I have reminded you more than once that both of these elements of style are inevitable in all discourse, written or spoken. To exist at all, a language must have not only words, but settled forms in which those words compose intelligible sentences. The good use which ultimately governs both words and sentences is a fact which has arisen from the generally spontaneous consent, first of talkers, and then of writers. In its broader form it is a fact to which in every word he speaks, in every thought he articulately formulates, every man of us must constantly conform. In writing words and sentences, then, we simply put on paper things that we are incessantly making. We record our habits of thought. Now, there is no fact in human experi. ence much more settled than this : to do anything thoroughly well we must not stop in the act to consider how we are doing it. Action of any kind may be carefully planned ; things once done may be rigorously scrutinized and criticised. But the time to plan is before work begins; the time to criticise is after work is done. To pause in the course of work, wondering whether we are on the right course, is almost certainly to blunder. This is nowhere truer than in composition. The task of the writer, as I can hardly repeat too often, is a very wonderful one. It is nothing less than an act of creative imagination, than the giving of a visible material body to an eternally immaterial reality, which until embodied must remain unknown to all but the one human being who knows it. In the act of creation there is but one possible course : it is to concentrate attention as closely as we possibly can on the reality which we would make real to others than ourselves. Only thus, I believe, can the words we create possess even a shadow of the vitality which makes the thought they symbolize a thing so inexpressibly real.

And yet, if the work of the writer ended here, there were no use in all this pother about the elements of style.

It is true, I believe, that our best work of any kind is done in those moments of splendid adjustment when the forces without ourselves for a little while relax their crushing hostility ; but such moments of inspiration are not common. The most we can generally do is to mimic them as best we may, seeking in ourselves the motive force that is denied us from without; and even though our mimicry sometimes come so near the truth that for the while we forget ourselves, we can never be sure that the work we have done is the work that we meant to do. We must plan it, then, as carefully as we can; and once done, we must scrutinize it with all our care. In this planning and this scrutiny we need principles to guide us; these principles are what I am trying to set and to keep before you.

To put these high-sounding generalities in concrete terms, the experience of pretty much every writer is something like this: An idea presents itself to him in a general form ; he is impressed with some fact in experience, perhaps, which nothing but the most exquisite verse can adequately formulate; or perhaps he receives an invitation to dinner which he wants to accept. His first task — and often his longest - is

— to plan his work : he decides how to begin, what course to follow, where to end. His next task is to fill out his plan; in other words, to compose, in accordance with the general outline in his mind, a series of words and sentences which shall so symbolize this outline that other minds than his can perceive it. His final task is to revise the work he has executed, and to see whether he has succeeded in producing the effects — denotative and connotative — which he had in view.

It is in this revision that the principles we have hitherto discussed become valuable. In actual writing, just as in actual thinking and talking, no sane man stops to consider words or syntax. But in revision of writing few men are fortunate enough to find themselves so completely made in the divine image as unhesitatingly to pronounce their work good. If it is not good, it fails of excellence because in one way or another the writer has neglected the principles of his art. And nothing can so surely help him to remedy the trouble as a deliberate knowledge of just what those principles are.

Now, as I have said already, the principles which govern the composition of sentences are the same which govern the composition of paragraphs and chapters and books; but in composing the larger elements of style, we use these principles in a distinctly different way. Except in rare cases, we do not deliberately plan our sentences; we write them, and then revise them. Except in rare cases we do deliberately plan our paragraphs, our chapters, our books ; and if we plan them properly, we do not need to revise them much, if at all. Words and sentences are subjects of revision; paragraphs and whole compositions are subjects of prevision.

That this distinction is not fanciful must be shown, I believe, by the experience of any teacher of composition. Dogmatize, lecture as he will about how things ought to be done, he finds his task, when he comes to criticise the work of his pupils, resolving itself into a form unpleasantly free from exhilaration. The greater part of his work consists in pointing out how in the choice of words and the composition of sentences his pupils have failed to produce the effects they had in mind. In other words, so far as teaching concerns words and sentences, it must confine itself chiefly to the correction of rooted and vicious habits, constantly strengthened by the inevitable carelessness of daily speech. But when we come to paragraphs

and whole compositions, the experience of the teacher undergoes a refreshing change. In every-day life pupils do not make paragraphıs or wholes at all. There are no vicious habits, then, for teachers to unmake. A single lecture on principles will prove more fruitful than a course of instruction in the earlier stages of the art; and what is more, if the teacher keep in his own mind and his pupils' the truth that the principles which so plainly bring paragraphs and order out of chaos are the very same which, applied habitually and under different conditions, make the difference between good sentences and bad, a very long step will have been taken on the road somewhere.

Firmly remembering, then, that what we have considered hitherto is of use to us chiefly in revision, and that what we are to consider now is of use chiefly in prevision, let us turn our attention to paragraphs.

First of all, we may best ask ourselves what a paragraph is. We all know paragraphs by sight. They are those large masses of written or printed words that appear on almost any properly composed page, distinguishing themselves from the context by a marked indentation of the first line. But obviously this is not a definition. And no fact is more indicative of the general neglect of the subject of paragraphs than that no textbook of rhetoric I have come across contains any satisfactory definition of them. A paragraph, says one, is a collection, or series, of sentences, with unity of purpose.” A paragraph, says another,

66

a

« ZurückWeiter »