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“ Don Quixote” through, a few years ago, these two in. cidents were the chief ones concerning him which general reading and talking had fixed in my mind. Now, the fact that, for better or worse, human readers notice the beginning and the end of compositions a good deal more readily than the parts that come between is the fact on which the principle of Mass is based. A writer who is careful so to mass his compositions as to put in places that catch the eye words which stand for ideas that he wants us to keep in mind, will find his work surprisingly more effective than that of a perhaps cleverer man who puts down his words in the order in which they occur to him.
The principle of Unity, we have seen, concerns itself chiefly with the immaterial ideas for which the material written words stand ; the principle of Mass chiefly with the written words themselves; the third principle of composition — the principle of Coherence
concerns itself, I think, about equally with both. I phrased it, you will remember, in the words that the relation of every part of a composition to its neighbors should be unmistakable. In a given composition, for example, no word should appear without apparent reason for being there,- in other words, no incongruous idea should destroy the impression of unity. Again, to put the matter differently, no written word should be so placed that we cannot see at a glance how its presence affects the words about it. Sometimes coherence is a question of the actual order of words; sometimes, as in
the clause I am at this moment writing, of constructions ; sometimes, as in the clause I write now, it demands a pretty careful use of those convenient parts of speech to which we give the name connectives.” In that last clause, for example, the pronoun it, referring to the word coherence, which was the subject of the first clause in the sentence, made possible the change of construction from “it is a question of " this or that to “it demands” this or that. But perhaps the most important thing to remember about this last principle of composition is its name. Coherence is a much more felicitous name than Unity or Mass. To “cohere” means to “ stick together.” A style
” that sticks together is coherent; a style whose parts hang loose is not.
We find, then, an answer to the first question we proposed a little while ago: if there were no such troublesome thing as good use to interfere with the free exercise of our ingenuity, we might clearly put together our compositions in contented obedience to the principles of Unity, Mass, and Coherence. It remains for us to inquire how far the action of these principles is hampered in practice by good use.
Perhaps the simplest way of answering this inquiry is to study an example of style frequently cited in the textbooks. Among the various facts which have conspired to give unfavorable fame to the Emperor Nero is the general belief that he killed his mother. In English we state this belief in these words: Nero killed Agrippina. If asked to parse this sentence, we say that Nero is in the nominative case because it is the subject of the verb killed ; and that Agrippina is in the objective case - or the accusative — because it is the object of the verb. But if Agrippina had been the slayer and Nero the slain, Agrippina nominative and Nero objective, the word Agrippina would still remain Agrippina; the word Nero still Nero. In English the only way to change the meaning would be to change the order of words, and to say, “ Agrippina killed Nero.” In Latin, on the other hand, the accusative case is different in form from the nominative; the original sentence would be, “ Nero interfecit Agrippinam.” That convenient final m does Agrippina’s business; the three words may be arranged in any order we please. But if we wished to say that Agrippina killed Nero, we should have to alter the form of both names, and say “ Neronem interfecit Agrippina.” In this single example we can see as plainly as we need, I think, the chief way in which good use interferes with the free operation of the principles of composition. The English language has fewer inflections than almost any other known to the civilized world ; that is, each word has fewer distinct forms to indicate its relations to the words about it. All nouns have possessives and plurals; all verbs have slightly different forms for the present and the past tense ; but this is about all. In English, then, the relation of word to word is expressed not by the forms of the words, but generally by their order; and any wide departure from the normal order of a sentence - in brief, subject, verb, object-is apt to alter or to destroy the meaning. “Nero interfecit Agrippinam,” “ Agrippinam interfecit Nero,” “ Nero Agrippinam interfecit,” all mean exactly the same thing; the difference in mass alters the emphasis, that is all. “ Nero killed Agrippina," on the other hand, means one thing; “Agrippina killed Nero," means another; and what “Nero Agrippina killed” may mean, nobody without a knowledge of the facts can possibly decide.
What is true of this simplest of sentences is true in a general way of any sentence in the English language. Good use has settled that the meaning of one great class of compositions in English - namely, of sentences — shall be indicated in general, not by the forms of the words which compose them, but by the order. Except within firmly defined limits, we cannot alter the order of words in English without violating good use; and in no language can we violate good use without grave and often fatal injury to our meaning. “Nero Agrippina killed,” to revert to our example, is as completely ambiguous as any three words can be. While, on the one hand, then, we who use uninflected English are free from the disturbing array of grammatical rules and exceptions which so bothers us in Latin or in German, we are far less free than Romans or Germans to apply the principles of composition to the composing of sentences. The principle of Unity, to be sure, we may generally observe pretty carefully ; but the principle of Mass is
immensely interfered with by the fact that it is the order of words in a sentence that in general gives the sentence meaning; and.so to a less degree is the principle of Coherence.
When we turn to the larger kinds of composition, however, we find the case different. As a matter of
a fact, the sentence is the only kind of composition that inevitably appears in spoken discourse. Until words are joined together, composed in sentences, there is, of course, no such thing as intelligible communication. The moment they are so joined, the organism of spoken language is complete. Paragraphs, on the other hand, do not appear in spoken discourse at all. And though, of course, in serious compositions the organic structure of the whole ought to be almost as palpable to hearers as to readers, the fact remains that in by far the greater part of oral discourse the conversation, the chat, the bustle of daily life there are no wholes at all. In other words, then, while oral usage — actual speech — is what the sentence is based on, the paragraph and the whole composition are based on written usage, which is commonly a great deal more thoughtful.
What is more, while the sentence is as old as language itself, the whole composition is hardly older than literature, and the modern paragraph is considerably younger than the art of printing. It follows, then, and a very slight study of the facts will prove the conclusion, that while in sentences good use very seriously interferes with the operation of the prin