« ZurückWeiter »
ciples of composition, it interferes very little with their operation in paragraphs and in compositions of a larger kind. In other words, we are free to
, arrange sentences in paragraphs, and paragraphs in chapters, and chapters in books, pretty much as we think fit.
We are now, I think, in a position to sum up in a very few words the theory of style which I shall try to present to you. Style, you will remember, I defined as the expression of thought and feeling in written words. Modern style
Modern style — the style
we read and write to-day - I believe to be the result of a constant though generally unconscious struggle between good use and the principles of composition. In words, of course good use is absolute; in sentences, though it relaxes its authority, it remains very powerful ; in paragraphs its authority becomes very feeble; in whole compositions, it may roughly be said to coincide with the principles.
In the chapters that follow, I purpose first to examine as carefully as may be the outward and visible body of style. It is made up of what I may call four elements, — the prime element Words, composed in Sentences, composed in Paragraphs, composed in Whole Compositions. Each of these elements I shall examine in detail, inquiring first how far it is affected by the paramount authority of good use, and then how within the limits of good use it may be made, by means of the principles of composition or otherwise, to assume various forms and to perform
various offices. Then, when we have studied the visible body of style, its material elements, as carefully as we can, I shall turn to the three qualities, Clearness, Force, and Elegance, and try to determine what it is in the elements by which each of them may be secured or lost.
A dull business this seems to many, yet after ten years' study I do not find it dull at all. I find it, rather, constantly more stimulating; and this because I grow more and more aware how in its essence this matter of composition is as far from a dull and lifeless business as earthly matters can be; how he who scribbles a dozen words, just as truly as he who writes an epic, performs — all unknowing - one of those feats that tell us why men have believed that God made man in His image. For he who scrawls ribaldry, just as truly as he who writes for all time, does that most wonderful of things,— gives a material body to some reality which till that moment was immaterial, executes, all unconscious of the power for which divine is none too grand a word, a lasting act of creative imagination.
WORDS, considered by themselves, are nothing more or less than names, - the names we give people just as much as the names we give ideas. John is clearly at once a word and a name; so is the compound word John Jones; so is the word spade, which proverbial wisdom declares to be so often used with reluctance; so perhaps less obviously is the compound, — not necessarily preferable, – the iron utensil frequently employed for purposes of excavation. The office of the words or groups of words which we shall consider in this chapter is precisely the office of proper names, - to identify separate ideas. John Jones, American citizen, tax-payer; kill, put to death, execute; adınirable, not to be endured, all these are names of ideas. So is every word I utter in this, or in any other sentence. The main thing to keep in mind is that here we are to consider words by themselves, and not in composition; as names of separate ideas, and not as groups which indicate the mutual relations of separate ideas.
It is hardly worth while to repeat that the only thing which makes a given word signify a given idea
is that good use — use which is reputable, national, and present, - has consented that it shall do so. It is more than worth while, however, it is absolutely necessary, to keep this fact in mind. For since, generally speaking, there is no other relation between the sound we utter and the idea we wish to convey than that a great many other people have previously used the same sound for the same purpose, it follows that if for any reason we depart from the general practice of the people we address, we run into danger, if not into the certainty of exerting ourselves to no purpose whatever. I remember having once waked up in a Spanish railway-carriage to find myself alone on a side track near the foot of the Sierra Morena, over which the rest of the train had proceeded an hour or two before. I am unfortunate enough to know nothing whatever of the Spanish language. The twelve hours of misadventure which followed my waking were immensely complicated by the fact that I had no idea of what notions the kindly disposed inhabitants of Estremadura attached to the vocal sounds they amiably uttered; nor had they any of the usage prevalent in the more civilized parts of North America. And a very curious fact was that the interpreter on whom we ultimately fell back was a native of the place who had the misfortune to be deaf and dumb. The language of sign has no nationality.
Of course a dangerous practice is not necessarily fatal. You may go into action without getting shot; you may ride a bucking horse without breaking your neck; you may write or utter a word sanctioned by no respectable usage whatever without being incomprehensible, - vamose, for example, absquatulate, enthuse, walkist. But to go no farther than a play that all of us have read, what does Hamlet mean by two phrases to be found in every text ? When Ophelia asks him what his play means, he answers, “ This is miching mallecho; it means mischief ; and when, somewhat earlier, his friends are trying to prevent his following the ghost, he says, “ By Heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me.” Now, I am informed that in certain parts of New England the word meaching is still in use, to express some sly line of conduct or other observable in dogs. I never heard it; I do not know exactly what line of conduct it describes. What mallecho may mean, except that it looks Spanish, and that the Latin root mal means bad, and has given rise to a great many names for bad things in modern languages, I have no idea at all. English it certainly is not, any more than miching mallecho is comprehensible without considerable commentary, much of which is concerned with the question of whether the whole trouble may not be a printer's error. To turn to the second phrase, we all use the word let; roughly speaking, it means to allow, to permit: you let a child sit up past bedtime. But what sense is there in Hamlet's threatening to make a ghost of whoever lets him follow the ghost — which is exactly what he is trying to do? As a matter of fact, the good use of Shakspere's time attached to the word let the