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accordingly. And here we may see, as distinctly as anywhere, the two functions that every word, every name of an idea, must perform : in the first place, it names something in such a way as to identify it; in the second, it suggests along with it a very subtile and variable set of associated ideas and emotions.
These two functions, hardly ever quite distinct in style, must both be kept in mind by whoever would use words — and, as we shall see later, by whoever would compose words — with any approach to certainty. It is worth while, then, to name them now distinctly. The names I give them are, I believe, sanctioned by no small amount of usage; but even were there no usage behind them at all, I should feel at liberty, with such definition as I hope I have given them, to use them in this book.
A word may be said, then, to denote the idea it identifies; Jefferson Davis denotes the slim gentleman with a slight chinbeard. A word may be said to connote the thoughts and emotions that it arouses in the hearer or reader, in whose mind these thoughts and emotions habitually cluster about the precise idea it denotes: in the North, for example, the name Jefferson Davis connotes the idea of treason; in the South, the idea of patriotism. What we have seen true of this proper name I shall ask you to believe true, in greater or less degree, of every word we use.
Now, the effect which we may wish at any moment to produce is a matter not of denotation alone, nor of connotation, but of both together. Nor is it a matter
of what a given word may denote or may connote to us alone; it is a matter of what that fine perception of fact which marks the distinction between what we call sanity and what we call folly, leads us to believe that the word will at once denote and connote in the minds of those whom we address. And this is the consideration that must govern us in our choice of words, Latin or Saxon, big or little, general or specific, figurative or literal; and in our choice of number of words, many or few. A very fine question this proves to be, — depressing, perhaps, at first sight, for it is clear that ideal perfection is as unattainable in the use of words as in other phases of our conduct of life. But what is unattainable is not for that unapproachable; and I believe that there are few things in this world more constantly, more increasingly stimulating than unceasing, earnest effort to approach more and more nearly an ideal which is all the more worth striving for when we are sure that it will never repay us with the fatal satiety of full possession.
A SENTENCE I may define as a series of words so composed as to make complete sense. In its simplest form it consists of a subject — the thing concerning which a completely sensible assertion is made —and a predicate, the assertion made. There may or may not be objects and modifiers. I study, is a sentence; so is, I study Rhetoric, so is, I study Rhetoric with pleasure in spite of its apparent dulness; and
But a true sentence may always, I think, be analyzed into subject, or sometimes subjects, and predicate, or sometimes predicates, with occasional modifiers, — objects, adjectives, adverbs, what not. For various purposes, it may take various forms, positive, negative, interrogative, exclamatory, — but so long as it remains a composition of words, and of nothing but words, which makes complete sense, it is a sentence.
I need hardly remind you that sentences are as old as language itself. Until a child is able to put words together we do not, unless blinded by affection, pretend that the child can really talk. The moment he can put words together, the moment he begins to ex.
press ideas, not independently, but with a growing sense of their mutual relations, he begins to make sentences. In the composition of sentences, then, we are controlled by a system of good use as old as the language we employ ; and this system of good use which tells us how we may compose words in sentences is what has been codified so often under the depressing name of “grammar.” In some languages, certainly as they were taught in my day, grammar is appalling. The Latin grammars that we used to learn by heart in the good old times were dreadful things,—not only because we were generally made to learn them by heart before we had any real knowledge of what the phrases they codified meant, but because the number and variety of the forms assumed by almost every word in the Latin language is in itself bewildering. In English, on the other hand, we are grammatically so fortunate that people fond of epigram have said with a shade of truth that English has no grammar at all. This means that English has fewer inflections than almost any other language. What is more, its other grammatical forms are surprisingly simple : gender, for example, instead of being arbitrary, corresponds with physical fact; double negatives are really equivalent to affirmatives. The forms assumed by English words, in short, are so few and so simple that anybody who knows the language at all knows them at sight, what singulars are, for example, and plurals, and possessives, and past tenses. Now when a composition involves incongruity — a violation of common-sense
almost anybody can see it. We was there, for example, does not make sense ; the word we means that there were more than one of us, the word was confines the number present to one. So “ that girl is putting on its gloves” does not make sense; all girls are femi. nine, at least in English grammar, and the function of the neuter in English is to strike out all notion of sex. What is true in these very simple cases seems to me true in all. In English, good use in composition is a question chiefly of good sense; I have yet to find a sentence that makes good sense - and anybody who knows what words mean can tell, with a little thought, whether a sentence makes good sense or not - that is not good English.
In considering, then, what forms of composition are sanctioned by English grammar, - by the good use
that must govern us in composing words, - I have found the most convenient plan to be this : putting aside formal grammar, I ask myself of a given construction whether it makes good sense ; if so, I find it good English. The only serious question that arises concerns constructions that in analysis do not make good sense.
Most of them are what we call Solecisms, - a convenient single word for grammatical blunders; but some fall under another head. Like every other language, English possesses very irregular forms or phrases which good use has abundantly sanctioned. These, which give a very subtilely effective turn to style, we call Idioms. Before asserting that a construction which does not make good sense is a