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blunder, we must make sure that it is not an Idiom. If a given construction does not make good sense, and is not an Idiom, it is a Solecism; and a Solecism is a violation of good use. That seems to me the whole story.
One or two very simple examples will illustrate this matter as well as more elaborate ones. Take a phrase that any of us who are much in the country often hear: “ Was you there?” Now, was is singular, and you is plural; obviously there is an incongruity here not consistent with good sense.
But English usage has agreed with that of most other languages in discarding the second person singular. The plural form you is the one which the accumulated courtesies of several centuries compel us to use in addressing even sweethearts and servants. Does English usage, then, sanction the incongruity you was ? At present it certainly does not. Yet a slight examination of some of the best writers of the last century will show that certainly as late as the time of Fielding, there was a great deal of good authority for you was, when the second person singular was intended ; that you were was reserved for a distinct plural. You was, then, may be said once to have been idiomatic; present use makes it a Solecism. Take another phrase, which few of us fail to utter every week : it is me. Now, clearly the word after the verb is should be grammatically in agreement with the subject of the verb. Clearly, too, the subject of the verb is nominative ; and apparently the form me, one of the very few inflections
which remain in English, is not nominative, but objective. No question could occur with a noun: it is John, it is the man, for example, would be unchanged in form if English usage should choose to demand an objective instead of a nominative case after the verb. Clearly, too, it is him is wrong; and it is her. But how about it is me and it is I? Everybody knows that the latter form is logically the true one; most of us have been reproved over and over again for our depraved persistency in the use of the former. But, as a matter of fact, has not good use gone a long way to make it is me idiomatic, and it is I a bit pedantic? I do not feel at all sure that we can answer No.
On the other hand, the English usage which generally seems most arbitrary, seems to me really reducible to a matter of the simplest common-sense. I refer to the use of shall and will. Shall is the normal form of the future : its literal meaning is absolutely prophetic; I shall come, for example, settles the question of my coming. Will, on the other hand, implies distinct volition. I will come, means, clearly enough, that I should like to come very much. In the first person, in predicting our own conduct, we use the auxiliaries with their literal meaning. In the second person and the third, we find the case apparently changed: we say not you shall come, but you will come; not it shall rain, but it will rain. Why? Simply and solely, I believe, because as a matter of good sense, or at least of good manners, we cannot rationally or decently assume such control of persons or things other than ourselves as to risk a distinct prophecy about them. To say you shall come would be to assume complete control of your conduct; to say it shall rain, to assume complete control of the weather. As a matter of courtesy, then, we use will when we utter predictions about persons other than ourselves, implying their consent to the line of conduct we assert them about to follow; and pure idiom, personifying such impersonal things as the weather, makes will the word by which, in such questions as that about rain, we rid ourselves of the assumption of impossible authority or responsibility. In a word, I have found this rule invariable: Shall is the normal form of the future tense. Unless good sense or good manners forbid, it should be used; but when good sense or good manners forbid us to assume control of the subject of the verb, we should use will.
To put the whole matter in a slightly different way, a Solecism - a construction not sanctioned by English usage — is reducible to a mode of Impropriety : it really amounts to using an English word, or English words, in a sense not sanctioned by English usage. It differs from a simple Impropriety only in the fact that the misuse is not obvious until we consider the word misused, not alone, but in its relation to the context; and under the head of Solecism must fall all violations of good use in compositions.
This is certainly true at least of style in its broader sense, which includes spoken discourse as well as
written. In written discourse, however, there is one peculiar feature of rather late growth, which deserves independent consideration. This feature, wholly absent from spoken discourse, addressed solely to the eye, and very bewildering to most people, is punctuation. Certain marks of punctuation — interrogation
marks, exclamation-points, signs of quotation — are easy enough to manage. Periods rarely give much trouble to anybody who stops to think. But commas, and above all semi-colons and colons, are dreadfully puzzling; and I have never yet come across a book on the subject which did not leave me more puzzled than it found me. I have tried to discover some general principle beneath the practice — the manifold forms of good use – now in vogue. I do not feel completely satisfied with the form which the principle I find there takes in my mind; but at all events, it has proved suggestive. In spoken discourse, vocal emphasis and pauses indicate where we wish the hearers' attention to centre. In written discourse, addressed solely to the eye, such emphasis is impossible. Some substitute is necessary; otherwise no one word, no one part of a composition, appears any more significant than another. The crude substitutes — italics, capitals, and the like — prove in practice too crude. Good use, then, has fallen back on punctuation, whose function, very generally stated, is to do for the eye what emphasis does for the ear, — to group separately those words and thoughts which for the purpose in hand should be separately grouped ; and so far as the good use which governs the order of words will permit, to arrest the eye for an instant on those words on which it is desirable to arrest the attention.
Putting aside interrogations and exclamations, the period is the strongest mark of punctuation ; it marks the limits of sentences. The next strongest mark is the colon; weaker, but still stronger than the comma, is the semicolon; weakest and most frequent of all is the comma. In a given place, as we shall see later, we may often with perfect propriety use any of these four marks; the question in such cases, the question in general, is what we wish to group together, what to emphasize, and how strong to make our emphasis.
Now, usage clearly does not permit us to put marks of punctuation wherever we please. In putting into practice this very general principle that punctuation does for the eye what vocal stress does for the ear, we must constantly keep in mind a rational sense of how far we may go. But within the limits of good use, I have found this principle, I have said, extremely suggestive. So much for good use in the composition of sentences. Our next business is to inquire whether within the limits of good use there are any specific kinds of sentences which deserve special attention, any types of sentence which on general principles we should prefer to others.
In discussing a similar question about words, you will remember, I began by mentioning certain com.