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THE PHILOSOPHY OF STYLE.
Westminster Review, 1852.
1. COMMENTING on the seeming incongruity between his father's argumentative powers and his ignorance of formal logic, Tristram Shandy says, “ It was a matter of just wonder with my worthy tutor, and two or three fellows of that learned society, that a man who knew not so much as the names of his tools should be able to work after that fashion with them.” Sterne's intended implication, that a knowledge of the principles of reasoning neither makes nor is essential to a good reasoner, is doubtless true. Thus, too, is it with grammar. As Dr. Latham, condemning the usual school-drill in Lindley Murray, rightly remarks, “ Gross vulgarity is a fault to be prevented; but the proper prevention is to be got from habit, not rules:" similarly there can be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon acquaintance with its laws than upon practice and natural aptitude. A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far towards making all rhetorical precepts needless. He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones. And where there exists any mental idiosyncrasy, — where there is a deficient verbal memory, or but little perception of order, or a lack of constructive ingenuity, — no amount of instruction will remedy the defect. Nevertheless, some practical result may be expected from a familiarity with the principles of style. The endeavor to conform to rules will tell, though slowly; and if in no other way, yet as facilitating revision, a knowledge of the thing to be achieved — a clear idea of what constitutes a beauty and what a blemish — can not fail to be of service.
2. No general theory of expression seems yet to have been enunciated. The maxims contained in works on composition and rhetoric are presented in an unorganized form. Standing as isolated dogmas, as empirical generalizations, they are neither so clearly apprehended nor so much respected as they would be were they deduced from some simple first principle. We are told that “ brevity is the soul of wit.” We hear styles condemned as verbose or involved. Blair says that every needless part of a sentence “interrupts the description, and clogs the image ; ” and again, that “long sentences fatigue the reader's attention.” It is remarked by Lord Kaimes, that, “ to give the utmost force to a period, it ought, if possible, to be closed with the word that makes the greatest figure.” That parentheses should be avoided, and that Saxon words should be used in preference to those of Latin origin, are established precepts. But, however intluential the truths thus dogmatically embodied, they would be much more influential if reduced to something like scientific ordination. In this, as in other cases, conviction will be greatly strengthened when we understand the why. And we may be sure that a perception of the general principle of which the rules of composition are partial expressions will not only bring them home to us with greater force, but will discover to us other rules of like origin.
3. On seeking for some clew to the law underlying these current maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them the importance of economizing the reader's or hearer's attention. To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort is the desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point. When we condemn writing that is wordy or confused or intricate; when we praise this style as easy, and blame that as fatiguing, - we consciously or unconsciously assume this desideratum as our standard of judgment. Regarding language as an apparatus of symbols for the conveyance of thought, we may say, that, as in a mechanical apparatus, the more simple and the better arranged its parts, the greater will be the effect produced. In either case, whatever force is absorbed by the machine is deducted from the result. A reader or listener has at each moment but a limited amount of mental power available. To recognize and interpret the symbols presented to him requires part of this power; to arrange and combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part which remains can be used for the realization of the thought conveyed. Hence the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea, and the less vividly will that idea be conceived.
4. How truly language must be regarded as a hindrance to thought, though the necessary instrument of it, we shall clearly perceive on remembering the comparative force with which simple ideas are communicated by mimetic signs. To say “Leave the room” is less expressive than to point to the door. Placing a finger on the lips is more forcible than whispering, “Do not speak.” A beck of the hand is better than “Come here.” No phrase can convey the idea of surprise so vividly as opening the eyes and raising the eyebrows. A shrug of the shoulders would lose much by translation into words. Again: it may be remarked, that, when oral language is employed, the strongest effects are produced by interjections, which condense entire sentences into syllables. And in other cases, where custom allows
us to express thoughts by single words, as in “ beware,” "heigho," “fudge,” much force would be lost by expanding them into specific verbal propositions. Hence, carrying out the metaphor that language is the vehicle of thought, there seems reason to think, that, in all cases, the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its efficiency; and that, in composition, the chief if not the sole thing to be done is to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest possible amount. Let us, then, inquire whether economy of the recipient's attention is not the secret of effect, alike in the right choice and collocation of words, in the best arrangement of clauses in a sentence, in the proper order of its principal and subordinate propositions, in the judicious use of simile, metaphor, and other figures of speech, and even in the rhythmical sequence of syllables.
CHOICE OF WORDS. 5. The superior forcibleness of Saxon English, or rather nonLatin English, first claims our attention. The several special reasons assignable for this may all be reduced to the general reason, — ECONOMY. The most important of them is early association. A child's vocabulary is almost wholly Saxon. He says, “I have,” not “I possess;" “ I wish," not “I desire:” he does not “reflect," he “thinks; ” he does not beg for “ amusement,” but for “ play;" he calls things “nice” or “nasty,” not "pleasant” or “ disagreeable.” The synonyms which he learns in after-years never become so closely, so organically connected with the ideas signified as do these original words used in childhood; and hence the association remains less powerful. But in what does a powerful association between a word and an idea differ from a weak one ? Simply in the greater ease and rapidity of the suggestive action. It can be in nothing else. Both of two words, if they be strictly synonymous, eventually call up the same image. The expression, “It is acid," must, in the end, give rise to the same thought as “ It is sour ;” but because the term “acid” was learnt later in life, and has not been so often followed by the thought symbolized, it does not so readily arouse that thought as the term “sour.” If we remember how slowly and with what labor the appropriate ideas follow unfamiliar words in another language, and how increasing familiarity with such words brings greater rapidity and ease of comprehension, until, from its having been a conscious effort to realize their meanings, their meanings ultimately come without any effort at all; and if we consider that the same process must have gone on with the words of our mother-tongue from childhood upwards, — we shall clearly see that the earliest learnt and oftenest used words will, other things equal, call up images with less loss of time and energy than their later learnt synonyms.
6. The further superiority possessed by Saxon English in its comparative brevity obviously comes under the same generalization. If it be an advantage to express an idea in the smallest number of words, then will it be an advantage to express it in the smallest number of syllables. If circuitous phrases and needless expletives distract the attention, and diminish the strength of the impression produced, then do surplus articulations do so. A certain effort, though commonly an inappreciable one, must be required to recognize every vowel and consonant. If, as we so commonly find, the mind soon becomes fatigued when we listen to an indistinct or far-removed speaker, or when we read a badly-written manuscript; and if, as we can not doubt, the fatiglie is a cumulative result of the attention required to catch successive syllables, - it obviously follows that attention is in such cases absorbed by each syllable. And, if this be true when the syllables are difficult of recognition, it will also be true, though in a less degree, when the recognition of them is easy. Hence the shortness of Saxon words becomes a reason for their greater force, as involving a saving of the articulations to be received.
7. Again: that frequent cause of strength in Saxon and other primitive words — their imitative character — may be similarly resolved into the more general cause. Both those directly imitative, as splash, bang, whiz, roar, &c., and those analogically imitative, as rough, smooth, keen, blunt, thin, hard, crag, &c., by presenting to the perceptions symbols having direct resemblance to the things to be imagined, or some kinship to them, save part of the effort needed to call up the intended ideas, and leave more attention for the ideas themselves.
8. The economy of the recipient's mental energy into which we thus find the several causes of the strength of Saxon English resolvable may equally be traced in the superiority of specific over generic words. That concrete terms produce more vivid impressions than abstract ones, and should, when possible, be used instead, is a current maxim of composition. As Dr. Campbell says, “ The more general the terms are, the picture is the fainter: the more special they are, the brighter.”
We should avoid such a sentence as, —
“In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of their penal code will be severe.”
And in place of it we should write, —
“In proportion as men delight in battles, tourneys, bull-fights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, beheading, burning, and the rack.”
This superiority of specific expressions is clearly due to a saving of the effort required to translate words into thoughts. As we do not think in generals, but in particulars; as, whenever any class of things is referred to, we represent it to ourselves by calling to mind individual members of it, — it follows, that, when an abstract word is used, the hearer or reader has to choose, from among his stock of images, one or more by which he may figure to himself the genus mentioned. In doing this, some delay must arise, some force be expended; and if, by employing a specific term, an appropriate image can be at once suggested, an economy is achieved, and a more vivid impression produced.
COLLOCATION OF WORDS. 9. Turning now from the choice of words to their sequence, we shall find the same general principle hold good. We have, à priori, reason for believing that there is usually some one order of words in a sentence more effective than every other, and that this order is the one which presents the elements of the proposition in the succession in which they may be most readily put together. As, in a narrative, the events should be stated in such sequence that the mind may not have to go backwards and forwards in order to rightly connect them; as, in a group of sentences, the arrangement adopted should be such that each of them may be understood as it comes, without waiting for subsequent ones: so, in every sentence, the sequence of words should be that which suggests the component parts of the thought conveyed, in the order most convenient for the building up that thought. To duly enforce this truth, and to prepare the way for applications of it, we must briefly inquire into the mental process by which the meaning of a series of words is apprehended.
10. We can not more simply do this than by considering the proper collocation of the substantive and adjective. Is it better to place the adjective before the substantive, or the substantive before the adjective ? Ought we to say, with the French, “ Un cheval noir" ? or to say, as we do, “ A black horse" ? Probably most persons of culture would decide that one order is as good as the other. Alive to the bias produced by habit, they would ascribe to that the preference they feel for our own form of expression. They would suspect those educated in the use of the opposite form of having an equal preference for that. And thus they would conclude that neither of these instinctive judgments is of any worth. There is, however, a philosophical ground for deciding in favor of the English custom. If “a horse black” be the arrangement used, immediately on the utterance of the word “horse," there arises, or tends to arise, in the mind, a picture answering to that