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good writers; 2. The different modes of writing which characterize different individuals; 3. The kinds of style suited to some of the more common classes of writing. And I shall add some general directions for improvement in style.
On the qualities of a good style.
CORRECTNESS, as a quality of style, implies the use of words that are purely English in their true and proper sense, and the construction of phrases and sentences according to the rules of Grammar. Thus it is opposed to the Barbarism, or use of foreign words; the Impropriety, or use of words in a wrong sense; and the Solecism, or grammatical blunder. Enough has been said, in the section on Verbal Criticism, to guard the writer against the two former of these. It is the peculiar object of Syntax to prevent the latter, and it does not therefore come within the limits of Rhetoric.
Attention to this quality of style, should be urged upon all those who would become good writers. It is equally necessary in all kinds of writing; and though it is not regarded in the highest estimation, yet the absence of it is ever thought disgraceful. Incorrectness in the use of words, and in the construction of sentences, like inaccuracies of pronunciation, is considered as evidence of careless intellectual habits, and of an unfinished education. There is also something of the nature of incivility, when a writer asks for our attention, and then addresses us in language which we cannot understand. Hence it is, that the faults which are opposed to correctness are pardoned with least willingness, and furnish occasions to critics for raillery at the expense of the writers.
The different feelings with which we regard an instance of incorrectness in conversation and in writing,
are worthy of attention. If, in the ardour of conversation, a word is improperly used, or a sentence wrongly constructed, we are ready to ascribe the incorrectness to the impetuosity and hurry of the thoughts, or to the rapidity of the expression, and we overlook it. Not so in writing. Here is time for reflection, for the due arrangement of the thoughts, and the right modelling of the expression, and though one or two instances of incorrectness may be forgiven, yet, if they frequently occur, their effect on our opinion of the writer is unfavourable.
It is unnecessary to repeat here what was said, at the close of the section on Verbal Criticism, on the importance of familiarity with authors of reputation, in order to attain propriety in the use of words; but it is not amiss to urge the necessity of a critical knowledge of the rules and principles of syntax.
These rules, like those which give directions for the choice of words, derive their authority from good usage; and the principles which they enjoin, may be learned from the study of good models in writing; still they are valuable, as they direct the attention to those cases where there is most danger of error, and give us the results to which those have been led who have carefully studied the subject. An intimate knowledge of the principles and rules of syntax, is therefore essential towards forming a good style.
PERSPICUITY is the next quality to be considered. It implies that the expressions used, are such as to convey distinctly, the true meaning of the writer. Thus defined, it is opposed to ambiguity and obscurities of every kind, from whatever source they may arise.
In every system of Rhetoric, Perspicuity is dwelt upon as an essential quality of a good style. The argument by which this is enforced, is simple and unanswerable. We write to communicate our thoughts to others; and if we do not make ourselves understood, we fail of our
object in writing. Neither is it enough, that by study a meaning may be made out of the expressions that we use. The meaning of a passage should be so obvious, as not only to prevent mistake, but to become evident at the first glance-so evident that we cannot help discerning it. On this point Quinctilian has happily said, "Oratio in animum audientis, sicut sol in oculos, etiamsi in eum non intendantur, occurrat."* Perspicuity is a word of similar import to transparency, which is applied to air, to glass, and to water, or to any substance, through which, as a medium, we are accustomed to look at objects. Now, it is well known, that if there be any defect in the medium through which we look, so that we do but imperfectly discern the object of our survey, we are liable to be deceived in our estimation of it; our attention is taken off from the object itself, and we are led to notice the want of perfect transparency-to account for it, and to judge of its effect on our view of the object before us. But on the other hand, if the medium be perfectly transparent, our undivided attention is directed to the object itself; and while we see it distinctly and judge of it correctly, we think not of the medium through which it is viewed. This illustration admits of close application to style.
But the question may be asked; Do not instances sometimes occur, in which a degree of obscurity is desirable? Are there not some delicate turns or bold forms of expression, which lose nothing of their pertinency from the degree of obscurity which characterizes them? and may not a regard for delicacy, or even decency, sometimes prevent the distinct enunciation of a thought? To these inquiries, it must be answered in the affirmative. Still such instances are but of rare occur
"The meaning of a discourse should strike the mind, as the light of the sun does the eyes, though they are not intently fixed upon it."
rence, and upon examination of them, it will be generally seen, that the thought intended to be conveyed, is rather left to be inferred from what is said, than obscurely expressed in the words themselves. The expression itself perspicuously conveys what it was designed to impart.
The following instance of a delicate turn of expression happily illustrates this remark. Fontenelle in his address to Dubois, who was guardian to Louis XV. in his minority, says to him, "You will freely communicate to our young monarch that knowledge, which will fit him one day to govern for himself. You will strive with all your efforts to make yourself useless." This last phrase may be considered obscure. Fontenelle designed to say, "You will labour to impart so much knowledge to your ward, that your services will no longer be needed by him." But this is rather an inference from what is said, than what is conveyed in the words themselves. There is no obscurity as to the meaning of the expression itself. It is a singular fact, that a critic, in discoursing on this passage, asserted, that no doubt Fontenelle said, or designed to say, useful instead of useless, and that the present reading is probably a typographical error. From such critics may we be delivered!
But another inquiry on this subject has arisen: May not a writer be too perspicuous, and not leave enough to exercise the ingenuity and reflection of his readers? This question has arisen from ascribing the weariness and disgust, which are felt in reading some productions, to a wrong cause. Some writers are minute to a fault. They mention every little circumstance in a narrative— state with formality common and trivial thoughts— supply every step of an argument, and dwell upon that which the ingenuity of their readers could better have supplied; such writers are always tedious. But our ennui in reading their works, does not arise from the
perspicuity, but rather from the prolixity of their expressions. The fault is not so much in the manner of saying, as in what they say. It also frequently happens that these prolix and minute writers add to their other faults that of obscurity, and leave us to labour and search after that, which when attained does not reward our exertions. When a writer is complained of as too perspicuous, we may safely ascribe the fault to futility of thought, and not to excessive clearness of expression. We never complain that glass is too transparent, and neither can style be too perspicuous.
So far as perspicuity, as thus explained, depends on the selection of words and the construction of sentences, the rules and principles, found in the preceding chapter, are designed to aid in its attainment. An additional direction of some practical importance may here be given-that, in the selection of words and forms of expression, the writer adapt himself to those, for whom his production is primarily designed. A story, or tract, intended for children, or for illiterate persons, should be expressed in the most common and familiar language. On the other hand, in those works which are strictly of a literary and scientific class, and which are addressed to scholars, words and expressions of less frequent occurrence, and less obvious import, may be introduced. A production is, however, frequently designed for a promiscuous assembly, and here much skill may be exhibited in its adaptation. The point to be aimed at, both in the reasonings and language, is, that while there is nothing tedious or disgusting, the production may be suited to the comprehension of all. It may be well, in writings of this class particularly, to select words of Saxon origin, in preference to those of foreign derivation, even though the latter should be in more common use among educated men. A different practice in this respect accounts for the fact, that some public teachers