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The qualities of a good style may be ranked under two heads--perspicuity and ornament. It will readily be admitted, that perspicuity ought to be essentially connected with every kind of writing. Without this the brightest ornaments of style only glimmer through the dark; and perplex, instead of pleasing the reader. If we are forced to follow a writer with much care, to pause,
and to read over his sentences a second time, in order to understand them fully, he will never please us long. Mankind are too indolent to be fond of so much labour. Though they may pretend to admire the author's depth, after having discovered his meaning, they will seldom be inclined to look a second time into his book.
The study of perspicuity claims attention, first, to single words and phrases, and then to the construction of sentences. When considered with respect to words and phrases, it requires these three qualities—purity, propriety, and precision.
Purity and propriety of language are often used indiscriminately for each other; and, indeed, they are very nearly allied. A distinction, however, should be made between them. Purity consists in the use of such words and such constructions as belong to the idiom of the language which we speak, in opposition to those words and phrases which are imported from other languages, or which are obsolete or new coined, or employed without proper authority. Propriety is the choice of such words as the best and most established usage has appropriated to those ideas which we intend to express by them : it implies their correct and judicious application, in opposition to vulgar or low expressions, and to words and phrases which would be less significant of the ideas that we intend to convey. Style may be pure, that is, it may be entirely English, without Scotticisms or Gallicisms, or ungrammatical expressions of any kind, and may, notwithstanding, be deficient in propriety. The words may be ill selected ; not adapted to the subject, nor fully expressive of the author's meaning. He has taken them, indeed, from the general mass of English language; but his choice has been made without happiness or skill. Style, huwever, cannot be proper without being pure: it is the union of purity and propriety, which renders it graceful and perspicuous.
The exact meaning of precision may be understood from the etymology of the word. It is derived from “præcidere,” to cut off: it signifies retrenching all superfluities, and pruning the expression in such a manner as to exhibit neither more nor less than an exact copy of his idea who uses it.
The words which are employed to express ideas may be faulty in three respects. They may either not express that idea which the author means, but some other which only resembles or is related to it; or they may express that idea, but not fully and completely; or they may express it, together with something more than he designs. Precision is opposed to these three faults, but particularly to the last; into this, feeble writers are very apt to fall. They employ a multitude of words to make themselves understood, as they think, more distinctly; and they only confound the reader. The image, as they place it before you, is always seen double; and no double image is distinct. When an author tells us of his hero's courage in the day of battle, the expression is precise, and we understand it
fully. But if, from a desire of multiplying words, he will praise his courage and fortitude, at the moment he joins these words together, our idea begins to waver. He intends to express one quality more strongly ; but he is, in fact, expressing two. Courage resists danger; fortitude supports pain. The occasion of exerting each of these qualities is different ; and being induced to think of both together, when only one of them should engage our attention, our view is rendered unsteady, and our conception of the object indistinct.
The great source of a loose style, in opposition to precision, is the inaccurate and unhappy use of those words, called synonymous. Scarcely, in any language, are there two words, which express precisely the same idea ; and a person perfectly acquainted with the propriety of the language will always be able to observe something, by which they are distinguished. In our language, very many instances might be given of a difference in meaning, among words which are thought to be synonymous; and as the subject is of importance, we shall point out a few of them.
Surprised, astonished, amazed, confounded. We are surprised with what is new or unexpected; we are astonished at what is vast or great; we are amazed with what we cannot comprehend; we are confoundled by what is shocking or terrible.
Pride, vanity. Pride makes us esteem ourselves ; vanity makes us desire the esteem of others.
Haughtiness, disdain. Haughtiness is founded on the high opinion we have of ourselves ; disdain on the low opinion we entertain of others.
To weary, to fatigue. The continuance of the same thing wearies us; labour fatigues us. A man is weary with standing, he is fatigued with walking.
To abhor, to detest. To abhor, imports, simply, strong dislike ; to detest, imports likewise strong disapprobation. I abhor being in debt; I detest treachery.
To invent, to discover. We invent things which are new; we discover what has been hidden. Galilæo invented the telescope; Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood.
Entire, complete. A thing is entire, when it wants none of its parts ; complete, when it wants none of the appendages which belong to it. A man may occupy an entire house, though he has not one complete apartment.
Tranquillity, peace, calm. Tranquillity signifies a situation free from trouble, considered in itself: peace, the same situation, with respect to any causes which might interrupt it; calm, with respect to a disturbed situation going before, or following it. A good man enjoys tranquillity in himself; peace with others; and calm after the storm.
Enough, sufficient. Enough relates to the quantity, which we wish to have of any thing. Sufficient relates to the use that is to be made of it. Hence, enough commonly signifies a greater quantity than sufficient does. The covetous man never has enough, though he has what is sufficient for nature.
These are a few, among many instances of words, in our language, which, by careless writers, are apt to be mistaken for synonymous. The more the distinction in the meaning of such words is weighed and attended to, the more accurately and forcibly shall we speak and write.
Structure of Sentences. A proper construction of sentences is of such importance in every species of composition, that we cannot be too strict or minute in our attention to it. For, whatever be the subject, if the sentences be constructed in a clumsy, perplexed, or feeble manner, it is impossible that a work composed of such periods can be read with pleasure, or even with profit. But, by an attention to the rules which relate to this part of style, we acquire the habit of expressing ourselves with perspicuity and elegance; and if a disorder happen to arise in some of our sentences, we immediately discover where it lies, and are able to correct it.
The properties most essential to a perfect sentence seem to be the four following:-1. Clearness and precision; 2. Unity ; 3. Strength ; 4. Harmony.
Ambiguity is opposed to clearness and precision, and arises from two causes ; either from a wrong choice of words, or a wrong collocation of them. Of the choice of words as far as regards perspicuity, we have already spoken. Of the collocation of them we are now to treat. From the nature of our language, a leading rule in the arrangement of our sentences is, that the words or members most nearly related should be placed in the sentence as near to each other as possible, so as to make their mutual relation clearly appear. This rule is too frequently neglected, even by good writers. A few instances will show both its importance and its application.
In the position of adverbs, which are used to qualify the signification of something which either precedes or follows them, a good deal of nicety is to be observ