How to Speak and Write Correctly
By Joseph Devlin
Public Domain Books
It is the object of every writer to put his thoughts into as effective form as possible so as to make a good impression on the reader. A person may have noble thoughts and ideas but be unable to express them in such a way as to appeal to others, consequently he cannot exert the full force of his intellectuality nor leave the imprint of his character upon his time, whereas many a man but indifferently gifted may wield such a facile pen as to attract attention and win for himself an envious place among his contemporaries.
In everyday life one sees illustrations of men of excellent mentality being cast aside and ones of mediocre or in some cases, little, if any, ability chosen to fill important places. The former are unable to impress their personality; they have great thoughts, great ideas, but these thoughts and ideas are locked up in their brains and are like prisoners behind the bars struggling to get free. The key of language which would open the door is wanting, hence they have to remain locked up.
Many a man has to pass through the world unheard of and of little benefit to it or himself, simply because he cannot bring out what is in him and make it subservient to his will. It is the duty of every one to develop his best, not only for the benefit of himself but for the good of his fellow men. It is not at all necessary to have great learning or acquirements, the laborer is as useful in his own place as the philosopher in his; nor is it necessary to have many talents. One talent rightly used is much better than ten wrongly used. Often a man can do more with one than his contemporary can do with ten, often a man can make one dollar go farther than twenty in the hands of his neighbor, often the poor man lives more comfortably than the millionaire. All depends upon the individual himself. If he make right use of what the Creator has given him and live according to the laws of God and nature he is fulfilling his allotted place in the universal scheme of creation, in other words, when he does his best, he is living up to the standard of a useful manhood.
Now in order to do his best a man of ordinary intelligence and education should be able to express himself correctly both in speaking and writing, that is, he should be able to convey his thoughts in an intelligent manner which the simplest can understand. The manner in which a speaker or writer conveys his thoughts is known as his Style. In other words Style may be defined as the peculiar manner in which a man expresses his conceptions through the medium of language. It depends upon the choice of words and their arrangement to convey a meaning. Scarcely any two writers have exactly the same style, that is to say, express their ideas after the same peculiar form, just as no two mortals are fashioned by nature in the same mould, so that one is an exact counterpart of the other.
Just as men differ in the accent and tones of their voices, so do they differ in the construction of their language.
Two reporters sent out on the same mission, say to report a fire, will verbally differ in their accounts though materially both descriptions will be the same as far as the leading facts are concerned. One will express himself in a style different from the other.
If you are asked to describe the dancing of a red-haired lady at the last charity ball you can either say–"The ruby Circe, with the Titian locks glowing like the oriflamme which surrounds the golden god of day as he sinks to rest amid the crimson glory of the burnished West, gave a divine exhibition of the Terpsichorean art which thrilled the souls of the multitude” or, you can simply say–"The red-haired lady danced very well and pleased the audience.”
The former is a specimen of the ultra florid or bombastic style which may be said to depend upon the pomposity of verbosity for its effect, the latter is a specimen of simple natural Style. Needless to say it is to be preferred. The other should be avoided. It stamps the writer as a person of shallowness, ignorance and inexperience. It has been eliminated from the newspapers. Even the most flatulent of yellow sheets no longer tolerate it in their columns. Affectation and pedantry in style are now universally condemned.
It is the duty of every speaker and writer to labor after a pleasing style. It gains him an entrance where he would otherwise be debarred. Often the interest of a subject depends as much on the way it is presented as on the subject itself. One writer will make it attractive, another repulsive. For instance take a passage in history. Treated by one historian it is like a desiccated mummy, dry, dull, disgusting, while under the spell of another it is, as it were, galvanized into a virile living thing which not only pleases but captivates the reader.
The first requisite of style is choice of words, and this comes under the head of Diction, the property of style which has reference to the words and phrases used in speaking and writing. The secret of literary skill from any standpoint consists in putting the right word in the right place. In order to do this it is imperative to know the meaning of the words we use, their exact literal meaning. Many synonymous words are seemingly interchangeable and appear as if the same meaning were applicable to three or four of them at the same time, but when all such words are reduced to a final analysis it is clearly seen that there is a marked difference in their meaning. For instance grief and sorrow seem to be identical, but they are not. Grief is active, sorrow is more or less passive; grief is caused by troubles and misfortunes which come to us from the outside, while sorrow is often the consequence of our own acts. Grief is frequently loud and violent, sorrow is always quiet and retiring. Grief shouts, Sorrow remains calm.
If you are not sure of the exact meaning of a word look it up immediately in the dictionary. Sometimes some of our great scholars are puzzled over simple words in regard to meaning, spelling or pronunciation. Whenever you meet a strange word note it down until you discover its meaning and use. Read the best books you can get, books written by men and women who are acknowledged masters of language, and study how they use their words, where they place them in the sentences, and the meanings they convey to the readers.
Mix in good society. Listen attentively to good talkers and try to imitate their manner of expression. If a word is used you do not understand, don’t be ashamed to ask its meaning.
True, a small vocabulary will carry you through, but it is an advantage to have a large one. When you live alone a little pot serves just as well as a large one to cook your victuals and it is handy and convenient, but when your friends or neighbors come to dine with you, you will need a much larger pot and it is better to have it in store, so that you will not be put to shame for your scantiness of furnishings.
Get as many words as you possibly can–if you don’t need them now, pack them away in the garrets of your brain so that you can call upon them if you require them.
Keep a note book, jot down the words you don’t understand or clearly understand and consult the dictionary when you get time.
Purity of style consists in using words which are reputable, national and present, which means that the words are in current use by the best authorities, that they are used throughout the nation and not confined to one particular part, and that they are words in constant use at the present time.
There are two guiding principles in the choice of words,–good useand good taste. Good use tells us whether a word is right or wrong; good taste, whether it is adapted to our purpose or not.
A word that is obsolete or too new to have gained a place in the language, or that is a provincialism, should not be used.
Here are the Ten Commandments of English style:
(1) Do not use foreign words.
(2) Do not use a long word when a short one will serve your purpose. Fire is much better than conflagration.
(3) Do not use technical words, or those understood only by specialists in their respective lines, except when you are writing especially for such people.
(4) Do not use slang.
(5) Do not use provincialisms, as “I guess” for “I think"; “I reckon” for “I know,” etc.
(6) Do not in writing prose, use poetical or antiquated words: as “lore, e’er, morn, yea, nay, verily, peradventure.”
(7) Do not use trite and hackneyed words and expressions; as, “on the job,” “up and in"; “down and out.”
(8) Do not use newspaper words which have not established a place in the language as “to bugle"; “to suicide,” etc.
(9) Do not use ungrammatical words and forms; as, “I ain’t;” “he don’t.”
(10) Do not use ambiguous words or phrases; as–"He showed me all about the house.”
Trite words, similes and metaphors which have become hackneyed and worn out should be allowed to rest in the oblivion of past usage. Such expressions and phrases as “Sweet sixteen” “the Almighty dollar,” “Uncle Sam,” “On the fence,” “The Glorious Fourth,” “Young America,” “The lords of creation,” “The rising generation,” “The weaker sex,” “The weaker vessel,” “Sweetness long drawn out” and “chief cook and bottle washer," should be put on the shelf as they are utterly worn out from too much usage.
Some of the old similes which have outlived their usefulness and should be pensioned off, are “Sweet as sugar,” “Bold as a lion,” “Strong as an ox,” “Quick as a flash,” “Cold as ice,” “Stiff as a poker,” “White as snow,” “Busy as a bee,” “Pale as a ghost,” “Rich as Croesus,” “Cross as a bear” and a great many more far too numerous to mention.
Be as original as possible in the use of expression. Don’t follow in the old rut but try and strike out for yourself. This does not mean that you should try to set the style, or do anything outlandish or out of the way, or be an innovator on the prevailing custom. In order to be original there is no necessity for you to introduce something novel or establish a precedent. The probability is you are not fit to do either, by education or talent. While following the style of those who are acknowledged leaders you can be original in your language. Try and clothe an idea different from what it has been clothed and better. If you are speaking or writing of dancing don’t talk or write about “tripping the light fantastic toe.” It is over two hundred years since Milton expressed it that way in ’L’Allegro.” You’re not a Milton and besides over a million have stolen it from Milton until it is now no longer worth stealing.
Don’t resurrect obsolete words such as whilom, yclept, wis, etc., and be careful in regard to obsolescent words, that is, words that are at the present time gradually passing from use such as quoth, trow, betwixt, amongst, froward, etc.
And beware of new words. Be original in the construction and arrangement of your language, but don’t try to originate words. Leave that to the Masters of language, and don’t be the first to try such words, wait until the chemists of speech have tested them and passed upon their merits.
Quintilian said–"Prefer the oldest of the new and the newest of the old.” Pope put this in rhyme and it still holds good:
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold, Alike fantastic, if too new or old: Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
Propriety of style consists in using words in their proper sense and as in the case of purity, good usage is the principal test. Many words have acquired in actual use a meaning very different from what they once possessed. “Prevent” formerly meant to go before, and that meaning is implied in its Latin derivation. Now it means to put a stop to, to hinder. To attain propriety of style it is necessary to avoid confounding words derived from the same root; as respectfully and respectively; it is necessary to use words in their accepted sense or the sense which everyday use sanctions.
Simplicity of style has reference to the choice of simple words and their unaffected presentation. Simple words should always be used in preference to compound, and complicated ones when they express the same or almost the same meaning. The Anglo-Saxon element in our language comprises the simple words which express the relations of everyday life, strong, terse, vigorous, the language of the fireside, street, market and farm. It is this style which characterizes the Bible and many of the great English classics such as the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Gulliver’s Travels.”
Clearness of style should be one of the leading considerations with the beginner in composition. He must avoid all obscurity and ambiguous phrases. If he write a sentence or phrase and see that a meaning might be inferred from it otherwise than intended, he should re-write it in such a way that there can be no possible doubt. Words, phrases or clauses that are closely related should be placed as near to each other as possible that their mutual relation may clearly appear, and no word should be omitted that is necessary to the complete expression of thought.
Unity is that property of style which keeps all parts of a sentence in connection with the principal thought and logically subordinate to it. A sentence may be constructed as to suggest the idea of oneness to the mind, or it may be so loosely put together as to produce a confused and indefinite impression. Ideas that have but little connection should be expressed in separate sentences, and not crowded into one.
Keep long parentheses out of the middle of your sentences and when you have apparently brought your sentences to a close don’t try to continue the thought or idea by adding supplementary clauses.
Strength is that property of style which gives animation, energy and vivacity to language and sustains the interest of the reader. It is as necessary to language as good food is to the body. Without it the words are weak and feeble and create little or no impression on the mind. In order to have strength the language must be concise, that is, much expressed in little compass, you must hit the nail fairly on the head and drive it in straight. Go critically over what you write and strike out every word, phrase and clause the omission of which impairs neither the clearness nor force of the sentence and so avoid redundancy, tautology and circumlocution. Give the most important words the most prominent places, which, as has been pointed out elsewhere, are the beginning and end of the sentence.
Harmony is that property of style which gives a smoothness to the sentence, so that when the words are sounded their connection becomes pleasing to the ear. It adapts sound to sense. Most people construct their sentences without giving thought to the way they will sound and as a consequence we have many jarring and discordant combinations such as “Thou strengthenedst thy position and actedst arbitrarily and derogatorily to my interests.”
Harsh, disagreeable verbs are liable to occur with the Quaker form Thouof the personal pronoun. This form is now nearly obsolete, the plural you being almost universally used. To obtain harmony in the sentence long words that are hard to pronounce and combinations of letters of one kind should be avoided.
Expressive of Writer
Style is expressive of the writer, as to who he is and what he is. As a matter of structure in composition it is the indication of what a man can do; as a matter of quality it is an indication of what he is.
Kinds of Style
Style has been classified in different ways, but it admits of so many designations that it is very hard to enumerate a table. In fact there are as many styles as there are writers, for no two authors write exactlyafter the same form. However, we may classify the styles of the various authors in broad divisions as (1) dry, (2) plain, (3) neat, (4) elegant, (5) florid, (6) bombastic.
The dry style excludes all ornament and makes no effort to appeal to any sense of beauty. Its object is simply to express the thoughts in a correct manner. This style is exemplified by Berkeley.
The plain style does not seek ornamentation either, but aims to make clear and concise statements without any elaboration or embellishment. Locke and Whately illustrate the plain style.
The neat style only aspires after ornament sparingly. Its object is to have correct figures, pure diction and clear and harmonious sentences. Goldsmith and Gray are the acknowledged leaders in this kind of style.
The elegant style uses every ornament that can beautify and avoids every excess which would degrade. Macaulay and Addison have been enthroned as the kings of this style. To them all writers bend the knee in homage.
The florid style goes to excess in superfluous and superficial ornamentation and strains after a highly colored imagery. The poems of Ossian typify this style.
The bombastic is characterized by such an excess of words, figures and ornaments as to be ridiculous and disgusting. It is like a circus clown dressed up in gold tinsel Dickens gives a fine example of it in Sergeant Buzfuz’ speech in the “Pickwick Papers.” Among other varieties of style may be mentioned the colloquial, the laconic, the concise, the diffuse, the abrupt the flowing, the quaint, the epigrammatic, the flowery, the feeble, the nervous, the vehement, and the affected. The manner of these is sufficiently indicated by the adjective used to describe them.
In fact style is as various as character and expresses the individuality of the writer, or in other words, as the French writer Buffon very aptly remarks, “the style is the man himself.”