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A selection of words and phrases, which are peculiarly expressive of the ideas we design to communicate, or which are as particular and determinate in their signification, as is consistent with the nature and the scope of the discourse, possesses great beauty, and cannot fail to produce a good effect.
Precision signifies retrenching superfluities, and pruning the expression, so as to exhibit neither more nor less than an exact copy of the person's idea who uses it.
The words used to express ideas may be faulty in three respects. First, They may not express the idea which the author intends, but some other which only resembles it. Secondly, They may express, that idea, but not fully and completely. Thirdly, They may express it, together with something more than is intended. Precision stands opposed to these three faults, but chiefly to the last. Propriety implies a freedom from the two former faults. The words which are used may be proper ; that is, they may express the idea intended, and they may express it fully; but to be precise, signifies that they express that idea and no more.
While attending to precision, we must be on our guard, lest, from the desire of pruning too closely, we retrench all copiousness. Scarcely in any language are there two words that convey precisely the same idea; a person thoroughly conversant in the propriety of language, will always be able to observe something that distinguishes them. As they are different shades of the same color, an accurate writer can employ them to great advantage, by using them so as to heighten and complete the object which he presents to us. He supplies by one what was wanting in the other, to the strength, or to the finishing, of the image which he means to exhibit. To unite copiousness and precision, to be full and easy, and at the same time correct and exact in the choice of every word, is one of the highest and most difficult attainments in writing.
CONSTRUCTION OF SENTENCES. The First requisite of a perfect sentence is Clearness.
Whatever leaves the mind in any sort of suspense as to the meaning, ought to be avoided. Obscurity arises either from a wrong choice of words, or a wrong arrangement of them. There may be an obscure order of words, where there is no transgression of any grammatical rule. To remedy this, the words and members of the sentence, which are most nearly related, should be placed as near to each other as possible; that their mutual relation may clearly appear. This rule requires particular attention to the situation of adverbs, pronouns, and other connecting words. Never crowd many circumstances together, but intersperse them in different parts of the sentence, joined with the principal words on which they depend.
The second requisite of a perfect sentence, is its Unity. In every composition, there is always some connecting principle among the parts. Some one object must reign' and be predominant. But most of all, in a single sentence, is required the strictest unity. For the very nature of a sentence implies that one preposition is expressed. It
consist of parts, but these parts must be closely bound together, so as to make the impression upon the mind of one object, not of many. To preserve this unity of a sentence, the following rules must be observed.
1. During the course of the sentence, the subject, or nominative, should be changed as little as possible. We should not hurry by sudden transitions from person to person, nor from subject to subject. There is commonly, in every sentence, some person or thing which is the governing word. This should be continued so, if possible, from beginning to end.
2. Never crowd into one sentence, things which have so little connexion, that they could bear to be divided into two or three sentences, The violation of this rule tends so much to perplex and obscure, that it is safer to err by too many short sentences, than by one that is overloaded and embarrassed. In writers of considerable correctness, we sometimes find a period running out so far, and comprehending so many particulars, as to be more properly considered a discourse than a sentence. Such, are great blemishes in composition:
Å third rule for preserving the unity of sentences, is, to avoid all unnecessary parentheses.
On some occasions, when the sense is not too long suspended by them, and when they are introduced in a proper place, they may add both to the vivacity and to the energy
of the sentence. But for the most part their effect is extremely bad. They are wheels within wheels; sentences within sentences; the perplexed method of disposing of some thought, which a writer wants judgment to introduce in its proper place.
The THIRD requisite of a perfect sentence, is strength. By this is meant such a disposition and management of the several words and members, as will exhibit the sense to the best advantage; give every word and every member, its due weight and force, and thereby convey a clear, strong and full idea of the writer's meaning.
The first rule for promoting the strength of a sentence, is to prune it of all redundant words and members. It is a general maxim, that any words which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence, always injure it. The attention becomes remiss, when words are multiplied without a correspondent multiplication of ideas.
The second rule for promoting the strength of a sentence, is, to pay particular attention to the use of copulatives, relatives, and particles, employed for transition and connexion. These little words but, and, or which, whose, where, then, therefore, because, &c. are frequently the most important words of any; they are the joints or hinges, upon which all sentences turn; and, of course, much of their strength must depend upon such particles. They should not be too frequently repeated, or awkwardly exposed to view, where their use is necessary.
The third rule for promoting the strength of a sentence, is, to place the principal word or words in a situation, where they will make the most striking impression.
There are in every sentence principal words on which the meaning chiefly rests, and these words should possess a conspicuous and distinguished place. With us,
important words are generally placed at the beginning of a sentence ; yet, sometimes, when we wish to give weight to a sentence, it is best to suspend the meaning for a little, and then bring it out full at the close.
To place capital words in a conspicuous part of the sentence, the natural order of our language must sometimes be inverted. According to this natural order the nominative has the first place, the verb the second, and the objective, if an active verb is used, has the third. Some authors greatly invert the natural order of sentences; others write mostly in a natural style. The inverted possesses strength, dignity and variety: the other, more nature, ease and simplicity. But whether we use inversions or not, it is always of consequence that the leading words should stand clear and disengaged from any other words that would encumber them.
The fourth rule for promoting the strength of a sentence, is, to make the members of the sentence go on rising in their importance, above one another, in the form of a climax. It is agreeable to find a sentence rising upon us, and growing in its importance, to the very last words, when this construction can be managed without affectation. For example: "What a piece of work is man ! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and motion, how expressive and admirable; in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a God!'
The fifth rule is, to avoid ending the sentence with an adverb, preposition, or any insignificant word. Verbs used in a compound sense with some of the prepositions, are not proper conclusions of a period: such as, lay hold of, come over: to, clear up, &c. It always terminates a sentence with more strength, to emply a simple verb.
The sixth rule is, that, in the members of a sentence where two things are compared or contrasted, where either resemblance or opposition is to be expressed, some resemblance in the language and construction ought to be observed. For, when the things themselves correspond to each other, we naturally expect to find a similar correspondence in the words.
The seventh rule is, to attend to the sound, the har
mony and easy flow, of the words and members. As long as sounds are the conveyance of ous ideas, there will be a very considerable connexion between the idea to be conveyed, and the nature of the sound which conveys it. Pleasing ideas, and forcible reasoning, can hardly be transmitted to the mind, by the means of harsh and disagreeable sounds. The mind revolts at such sounds, and the impression of the sentiment must of course be weakened.
Words are most agreeable to the ear, when they are composed of smooth and liquid sounds, in which there is a proper intermixture of vowels and consonants; without too many harsh consonants rubbing against each other; or too many open vowels. in succession, to cause a hiatus, or disagreeable aperture of the mouth. It may always be assumed as a principle, that whatever sounds are difficult of pronunciation, are, in the same proportion, harsh and painful to the ear. Therefore, such words should be preferred, and such an arrangement of the members of the sentence adopted, as can be pronounced without difficulty.
Long words, and those which are composed of a due intermixture of long and short syllables, are more harmonious than short ones; or than those which are wholly composed of long or short syllables.
The harmony or melody of the different periods should be varied; and a proper succession of long and short sentences kept up.
The longest members of a period, and the fullest and most sonorous words, should generally be reserved for the conclusion of a sentence.
Whatever tires the voice and offends the ear, is apt to mar the strength of expression, and to degrade the sense of the author; and this is a sufficient ground for paying attention to the order and proportion of sentences; and the different parts of which they consist.
The fourth requisite of a perfect sentence, is a judicious use of the Figures of Speech.
Figures of speech always denote some departure from simplicity of expression; they represent, in a forcible manner, the idea which we intend to express, and present it with the addition of some circumstance which