Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

say in the greatest number of words he can devise, and those words will be the most artificial and uncommon his memory can recal. As he advances, he will learn to drop these long phrases and big words; he will gradually contract his language to the limit of his thoughts, and he will discover, after long experience, that he was never so feeble as when he flattered himself that he was most forcible.

I have dwelt upon this subject with repetitions that may be deemed almost wearisome, because affectations and conceits are the besetting sin of modern composition, and the vice is growing and spreading. The literature of our periodicals teems with it; the magazines are infected by it almost as much as the newspapers, which have been always famous for it. Instead of an endeavour to write plainly, the express purpose of the writers in the periodicals is to write as obscurely as possible ; they make it a rule never to call anything by its proper name, never to say anything directly in plain English, never to express their true meaning, they delight to say something quite different in appearance from that which they purpose to say, requiring the reader to translate it, if he can, and, if he cannot, leaving him in a state of bewilderment, or wholly uninformed.

Worse models you could not find than those presented to you by the newspapers and periodicals; yet are you so beset by them that it is extremely difficult not to catch the infection. Reading day by day compositions teeming with bad taste, and especially where the cockney style floods you with its conceits and affectations, you unconsciously fall into the same vile habit, and incessant vigilance is required to restore you to sound, vigorous, manly, and wholesome English. I cannot recommend

to you a better plan for counteracting the inevitable mischief than the daily reading of portions of some of our best writers of English. A page or two of Dryden, Swift or Cobbett, will operate as an antidote against the poison you cannot help absorbing in your necessary intercourse with the passing literature of the day. You will soon learn to appreciate the power and beauty of those simple sentences, compared with the forcible feebleness of some, and the spasmodic efforts and mountebank contortions of others, that meet your eye when you turn over the

pages of magazine or newspaper. I do not say that you will at once become reconciled to plain English, after being accustomed to the tinsel and tin trumpets of modern writers; but you will gradually come to like it more and more; you will return to it with greater zest year by year; and having thoroughly learned to love it, you will strive to follow the example of the authors who have written it.

And this practice of daily commune more or less with one of the great masters of the English tongue should never be abandoned. So long as you have occasion to write or speak, let it be held by you almost as a duty. And here I would suggest that you should read them aloud ; for there is no doubt that the words, entering at once by the

eye and the ear, are more sharply impressed upon the mind than when perused silently. Moreover, when reading aloud you read more slowly; the full meaning of each word must be understood, that you may give the right expression to it, and the ear catches the general structure of the sentences more perfectly.

Nor will this occupy much time. There is no need to devote to it more than a few minutes every day. Two or three pages thus read daily will suffice to preserve the purity of your taste.

The books that have been written on the subject of composition usually set forth a number of rules professing to teach the student specifically how he is to write a sentence. I confess I have no faith in the virtue of such teachings. I tried them and found them worse than worthless-much more a hindrance than a help. I found it to be impossible to think at once of what to say and the rules that were set to me how to say it. In fact, when we examine closely all these forms, we discover that they are not the rules that have been used as guides by their authors, or by any other persons, but only the principles philosophy has traced as governing the operations of the mind in the process of composition. We do not so write because we ought to do so, according to certain set rules, but because the mind is so constructed as to express itself to another mind in certain forms of speech, which forms have been examined by philosophers, and their analysis of the mental operation has been turned into a series of rules and called "grammar."

Your first care in composition will be, of course, to express yourself grammatically. This is partly habit, partly teaching. If those with whom a child is brought up talk good grammar, he will do likewise, from mere imitation ; but he will learn quite as readily any bad grammar to which his ears may be accustomed ; and as the most fortunate of us mingle in childhood with servants and other persons not always observant of number, gender, mood and tense, and as even they who have enjoyed the best education fall, in familiar talk, into occasional faults of grammar, which could not be avoided without pedantry, you will find the study of grammar necessary to you under any circumstances. Your ear will teach you a great deal, and you may usually trust to it as a guide ; but sometimes occasions arise when you are puzzled to determine which is the correct form of expression, and in such cases there is safety only in reference to the rule.

I would gladly assume that you learned at school all that you have need to know of grammar, but experience forbids. I remember how little attention was paid to the teaching of English grammar in the public and classical schools of my own boyhood ; and although some improvement has been made since, I fear that it would not be safe to enter upon the study of composition without at least refreshing your memory with the rules of grammar. If you ask me what grammar you ought to study, I must admit my inability to give you a satisfactory answer. I have never seen an English grammar that quite came up to the conception of what such a book should be. All the popular ones are too dogmatical and not enough explanatory. They appear to have been written by men who had forgotten the process by which they had acquired their own knowledge, and who taught from their own advanced position, instead of taking the student's point of view and starting with him. Rules ought to be accompanied with the reasons for them, and those reasons should not be stated in the language of the learned, but in the words used by the unlearned world; and the ideas they convey should not be those which assume that the listener knows a great deal, but such as would be addressed to a mind presumed to know very little indeed of the subject. However, such a grammar has never chanced to come to my notice among the multitude I have examined in the course of long labours as a reviewer. The best with which I am acquainted (and it approaches very nearly to the ideal of such a work) is that by William Cobbett. I do not know even if it can now be procured ; but if you can find a copy at any book-stall, buy it and read it. Not only does it present its information in a singularly intelligible form, but it will amuse and fix your attention by the quaintness of some of its illustrations. For instance, the author, who was an avowed Republicanfor he did not live to see democracy setting up despotism in France, and republicanism rushing into civil war in America-takes his illustrations of bad grammar from the Royal Speeches to Parliament. But, if

you

should not like his manner of teaching, you will assuredly profit by the perusal of his simple but vigorous English, and it will be in itself a valuable lesson to accustom your ears to our homely but expressive Saxon, unpolluted by the affectations with which it is too much the fashion of our day to deform the glorious instrument of thought that our fathers have transmitted to us.

« AnteriorContinuar »