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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
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
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
find a copy
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
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.
WHEN I recommend the study of grammar, I do not design that you should adhere pedantically to its rules.
. indeed, necessary
should know those rules, and the reasons for them, and how a sentence is to be grammatically constructed. But some latitude of discretion may be permitted in the application of those rules. Your good taste will, after a little experience, show you where they may be relaxed, and even, upon occasions, departed from.
Certain it is that, if you were to compose an essay in strict compliance with the rules propounded by the grammarians, it would be painfully stiff and ungainly. On the other hand, in fear of a pedantic style, you must be careful not to fall into the opposite extreme of slovenliness and incorrectness. It is not necessary that you should always write precise grammar, but never must you write bad grammar, Between these extremes there lies a wide debateable land, recognised by custom, in which you may venture to turn out of the regular path in a manner which a pedagogue will tell you, and prove by reference to the
rules, to be wrong, but for which you may assert the privilege of practice. I cannot supply you with any tests whereby you may be guided in your acceptance of these conventionalisms. It is entirely a matter of taste, and the cultivation of the taste is the only means by which you can hope to write at once correctly and freely, not sinning against grammar, but also not a slave to it.
So it is with the structure of your sentences. You will find in the books many elaborate rules for composition. I do not say of them that they are wrong. I have no doubt that they are strictly true, as abstract propositions; but I venture to assert that they are practically worthless. No man ever yet learned from them how to write a single sentence. No man keeps them in his mind while he is writing. No man deliberately observes them so far as to say, “I express myself thus, because rule the fourth tells me that I am to do so and so.” After you have written, it is not uninteresting nor uninstructive to compare your composition with the rules, and see how far you have adhered to them or how widely diverged from them, tracing the reasons for the structure of the sentences you have actually adopted. This is a useful exercise for the mind ; it confirms your confidence in what you do well, and perhaps reveals to you some errors and shows you how they are to be amended. But this is all. Your sentences will certainly shape themselves after the structure of your own mind. If your thoughts are vivid and definite, so will be your language ; if dreamy and hazy, so will your composition be obscure. Your speech, whether oral or written, can be but the expression of yourself, and what you are that speech will be.
Remember, then, that you cannot materially change