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When I recommend the study of grammar, I do not design that you should adhere pedantically to its rules. It is, indeed, necessary that you 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
the substantial character of your writing ; but you may much improve the form of it by the observance of two or three general rules.
In the first place, be sure you have something to say. This may appear to you a very unnecessary precaution, for who, you will ask, having nothing to say, desires to write or to speak ? I do not doubt that you have often felt as if your brain was teeming with thoughts too big for words ; but when you came to seize them, for the purpose of putting them into words, you have found them evading your grasp and melting into the air. They were not thoughts at all, but fancies-shadows which you had mistaken for substances, and whose vagueness you would never have detected, had you not sought to embody them in language. Hence it is that you will need to be assured that you have thoughts to express, before you try to express them.
And how to do this? By asking yourself, before you take up the pen, what it is you intend to say, and answering yourself as you best can, without caring for the form of expression. If it is only a vague and mystical idea, conceived in cloudland, you will try in vain to put it into any form of words, however rude. If, however, it is a definite thought, proceed at once to set it down in words and fix it upon paper.
The expression of a precise and definite thought is not difficult. Words will follow the thought; indeed, they will usually accompany it, because it is almost impossible to think unless the thought is clothed in words. So closely are ideas and language linked by habit, that very few minds are capable of contemplating them apart, insomuch that it may be safely asserted of all intellects, save the highest, that if they are unable to express their
ideas, it is because the ideas are incapable of expression --because they are vague and hazy. For the present purpose it will suffice that you put upon paper the substance of what you desire to say, in terms as rude as you please, the object being simply to measure your thoughts. If you cannot express them, do not attribute your failure to the weakness of language, but to the dreaminess of your ideas, and therefore banish them without mercy and direct your mind to some more definite object for its contemplations. If you succeed in putting your ideas into words, be they ever so rude, you will have learned the first, the most difficult, and the most important, lesson in the art of writing. The second is far easier. Having thoughts, and having embodied those thoughts in unpolished phrase, your next task will be to present them in the most attractive form. To secure the attention of those to whom you desire to communicate your thoughts, it is not enough that you utter them in any words that come uppermost; you must express them in the best words and in the most graceful sentences, so that they may be read with pleasure, or at least without offending the taste.
Your first care in the choice of words will be that they shall express precisely your meaning.
Words are used so loosely in society that the same word will often be found to convey half-a-dozen different ideas to as many auditors. Even where there is not a conflict of meanings in the same word, there is usually a choice of words having meanings sufficiently alike to be used indiscriminately, without subjecting the user to a charge of positive error. But the cultivated taste is shown in the selection of such as express the most delicate shades of difference. Therefore, it is not enough to have
abundance of words—you must learn the precise meaning of each word, and in what it differs from other words supposed to be synonymous; and then you must select that which most exactly conveys the thought you are seeking to embody. I will not pretend to give you rules for this purpose—I am acquainted with none that are of much practical value. Some of the books profess to teach the pupil how to choose his words; but for my own part, having tried these teachings, I found them worthless and others who have done the like have experienced the same unsatisfactory result. There is but one way to fill your mind with words and that is, to read the best authors and to acquire an accurate knowledge of the precise meaning of their words—by parsing as you read.
By the practice of parsing, I intend very nearly the process so called at schools, only limiting the exercise to the definitions of the principal words. As thus :-take, for instance, the sentence that immediately precedes this -ask yourself what is the meaning of "practice," of "parsing," of "process," and such like. Write the answer to each, that you may be assured that your definition is distinct. Compare it with the definitions of the same word in the dictionaries, and observe the various meanings in which it has been used. You will thus learn also the terms that have the same, or nearly the same, meaning, a large vocabulary of which is necessary to composition, for frequent repetitions of the same word, especially in the same sentence,
an inelegance, if not a positive error. Compare your definition with that of the lexicographer, and your use of the word with the uses of it by the authorities cited in the dictionary, and you will thus measure your own