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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.
See Vol. ii. Part 5. Exercises. Chap. 3. Precision is the third requisite of perspicuity with respect to words and phrases. It 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
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.
The use and importance of precision, may be deduced from the nature of the human mind. It never can view, clearly and distinctly, more than one object at a time. If it must look at two or three together, especially objects that have resemblance or connexion, it finds itself confused and embarrassed. It cannot clearly perceive, in what they agree, and in what they differ. Thus, were any object, suppose some animal, to be presented to my view, of whose structure I wish to form a distinct notion, I should desire all its trappings to be taken off
, I should require it to be brought before me by itself, and to stand alone, that there might be nothing to divide my attention. The same is the case with words. If, when any one would inform me of his meaning, he also tells me more than what conveys it; if he joins foreign circumstances to the principal objects ; if, by unnecessarily varying the expression, he shifts the point of view, and makes me see sometimes the object itself, and sometimes another thing that is connected with it ; he thereby obliges me to look on several objects at once, and I lose sight of the principal. He loads the animal he is showing me, with so many trappings and collars, that I cannot distinctly view it;
or he brings so many of the same species before me, somewhat resembling, and yet somewhat differing, that I see none of them clearly. When an author tells me of his hero's courage in the day of battle, the expression is precise, and I understand it fully; but if, from the desire of multiplying words, he should praise his courage and fortitude; at the moment he joins these words together, my idea begins to waver. He means to express one quality more strongly, but he is in truth expressing two ; courage resists danger; fortitude supports pain. The occasion of exerting each of these qualities, is different; and being led to think of both together, when only one of them should be considered, my view is rendered unsteady, and my conception of the object indistinct.
All subjects do not equally require precision. It is sufficient, on many occasions, that we have a general view of the meaning. The subject, perhaps, is of the known and familiar kind, and we are in no hazard of mistaking the sense of the author, though every word which he uses is not precise and exact.
Many authors offend against this rule of precision. A respectable one, in describing a bad action, expresses himself thus : “ It is to remove a good and orderly affection, and to introduce an ill or disorderly one; to commit an action that is ill, immoral, and unjust ; to do ill, or to act in prejudice of integrity, good nature, and worth.
A crowd of unmeaning or useless words is brought together by some authors, who, afraid of expressing themselves in a common and ordinary manner, and allured by an appearance of splendour, surround every thing which they mean to say, with a certain copious loquacity.
The great source of a loose style, in opposition to precision, is the injudicious use of the words termed synonymous. They are called synonymous, because they agree in expressing one principal idea ; but for the most part, if not always, they express it with some diversity in the circumstances.
The following instances show a difference in the meaning of words reputed synonymous ; and point out the use of attending, with care and strictness, to the exact import of words.
Custom, habit.-Custom, respecis the action ; habit, the actor. By custom, we mean the frequent repetition of the same act; by habit, the effect which that repetition produces on the mind or body. By the custom of walking often in the streets, one acquires a habit of idleness.
Pride, vanity.-Pride makes us esteem ourselves ; vanity, makes us desire the esteem of others. It is just to say, that a man is too proud to be vain.
Haughtiness, disdain.--Haughtiness is founded on the high opinion we entertain of ourselves; disdain, on the low opinion we have of others.
Only, alone.—Only, imports that there is no other of the same kind ; alone, imports being accompanied by no other. An only child, is one that has neither brother nor sister: a child alone, is one who is left by itself. There is a difference, therefore, in precise language, between these two phrases: “Virtue only makes us happy;" and “Virtue alone makes us happy."
Wisdom, prudence.—Wisdom leads us to speak and act what is most proper. Prudence, prevents our speaking or acting improperly.
Entire, complete.--A thing is entire, by wanting none of its parts: complete, by wanting none of the appendages that belong to it.
A man may have an entire house to himself, and yet not have one complete apartment.
Surprised, astonished, amazed, confounded. I am surprised with what is new or unexpected; I am astonished at what is vast or great; I am amazed at what is incomprehensible; I am confounded by what is shocking or terrible.
Tranquillity, peace, calm.- Tranquillity respects a situation free from trouble, considered in itself; peace, the same situation with respect to any causes that might interrupt it; calm, with regard to a disturbed situation going before or following it. A good man enjoys tranquillity, in himself; peace, with others, and calm, after the storm.
These are some of the numerous instances of words, in our language, whose significations approach, but are not precisely the same. The more the distinction in the meaning of such words is attended to, the more clearly and forcibly shall we speak or write. It may not on all occasions, be necessary to pay a great deal of attention to very nice distinctions; yet the foregoing instances show the utility of some general care, to understand the distinct import of our words.
While we are 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 the language, will always be able to observe something that distinguishes them. As they are like different shades of the same colour, 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. But, for this purpose, he must be attentive to the choice of his words, and not employ them carelessly, merely for the sake of filling up a period, or of rounding or diversifying his language, as if their signification were exactly the same, while in truth it is not. 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, no doubt, one of the highest and most difficult attainments in writing,
OF PERSPICUITY AND ACCURACY OF
With respect to the construction of Sentences.
We have finished the discussion of perspicuity and accuracy of expression, as far as they relate to the materials of language, the purity, propriety, and precision of words. It remains that we consider them, with regard to the construction of these materials, or the disposition of words in sentences and periods. Hitherto we have investigated the nature of words and phrases detached and unconnected, in the same manner as an architect selects and prepares the materials of an edifice. We are now, like the same artist, to delineate the plan of execution, or to point out the most proper conjunction of the materials, to accomplish the end in view. As the best materials for building will not form a convenient and elegant habitation, unless they are adjusted on a proper plan, so the purest and best chosen words will not constitute a perspicuous and beautiful sentence, unless they are well applied and properly arranged.
Sentences, in general, should neither be very long, nor very short: long ones require close attention to make us clearly perceive the connexion of the several parts ; and short ones are apt to break the sense, and weaken the connexion of thought. Yet occasionally they may both be used with force and propriety : as may be seen in the following sentences. - If
you look about you, and consider the lives of others as well as your own; if you think how few are born with honour, and how many die without name or children; how little beauty we sce, and how few friends we hear of : how much poverty, and how many diseases there are in the world; you will fall down upon your knees, and instead of repining at one affliction, will admire so many blessings which you have received from the Divine hand." This is a sentence composed of several members linked together, and hanging upon one