HOW TO SPEAK AND WRITE CORRECTLY by JOSEPH DEVLIN, M.A.
CHAPTER III Page 2: THE SENTENCE
The amusing effect of disregarding the reference of pronouns is well illustrated by Burton in the following story of Billy Williams, a comic actor who thus narrates his experience in riding a horse owned by Hamblin, the manager:
“So down I goes to the stable with Tom Flynn, and told the man to put the saddle on him.”
“On Tom Flynn?”
“No, on the horse. So after talking with Tom Flynn awhile I mounted him.”
“What! mounted Tom Flynn?”
“No, the horse; and then I shook hands with him and rode off.”
“Shook hands with the horse, Billy?”
“No, with Tom Flynn; and then I rode off up the Bowery, and who should I meet but Tom Hamblin; so I got off and told the boy to hold him by the head.”
“What! hold Hamblin by the head?”
“No, the horse; and then we went and had a drink together.”
“What! you and the horse?”
“No, me and Hamblin; and after that I mounted him again and went out of town.”
“What! mounted Hamblin again?”
“No, the horse; and when I got to Burnham, who should be there but Tom Flynn,â€”he’d taken another horse and rode out ahead of me; so I told the hostler to tie him up.”
“Tie Tom Flynn up?”
“No, the horse; and we had a drink there.”
“What! you and the horse?”
“No, me and Tom Flynn.”
Finding his auditors by this time in a horse laugh, Billy wound up with: “Now, look here, â€”every time I say horse, you say Hamblin, and every time I say Hamblin you say horse: I’ll be hanged if I tell you any more about it.”
There are two great classes of sentences according to the general principles upon which they are founded. These are termed the loose and the periodic.
In the loose sentence the main idea is put first, and then follow several facts in connection with it. Defoe is an author particularly noted for this kind of sentence. He starts out with a leading declaration to which he adds several attendant connections. For instance in the opening of the story of Robinson Crusoe we read: “I was born in the year 1632 in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; he got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in the country and from I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called, nay, we call ourselves, and write our name Crusoe, and so my companions always called me.”
In the periodic sentence the main idea comes last and is preceded by a series of relative introductions. This kind of sentence is often introduced by such words as that, if, since, because. The following is an example:
“That through his own folly and lack of circumspection he should have been reduced to such circumstances as to be forced to become a beggar on the streets, soliciting alms from those who had formerly been the recipients of his bounty, was a sore humiliation.”
On account of its name many are liable to think the loose sentence an undesirable form in good composition, but this should not be taken for granted. In many cases it is preferable to the periodic form.
As a general rule in speaking, as opposed to writing, the loose form is to be preferred, inasmuch as when the periodic is employed in discourse the listeners are apt to forget the introductory clauses before the final issue is reached.
Both kinds are freely used in composition, but in speaking, the loose, which makes the direct statement at the beginning, should predominate.
As to the length of sentences much depends on the nature of the composition. However the general rule may be laid down that short sentences are preferable to long ones. The tendency of the best writers of the present day is towards short, snappy, pithy sentences which rivet the attention of the reader. They adopt as their motto multum in parvo (much in little) and endeavor to pack a great deal in small space. Of course the extreme of brevity is to be avoided. Sentences can be too short, too jerky, too brittle to withstand the test of criticism. The long sentence has its place and a very important one. It is indispensable in argument and often is very necessary to description and also in introducing general principles which require elaboration. In employing the long sentence the inexperienced writer should not strain after the heavy, ponderous type. Johnson and Carlyle used such a type, but remember, an ordinary mortal cannot wield the sledge hammer of a giant. Johnson and Carlyle were intellectual giants and few can hope to stand on the same literary pedestal. The tyro in composition should never seek after the heavy style. The best of all authors in the English language for style is Addison. Macaulay says: “If you wish a style learned, but not pedantic, elegant but not ostentatious, simple yet refined, you must give your days and nights to the volumes of Joseph Addison.” The simplicity, apart from the beauty of Addison’s writings causes us to reiterate the literary commandâ€””Never use a big word when a little one will convey the same or a similar meaning.”
Macaulay himself is an elegant stylist to imitate. He is like a clear brook kissed by the noon-day sun in the shining bed of which you can see and count the beautiful white pebbles. Goldsmith is another writer whose simplicity of style charms.
The beginner should study these writers, make their works his vade mecum, they have stood the test of time and there has been no improvement upon them yet, nor is there likely to be, for their writing is as perfect as it is possible to be in the English language.
Apart from their grammatical construction there can be no fixed rules for the formation of sentences. The best plan is to follow the best authors and these masters of language will guide you safely along the way.
The paragraph may be defined as a group of sentences that are closely related in thought and which serve one common purpose. Not only do they preserve the sequence of the different parts into which a composition is divided, but they give a certain spice to the matter like raisins in a plum pudding. A solid page of printed matter is distasteful to the reader; it taxes the eye and tends towards the weariness of monotony, but when it is broken up into sections it loses much of its heaviness and the consequent lightness gives it charm, as it were, to capture the reader.
Paragraphs are like stepping-stones on the bed of a shallow river, which enable the foot passenger to skip with ease from one to the other until he gets across; but if the stones are placed too far apart in attempting to span the distance one is liable to miss the mark and fall in the water and flounder about until he is again able to get a foothold. ‘Tis the same with written language, the reader by means of paragraphs can easily pass from one portion of connected thought to another and keep up his interest in the subject until he gets to the end.
Throughout the paragraph there must be some connection in regard to the matter under consideration,â€”a sentence dependency. For instance, in the same paragraph we must not speak of a house on fire and a runaway horse unless there is some connection between the two. We must not write consecutively:
“The fire raged with fierce intensity, consuming the greater part of the large building in a short time.” “The horse took fright and wildly dashed down the street scattering pedestrians in all directions.” These two sentences have no connection and therefore should occupy separate and distinct places. But when we sayâ€””The fire raged with fierce intensity consuming the greater part of the large building in a short time and the horse taking fright at the flames dashed wildly down the street scattering pedestrians in all directions,”â€”there is a natural sequence, viz., the horse taking fright as a consequence of the flames and hence the two expressions are combined in one paragraph.
As in the case of words in sentences, the most important places in a paragraph are the beginning and the end. Accordingly the first sentence and the last should by virtue of their structure and nervous force, compel the reader’s attention. It is usually advisable to make the first sentence short; the last sentence may be long or short, but in either case should be forcible. The object of the first sentence is to state a point clearly; the last sentence should enforce it.
It is a custom of good writers to make the conclusion of the paragraph a restatement or counterpart or application of the opening.
In most cases a paragraph may be regarded as the elaboration of the principal sentence. The leading thought or idea can be taken as a nucleus and around it constructed the different parts of the paragraph. Anyone can make a context for every simple sentence by asking himself questions in reference to the sentence. Thusâ€””The foreman gave the order”â€” suggests at once several questions; “What was the order?” “to whom did he give it?” “why did he give it?” “what was the result?” etc. These questions when answered will depend upon the leading one and be an elaboration of it into a complete paragraph.
If we examine any good paragraph we shall find it made up of a number of items, each of which helps to illustrate, confirm or enforce the general thought or purpose of the paragraph. Also the transition from each item to the next is easy, natural and obvious; the items seem to come of themselves. If, on the other hand, we detect in a paragraph one or more items which have no direct bearing, or if we are unable to proceed readily from item to item, especially if we are obliged to rearrange the items before we can perceive their full significance, then we are justified in pronouncing the paragraph construction faulty.
No specific rules can be given as to the construction of paragraphs. The best advice is,â€”Study closely the paragraph structure of the best writers, for it is only through imitation, conscious or unconscious of the best models, that one can master the art.
The best paragraphist in the English language for the essay is Macaulay, the best model to follow for the oratorical style is Edmund Burke and for description and narration probably the greatest master of paragraph is the American Goldsmith, Washington Irving.
A paragraph is indicated in print by what is known as the indentation of the line, that is, by commencing it a space from the left margin.