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- The Philosophy of Style - 3/7 -


§ 18. In this case, were the first two clauses, up to the word "I practice "inclusive, which qualify the subject, to be placed at the end instead of the beginning, much of the force would be lost; as thus:--"The French idea of liberty is--the right of every man to be master of the rest; in practice at least, if not in theory."

§ 19. Similarly with respect to the conditions under which any fact is predicated. Observe in the following example the effect of putting them last:--"How immense would be the stimulus to progress, were the honour now given to wealth and title given exclusively to high achievements and intrinsic worth!"

§ 20. And then observe the superior effect of putting them first:--"Were the honour now given to wealth and title given exclusively to high achievements and intrinsic worth, how immense would be the stimulus to progress!"

§ 21. The effect of giving priority to the complement of the predicate, as well as the predicate itself, is finely displayed in the opening of ‘Hyperion’:

"_Deep in the shady sadness of a vale Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn, Far from the fiery noon and eve’s one star Sat_ gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone."

Here it will be observed, not only that the predicate "sat" precedes the subject "Saturn," and that the three lines in italics, constituting the complement of the predicate, come before it; but that in the structure of that complement also, the same order is followed: each line being so arranged that the qualifying words are placed before the words suggesting concrete images.

§ 22. The right succession of the principal and subordinate propositions in a sentence manifestly depends on the same law. Regard for economy of the recipient’s attention, which, as we find, determines the best order for the subject, copula, predicate and their complements, dictates that the subordinate proposition shall precede the principal one when the sentence includes two. Containing, as the subordinate proposition does, some qualifying or explanatory idea, its priority prevents misconception of the principal one; and therefore saves the mental effort needed to correct such misconception. This will be seen in the annexed example: "The secrecy once maintained in respect to the parliamentary debates, is still thought needful in diplomacy; and in virtue of this secret diplomacy, England may any day be unawares betrayed by its ministers into a war costing a, hundred thousand lives, and hundreds of millions of treasure: yet the English pique themselves on being a self-governed people." The two subordinate propositions, ending with the semicolon and colon respectively, almost wholly determine the meaning of the principal proposition with which it concludes; and the effect would be lost were they placed last instead of first.

§ 23. The general principle of right arrangement in sentences, which we have traced in its application to the leading divisions of them, equally determines the proper order of their minor divisions. In every sentence of any complexity the complement to the subject contains several clauses, and that to the predicate several others; and these may be arranged in greater or less conformity to the law of easy apprehension. Of course with these, as with the larger members, the succession should be from the less specific to the more specific--from the abstract to the concrete.

§ 24. Now, however, we must notice a further condition to be fulfilled in the proper construction of a sentence; but still a condition dictated by the same general principle with the other: the condition, namely, that the words and expressions most nearly related in thought shall be brought the closest together. Evidently the single words, the minor clauses, and the leading divisions of every proposition, severally qualify each other. The longer the time that elapses between the mention of any qualifying member and the member qualified, the longer must the mind be exerted in carrying forward the qualifying member ready for use. And the more numerous the qualifications to be simultaneously remembered and rightly applied, the greater will be the mental power expended, and the smaller the effect produced. Hence, other things equal, force will be gained by so arranging the members of a sentence that these suspensions shall at any moment be the fewest in number; and shall also be of the shortest duration. The following is an instance of defective combination:--"A modern newspaper-statement, though probably true, would be laughed at if quoted in a book as testimony; but the letter of a court gossip is thought good historical evidence, if written some centuries ago." A rearrangement of this, in accordance with the principle indicated above, will be found to increase the effect. Thus:--"Though probably true, a modern newspaper-statement quoted in a book as testimony, would be laughed at; but the letter of a court gossip, if written some centuries ago, is thought good historical evidence."

§ 25. By making this change, some of the suspensions are avoided and others shortened; while there is less liability to produce premature conceptions. The passage quoted below from ‘Paradise Lost’ affords a fine instance of a sentence well arranged; alike in the priority of the subordinate members, in the avoidance of long and numerous suspensions, and in the correspondence between the order of the clauses and the sequence of the phenomena described, which, by the way, is a further prerequisite to easy comprehension, and therefore to effect.

"As when a prowling wolf, Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey, Watching where shepherds pen their flocks at eye, In hurdled cotes amid the field secure, Leaps o’er the fence with ease into the fold; Or as a thief, bent to unhoard the cash Of some rich burgher, whose substantial doors, Cross-barr’d, and bolted fast, fear no assault, In at the window climbs, or o’er the tiles; So clomb this first grand thief into God’s fold; So since into his church lewd hirelings climb."

§ 26. The habitual use of sentences in which all or most of the descriptive and limiting elements precede those described and limited, gives rise to what is called the inverted style: a title which is, however, by no means confined to this structure, but is often used where the order of the words is simply unusual. A more appropriate title would be the _direct style,_ as contrasted with the other, or _indirect style_: the peculiarity of the one being, that it conveys each thought into the mind step by step with little liability to error; and of the other, that it gets the right thought conceived by a series of approximations.

§ 27. The superiority of the direct over the indirect form of sentence, implied by the several conclusions that have been drawn, must not, however, be affirmed without reservation. Though, up to a certain point, it is well for the qualifying clauses of a period to precede those qualified; yet, as carrying forward each qualifying clause costs some mental effort, it follows that when the number of them and the time they are carried become great, we reach a limit beyond which more is lost than is gained. Other things equal, the arrangement should be such that no concrete image shall be suggested until the materials out of which it is to be made have been presented. And yet, as lately pointed out, other things equal, the fewer the materials to be held at once, and the shorter the distance they have to be borne, the better. Hence in some cases it becomes a question whether most mental effort will be entailed by the many and long suspensions, or by the correction of successive misconceptions.

§ 28. This question may sometimes be decided by considering the capacity of the persons addressed. A greater grasp of mind is required for the ready comprehension of thoughts expressed in the direct manner, where the sentences are anywise intricate. To recollect a number of preliminaries stated in elucidation of a coming idea, and to apply them all to the formation of it when suggested, demands a good memory and considerable power of concentration. To one possessing these, the direct method will mostly seem the best; while to one deficient in them it will seem the worst. Just as it may cost a strong man less effort to carry a hundred-weight from place to place at once, than by a stone at a time; so, to an active mind it may be easier to bear along all the qualifications of an idea and at once rightly form it when named, than to first imperfectly conceive such idea and then carry back to it, one by one, the details and limitations afterwards mentioned. While conversely, as for a boy, the only possible mode of transferring a hundred-weight, is that of taking it in portions; so, for a weak mind, the only possible mode of forming a compound conception may be that of building it up by carrying separately its several parts.

§ 29. That the indirect method--the method of conveying the meaning by a series of approximations--is best fitted for the uncultivated, may indeed be inferred from their habitual use of it. The form of expression adopted by the savage, as in "Water, give me," is the simplest type of the approximate arrangement. In pleonasms, which are comparatively prevalent among the uneducated, the same essential structure is seen; as, for instance, in--"The men, they were there." Again, the old possessive case --"The king, his crown," conforms to the like order of thought. Moreover, the fact that the indirect mode is called the natural one, implies that it is the one spontaneously employed by the common people: that is--the one easiest for undisciplined minds.

§ 30. There are many cases, however, in which neither the direct nor the indirect structure is the best; but where an intermediate structure is preferable to both. When the number of circumstances and qualifications to be included in the sentence is great, the most judicious course is neither to enumerate them all before introducing the idea to which they belong, nor to put this idea first and let it be remodeled to agree with the particulars afterwards mentioned; but to do a little of each. Take a case. It is desirable to avoid so extremely indirect an arrangement as the following:--"We came to our journey’s end, at last, with no small difficulty after much fatigue, through deep roads, and bad weather." Yet to transform this into an entirely direct sentence would not produce a satisfactory effect; as witness:--"At last, with no small difficulty, after much fatigue, through deep roads, and bad weather, we came to our journey’s end."

§ 31. Dr. Whately, from whom we quote the first of these two arrangements,’ proposes this construction:--"At last, after much fatigue, through deep roads and bad weather, we came, with no small difficulty, to our journey’s end." Here it will be observed that by introducing the words "we came" a little earlier in the sentence, the labour of carrying forward so many particulars is diminished, and the subsequent qualification "with no small difficulty" entails an addition to the thought that is very easily made. But a further improvement may be produced by introducing the words "we came" still earlier; especially if at the same time the qualifications be rearranged in conformity with the principle already explained, that the more abstract elements of the thought


The Philosophy of Style - 3/7

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