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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 10798

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Most stories have a moral. At least grown-up people have a habit of tacking a little lesson on to the end of the stories they tell to children. And as a rule the children will listen to the moral for the sake of the story. And so even the stories which words tell us have their lessons for us too, and, let us hope, the stories are sufficiently interesting to pay for the moral.

One thing that these stories must have shown us is that the English language is a very ancient and wonderful thing. We have only been able to get mere glimpses of its wonderful development since the days when the ancestors of the peoples of Europe and many of the peoples of India spoke the one Aryan tongue. All the history of Europe and of India-we might almost say of the world-is contained in the languages which have descended from that Aryan tongue.

Another point which these stories have impressed upon us is that language is a kind of mirror to thought. For every new idea people must find a word, and as ideas change words change with them. These stories have given us some idea of the wonderful growth of ideas in the minds of men in the past; they have shown us men daring all dangers for the sake of adventure and discovery and for pride of country; they have shown us the growth of new ideas of religion and kindness, new notions about science and learning: in fact, they have given us glimpses of the whole story of human progress.

The great lesson which these stories ought to teach us is respect for words. Seeing as we do what a beautiful and wonderful thing the English language has become, it ought to be the resolution of each one of us never to do anything to spoil that beauty. Every writer ought to choose his words carefully, neither inventing nor copying ugly forms of speech. We have seen also from these stories, especially in the chapter on "Slang," how people have misused certain words, until speakers and writers of good taste can no longer use them in their original sense, and therefore do not use them at all.

There are many other faults in speaking and in writing which take away from the beauty and dignity of the language. We shall see what some of these faults are; but one golden rule can be laid down which, if people keep it, will help them to avoid all these faults. No one should ever try to write in a fine style. The chief aim which all young writers should keep before them is to say exactly what they mean, and in as few and simple words as possible. If on reading what they have written they find that it is not perfectly clear, they should not immediately begin to rewrite, but instead set themselves to find out whether their thoughts are perfectly clear.

There is no idea which has no word to fit it. Of course some writers must use difficult language. The ordinary reader can sometimes not understand a sentence of a book of philosophy. This is not because the philosophers do not write clearly, but because the ideas with which they have to deal are very subtle, and hard for the ordinary person to understand.

But for ordinary people writing on ordinary things there is no excuse for writing so as not to be clearly understood, or for writing in such a long and round-about way that people are tired instead of refreshed by reading. Nor is there any excuse for the use of words and phrases which are vulgar or too colloquial for the subject; yet how often is this done in the modern newspaper. It may seem unnecessary to speak to boys and girls of the faults of newspaper writers. But the boys and girls of to-day are the newspaper writers and readers of the future, and the habits which young writers form cling to them afterwards. Of course many of the faults which the worse kind of journalists commit in writing would not occur to boys and girls; but one fault leads to another. The motive at the root of most poor and showy writing is the desire to "shine." The faults which seem so detestable to the critical reader seem very ingenious and brilliant to the writer of poor taste. To the journalist, as to the schoolboy and the schoolgirl, the golden rule is, "Be simple."

Let us see what some of the commonest faults of showy and poor writers of English are-always with the moral before us that they are to be avoided.

One great fault of newspaper writers and of young writers in general is to sprinkle their compositions thickly with quotations, until some beautiful and expressive lines from the greatest poetry and prose have almost lost their force through the ear having become tired by hearing them too often. Some such phrases are-

"Tell it not in Gath;"

"Heap coals of fire upon his head;"

"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof:"

all fine and picturesque lines, the apt quotation of which must have been very impressive, until, through frequent repetition, they have become almost commonplace.

A similar hackneyed fault is the too frequent application of the name of some historical or Biblical personage to describe the character of some person of whom we are writing. It is much more expressive now to describe a person as a "doubter" than as a "doubting Thomas," though the latter phrase may serve to show that the writer knows something of his New Testament. The first man who called a sceptic a "doubting Thomas" was certainly a witty and cultivated person; but this cannot now be said of the use of th

is hackneyed phrase. Again, it is better to say a "traitor" than a "Judas," a "wise man" than a "Solomon," a "tyrant" than a "Nero," a "great general" than a "Napoleon;" for all these names used in this way have lost their force.

A similar fault is the describing of a person by some abstract noun such as a "joy," a "delight," an "inspiration"-a way of speaking which savours both of slang and affectation, and which is not likely to appeal to people of good taste. Of course it is quite different when the poet writes-

"She was a vision of delight;"

for poetry has its own rules, just as it has its own range of ideas and inspiration, and we are speaking now of the writing of mere prose.

Another bad fault of the same kind, but more colloquial, and more often met with in speaking than in writing, is the too frequent use of a word or phrase. Some people say "I mean," or "personally," or "I see," or "you see," or similar expressions, at nearly every second sentence, until people listening to them begin to count the number of times these expressions occur, instead of attending to the subject of conversation.

Another very common fault in writing made by newspaper writers, and even more so by young beginners in composition, is the use of long words derived from Latin instead of the simpler words which have come down from the Old English. This does not mean that these words are not so good or so beautiful as the Old English words. As we have seen, these words were borrowed by our language to express ideas for which no native word could be found. But a person who deliberately chooses long Latin words because they are longer, and, as he thinks, sound grander, is sure to write a poor style. A saying which is perhaps becoming almost as "hackneyed" as some of the quotations already mentioned in this chapter is, "The style is the man." This means that if a person thinks clearly and sincerely he will write clearly and sincerely. If a person's thoughts are lofty, he will naturally find dignified words to express them. No good writer will deliberately choose "high-sounding" words to express his ideas. All young writers should avoid what have been called "flowery flourishes."

Again, young writers should be very careful not to use really foreign words to express an idea for which we have already a good word in English. Sometimes the foreign word comes first to our pen, but this may be because of the bad habit which has grown up of using these words in place of the English words which are quite as correct and expressive. Sometimes, on the other hand, the foreign word expresses a shade of meaning which the English word misses, and then, of course, it is quite right to use it. For instance, amour propre is not in any way better than "self-love," bêtise than "stupid action," camaraderie than "comradeship," savoir faire than "knowledge of the world," chef d'?uvre than "masterpiece," and so on.

One disadvantage of borrowing such words is that they often come to be used in a different sense from their use in their native language; and people with an imperfect knowledge of these languages will say rather vulgar or shocking things when using them in the English manner in those languages. Thus, to speak of a person of a certain "calibre" in French is exceedingly vulgar; and refined people do not use the word chic as freely as the English use of it would suggest. Examples of foreign words which we could hardly replace by English expressions are blasé, tête-à-tête, brusque, bourgeois, deshabille. These have been borrowed, just as words have been borrowed all through its history, by the English language to fill gaps. They have really become English words. But there are many foreign expressions now scattered freely through newspapers the sense of which can only be plain to those who have had a classical education. Unfortunately it is only the minority of readers who have had this. The effect is to make whole passages unintelligible or only half intelligible to the majority of readers. This is not writing good English. Thus people will write le tout Paris instead of "all Paris," mémoires pour servir instead of "documents," ipsis Hibernis Hiberniores for "more Irish than the Irish." Such phrases are quite unsuitable to the general reader, and as perfect equivalents can be found in English, there would be no point in using them, even if writing for a learned society.

Modern English, and especially colloquial English, has borrowed a great deal from the American way of speaking English. The people of the United States, though their language is that of the mother-country, have modified it so that it is, as it were, a mirror of the difference between American and English life. In America there is more hurry and bustle and less dignity. It is this difference which makes Americans and the American way of speaking appear interesting and piquant to English people. But this is no good reason for the adoption of American mannerisms into the English language. A typically American word is boom, meaning a sudden coming into popularity of something. Thus one may speak of a "boom" in motors, and the word has become quite common in English; but it is not beautiful, and we could easily have done without it. Words which sound quite natural when used by Americans often seem unnecessarily "slangy" when used by English people.

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