no previous Next next

 image pending 167

American Review.

A rt . LIV.

Thoughts on Style

YOUR remarks upon the style
of some English historians,
have suggested an inquiry to me,
which I wish to lay before your
readers. What author, or what
composition in the English lan-
guage is freest from defect, and most
deserves to be studied as a model?

I scarcely know any question of
more difficult solution. My own
opinion has, indeed, been long since
formed; but I am conscious that
this opinion is, in some sort, the
birth of accident, and if called up-
on to justify it, should be somewhat
at a loss to enumerate the reasons
of my choice.

Style, like most other things, is
a complicated structure. It exhibits
various properties, which cannot
be easily defined and accurately de-
nominated. Each of these proper-
ties exists in different degrees of ex-
cellence and strength; and, in com-
paring these properties with each
other, a scale might perhaps be
formed exhibiting their relative
value and importance.

Science consists in analizing the
Structure of any object into parts
or properties, in assigning names
to these parts, and in rigorously de-

fining these names. This, with
regard to style, has been imperfect-
ly attempted by Dr. Blair. This
author’s performance, though in
many respects superficial and inac-
curate, is greatly and deservedly
popular. Whatever objection I
may have to his arrangement, I am
by no means qualified, by abilities
or leisure, to invent a better. Let
us recollect, for a moment, his
analysis of style.

Style divides itself, according to
him, into three primary parts or
properties: perspicuity, strength,
and harmony. These may again
be subdivided into several depart-
ments. Perspicuity has three in-
gredients, purity, propriety, and
precision. Harmony and strength
stand in opposition to many quali-
ties which are clearly defined.

In weighing the merits of a wri-
ter, we are obliged to prefer him
who possesses most of the good pro-
perties of composition, and fewest
of the bad. Perhaps, if we were
to form a table or catalogue of these
properties, and laying a book before
us, read it attentively and frequent-
ly, having, at each reading, an ex-
clusive view to one property of style
according to its order in the cata-
logue, we might be able to form a
plausible conclusion.

For example; let the book be the
life of Savage, the romance of Ras-
selas, or the senatorial controversy,
on the deposition of Sir Robert
Walpole from the post of Prime
Minister, by Samuel Johnson.

Perspicuity being the most es-
sential quality of composition, let it
be asked what are the claims of the
book to the praise of perspicuity?
To solve this question it is requisite
to have in mind the various ingre-
dients of perspicuity; and, in the
first place, to inquire how far the
style is pure . Purity implies the
absence of several things; and first,
it is incompatible with foreign idi-
oms and terms. English style is

 image pending 168

liable to contamination in this re-
pect, from three sources, Latin,
Scottish, and French. Johnson has
been much censured for latinity,
but without waiting to discuss the
exact value of this objection, sup-
posing it just; and without denying
the excessive latinity of some of
Johnson’s compositions, it may safe-
ly be affirmed that these three works
are wholly free from it.

The most popular British writers
are natives of Scotland, and their
best works are not free from Scot-
ticisms. Many of these writers
have either been much conversant
with French authors, or been long
resident in France. This source
of impurity is exceedingly prolific,
and all the current compositions
are copiously infected with Galli-
cism; but neither Scotticisms nor
Gallicisms are discoverable in
Johnson’s page.

A second source of impurity, is
the use of new-fangled terms. On
this head, it is not easy to form
satisfactory conclusions. Language
is essentially mutable. Each day
adds some new, and modifies the
meaning of some old term. If we
address contemporaries, why not use
the language to which contempora-
ries are accustomed?

Considerable attention to the sub-
ject is necessary to show us the im-
mense innovations that the lapse of
fifty years has produced in our lan-
guage. Idioms and terms are now
found plentifully scattered over the
most popular modern books, which
are never to be met with in the
pages of Addison and Swift, of John-
son and Hawkesworth. I confess
myself inclined to consider John-
son’s composition as a model and
criterion in this respect. He that
uses words which this writer uses,
will never be accused of adopting
new-fangled terms, and terms with
new meanings. He will never say
novel for new, description for kind,
idea for subject, or opinion, or thing,

and a thousand other of yesterday’s

The third source of impurity is
the use of obsolete terms; which,
indeed, is a fault rarely committed,
and which cannot be imputed to
Johnson. Whatever therefore de-
bases the purity of style, is not
to be found in either of the above-
mentioned works.

Propriety is a second ingredient
of perspicuity, and implies the ab-
sence of low, vulgar, and colloquial
expressions. We need not hesitate
to affirm that, in this respect, John-
son is without a competitor. His
elevation and refinement are abso-
lute and uniform, and are blended
with simplicity and ease; if not in
all his compositions, at least, in the
life of Savage. The vehemence of
eloquence, and the dignity of nar-
rative, were never exhibited with
more felicity than in the speeches,
and in Rasselas.

Precision is the last and most es-
sential quality. This consists in
the use of words that exactly con-
vey our meaning, and that express
neither more nor less than our
meaning. No attainment is more
difficult than this. Precision re-
quires that absolute command of
language should be united with
the utmost cogency and clearness of
thought. In this respect, beyond
all others, the style of Johnson is
unblemished. His style is lumi-
nous and transparent, and his ex-
cellence, in this respect, is so great
that it perpetually presses itself up-
on our appreciation.

The use of ambiguous words,
words that express more than we
intend, of less than we intend, or of
something different, are all devi-
ations from precision. The preva-
lence of these faults in most com-
positions is enormous, though this
is no subject of wonder, consider-
ing the imperfection of the human

The accuracy of Johnson’s con-

 image pending 169

ceptions, on every subject which
he thought proper to treat, is uni-
versally acknowledged. Hence
arises the precision of his style, in
consequence of which nothing is
deficient or redundant. No useless
or unmeaning epithets, and no re-
petitions or extensions of phrase for
the sake of harmony, occur.

Precision is chiefly violated by
the improper use of what are called
synonymous terms. This fault
arises from ignorance in the writer,
but commonly escapes detection;
because the writer and the reader
are, for the most part, equally ig-
norant. A cogent and vehement
thinker is not necessarily invested
with command of language. He
may, therefore, incessantly violate
precision; and so far will be feeble
and obscure: yet, notwithstanding
this defect, his genius will shine
forth with considerable lustre.

In modern times, no two men
have been more eminent for variety,
and depth of knowledge, and ar-
dour, and versatility of genius, than
Johnson and Edmund Burke. The
latter is a singular example of one
who unites powerful conceptions
and splendid images with almost
every defect in style. He vies with
the most vulgar writer in contempt
of purity, and neglect of precision.
His page is stuffed with colloquial
barbarisms, foreign and new-fangled
terms, repetitions, obscurities, and

Johnson, on the contrary, dis-
plays consummate correctness and
perspicuity. All that is wanting
in the other is possessed by him.
To lofty sentiments and splendid
images, are added all the graces

of propriety and purity, and all the
force of precision.*

As to harmony and strength of
style, I believe the superiority of
Johnson, in these respects, might
be easily proved, but I have al-
ready trespassed too long on the
patience of your readers, and shall
therefore dismiss the subject with
observing that this disquisition has
confirmed me in my belief of the
pre-eminence of Johnson among
English writers. I hope your rea-
ders will concur with me.

no previous Next next