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The Art of Writing and Speaking the English Language

by Sherwin Cody

If there is a subject of really universal interest and utility, it is the art of writing and speaking one's own language effectively. It is the basis of culture, as we all know; but it is infinitely more than that: it is the basis of business. No salesman can sell anything unless he can explain the merits of his goods in effective English (among our people), or can write an advertisement equally effective, or present his ideas, and the facts, in a letter. Indeed, the way we talk, and write letters, largely determines our success in life.

Now it is well for us to face at once the counter-statement that the most ignorant and uncultivated men often succeed best in business, and that misspelled, ungrammatical advertisements have brought in millions of dollars. It is an acknowledged fact that our business circulars and letters are far inferior in correctness to those of Great Britain; yet they are more effective in getting business. As far as spelling is concerned, we know that some of the masters of literature have been atrocious spellers and many suppose that when one can sin in such company, sinning is, as we might say, a “beauty spot”, a defect in which we can even take pride.

Let us examine the facts in the case more closely. First of all, language is no more than a medium; it is like air to the creatures of the land or water to fishes. If it is perfectly clear and pure, we do not notice it any more than we notice pure air when the sun is shining in a clear sky, or the taste of pure cool water when we drink a glass on a hot day. Unless the sun is shining, there is no brightness; unless the water is cool, there is no refreshment. The source of all our joy in the landscape, of the luxuriance of fertile nature, is the sun and not the air. Nature would be more prodigal in Mexico than in Greenland, even if the air in Mexico were as full of soot and smoke as the air of Pittsburg{h}, or loaded with the acid from a chemical factory. So it is with language. Language is merely a medium for thoughts, emotions, the intelligence of a finely wrought brain, and a good mind will make far more out of a bad medium than a poor mind will make out of the best. A great violinist will draw such music from the cheapest violin that the world is astonished. However is that any reason why the great violinist should choose to play on a poor violin; or should one say nothing of the smoke nuisance in Chicago because more light and heat penetrate its murky atmosphere than are to be found in cities only a few miles farther north? The truth is, we must regard the bad spelling nuisance, the bad grammar nuisance, the inártistic and rambling language nuisance, precisely as we would the smoke nuisance, the sewer-gas nuisance, the stock-yards' smell nuisance. Some dainty people prefer pure air and correct language; but we now recognize that purity is something more than an esthetic fad, that it is essential to our health and well-being, and therefore it becomes a matter of universal public interest, in language as well as in air.

There is a general belief that while bad air may be a positive evil influence, incorrect use of language is at most no more than a negative evil: that while it may be a good thing to be correct, no special harm is involved in being incorrect. Let us look into this point.

While language as the medium of thought may be compared to air as the medium of the sun's influence, in other respects it is like the skin of the body; a scurvy skin shows bad blood within, and a scurvy language shows inaccurate thought and a confused mind. And as a disease once fixed on the skin reacts and poisons the blood in turn as it has first been poisoned by the blood, so careless use of language if indulged reacts on the mind to make it permanently and increasingly careless, illogical, and inaccurate in its thinking.

The ordinary person will probably not believe this, because he conceives of good use of language as an accomplishment to be learned from books, a prim system of genteel manners to be put on when occasion demands, a sort of superficial education in the correct thing, or, as the boys would say, “the proper caper.” In this, however, he is mistaken. Language which expresses the thought with strict logical accuracy is correct language, and language which is sufficiently rich in its resources to express thought fully, in all its lights and bearings, is effective language. If the writer or speaker has a sufficient stock of words and forms at his disposal, he has only to use them in a strictly logical way and with sufficient fulness to be both correct and effective. If his mind can always be trusted to work accurately, he need not know a word of grammar except what he has imbibed unconsciously in getting his stock of words and expressions. Formal grammar is purely for critical purposes. It is no more than a standard measuring stick by which to try the work that has been done and find out if it is imperfect at any point. Of course constant correction of inaccuracies schools the mind and puts it on its guard so that it will be more careful the next time it attempts expression; but we cannot avoid the conclusion that if the mind lacks material, lacks knowledge of the essential elements of the language, it should go to the original source from which it got its first supply, namely to reading and hearing that which is acknowledged to be correct and sufficient?as the child learns from its mother. All the scholastic and analytic grammar in the world will not enrich the mind in language to any appreciable extent.

And now we may consider another objector, who says, “I have studied grammar for years and it has done me no good.” In view of what has just been said, we may easily concede that such is very likely to have been the case. A measuring stick is of little value unless you have something to measure. Language cannot be acquired, only tested, by analysis, and grammar is an analytic, not a constructive science.

We have compared bad use of language to a scurvy condition of the skin. To cure the skin we must doctor the blood; and to improve the language we should begin by teaching the mind to think. But that, you will say, is a large undertaking. Yes, but after all it is the most direct and effective way. All education should be in the nature of teaching the mind to think, and the teaching of language consists in teaching thinking in connection with word forms and expression through language. The unfortunate thing is that teachers of language have failed to go to the root of the trouble, and enormous effort has counted for nothing, and besides has led to discouragement.

The American people are noted for being hasty in all they do. Their manufactures are quickly made and cheap. They have not hitherto had time to secure that perfection in minute details which constitutes “quality.” The slow-going Europeans still excel in nearly all fine and high-grade forms of manufacture?fine pottery, fine carpets and rugs, fine cloth, fine bronze and other art wares. In our language, too, we are hasty, and therefore imperfect. Fine logical accuracy requires more time than we have had to give to it, and we read the newspapers, which are very poor models of language, instead of books, which should be far better. Our standard of business letters is very low. It is rare to find a letter of any length without one or more errors of language, to say nothing of frequent errors in spelling made by ignorant stenographers and not corrected by the business men who sign the letters.

But a change is coming over us. We have suddenly taken to reading books, and while they are not always the best books, they are better than newspapers. And now a young business man feels that it is distinctly to his advantage if he can dictate a thoroughly good letter to his superior or to a well informed customer. Good letters raise the tone of a business house, poor letters give the idea that it is a cheapjack concern. In social life, well written letters, like good conversational powers, bring friends and introduce the writer into higher circles. A command of language is the index of culture, and the uneducated man or woman who has become wealthy or has gained any special success is eager to put on this wedding garment of refinement. If he continues to regard a good command of language as a wedding garment, he will probably fail in his effort; but a few will discover the way to self-education and actively follow it to its conclusion adding to their first success this new achievement.

But we may even go farther. The right kind of language-teaching will also give us power, a kind of eloquence, a skill in the use of words, which will enable us to frame advertisements which will draw business, letters which will win customers, and to speak in that elegant and forceful way so effective in selling goods. When all advertisements are couched in very imperfect language, and all business letters are carelessly written, of course no one has an advantage over another, and a good knowledge and command of language would not be much of a recommendation to a business man who wants a good assistant. But when a few have come in and by their superior command of language gained a distinct advantage over rivals, then the power inherent in language comes into universal demand——the business standard is raised. There are many signs now that the business standard in the use of language is being distinctly raised. Already a stenographer who does not make errors commands a salary from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. higher than the average, and is always in demand. Advertisement writers must have not only business instinct but language instinct, and knowledge of correct, as well as forceful, expression{.}

Granted, then, that we are all eager to better our knowledge of the
English language, how shall we go about it?

There are literally thousands of published books devoted to the study and teaching of our language. In such a flood it would seem that we should have no difficulty in obtaining good guides for our study.

But what do we find? We find spelling-books filled with lists of words to be memorized; we find grammars filled with names and definitions of all the different forms which the language assumes; we find rhetorics filled with the names of every device ever employed to give effectiveness to language; we find books on literature filled with the names, dates of birth and death, and lists of works, of every writer any one ever heard of: and when we have learned all these names we are no better off than when we started. It is true that in many of these books we may find prefaces which say, “All other books err in clinging too closely to mere system, to names; but we will break away and give you the real thing.” But they don't do it; they can't afford to be too radical, and so they merely modify in a few details the same old system, the system of names. Yet it is a great point gained when the necessity for a change is realized.

How, then, shall we go about our mastery of the English language?

Modern science has provided us a universal method by which we may study and master any subject. As applied to an art, this method has proved highly successful in the case of music. It has not been applied to language because there was a well fixed method of language study in existence long before modern science was even dreamed of, and that ancient method has held on with wonderful tenacity. The great fault with it is that it was invented to apply to languages entirely different from our own. Latin grammar and Greek grammar were mechanical systems of endings by which the relationships of words were indicated. Of course the relationship of words was at bottom logical, but the mechanical form was the chief thing to be learned. Our language depends wholly (or very nearly so) on arrangement of words, and the key is the logical relationship. A man who knows all the forms of the Latin or Greek language can write it with substantial accuracy; but the man who would master the English language must go deeper, he must master the logic of sentence structure or word relations. We must begin our study at just the opposite end from the Latin or Greek; but our teachers of language have balked at a complete reversal of method, the power of custom and time has been too strong, and in the matter of grammar we are still the slaves of the ancient world. As for spelling, the irregularities of our language seem to have driven us to one sole method, memorizing: and to memorize every word in a language is an appalling task. Our rhetoric we have inherited from the middle ages, from scholiasts, refiners, and theological logicians, a race of men who got their living by inventing distinctions and splitting hairs. The fact is, prose has had a very low place in the literature of the world until within a century; all that was worth saying was said in poetry, which the rhetoricians were forced to leave severely alone, or in oratory, from which all their rules were derived; and since written prose language became a universal possession through the printing press and the newspaper we have been too busy to invent a new rhetoric.

Now, language is just as much a natural growth as trees or rocks or human bodies, and it can have no more irregularities, even in the matter of spelling, than these have. Science would laugh at the notion of memorizing every individual form of rock. It seeks the fundamental laws, it classifies and groups, and even if the number of classes or groups is large, still they have a limit and can be mastered. Here we have a solution of the spelling problem. In grammar we find seven fundamental logical relationships, and when we have mastered these and their chief modifications and combinations, we have the essence of grammar as truly as if we knew the name for every possible combination which our seven fundamental relationships might have. Since rhetoric is the art of appealing to the emotions and intelligence of our hearers, we need to know, not the names of all the different artifices which may be employed, but the nature and laws of emotion and intelligence as they may be reached through language; for if we know what we are hitting at, a little practice will enable us to hit accurately; whereas if we knew the name of every kind of blow, and yet were ignorant of the thing we were hitting at, namely the intelligence and emotion of our fellow man, we would be forever striking into the air,?striking cleverly perhaps, but ineffectively.

Having got our bearings, we find before us a purely practical problem, that of leading the student through the maze of a new science and teaching him the skill of an old art, exemplified in a long line of masters.

By way of preface we may say that the mastery of the English language (or any language) is almost the task of a lifetime. A few easy lessons will have no effect. We must form a habit of language study that will grow upon us as we grow older, and little by little, but never by leaps, shall we mount up to the full expression of all that is in us.