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General Grammar Notes

General Grammar Notes

The position of words in a sentence is often very important. Misplacement will frequently cause ambiguities and absurdities which punctuation will not remove. What does the phrase "I only saw him" mean? A newspaper advertisement describing a certain dog which was offered for sale says "He is thoroughly house-broken, will eat anything, is very fond of children." As a rule modifiers should be kept close to the words, clauses, or phrases which they modify, but due regard should be given to sense and to ease of expression.

A word or phrase which can be easily supplied from the context may often be omitted. Care must be used in making these omissions or the result will be either ambiguous or slovenly.

Washington is nearer New York than Chicago.

What exactly does this mean? One might get into serious trouble over the interpretation of the phrase "He likes me better than you."

<a name="Page_19">[Pg 19]All day and all night are recognized as good expressions sanctioned by long usage. All morning and all afternoon are not yet sanctioned by good usage and give a decided impression of slovenliness.

Another objectionable omission is that of to before place and similar words in such expressions as "Let's go some place" and the like. It should be to some place or, generally better, somewhere.

A decidedly offensive abbreviation is the phrase Rev. Smith. It should be Rev. John Smith or Rev. Mr. Smith. Rev. is not a title, or a noun in apposition, but an adjective. It would be entirely correct to say Pastor Smith or Bishop Smith. The same error sometimes occurs in using the prefix Hon.

A knowledge of the correct use and combination of words is fully as important as a knowledge of their grammatical forms and their relations. This knowledge should be acquired by the use of books on rhetoric and by careful study of words themselves. The materials for such study may be found in the books named in the "Supplementary Reading" or in other books of a similar character.

The task of the writer or speaker is to say what he has to say correctly, clearly, and simply. He must say just what he means. He must say it definitely and distinctly. He must say it, so far as the subject matter will permit, in words that people of ordinary intelligence and ordinary education cannot misunderstand. "The right word in the right place" should be the motto of every man who speaks or writes, and this rule should apply to his everyday talk as well as to more formal utterances.

Three abuses are to be avoided.

Do not use slang as a means of expression. There are occasions when a slang phrase may light up what you are saying or may carry it home to intellects of a certain type. Use it sparingly if at all, as you would use cayenne pepper or tabasco sauce. Do not use it in writing at all. Slang is the counterfeit coin of speech. It is a substitute, and a very poor substitute, for language. It is the refuge of those who neither understand real language nor know how to express themselves in it.

<a name="Page_20">[Pg 20]Do not use long, unusual words. Use short and simple words whenever they will serve your turn. It is a mistake to suppose that a fluent use of long words is a mark either of depth of thought or of extent of information. The following bit of nonsense is taken from the news columns of a newspaper of good standing: "The topography about Puebla avails itself easily to a force which can utilize the heights above the city with cannon." What was meant was probably something like this, "The situation of Puebla is such as to give a great advantage to a force which can plant cannon on the high ground overlooking the city."

Do not use inflated or exaggerated words.

A heavy shower is not a cloud burst; a gale is not a blizzard; a fire is not a conflagration; an accident or a defeat is not a disaster; a fatal accident is not a holocaust; a sharp criticism is not an excoriation or flaying, and so on.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things