Penalties of Precision


DOES it pay to be good ? We are all struggling on a darkling plain if we do not think so. Is there any reward for precision in the use of language ? I sorrowfully confess that I have never found any. Let me assure you at the beginning that I have, as we are fond of saying in my part of the country, “no kicks coming.” I have not a single rejected manuscript in my cupboard, and in all ways my outlook on life is cheerful. You might say, if I were to throw down my mask, that I am no credible witness, and not entitled to a seat at this board; and yet, to cite Falstaff, he only hath Honour that died o’ Wednesday, and as I write on Monday there are, perhaps, only two days intervening between me and the goal. It was thumped into me in my youth that although I might speak with the tongue of Chrysostom and yet had not accuracy, my utterances would be merely the hollow clang of beaten brass or the silly tinkle of shaken cymbals. So I burned much midnight tallow in pursuit of a method. I played the sedulous ape to royalty at the court of letters ; I carried water for the elephants of precision until my back ached; and it profited me,– not at all! One of my literary neighbors, whose name is familiar to students of “ best selling ” lists, says that polishing and revising bore him; he has a typewriter copyist that does all this to his entire satisfaction. He is a wise man in his generation, and the time he saves by avoiding the drudgery of the desk he needs for the clipping of coupons.

In my own case, I am like the boy that spent a week studying law, and then, on giving it up, said he was sorry he had learned it! I will not say that I am sorry I was ever so foolish as to take pains, but I am a good deal less enthusiastic over art for art’s sake than I was in the good old summer time of my youth. Having, several years ago, written a little book at a considerable cost of time and money, and with no thought of pecuniary return, I posted a few copies off to literary friends and sat down to wait. I did not care whether I pleased the public or not; but I did care to please a few of the People That Know. My first acknowledgment came from a man of fastidious taste, who writes always with grace and sometimes with charm. He liked my book well enough ; but it pained him to note my misuse of the word avocation. Otherwise he thought the book creditable. Now I had written the sentence in which the offending noun occurred with a feeling of triumph. Did I not know the difference between avocation and vocation ? I certainly did, and I had used avocation as the purists direct. Since then I have had other maddening experiences of the same kind. I find that it is extremely hazardous to use certain words and phrases that have been marked with the red flag of danger by the compilers of books on “ English as She Should Be Written.” The word transpire, for example, always arrests the eye of the fussy editor or the nervous proofreader. I have grown tired of having it queried on my proofs, and I shall never use it again.

The same dread hangs over epithet. Because many people have heard that the word is misused, without remembering wherein or why, it is safer to avoid it altogether ; and it is really of no use to try to distinguish between sarcasm and irony, unless you are willing to state in a footnote that you own a copy of A Million Words Misused, and know what you are doing. A friend, who is famous for his writings in one of our American dialects, tells me that his literary career has been one long struggle to get his manuscripts printed correctly. Certain elisions are not always observed in this dialect, even in the same word when repeated in a single sentence, but may yield to exact literary usage, following, in fact, some rough law of rustic taste. But this is something that my friend has had to explain and defend through many years. A member of the faculty of an ancient and honorable institution of learning, who once read over a set of my proofs, evidently had never heard the phrase, “ judicial knowledge ” as commonly used, and suggested that I use judicious knowledge instead ! I sat for a time under the preaching of a clergyman who, on one occasion, built a long sermon on two lines of Tennyson, which he misquoted thus:—

“ And one far-off divine intent
To which the whole creation moves.”

I suspect my fellow parishioners of rank Philistinism, and doubt whether any one shared my misery at hearing these lines repeated and played on thunderously for thirty minutes. But I am older now, and I can see that exact quotations are dangerous; they may lead one into schism and heresy. It is better to be steadfast in error than to take any chance of being misunderstood ; — better a speculation about an intention than a description of a real event!

There are people that think they are masters of all the arts if they have trained themselves to flinch at the sight of a split infinitive, and others that are greatly concerned lest the adverb usurp the office of the adjective ; and from these and their kind I devoutly pray to be delivered, for they are usually the ones that really know little and are sure of nothing when pressed for reasons. And so it goes. Why, I ask, when nobody really knows, should one trouble about precision ? Your answer, O patient sharpener of pencils, that it is enough if we satisfy our own consciences, fills me with weariness ; for we do not put on our good clothes to please our private mirrors, but that we may stand in the glare of the lime light and be admired by many.