Precision's English

LANGUAGE is a vehicle of intellectual traffic; its business is to carry ideas, mental concepts, information, and at times the truth. It is a clumsy wagon, inadequate to its purpose; indeed all of the arts are required to accomplish that purpose. Some ideas are best expressed in prose, others in verse; some by mechanical drawing, others again in paint; some in marble and others in bronze; and many find their only means of expression in music. Sometimes a glance of the eye tells the story, and at other times a gesture is enough. Sometimes it would seem that nearly all the arts are needed at once. The tale is told of a couple of partially Americanized old men of the florid East who met unexpectedly. The first cried out his happy greetings and straightway grasped his friend in a close embrace. The second was smitten with sudden aphasia; he grew red in the face, his features became contorted, and finally, with a mighty effort he brought himself to say, ‘Leggo-ma-hands-ai-vanta-talk!’ Language alone was inadequate; he needed gestures.

There is no doubt of the truth of the assertion that we do not study our language enough. Without an intimate sense of it we are nearly helpless. True, some of us seem to achieve an understanding of the anatomy of sentences almost intuitively, while others, despite intense study, are unable to bring grace and action into our speech. But no one, with a love of literature in his heart or a desire to read or to hear things said, will deny the value of the study of language to those who must use it. If we are to discuss Purism in Speech, we must assume at the outset that all parties to the discussion believe in the best possible use of language.

The point at issue, as I take it, has to do with the primary requirement of language: whether it shall carry the idea with the greatest precision, or whether the greatest effort should be directed toward making the vehicle which carries the idea a thing of faultless construction. There is a wide difference here — the difference between the wagon and its load; and we are often called upon to decide between the two. So precision in the one must often give way to precision in the other.

The purpose of language is fulfilled when an idea is carried from the mind of the speaker or the writer to the receiving mind. Now, unless language is used aright, it foments discord and often proves the greater wisdom of silence — when the speaker knows that if he but had the art, the right thing said would indeed be golden words. The lack of the art of speech is the inability to say the precise thing. Therefore, without a thorough equipment in language, the speaker is as likely to fail in saying what he means as he is to fail in constructing his speech on academic lines.

If the rule of precision in construction stands in the way of efficient expression it should be made secondary to it. Beethoven broke the rules of composition and accomplished wonders. To-day he is a classic, but in his own day he was a dreadful radical. So, too, painting would be an inefficient art now, had the best usage and the rules current at the time been followed by the masters of the brush.

In English speech the words that sin most against clear expression are adverbs. Thus under stress of dire need you may say, ‘Come here, quick!’ or ‘Come here, quickly!’ The former is theoretically incorrect, but it carries the idea. The latter is theoretically correct, but it lacks force. Adverbs are poor things compared with adjectives. Indeed, if an Anti-Adverb Society should ever be organized, I desire to record here and now an application for membership. It might worry us a little to read: —

Take her up tender,
Lift her with care!
Fashioned so slender,
Young and so fair.

but that is only because we are accustomed to the adverbs. The meaning is all there without the adverb forms. I pick up a book from my library table by an author of merit and read ‘refreshingly,’ ‘flamingly,’ ‘purringly,’ ‘noisily,’ besides many other of less offense in half a score of pages. What sickly, puling words they are! Henry James uses adverbs of his own make in even greater abundance and he seems to need them, just as the old gentleman from the florid East needed his hands for gesticulation. But we shall do well to grant to Mr. James all the adverbial privileges he takes; he manages to conceive ideas, and through the medium of written language to get them over into the understanding of many of us who take great delight in them. I do not like his adverbs, and I often wish that he would adjust his ideas with wings that fluttered less — but that is his business; and his desire for truth in his art doubtless leads him to cover all the ground — and the waters under the earth as well. The Anti-Adverb Society would never prohibit adverbs if it expected to live; it would only discourage them. The Germans manage to accomplish a meritorious precision of speech, and they have no adverbs in the sense that these differ from adjectives. So if the expression, ‘Come quick,’ means more than ‘Come quickly,’ the chances are that in time we shall receive grammatical warrant to use the words that carry the idea with the greatest efficiency.

The English language leads a dissolute life, and welcomes any word that comes its way. There have always been bars-sinister on its arms, but this has never seemed to worry it. In the Far East there are hundreds of Asiatic words in current use in English and they are gradually creeping into the dictionaries. This catholicity — to use a more gentle expression — is its very strength. The danger may lie in a splitting-up of the language into different dialects, and it is the business of scholarship to use every effort to avoid this. But in doing so it must be prepared to make compromises, and to welcome expressions which our grandfathers would have rejected. Do what we please — teach, instruct, threaten, cajole, or plead: nine out of ten boys will answer, ‘It’s me!’ to the question, ‘Who’s there?’ There must be a reason for this. The French, who are supposed to pay some attention to their language, use the same form, — and it has received scholastic approval. ‘Me’ seems, somehow, more intimate, and is stronger than ‘ I ’; which may be the reason why the child will say, ‘Me go to mother,’ and not, ‘Give it to I.’

Scholarship has changed in the last fifty years. Science has taught us different methods of thought from those of our grandfathers. We have innumerable new facts to coördinate, and so language is beset, with many new difficulties. It is not a question of haste,— that persistent and pestilent excuse of the ignorant, — but it is a question of scope, efficiency, and precision in idea. Whatever words will best carry the idea — get it over, so that the receiving mind comprehends it — are doing their real work.

When the time comes that we have used up our resources, and in the swing of the awful pendulum old age is upon the land and the people, and this our day is become a golden age; when scholarship looks backward again and inspiration is wholly sought in the forgotten night, savants will probably revert to the ways of the mediæval Latinists. But now, to-day, when things arc in the making and in the doing, the work of a teacher of a living language is that of an engineer of traffic. He must do all he can to keep the vehicle in order and condition to carry the greatest loads of thought. The vehicle will not break down; the loads of thought may.