The State of the Language: 'For the Ear Trieth Words, as the Mouth Tasteth Meat'


IT occurs to me that the French are in a superior position for appreciating their writers as bundles of definite, measurable stylistic attributes. The immediate occasion of this surmise is a rereading — not my first since 1907 — of a book in which Charles Townsend Copeland liked to rub the noses of his pupils when it was brand-new. The book is Le Travail du Style, Antoine Albalat’s very instructive conspectus of how some historically important French writers, in the process of textual revision of their manuscripts, picked over their handiwork and threw away whatever their developing taste found inadequate or antipathetic. The French have an extensive body of just such critical literature; their critics and teachers purvey exact, conveyable information about aesthetic subjects as instinctively as most of ours deal in general impression and rhapsody.

One important result is that the French seem never to have succumbed to our sentimental (and largely illusory) distinction between ‘destructive’ and ‘constructive’ criticism. They understand that a good writer is good not only by virtue of what he does, but also by virtue of what he chooses not to do. Style is the man — yes. But the man has a set of distastes as well as of tastes; the one set colors his way of expressing himself quite as affirmatively as the other; and it is therefore a hollow fallacy to classify the one sort of formative influence as positive and the other as negative. Trace for example, in the pages of Albalat, Chateaubriand’s increasing distrust of the adjective, his dislike of verbal repetition, and his more and more sensitive recoil from chance assonances between neighboring words. These are three avoidances, pet aversions — merely ‘negative’ factors; but among them they account for more of his approach to perfection than it is possible to describe in affirmations. For a contemporary instance, ponder the sharply personal effect of Ernest Hemingway’s prose and then try to tell in ‘constructive’ terms as much exactly descriptive truth about it as you can pack into the simple negative statement that its author can’t or won’t have anything to do with the complex sentence. Or conceive the effect upon Stevenson’s writing if that master of external and sensory detail had lived to realize in his own work the implications of his belated manifesto ‘Death to the optic nerve!’ — a cry uttered in purely ‘destructive’ criticism of himself when he was overcome by a sudden vision of t he moral universe, the universe of Meredith, Hardy, and Henry James, as the supreme subject for the worker in fiction. As a gentleman is said to be known by the things it is out of the question for him to do, so a writer is identifiable by all that he forgoes and outgrows. His refusals are himself; nothing about him affirms like his denials. What ultimately determines style is the faculty of criticism beginning, like charity, at home. There is no negative self-criticism if you judge by the effects.

What is true of the great stylists is just as true of the plain man giving his plain account of things as he sees them, and it can be demonstrated even more tangibly at his level than at Chateaubriand’s. I will suppose you to be so constituted that your ear is annoyed by almost any avoidable breach of the natural, idiomatic order of the declarative sentence in modern English — subject, verb, predicate. One small consequence is that as a reader you find detestable, and as a writer impossible, a sort of German-sounding and extremely bookish inversion of word-order that seems now to be more and more common in print, though in other particulars the language tends to slough off its needless complications and archaisms. The perversity I mean is represented at the simplest, most popular level by this sentence from the radio page of a newspaper: ‘His “staticless” radio seems to be getting a better start than did television in the race to the home.’ (Strict constructionists will object to this sentence because it requires the reader to understand after did a form of the verb not supplied; but let that go.) Exactly such inversions of verb and subject, usually in completing a comparison, now sprinkle half our printed pages with ugly and unnatural-sounding combinations — as does, than was, as has, and the like. ‘ But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do’ — that simple form was good enough for the translators of 1611, and I cannot see why it should not be good enough for you and me, although it is not quite good enough for a sizable quorum of editors, reporters, columnists, statisticians, advertisers, educators, and stump speakers, who would unhesitatingly call upon inversion to perfect it: ‘Use not vain repetitions, as do the heathen.’ Now, if your ear rejects that sort of inversion wherever it is avoidable, — and that is about everywhere, — then your writing will be in that one particular unimprovably spare, trim, and strong; and it will be made so by nothing in the world but a dislike. Nor is that all. Your possession of that kind of ear makes the chances a hundred to one that you similarly dislike some dozens of other common constructions containing a suggestion of bookish artifice or false dignity; and you will find that in the aggregate these dislikes have exerted an enormous influence upon the way you tend to shape your sentences. Inasmuch as the shape of the sentence is by far the greatest single factor in the whole effect of the way an individual writes, it can be said that your style is decisively conditioned by your negative tastes, your aversions — Q. E. D.

And there you have the deep philosophical justification for the old-fashioned idea of teaching rhetoric as first of all a coherent system of prohibitions. It is an idea now in general disrepute: we find it not ‘constructive.’ It has also the tremendous practical justification that what not to do can actually be taught and learned. What is more, the learner was generally at no loss to work out a positive use for the negative information. Can as much be said for a good deal of the more ‘constructive ‘ teaching now offered in its stead ?


HAD RATHER. Here are two samples of a surprisingly large collection: —

Have you slipped through a hole in your Dragnet when you use the phrase had rather? My own choice is would instead of had, in the expression of desire.

HENRY E. COBB, Bronxville, N. Y.

In the Dragnet I notice that you use the phrase I had rather. Has it become obsolete or finical to say I would rather? — JOE GARNER ESTILL, Lakeville, Conn.

As far as I know, it is would rather that is comparatively recent, had rather that is traditionary and established. If either were to be described as obsolete or finical — neither can be — it would have to be had rather, for which my knuckles are always being rapped by persons who seem to put logic above usage. Incorrigible, I find nothing improvable in ‘I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.’ The had I take for a vestigial subjunctive, akin to that of ‘I had done otherwise if . . .’ The precisians who frown upon it need look no farther than an abridged desk dictionary to remind themselves that ‘Had is used . . . for would or would have with adjectives, adverbs, or phrases of comparison, as as well, as lief, rather, better, liefer, best, liefest, to indicate preference or advisability.’