The morbid state of modern English prose is generally recognized by competent judges. ‘Mr. Bevan was right’, says Professor Phillimore in the preface to his translation of Propertius, ‘when he argued that the present state of the language is peculiarly favorable to translators. The incipient senile ataxy of English restores us something of the receptiveness which in the Elizabethans was an effect of juvenal elasticity.’ If this judgement is true, it is apparent that any beauty in modern English prose can be only the beauty of decay; and the supposed imbecility of modern English can be only one symptom of a deep-seated national corruption. More sanguine censors of modern tendencies may hope that the maladies under which most modern writing labors are due to temporary causes, to preoccupation and negligence which may in time be cured.
An examination of everyday speech will perhaps suggest that it is our written rather than our colloquial English that betrays the languor of senility. The spoken English of all classes is now commonly most invertebrate and flaccid when it relies upon a literary tradition to which it owes no more than a formal allegiance; and most virile when it trusts its native wit and coins phrases from the accidents of daily life or borrows them from foreign experience. The modern Englishman in his talk pays little regard to propriety of diction; he is ignorant of etymology and careless of euphony; but he has a keen sense of the picturesque, and a significant interest in phonetics. The inherited modes of expression have ceased to interest him; and accordingly the ordinary journalistic English, which is almost purely traditional, is not merely decadent; it is formless, incurious and lifeless. Soldiers’ letters, which are a kind of journalism, are one-half formulary. ‘I take great pleasure in writing these few lines in answer to your welcome letter.’ The remainder is mainly an echo of the popular newspapers; only an insignificant fraction reflects the writer’s natural and nervous speech.
The decline of literary English is not recent; it has been going on for more than a century. Written English reached its highest general level in the latter part of the eighteenth century. That age, like the Augustan age of Rome, which also reached a high level of literary form, was an age in which it seemed to the orthodox majority that human discovery and development had gone nearly as far as they were likely to go; that the great discoveries had been made, and the fundamental doctrines of science and religion established. It remained only to elaborate details, to put the coping-stone on the wall of knowledge. Men were thus at liberty to study the vehicle of accepted truth, and to add elegance to knowledge which no longer needed support. Johnson once believed it possible, by judicious selection from the works of approved writers, to standardize an English vocabulary which would need no innovation, and would allow expression to any ideas that might require it.
What is called the Romantic Revival was, as it affected English prose style, not a revival but a revolt. The poets, indeed, by drawing on the past and the present, were able to enrich the poetic vocabulary and to burst the narrow metrical banks in which poetry had been condemned to flow. But the prose revolutionists of the early nineteenth century were rather iconoclasts than builders. The revolt was a real revolt. In the half-century which followed the death of Johnson old idols had been shattered, and men’s minds were seething with new ideas. But the instrument of language is a thing in its nature traditional. It is easily damaged, and painfully mended. Lamb and his contemporaries did much to impair its structure, and what they destroyed they did not rebuild. Their writing, great and vital as it is, was therefore in its formal aspect rather decadent than renascent. The most popular qualities of their style, its delicate allusiveness and wealth of reminiscence, are characteristic of a silver age.
The formlessness which is incipient in the essayists of the early nineteenth century was rapidly aggravated. The results may be studied in the writings of some of the most popular of the Victorian novelists. What has been admired or derided as the style of Charles Dickens does not deserve to be called a style. It is a mere collection of indifferent tricks. Anthony Trollope, who is free from mannerism, is entirely without style. His writing is not offensive, and at its best it has an attractive simplicity; but at its worst it might almost be called illiterate. It is perhaps significant that these two writers are supreme masters of dialogue. Trollope’s own writing is nothing; when he makes his people talk he is inspired.
Poetry is a form highly artificial and conventional: colloquial speech is the child of circumstances constantly in flux. Both, therefore, vary widely from age to age, alike in vocabulary and in arrangement. But most descriptive and deliberative prose deals far more with the permanent than with the shifting elements of life and language; and as it is not necessary, neither is it desirable that it should suffer rapid changes. The vocabulary and structure of English prose as they were used by Swift, Addison, Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, and as they were in the main preserved by many of the best writers among the historians and essayists of the nineteenth century, are sufficiently rich and elastic to afford ample room for that expression of individual genius which is style. There is no question of seeking to perpetuate an outworn fashion, but of eradicating certain innovations which can be shown to be definitely vicious. The most serious and orderly prose, the prose of narration, criticism and argument, of historians, statesmen, and lawyers, is naturally and rightly conservative. It would be easy to show that modern prose of this kind is, in fact, composed of the same materials as the prose of Dryden. Very little has been added to the vocabulary of deliberation and reflection, because there was little to add. The words are the same; but they are used with less accuracy and arranged with less care.
Misapprehension may, perhaps, be most conveniently avoided by naming some of the best living writers of English prose, having regard to their manner only. Such an illustrative list–for it need be nothing more–might include Mr. Robert Bridges, Sir Walter Raleigh, Mr. Hilaire Belloc (when he chooses), Mr. E. V. Lucas, and Mr. John Masefield. All these writers have clearly formed their style by the study of seventeenth and eighteenth- century models: and as prose style must be formed upon models, their prose is good because their models are good. But they are in no way archaistic; they abstain from no modernism that really aids their expression. They are not traveling by post-chaise because they think railways vulgar. They have merely adopted the structure of the best English prose, and have found it adequate to the most exacting demands of their twentieth-century fancy and invention.
It will be said of the examples quoted below that it is improper to compare the great artists of the past with the journeymen of the present, or to expect the hasty writer of a paragraph to write like Burke. The answer is that the prose of Burke’s humbler contemporaries is in its simple elements not very different from his, and that the prose of the modern journalist only exaggerates faults which are to be found in the writing of most modern historians and men of letters. The journeyman of 1780 studied good models, and wrote with some care. Today even the High Priests are not always orthodox; and professors whose business is literary criticism permit themselves to write in a manner which nullifies their authority. This is a painful subject, and quotation would be invidious; but it would be easy to cite from the writings of eminent critics paragraphs written with a contempt of linguistic decency which it should be their business to castigate in the essays of their pupils.
The most serious vices of modern prose are indifference to the etymology and proper meaning of words; neglect of order and rhythm; impatience of anything that can be called inversion; love of periphrastic prepositions; a tendency to prefer the abstract to the concrete and to use nouns instead of verbs; and an indolent acquiescence in worn-out phrases. The first fault, which is obviously connected with the decline of classical knowledge, is seen in transpire meaning happen; in constitutes a leading feature; in somewhat unique; in the slang use of incidentally; in the individual in question, meaning this person; and in a hundred laxities in the application and combination of words, less flagrant than these notorious solecisms, and therefore more insidious; as ascertain for find out, anticipate for expect or foresee. An example of this kind of deterioration is supplied by a curious use of the word emphatically to mean something like undoubtedly or unmistakably. ‘The stories’, says one journalist, ‘ are emphatically of the ghostly order.’ ‘The situation’, says another, ‘is emphatically central.’ This is of course impossible; emphasis may be predicated of an assertion, not of the fact asserted.
Many such abuses of language have been recently the subject of lively discussion in The Times Literary Supplement. But these, since they are at once more generally recognized and more easily rectified, are less dangerous than the general paralysis of structure which deforms almost all modern writing, and to which even critical ears have grown indifferent. The order of the eighteenth- century sentence was no doubt too formal and its rhythm too regular. Thus it was held inadmissible to close a sentence on an insignificant word. One of the few rules of composition that still command assent forbids a sentence to end with a preposition. But in general the modern sentence has neither rhythm nor structure; it goes on till it drops. The practice of dictation to a stenographer may have something to do with this. Dictation abhors second thoughts and erasures, and a first draft looks more plausible when neatly typewritten than it does in manuscript.
The sequence of words has become fixed, and any variation is now resented. This is perhaps partly due to the vicious habit of reading by the eye. The result is often to increase the number of words necessary to lucidity, and, in particular, periphrastic formulas are employed which have no relation to the architecture of the sentence. Johnson could write ‘But of the works of Shakespeare the condition has been far different’; and ‘the explanations transcribed from others, if I do not subjoin any other interpretation, I suppose commonly to be right.’ In modern writing these sentences would almost certainly begin ‘But in the case of Shakespeare’ and ‘With regard to the explanations.’ This is pardonable in extemporary speech; a man says ‘With regard to Shakespeare ‘ when he knows he has something to say about Shakespeare but has not quite made up his mind what it is to be; but it cannot be called composition. The fact is that in the case of and with regard to have no definite meaning at all; they are mere labels, like the ‘Reference so-and-so’ of commercial or military correspondence. These phrases are defended as being necessary, or as being convenient, or as avoiding obscurity. Necessary they are not; for English prose did without them for centuries. Convenient they doubtless are; for it is always easier to say in twenty words what should be said in ten. Lucidity may sometimes be gained: ‘Jones’s nose was red’ may be less clear than ‘In the case of Jones (as distinguished from Smith’s) his nose was red’ or ‘Jones was red as to his nose’; but at what a cost! Far more often these formulas conceal ambiguity or looseness of thinking. ‘Shirtsleeves will be worn in all cases’ was the order of an angry Staff officer who had met a man wearing a coat contrary to regulations and was determined that the practice should cease. But neither he nor any one else knew what was meant.
Once phrases such as these are by any pretext introduced, they are welcomed by that pleonasm which is the original sin of language, and used for their own sweet sakes. ‘In numerous instances’, writes Cobbett, ‘the farmers have ceased to farm for themselves.’ It is not clear even from the context whether Cobbett meant ‘in many districts ‘ or simply ‘many farmers’; he must have meant one or the other. The proper word for a passage in a book is place; critics speak of ‘a place in Aristotle’s Poetics.’ But this use is obsolescent even in the language of criticism. I have examined a valuable recent work on a great poet, and have failed to find it. Numberless places in the poet’s works are quoted or referred to, but they are all cases or instances. The proper use of the word case is seen in ‘a case of conscience’ or ‘The Case is Alter’d; lines of poetry are not cases. The inroads of this disease are remarkable; case is employed not only to avoid some trifling difficulty of construction; but where there is no apparent motive. It is possible to find newspaper paragraphs in which every other sentence furnishes a case or an instance. ‘Fifteen men were wounded, but none died’, becomes ‘but in no case were the injuries mortal.’ ‘Most of the wounds were caused by machine-gun bullets, very few by shell-fire’, becomes ‘The wounds were in most cases caused, etc.; in very few instances were they due, etc.’ The proper use of ‘that is not the case’ may be seen from a use which is now growing obsolete, ‘that is not my case.’ (We now say, ‘With me the case is different.’) ‘That is not the case’ should not mean merely ‘that is not so’; and ‘It is not the case that Napoleon died of a broken heart’ is inaccurate: no case has been stated.
It should not be supposed that too great stress is laid on these words. Case and instance are the commonest and the most dangerous of a number of parasitic growths which are the dry rot of syntax. It seems worth while to examine the use of these particles in some detail, even at the risk of a tedious multiplication of examples. Accumulation of evidence imposes conviction; and the following quotations, most of which are drawn from respectable sources, should dissipate any notion that the fictitious specimens given above are exaggerated.
The least unnatural use of case is to indicate emphasis or to escape a difficulty of arrangement. ‘In the case of cigars sold singly they were made smaller.’ ‘In the case of my old school-fellows a smaller proportion would seem to have become famous than in the case of my contemporaries at Oxford.’ Here in the case of marks an antithesis which the eighteenth century would have conveyed by inversion: ‘of my old school-fellows fewer have become famous than of my contemporaries at Oxford’: but than of has, it seems, become obscure, and it is hardly found in modern English, which substitutes than in the case of or than is the case with. Even ‘where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise’ has been thought to require elucidation: an eminent grammarian explains that ‘where = in cases where.’ Even commoner than this, and less explicable, is the substitution of, e.g., books in many cases for many books. ‘Individual landowners, who in many cases will have to pay’ (that is many of whom) is one of five exactly similar phrases in a single article by Mr. Harold Cox. A shipwreck produced these narratives: ‘The occupants of the frail crafts were in the majority of cases only partially clad.’ ‘Women were in many instances the only occupants of the boats.’ ‘ The survivors were in many cases so exhausted.’ In the description of a thunderstorm it was stated that ‘in two instances buildings were struck.’
Case and instance are often used as dummies instead of other nouns. A learned journal, reviewing a book on screens, complained that ‘there are four cases in which good old screen-work is still to be found in Middlesex churches, and not one of these instances is so much as named’ by the authors. Thus case means church: but it means also a parliamentary division: for we find that ‘a survey of their holdings in the expiring Parliament shows their tenure to be precarious in more than a score of instances, extending from Scotland to Devonshire.’ It is so easy to translate these sentences into English that it is difficult to understand why the average writer finds it more natural, as he plainly does, to deal in counters than in coin. It is easier to see why counters are used when their presence betrays that the writer has not taken pains to express his meaning, or has, perhaps, no meaning to express. ‘As regards enemy aliens, in no instance was a case of danger suggested by any witness’ (Mr. Justice–quoted by the Star). ‘In some instances names of the localities mentioned in the text are not given in the maps.’ This probably means ‘some place-names’: but it might mean that some (not all) of the maps were defective. Finally, apologists for modern syntax are invited to consider how much meaning they could extract from the following sentence, if it were in a language not their own. The writer wishes to convey that when Sainte-Beuve in his Causeries. wrote two essays on the same topic, the second is not a mere rehash of the first. He expresses his meaning thus: ‘In the cases above noted, when two or more handlings of the same subject by the author exist, the comparison of the two usually suffices to show how little vamping there is in the case of the latter.’
A recognized symptom of the decay of a language is the confusion of prepositions. This has long been apparent in English: yet though people vex themselves over such an isolated anomaly as different to, the indiscriminate use of the composite propositions as to and in the case of is hardly noticed. The examples quoted are from the novels of Trollope, who makes as to do duty for of, about, on, for, and to; ‘proper notions as to (of) a woman’s duty’: ‘sarcastic as to (about) his hunting’: ‘said a good word as to (for) Dingles, and bantered himself as to (on) his own want of skill’: ‘a great impropriety, as to (to) which neither could be got to assent.’ When this is done by a famous writer, we cannot be surprised if military authority ordains that ‘strict attention will be paid as to saluting’, and a Government official calls for ‘a full explanation of the circumstances as to why.’
Most redundant expressions have their origin in some attempt to cope with a real difficulty of construction. Many adjectives and adjectival expressions have in English no corresponding abstract noun. A writer describing a motoring accident wishes to convey that a by-road was hidden and to attribute the collision to that circumstance; and, having committed himself to a certain form by writing ‘There can be no doubt that the accident was caused’, cannot proceed ‘by the hiddenness of the by-road’, and is driven to periphrasis. He may write ‘by the by-road’s being hidden’; but the gerund is an awkward tool, and in many contexts is impossible. Otherwise he has his choice of ‘the fact that’ and ‘the hidden character.’ There are, of course, better ways out; but the difficulty is real, and the journalist must get out quickly. Having found the subterfuge useful, he uses it again when he has no need of it; and so we find a whisky commended ‘on account of its light character, purity and age.’ Still commoner is the purely otiose use of nature, character, etc., in such phrases as ‘foundations of a circular character.’ The motive is, perhaps, an indistinct aspiration after emphasis or balance; but again the periphrasis is so attractive that it is used when no motive can be assigned. ‘The book is of a most interesting nature’; ‘the weather is expected to be of a less windy character’; ‘unemployment of a chronic character’; ‘a mésalliance of a pronounced order’; ‘hat of the cartwheel persuasion.’ Verbiage of this kind is not only bad in itself; its effect is to empty words of their proper meaning. A word which means everything means nothing; and as character is degenerating into a suffix ‘He is a man of bad character’ begins to sound archaic.
The vices here illustrated are typical of many more, and most of them are comprehended when it is said that modern writing is abstract when it should be concrete. The simplest statements are involved in a cloud of abstraction; not because journalists are philosophers, but because the abuse of abstract terms has, become an almost universal habit. The origin of the evil is obscure, but it may be suspected that a principal cause is cowardice. A man who is uncertain of his facts will write without a twinge of conscience such a sentence as this: ‘The percentage of mortality due to measles is often exaggerated.’ If he had said that fewer people die of measles than is supposed, he might have asked himself if he were sure it was true. It is certain that abstract writing is the convenient and natural refuge of confused thinking. Every man who understands the art of writing, and has tried to write well, is aware that the process of composition is commonly not the simple transference of thought into language, but the laborious attempt to work into a coherent shape ideas which have been in his mind but which have still to be clarified and arranged; and the temptation to gloss over weak places by deliberate ambiguity is often unmistakable. A writer with an inaccurate mind is doubtless unconscious of this, and is the more likely to fall into the trap.
The habit of verbosity reacts strongly upon the intelligence. The modern reader, whose eye is accustomed to gallop over columns of flaccid print, reads Bacon’s Essays at the same pace and with the same attention, and is surprised to find them obscure. A man of intelligence, not addicted to literature, picked up a volume of Johnson’s Rambler, and after a few minutes was heard to exclaim, ‘This is very odd stuff: I have to read it three times before I can understand it.’ Yet has the Rambler been called platitudinous! The ear, and even the mind, are now so corrupted that abstract jargon is not only more palatable, but even more easily digested, than clean and terse English. A specimen of local history, intended for children and prepared by a master of simple concrete prose, was unanimously rejected by a committee of elementary schoolmasters as being ‘more suitable for secondary schools.’
It is needless to multiply illustrations, however entertaining, of a jargon which infects every newspaper paragraph. But it does not seem to be generally grasped that this habit of abstract expression is the gravest of all diseases of language. Most essays in admonition are directed against the corruption of single words or against such venial inelegancies as the split infinitive. When a wider generalization is advanced, it usually dissuades us from indulgence in Latinisms and polysyllables. It is true that big words should be avoided where little words will serve, and that words of Latin origin are often to be avoided as cumbrous or as unfamiliar. But it is incomparably more important to resist the invasion of parasitic circumlocutions and abstractions, which are far worse than inelegant. The man who writes ‘instances of premature mortality are more frequent in the case of men than in the case of women’, when he means that more men die young than women, sins against the light. Such writing is vicious not because it is pompous but because it is dishonest. It uses unnecessary and obscure abstractions to misstate the fact, and is a cause, as well as an effect, of inaccurate and insincere thinking. Yet we find a critic complaining that ‘the effort of some writers to attract their readers by writing as they talk furthers the degeneracy of the written language.’ O si sic omnes! The English we speak is often inaccurate and ungrammatical, and disfigured by the unintelligent use of slang; but it is at least straightforward, and gets to its meaning by the shortest road.
Itea, November 1918
This essay is in part a rehandling of a theme first developed in a series of articles published in the Oxford University Magazine under the title of Jargon, and written in collaboration with Mr. G. S. Gordon, then of Magdalen College, subsequently Professor and Captain Gordon. I owe to my friend some of the choicest flowers in the garland. ↩