Chapter X. Effective Sentences
§ 46. The divisions of this book are meant to be practical rather than theoretical. We are not to insist on too formal an arrangement, or pretend that our chapters are built like watertight compartments. In fact, our whole theory is that the different subjects should be so closely interrelated that such separation is impossible. We take the whole net of business expression and draw it up part by part out of the water to examine now the meshes, now the threads, now the knots. But it is all one net.
So when we speak of effective sentences, we are in a way speaking of the whole net. To be perfectly effective, a sentence must be clear, interesting, grammatical, and functionally adjusted in the paragraph and the whole composition. Some of the matters treated in the present chapter are chiefly considerations of clearness, others chiefly of interest. Still others might have been included under grammatical correctness. Let us arrange them under five heads, namely: order of words; reference; unity; proportion; balance.
1. We have already seen (pages 34, 52) that the beginning and the end of a sentence are the most emphatic places, and that due consideration of this fact as we write or revise will remove the need for emphatic italics.
We have already seen (pages 31, 34) that the beginning of a sentence may be made to echo the end of the preceding, and so secure connection.
I might give you here a dozen examples of sentences which lack emphasis, but after all it would be hard to prove the lack. Everything depends on the function of the sentence in the paragraph. Detach the sentence, and how can you tell whether or not it begins and ends emphatically?
Still, here are a few in which the chances are that the italicized words should have come at the end. These sentences do not seem to begin or end with words that deserve distinction. I am lifting them bodily (except to italicize) from Newcomer's "Elements of Ehetoric."
1. The music suggested heavenly choirs at it floated through the air.
2. It is needless to say that this young hero occupied for some time thereafter the highest pinnacle of fame, in our opinion at least
3. Every advanced educator admits the necessity of permitting boys as great freedom as possible in this respect
4. I think it is safe to say that more faces were turned toward the sun during those days of dread than were ever turned toward Mecca in the same length of time.
But certain paragraphs could be constructed in which these four sentences might stand as written. For example:
The music suggested heavenly choirs as it floated through the air. But when it ceased floating, we concluded it was merely the voices of some girls in the neighboring seminary.
2. The word only should stand before the word which it chiefly modifies. It often modifies more than one word, as in If only I knew where to find a good man. But ordinarily there is some one word which takes the chief qualification.
I thought I would only drop in, not stay.
Only they are truly happy who are contented.
We found that we had only three.
We found that we only had them; we haven't them now.
Only they who work may eat.
I only said that; I did not write it.
Only I said that; no one else did.
I said only that, and nothing else.
I want only one.
I only want one - there's no hope of my getting it.
3. The word not follows the same rule as only.
I went not to criticize but to appreciate. I said not that it was false, but only that I thought it was. Not all that glitters is gold.
All that glitters may be said to glitter. But you cannot in strictness say that all which glitters is "not gold," for gold glitters. I wanted not all the goods, but a good part of them.
4. Do not split the infinitive unless it is absolutely necessary to do so for the sake of clearness. Say "Actually to find out," not "To actually find out."
5. Avoid such arrangement of words as may unintentionally produce a comic effect. Remember that the reader is to read in cold blood, and you will hardly be there to ejaculate, "But that isn't what I meant." You can't send a man along to explain what you meant. You can't count on much sympathy from your audience. The spirit of mischief lurks in your reader. You may write ten times as well as he could, but - -a cat may look at a king, and there is nobody that can prevent the cat from grinning if he wants to. Revision! That is your only safety. Go over your sentences as coldly as if they were your worst enemy's. Watch especially the fine passages, for there the imp of the ink-bottle particularly loves to trip us. There is not one of us but is likely to be comic when he most desires to be grave.
6. Often the order of words is intelligible, but lacks ease and naturalness.
§ 47. Reference
1. If you scan the examples under §46, you will see that relative clauses are responsible for many of the absurd suggestions. It is not, clear which person or thing the clause refers to. The reference is vague. The clause is not near enough to its owner.
2. Sometimes bad reference is due not to the position of the reference word, but to carelessness in the choice of it. Note the following choice examples, which have been clipped recently from "B. L. T/s" Line o'Type column, in the Chicago Tribune. B. L. T. is not the offender; he clipped them from other papers.
1. The city police have issued another order that dogs are not to be permitted in the city parks. Sunday several that were in the park were told of the new order.
2. While the animal was leaping the benches, a call was sent in for an ambulance. Within five minutes several hundred had collected.