ePub 版

the expressions recent use and modern use, as those seem to stand in direct opposition to what is ancient. But I used the word present, which, in respect of place, is always opposed to absent, and in respect of time, to past or future, that now have no existence. When, therefore, the word is used of language, its proper contrary is not ancient but obsolete. Besides, though I have acknowledged language to be a species of mode or fashion, as doubtless it is, yet, being much more permanent than articles of apparel, furniture, and the like, that, in regard to their form, are under the dominion of that inconstant power, I have avoided also using the words fashionable and modish, which but too generally convey the ideas of novelty and levity. Words, therefore, are by no means to be accounted the worse for being old, if they are not obsolete ; neither is any word the better for being new. On the contrary, some time is absolutely necessary to constitute that custom or use, on which the establishment of words depends.

If we recurto the standard already assigned, namely, the writings of à plurality of celebrated authors; there will be no scope for the comprehension of words and idioms which can be denominated novel and upstart. It must be owned, that we often meet with such terms and phrases, in newspapers, periodical pieces, and political pamphlets. The writers to the times rarely fail to have their performances studded with a competent number of these fantastic ornaments. A popular orator in the House of Commons hath a sort of patent from the public, during the continuance of his popularity, for coining as many as he pleases. And they are no sooner issued, than they obtrude themselves upon us from every quarter, in all the daily papers, letters, essays, addresses, &c. But this is of no significancy. Such words and phrases are but the insects of a season at the most. The people, always fickle, are just as prompt to drop them, as they were to take them up. And not one of a hundred survives the particular occasion or party-struggle which gave it birth. We may justly apply to them what Johnson says of a great number of the terms of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, " This fugitive cant cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish, with other things unworthy of preservation."*

As use, therefore, implies duration, and as even a few years are not sufficient for ascertaining the characters of authors, I have, for the most part, in the following sheets, taken my prose examples, neither from living authors, nor from those who wrote before the Revolution ; not from the first, because an author's fame is not so firmly established in his lifetime ; nor from the last, that there may be no suspicion that the style is superannuated. The vulgar translation of the Bible I must indeed except from this restriction. The continuance and universality of its use throughout the British dominions affords an obvious reason for the exception.

Thus I have attempted to explain what that use is, which is the sole mistress of language, and to ascertain the precise import and extent of these her essential attributes, reputable, national, and pre

"Preface to his Dictionary.

sent, and to give the directions proper to be observed in searching for the laws of this empress. In truth, grammar and criticism are but her ministers ; and though, like other ministers, they would sometimes impose the dictates of their own humour upon the people, as the commands of their sovereign, they are not so often successful in such attempts, as to encourage the frequent repetition of them.




The first thing in elocution that claims our attention is purity; all its other qualities have their foundation in this. The great standard of purity is use, whose essential properties, as regarding language, have been considered and explained in the preceding chapter. But before I proceed to illustrate and specify the various offences against purity, or the different ways in which it may be violated, it will be proper to inquire so much further into the nature of the subject, as will enable us to fix on some general rules or canons, by which, in all our particular decisions, we ought to be directed. This I have judged the more necessary, as many of the verbal criticisms which have been made on English authors, since the beginning of the present century, (for in this island we had little or nothing of the kind before,) seem to have proceeded either from no settled principles at all, or from such as will not bear a near examination. There is this further advantage in beginning with establishing certain canons, that if they shall be found reasonable, they will tend to make what remains of our road both shorter and clearer, than it would otherwise have been. Much in the way of illustration and eviction may be saved, on the particular remarks. And if, on the contrary, they should not be reasonable, and consequently the remarks raised on them should not be well founded, no way, that I can think of, bids fairer for detecting the fallacy, and preventing every reader from being misled. A fluent and specious, but superficial manner of criticising, is very apt to take at first, even with readers whom a deliberate examination into the principles on which the whole is built would quickly undeceive.

“But,” it may be said, “ if custom, which is so capricious and unaccountable, is every thing in language, of what significance is either the grammarian or the critic?Of considerable significance notwithstanding; and of most then when they confine themselves to their legal departments, and do not usurp an authority that doth not belong to them. The man who, in a country like ours, should compile a succinct, perspicuous, and faithful digest of the laws, though no lawgiver, would be universally acknowledged to be a public benefactor. How easy would that important branch of knowledge be rendered by such a work, in comparison of what it must be, when we have nothing to have recourse to but a labyrinth of statutes, reports, and opinions. That man also would be of considerable use, though not in the same degree, who should vigilantly attend to every illegal practice that were beginning to prevail, and evince its danger, by exposing its contrariety to law. Of similar benefit, though in a different sphere, are grammar and criticism. In language, the grammarian is properly the compiler of the digest; and the verbal critic, the man who seasonably notifies the abuses that are creeping in. Both tend to facilitate the study of the tongue to strangers, and to render natives more perfect in the knowledge of it, to advance general use into universal, and to give a greater stability at least, if not a permanency, to custom, the most mutable thing in nature. These are advantages which, with a moderate share of attention, may be discovered from what hath been already said on the subject : but they are not the only advantages. From what I shall have occasion to observe afterwards, it will probably appear, that these arts, by assisting to suppress every unlicensed term, and to stigmatize every improper idiom, tend to give greater precision, and consequently more perspicuity and beauty to our style.

The observations made in the preceding chapter might easily be converted into so many canons of criticism, by which, whatever is repugnant to reputable, to national, or to present use, in the sense wherein these epithets have been explained, would be condemned as a transgression of the radical laws of the language. But on this subject of use, there arise two eminent questions, the determination of which may lead to the establishment of other canons not less important. The first question is this, " is reputable, national, and present use, which, for brevity's sake, I shall hereafter simply denominate good use, always uniform in her decisions ?” The second is, “as no term, idiom, or application, that is totally unsupported by hier, can be admitted to be good, is every term, idiom, and application that is countenanced by her, to be esteemed good, and therefore worthy to be retained ?"

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

In answer to the former of these questions, I acknowledge, that in every case there is not a perfect uniformity in the determinations, even of such use as may justly be denominated good. Wherever a considerable number of authorities can be produced in support of two different, though resembling modes of expression for the same thing, there is always a divided use, and one cannot be said to speak barbarously, or to oppose the usage of the language, who conforms to either side. * This divided use hath place sometimes in single

* The words nowise, noway, and noways, afford a proper instance of this divided use. Yet our learned and ingenious lexicographer hath denominated all those who either write or pronounce the word ncavays, ignorant barbarians.

words, sometimes in construction, and sometimes in arrangement. In all such cases there is scope for choice ; and it belongs, without question, to the critical art, to lay down the principles, by which, in doubtful cases, our choice should be directed.

There are, indeed, some differences in single words, which ought still to be retained. They are a kind of synonymas, and afford a little variety, without occasioning any inconvenience whatever. * In arrangement, too, it certainly holds, that various manners suit various styles, as various styles suit various subjects, and various sorts of composition. For this reason, unless when some obscurity, ambiguity, or inelegance is created, no disposition of words which hath obtained the public approbation ought to be altogether rejected. In construction the case is somewhat different. Purity, perspicuity, and elegance generally require, that in this there be the strictest uniformity. Yet differences here are not only allowable, but even convenient, when attended with correspondent differences in the application.

Thus the verb to found, when used literally, is more properly followed by the preposition on, as, “ The house was founded on a rock ;' in the metaphorical application, it is often better with in, as in this sentence, “ They maintained, that dominion is founded in grace.” Both sentences would be badly expressed, if these prepositions were transposed, though there are perhaps cases wherein either would be good. In those instances, therefore, of divided use, which give scope for option, the following canons are humbly proposed, in order to assist us in assigning the preference. Let it, in the mean time, be remembered, as a point always presupposed, that the authorities on the opposite sides are equal, or nearly so. When those on one side greatly preponderate, it is in vain to oppose the prevailing usage. Custom, when wavering, may be swayed, but when reluctant will not be forced. And in this department a person never effects so little, as when he attempts too much.t

These ignorant barbarians, (but he hath surely not adverted to this circumstance,) are only Pope, and Swift, and Addison, and Locke, and several others of our most celebrated writers. This censure is the more astonishing, that even in this form which he has thought fit to repudiate, the meaning assigned to it is strictly conformable to that which etymology, according to his own explication, would suggest. See Johnson's Dietionary on the words nowise and way, particularly the senses of way, marked with these numbers, 15, 16, 18, and 19.

* Such are subterranean and subterraneous, homogeneal and homogeneous, authentic and authentical, isle and island, mount and mountain, clime and climate, near and nigh, betwixt and between, amongst and among, amidst and amid. Nor do I see any hurt that would ensue from adding nowise and noway to the number.

For this reason it is to no purpose with Johnson to pronounce the word news a plural, (whatever it might have been in the days of Sydney aud Ra. leigh,) since custom hath evidently determined otherwise. Nor is the observation on the letter (s) in his Dictionary well founded, that "it seems to be established as a rule, that no noun singular should end with [s] single ;" the words alms, amends, summons, sous, genus, species, genius, chorus, and several others, show the contrary. For the same reason the words averse and aversion, are more properly construed with to than with from. The examples in favour of the latter preposition, are beyond comparison outnumbered by those in favour of the for. mer. The argument from etymology is here of np value, being taken from the

« 上一頁繼續 »