Page images

the principal heads of the subject on slips of paper or cards which can be sorted and shifted until the right order of treatment emerges. The mere exercise of writing out these heads of the subject and sorting them and pondering over them will accomplish a clarification of the material, very much as the automatic workings of the stomach bring about the digestion of one's breakfast.

The making of regular plans is an even more valuable practice; it is the kind of exercise that makes the study of English composition something more than practice in phrase-making, and that gives the mastery over large and obstinate masses of facts which is the chief aim of education. To get its full value, however, you must take it strenuously. Almost any one with even a superficial acquaintance with a subject can lay out a scheme of headings under which it would be possible to talk about the subject in an interesting and perhaps an intelligible way; for example, in the case of Tyndall's explanation of the source of energy in plants and animals it would be easy to set down such a series of headings as this:

1. Separation of atoms into plants. 2. Combustion.

3. Dependence of animals on plants.

4. Energy of the sun.

5. Thought in relation to energy.

But such bare headings would not go very far towards producing an efficient explanation. If, however, you begin such a plan by a statement: "The

sun is the source of all energy in nature" and go on with such a plan as that on page 254-5, then you have certainly given your mind some valuable exercise; and you have also more tangible results in that your explanation is already more than half accomplished. A plan which consists of mere names is almost valueless, whether to help you to understand your subject more thoroughly or to write your explanation. The invariable rule for making a plan, then, whether it be in pure exposition or in argument, is always to write it in complete statements or propositions. These statements with their connectives, when put together in running form, should contain a summary of the whole exposition. Remember that when you undertake to explain anything you undertake to make your readers see how all the facts bear on one another; and a plan that is to serve you at all must declare the chief of these relations clearly and completely.

When your plan is made, however, be sure to fix it clearly in the mind of your reader. I have already shown you how explicitly Bryce and Darwin declare not only their order of procedure but also the reasons for their arrangement. You may hear it objected that any such explicit declaration of plan is clumsy and founded on theory; if any such doubts find a lodging in your mind, turn to the passage from Grote's "History of Greece" in Craik's "English Prose"1 which is quoted as an instance of admirable historical style. It begins:

1 Volume V, p. 360.


[ocr errors]

"The configuration of the Grecian territory, so like in many respects to that of Switzerland, produced two effects of great moment upon the history and character of the people. In the first place it materially strengthened their powers of defence . . . but in the next place, while it tended to protect each section of Greece from being conquered, it also kept them from being politically united. . . ."

So far from its being a blemish on good writing to declare in so many words the actual plan on which you propose to work, you will find that the best writers do this in the frankest way. Any bareness which a priori you might expect, is overcome by the gain of ease and clarity. We may fall back here on the analogy of architecture where it is a prime doctrine that the lines of structure must be thrown into relief, and that no ornament is beautiful which does not accentuate the construction.

There are few cases, then, in which you will not find it wise to lay out explicitly the steps you are going to follow in your explanation. In cases where the matter to be explained is of a formal character, as in "The American Commonwealth," it is even convenient to put numerals at the beginning of each division; in other cases you get the same result by proper emphasis on your transitions from one point to another. Moreover you do not need such clumsy machinery as "We now pass on to the next division of the subject," or "Having considered the general outlines of our subject, we will now turn our attention to some special details." Such cumbrous periphrases

are useful perhaps when you are talking, and in an explanation so difficult that your audience need time to assimilate what you have said and to catch up with you; but in print they spread themselves immoderately over the lines. It is better to use such kinds of phrases as you find in Grote for example, "Besides the scarcity of wood for fuel, there is another inconvenience to which the low grounds of Greece are exposed;" or "But the disposition and properties of the Grecian territory, though not maintaining permanent rivers, are favorable to the multiplication of lakes and marshes." And almost anywhere in Macaulay's essays you will find examples of this same explicit statement of transition which, without any clumsiness, keeps surely and firmly before your mind the steps of the explanation. To come back to the analogy of a map or diagram, plan these transitions so that they will set your whole subject before your reader's mind at a glance, as it were, by making him understand how the different parts of the subject bear on each other.

To reinforce this use of strongly marked transitions and connectives to keep all the different parts of your subject in view, you will find that skilful writers continually use summaries. In such a work as Cardinal Newman's "Idea of a University," which is so notable for the syllogistic closeness of its reasoning, you find continually such passages as these:

"To-day I have confined myself to saying that that training of the intellect which is best for the individual himself best enables him to discharge his duty to society."

Or, a couple of pages further on:

"First I employed myself in establishing the principle that knowledge is its own reward, and I showed that when considered in this way it is called 'liberal' knowledge and is within the scope of academic institutions. Next I examined what is meant by knowledge when it is pursued for its own sake. . . . Further I showed that such a philosophical contemplation of the field of knowledge as a whole . . . such, I said, was the knowledge which deserved to be studied for its own sake. . . . One portion of the subject still remains, this intellectual culture, which is so exalted in itself, not only has a bearing upon social and active duties, but upon religion also."

[ocr errors]

That is only one example of the many summaries which you will find all through this elaborate explanation of his. Another very different book which is noteworthy for its painstaking and exact summarizing is the "Origin of Species;" I reprint the summary of the chapter on natural selection 1; and throughout the book Darwin, after explaining any long and elaborate series of facts, sums up their results before he passes on to a new discussion.


Why such summaries are essential in an explanation of any complexity, you can see by reverting to the analogy between exposition and a map or diagram, on which I have dwelt so much. In an explanation you are trying to set your whole subject before your reader in such a way that he can see it, as it were, by a single act of thought. Now language, on the other

p. 195.

« PreviousContinue »