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than the introduction of words and idioms peculiar to some precincts of England, or at least somewhere current within the British pale. The only material difference between them is, that the one is more commonly the error of the learned, the other of the vulgar. But if, in this view, the former is entitled to greater indulgence, from the respect paid to learning; in another view, it is entitled to less, as it is much more commonly the result of affectation. Thus two essential qualities of usage, in regard to language, have been settled, that it be both reputable and national.
Section III.-Present Use.
But there will naturally arise here another question, “Is not use, even good and national use, in the same country, different in different periods? And if so, to the usage of what period shall we attach ourselves, as the proper rule? If you say the present, as it may reasonably be expected that you will, the difficulty is not entirely removed. In what extent of signification must we understand the word present? How far may we safely range in quest of authorities? or, at what distance backwards from this moment are authors still to be accounted as possessing a legislative voice in language ?” To this I own it is difficult to give an answer with all the precision that might be desired. Yet it is certain, that when we are in search of precedents for any word or idiom, there are certain mounds which we cannot overleap with safety. For instance, the authority of Hooker or of Raleigh, however great their merit and their fame be, will not now be admitted in support of a term or expression not to be found in any good writer of a later date.
In truth, the boundary must not be fixed at the same distance in every subject. Poetry hath ever been allowed a wider range than prose; and it is but just that, by an indulgence of this kind, some compensation should be made for the peculiar restraints she is laid under by the measure. Nor is this only a matter of convenience to the poet; it is also a matter of gratification to the reader. Diversity in the style relieves the ear, and prevents its being tired with the too frequent recurrence of the rhymes, or sameness of the metre. But still there are limits to this diversity. The authority of Milton and of Waller, on this article, remains as yet unquestioned. I should not think it prudent often to introduce words or phrases of which no example could be produced since the days of Spenser and of Shakspeare. : And even in prose, the bounds are not the same for every kind of composition. In matters of science, for instance, whose terms, from the nature of the thing, are not capable of such a currency as those which belong to ordinary subjects, and are within the reach of ordinary readers, there is no necessity of confining an author within a very narrow circle. But in composing pieces which come under this last denomination, as history, romance, travels, moral essays, familiar letters, and the like, it is safest for an author to consider those words and idioms as obsolete, which have been disused by all good authors for a longer period than the age of man extends to. It is not by ancient, but by present use, that our style must be regulated. And that use can never be denominated present, which hath been laid aside time immemorial, or, which amounts to the same thing, falls not within the knowledge or remembrance of any now living
This remark not only affects terms and phrases, but also the declension, combination, and the construction of words. Is it not then surprising to find, that one of Lowth's penetration should think a single person entitled to revive a form of inflection in a particular word, which had been rejected by all good writers, of every denomination, for more than a hundred and fifty years9 ? But if present use is to be renounced for ancient, it will be necessary to determine at what precise period antiquity is to be regarded as a rule. One inclines to remove the standard to the distance of a century and a half; another may, with as good reason, fix it three centuries backwards, and another six. And if the language of any of these periods is to be judged by the use of any other, it will be found, no doubt, entirely barbarous. To me it is so evident, either that the present use must be the standard of the present language, or that the language admits no standard whatsoever, that I cannot conceive a clearer or more indisputable principle, from which to bring an argument to support it.
Yet it is certain, that even some of our best critics and grammarians talk occasionally as if they had a notion of some other standard, though they never give us a single hint to direct us where to search for it. Doctor Johnson, for example, in the preface to his very valuable dictionary, acknowledges properly the absolute dominion of custom over language, and yet, in the explanation of particular words, expresseth himself sometimes
8 Nam fuerit pene ridiculum malle sermonem quo locuti sunt homines, quam quo loquantur. Quint. Inst. 1. i. c. 6.
Introd. &c. In a note on the irregular verb sit, he says, “ Dr. Middleton hath, with great propriety, restored the true participle sitten.” Would he not have acted with as great propriety, had he restored the true participles pight for pitched, raught for reached, blent for blended, and shright for shrieked, on full as good authority, the authority of Spenser, one of the sweetest of our ancient bards ? And why might not Dr. Lowth himself have, with great propriety, restored the true participles hitten, casten, letten, putten, setten, shutten, slitten, splitten, founden, grounden, of the verbs hit, cast, let, put, set, shut, slit, split, find, grind : for it would not be impossible to produce antiquated authors in support of all these.—Besides, they are all used to this day in some provincial dialects.
in a manner that is inconsistent with this doctrine, “ This word,” says he in one place, “though common, and used by the best writers, is perhaps barbarous.” I have always understood a barbarism in speech to be a term or expression totally unsupported by the present usage of good writers in the language. A meaning very different is suggested here, but what that meaning is it will not be easy to conjecture. Nor has this celebrated writer given us, on the word barbarous, any definition of the term which will throw light on his application of it in the passage quoted. I entirely agree with Doctor Priestley, that it will never be the arbitrary rules of any man, or body of men whatever, that will ascertain the language”, there being no other dictator here but use.
It is indeed easier to discover the aim of our critics in their observations on this subject, than the meaning of the terms which they employ. These are often employed without precision; their aim, however, is generally good. It is, as much as possible, to give a check to innovation. But the means which they use for this purpose have sometimes even a contrary tendency. If you will replace what hath been long since expunged from the language, and extirpate what is firmly rooted, undoubtedly you yourself become an innovator. If you desert the present use, and by your example at least, establish it as a maxim, that every critic may revive at pleasure old-fashioned terms, inflections, and combinations, and make such alterations on words as will bring them nearer to what he supposeth to be the etymon, there can be nothing fixed or stable on the subject. Possibly you prefer the usage that prevailed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; another may, with as good reason, have a partiality for that which subsisted in the days of Chaucer. And with regard to etymology, about which grammarians make so much useless bustle, if every one hath a privilege of altering words, according to his own opinion of their origin, the opinions of the learned being on this subject so various, nothing but a general chaos can ensue.
On the other hand, it may be said, “ Are we to catch at every new-fashioned term and phrase which whim or affectation may invent, and folly circulate? Can this ever tend to give either dignity to our style, or permanency to our language?” It cannot, surely. This leads to a further explanation and limitation of the term present use, to prevent our being misled by a mere name. It is possible, nay, it is common, for men, in avoiding one error, to run into another and a worse. There is a mean in every thing. I have purposely avoided the expressions recent use and modern use, as these seem to stand in direct
1 See the word Nowadays.
2 Preface to his Rudiments of English Grammar. 3 In vitium ducit culpæ fuga, si caret arte. Hor. De Arte Poet, ..
opposition to what is ancient. But I have 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 recur to the standard already assigned, namely, the writings of a 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 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 superan
4 Preface to his Dictionary.
nuated. 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 present, 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 nature and use of verbal Criticism, with its principal
languaa ptet.cances agal je wil
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