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Fundamentals of Good Writing 

Fundamentals of Good Writing 

By Robert Penn Warren 





SELECTED POEMS, 1923-1934 

By Cleanth Brooks 





Good Writing 


Cleanth Brooks 
Robert Perm Warren 

Harcourt, Brace and Company New York 

COPYRIGHT, 1949, I95O, BY 

All rights reserved, including 
the right to reproduce this book 
or portions thereof in any form. 














































































TIME 238 










SCALE 273 































































Appendix 1. CAUSAL ANALYSIS 475 

Appendix 2. THE SYLLOGISM 481 


INDEX 519 

Fundamentals of Good Writing 


THERE is no easy way to learn to write. There is no certain for- 
mula, no short cut, no bag of tricks. It is not a matter of memorizing 
rules or of acquiring a few skills. To write well is not easy for the 
simple reason that to write well you must think straight. And 
thinking straight is never easy. 

Straight thinking is the basis of all good writing. It does not 
matter whether you are planning to write fiction, poetry, news 
reports, magazine articles, essays, or sermons. What is common to 
all kinds of good writing is more important than what distinguishes 
one kind from another. This is a fundamental point, and this book 
is an attempt to deal with the fundamentals of writing. 


What is it that we must think straight about if we are to write 
well? Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this. A writer, as 
Robert Louis Stevenson says in his "Essay on Style," is like a juggler 
who must keep several balls in the air at once. 

What are the several balls? What are the considerations that a 
writer must simultaneously think straight about? This book is an 
attempt to answer that question; but even when this book is finished 
the answer will not be a complete one. For the present, however, 
we may try to reduce the considerations to three general types. 
We may define them in reference to various aspects of the act of 


1. The medium 

2. The subject 

3. The occasion 

These terms, as we are using them, require some explanation. 


A writer writes in a language, the substance, as it were, through 
which he exerts his force, the medium through which he communi- 
cates his ideas and feelings. This language operates in terms of 
certain principles and usages which a writer must observe if he is 
to exercise his full force or even, in some instances, to be under- 
stood at all. For example, grammar is an aspect of the medium 
itself. Rhythm is another aspect, and it may exercise a very pow- 
erful effect on the reader, even if he is not aware of it. Another 
aspect is diction the qualities of the individual words even beyond 
their bare dictionary definitions. 

These topics, and others related to them, will be discussed in 
the course of this book, but for the present it is important only 
that we understand them as representing aspects of the medium, 
of language itself. 


A writer writes about something. The something may be his own 
feelings, his love or his hate, or again it may be the theory of aero- 
dynamics. But in either instance he has a subject and one that can 
be distinguished from all other possible subjects. 

The nature of the subject will, in some respects, dictate the 
nature of the treatment. For instance, if a writer is interested in 
explaining a process of some kind, the running of an experiment 
in physics or the building of a log cabin, he will have to organize 
his material with some reference to the chronological order of the 
process. If he is trying to explain why he loves or hates someone, 
he will probably be concerned with the analysis of traits of charac- 
ter which have no necessary reference to chronology; therefore, his 
ordering of the material may well be in terms of degrees of impor- 
tance and not in terms of time sequence. 

Furthermore, the subject may dictate differences in diction. For 
instance, if the writer is trying to explain the process of an experi- 


ment in physics, his diction will be dry and technical, clear and 
factual; but if he is trying to define the grief experienced at the 
Heath of a friend, his diction may well be chosen to convey emo- 
tional effects. 

Or the type of rhythm may vary according to the subject. The 
explanation of the experiment in physics will probably involve a 
rather flat rhythm, or at least an unobtrusive rhythm, but the at- 
tempt to define the grief at the death of the friend will probably 
depend to a considerable degree for its success on the rhythm 
employed, for the rhythm of language, even in prose, is of enormous 
importance in the communication of feelings. 


Third, a writer writes out of a special situation, the occasion. 
We may say that this situation involves three basic elements: the 
motivation of the writer; the nature of the reader; and the relation- 
ship between writer and reader. 


As for motivation, two general types may be distinguished: ex- 
pression and communication. The writer may be primarily con- 
cerned to affirm his own feelings, to clarify his own mind, to define 
for himself his own sense of the world. When he writes from some 
such motivation, the urge to expression may be said to be dominant, 
and he has, on such an occasion, more in common with a man 
singing in the bath, with the child uttering the spontaneous cry of 
pain, or with the cat purring on the rug than he has with the judge 
handing down a decision from the bench, a teacher explaining a 
point of grammar from the platform, or a woman giving her daugh- 
ter a recipe for pie. For the judge, the teacher, and the cook are 
not primarily concerned to express but to communicate something. 

It may be said, however, that, in the ultimate sense, we never 
have a case of pure expression or pure communication. Even the 
cry of pain, which seems to be pure expression, may be said to 
presuppose a hearer; the hurt child redoubles its screams when it 
sees the mother approaching. And the poet who has written his 
poem' without a conscious thought of the reader, who has been 


concerned with the effort of getting his own feelings and ideas into 
form, hurries to the post office to mail his finished poem to a maga- 
zine through which it can reach a number of readers. 

Conversely, even the most objective presentation of an idea or 
analysis of a situation may involve an expressive element. To take 
an extreme instance, we may say that a man may take pleasure 
in the accuracy and tidiness of his working out of a mathematical 
demonstration and feel that those qualities "express" him. 

If it is true that we can never find an example of pure expression 
or of pure communication, if we have to regard expression and 
communication as, shall we say, the poles of the process of writing 
or speaking, we can still see that a great deal of variation in the 
relative proportions of communication and expression may exist. 


When the writer is primarily concerned with expression, he does 
not pay attention to his audience; if, under such circumstances, he 
thinks of the audience, it is only to assume that there will be people 
enough like himself to have an interest in his work. Yet even then, 
even when the writer is primarily concerned with expression, his 
private and individual intentions will have to be represented in a 
medium that has public and general standards. When the writer 
accepts language as his medium of expression, he also accepts the 
standards of communication. 


When the writer is primarily concerned with communication 
rather than expression, he must, however, give special attention to 
the audience which he wishes to reach. He must consider the read- 
er's interests and attitudes. Even if the writer wishes to give the 
reader a new interest, he must work in terms of the interests that 
already exist. When the writer does not, in some way, appeal to the 
already existing interests, the reader will not even bother to finish 
the book or article. Or if the writer wishes to make the reader change 
his attitude on some issue, he must work in terms of already exist- 
ing attitudes. Unless the writer can discover that he and the reader 
have some attitudes in common, he can have no hope of convincing 
the reader about the matter on which they disagree. 



Just as the writer must concern himself with the reader's interests 
and attitudes, so he must concern himself with the reader's training 
and capacities. Every piece of writing is addressed to a more or 
less limited audience. It is perfectly logical that a piece of writing 
addressed to the specialist will not be understood by the layman. 
Articles in professional medical journals or law journals employ 
a language and a treatment largely incomprehensible to the ordi- 
nary reader. But the same thing holds true, though less obviously, 
in regard to all differences of education or capacity. Because of 
differences in education, the housewife is not likely to understand 
the article on international finance that may be perfectly clear to 
the banker or businessman who is her husband. Or one housewife, 
because of innate intelligence and sensitivity, can understand and 
enjoy a certain novel, while another woman in the same block, who 
has been educated at the same school, is merely confused and 
annoyed by the book. 

It is true that there are types of writing which have a relatively 
broad appeal the novels of Dickens or the plays of Shakespeare 
but we must remember that even their appeal is only relatively 
broad, and that there are a great number of people who infinitely 
prefer the sports page of the daily paper or the financial section 
or the comic strip to Dickens or Shakespeare. And remembering 
this, the writer must concern himself with the level of education 
and intelligence of the special group which he wishes to address. 


Just as the writer must consider his own motivation and the 
nature of his intended reader as components of the "occasion," so 
must he consider the relationship between himself and that reader. 
For instance, does he feel that he must speak down to his reader? 
If he does speak down, shall he take the tone of a man laying down 
the law from some position of authority like a judge on a bench 
or shall he take a tone of good-natured condescension? Or if he 
does not wish to speak down to his reader but regards the reader 


as on the same level with himself, shall he take a tone of friendly 
discussion or of serious, life-and-death argument? 

The possible variations on this score are almost numberless, too, 
and the writer, if he is to be most effective, must take them into 
consideration. Is he, for instance, addressing a reader who is hostile 
and suspicious? If so, he must try to discover the approach which 
will mollify the hostility and allay the suspicions. Or if his reader 
is assumed to be friendly but unserious, how shall he adapt him- 
self to that situation? Is he writing to a student who is anxious to 
learn or to a casual reader who must be lured into the subject under 
discussion? Obviously the writer must, if he wishes to succeed with 
his reader, study the relationship existing between himself and 
his intended reader and adapt his tone to that aspect of the occasion. 


The writer's relationship to his reader and to his subject may be 
summed up in the word tone (see Chapter 12). Just as the tone of 
voice indicates what the speaker's attitude is to his subject and 
his listener, so certain qualities of a piece of writing may indicate 
the attitude of the writer. Rhythms may be harsh and abrupt or 
lingering and subtle. Diction may be homely and direct or elaborate 
and suggestive. Sentence structure may be simple and downright 
or complicated by modifying and qualifying elements. Appeal may 
be made through logic or through persuasion. These and many other 
factors are related to the writer's conception of the relation between 
himself and the reader. 


Under the headings of (1) medium, (2) subject, and (3) occasion, 
we have briefly discussed some of the basic considerations which 
the writer must keep in mind the balls which the juggler of Steven- 
son's essay must keep simultaneously in the air. The word simulta- 
neously is important here, for though we have necessarily had to 
discuss our topics in order, we are not to assume that the order is 
one of either importance or of time sequence. Can one say that a 
knowledge of the subject under discussion is more or less important 
than a knowledge of the principles and usages of the language in 


which the subject is to be discussed? Or that a knowledge of the 
principles and usages of the language is more or less important 
than the sense of the nature of the occasion? 

In the process of writing there is no one consideration to which 
the writer must give his attention first. His mind, in so far as he is 
a conscious craftsman, will play among the various considerations 
in the attempt to produce a piece of writing which will fulfill at the 
same time the demands of the medium, the subject, and the occa- 
sion. In this book we shall take up various topics individually, and 
you may find it helpful when you are revising a piece of writing to 
consider one question at a time, But the final piece of writing is al- 
ways a fusion. 


The foregoing remarks, with their emphasis on the complicated 
demands that a good piece of writing must fulfill, have perhaps 
made the business of writing seem enormously difficult. And it is 
true that the simplest piece of writing, when well done, is the fruit 
of a great deal of effort. But you are not, with this book, starting 
your career as a writer from scratch. You already have behind you 
many years of effort which can be made to apply on the writing 
you now do. You are already the beneficiary of a long training. 


In the first place, you command a working knowledge of the 
English language. You began the process of learning that language 
when you were an infant, and the process has been a continuous 
one ever since. Books have helped you and they can be made to 
help you even more. They can broaden your vocabulary, and can 
give you a sense of the subtleties and shadings of words. But already 
books aside you are the master of very considerable resources in 
your native tongue. 


In the second place, your experience has given you a great range 
of subjects, and a capacity for thinking logically about them. As for 
the subjects, almost any event of your day, any sport or craft which 


you understand, any skill or technique which you possess, any scene 
which you have witnessed, any book or article which you have read, 
any person whom you know all these are potential subjects. And 
any one of them can become interesting in so far as it is actually 
important to you and in so far as you can think straight about it. 
As for logical thinking, demands for the exercise of this faculty 
are made on you every day. You are constantly under the necessity 
of adjusting means to ends, of correcting errors in your calculations, 
of planning in terms of cause and effect, of estimating possibilities. 
To manage your simplest affairs you must have some capacity for 
straight thinking. When you come to the business of writing, you 
need merely to apply this capacity to the subject in hand to see 
what is important about it for your interests and purposes, to stick 
to your point, to make one sentence follow from the previous sen- 
tence and lead to the next, to make one paragraph follow from 
the previous paragraph and lead to the next, to make one idea 
follow from another, to state the relations between things in terms 
of time, space, or causality, to emphasize the important item and 
subordinate the unimportant, to proportion your discourse so that 
it will have an introduction, a development, and a conclusion. All 
of these problems of analysis and organization are problems which 
you may have to confront when you start any piece of writing, 
but you confront them with the aid of all the straight thinking 
that you have ever done. 


In the third place, all of your experiences with other people in 
the past have provided a training that will help you adjust your- 
self to your intended reader. Your social experience, from your 
early childhood, has given you a training in tact, in grasping the 
truth about a human relationship, in adjusting your manner to the 
mood or prejudice of another person in order to convince, persuade, 
entertain, or instruct him. Every child is aware that, when he wants 
something from his mother or father, there is a right way to go 
about asking for it and a wrong way. And he knows that what is 
the right way for asking the mother may very well be the wrong 
way for asking the father. No doubt, the child never puts it to 
himself in these terms, but he acts on the truth behind these terms 
when he actually deals with mother or father. He develops early 


a sense of the occasion and a sensitivity to what we shall call prob- 
lems of tone. 

The discussion in this section comes to this : All of your experience 
in the past can be said, without too much wrenching of fact, to be 
a training for the writing which you wish to do. Your problem is, 
in part, to learn to use the resources which you already possess. 
For unless you learn to use those resources, you will not be able to 
acquire new resources. 


Some General 

WHERE should the study of writing begin? With considerations 
of the medium? Of the subject? Of the occasion? It is impossible 
to say that one of these is more important than the others, and it 
is impossible to say that one should logically precede the others. 

It might be argued that, since the word is the smallest unit in 
composition, we should begin with the study of diction and move 
by easy stages through the study of the sentence and the para- 
graph to the study of the general problem of organization, with 
attention finally given to questions of the occasion. 

But we could reply that when we choose words we choose them 
in relation to other words, in relation to some general subject and 
our general intention concerning that subject, and in relation to 
our attitude toward the reader. In the same way we could say that 
the study of the sentence, important as it is, should not necessarily 
precede the study of problems of more general organization. For 
it is the pattern of the sentences, not the individual sentence, which 
gives the thrust of our thought and defines the progression of our 
ideas. We are first, and finally, concerned with the nature of our 
complete utterance, our over-all idea, our main intention. And per- 
haps we should, therefore, be first concerned with general problems 
of organization. 


Your first problem will always be to define for yourself what 
your central idea is. Your second problem will always be to 


develop that idea clearly and forcefully. In other words, you must 
think before you write. And you must think as you write. For 
writing is both the expression of thought and an instrument of 

What constitutes a subject? As we have already observed, any- 
thing can be a subject your autobiography, George Washington, 
a house, war, religion, boats, a picnic, chemical research. This 
answer is true as far as it goes. But if we put down the subject 
"George Washington" and then simply assemble various facts, ideas, 
and speculations about him, we find that we do not have a true 
subject. It is too vague, too inclusive; and the writer feels like a 
man trying to grab a handful of fog. The subject must be limited 
and fixed if it is to be manageable. 

To limit and fix a subject we must think of it with reference to a 
basic interest an interest dictated by an occasion assigned to us, 
or discovered for ourselves. The subject is not in and of itself a 
subject George Washington, a house, war, religion, and so forth 
but is so created by some mind. Even an idea as such is not a 
subject, say the idea of goodness or the idea of infinity. To become 
a true subject, a mind must work on that idea, define it, take some 
attitude toward it. 

The true subject is a topic brought to focus. If we take, for 
instance, the topic "George Washington," we can think of various 
possible interests which might give us true subjects: "George Wash- 
ington as the Type of the Colonial Planter," "The Development of 
Leadership in George Washington/' "What the Frontier Taught 
George Washington," "George Washington as a Statesman," "The 
Influence of George Washington on American Political Thought," 
"Myths about George Washington," "The Courtships of George 
Washington," "George Washington as a Strategist." But this would 
be only the beginning of a list of true subjects. Whatever about 
George Washington might interest anybody would be a possible 
subject. So the true subject is something about a subject. 

It may be objected that a large work on George Washington, say 
a biography, might contain many of the items listed above. That 
is true. But even in a large work there would be some fundamental 
line of interest and interpretation to which the other interests would 
be related and subordinated. 


Before you undertake any piece of composition, you should try 
to frame the real subject, the central concern. You do not write 
about a house. You write about its appearance, the kind of life it 
suggests, its style of architecture, or your associations with it. You 
do not write about chemical research. You write about the method 
of chemical research, the achievements of chemical research, or the 
opportunities for chemical research. You do not write about good- 
ness. You write about the different views of goodness which have 
been held by different societies or religions at different times, about 
the Christian idea of goodness, about goodness as exemplified by 
people you know or know about, or about the definition of good- 
ness which you personally accept. You must search your own 
thoughts and feelings to find your true subject. 


Once the writer has his true subject, he must not lose sight of 
it as he pursues various related ideas. A good piece of writing 
has UNITY. The fundamental interest, which is his subject, must 
permeate the whole composition. The composition must be one 
thing, and not a hodgepodge. 

Unity is not arbitrary, something imposed from the outside. It is 
simply the indication that the writer's own mind can work sys- 
tematically and can therefore arrive at a meaning. To put it another 
way, the unity of the composition is an indication that his mind 
has unity that he is not scatterbrained. 

Let us look at a composition which is not well unified. 


(1) I suppose that one reason I want to be an engineer and have made 
my college plans in that direction is that my father is an engineer. He was 
a student here at the State University back in 1909-1914. He began his 
college career with the intention of being a doctor, but he soon changed 
his mind. He finished his course in 1914, and worked as a draftsman for 
two years in Chicago in an engineering firm. But World War I got him 
into the army, and he wound up a major in the Engineering Corps. It was 
a valuable experience for him in more ways than one, for he says it 
taught him how to deal with men of all kinds and to get work done under 


pressure. Also it meant that he was to get a taste for action and adventure. 
After the war, he went to Mexico and worked on building a railroad in 
the mountains. He had many difficult construction problems to solve. I 
was born in Mexico, and I was raised in a family where they talked engi- 
neering all the time, for my mother was interested in my father's work. 

(2) There is a great future for an engineer in this country. It makes me 
tired to hear people talk of the lack of opportunity in that line. It is true 
that during the Depression many engineers were out of work, but that 
applied to many occupations and professions. Besides, many of the engi- 
neers out of work were not well trained to begin with. If you are really 
well trained and are willing to put out your best efforts you can almost 
always get along. There is a great future for engineering here, for we are 
on the verge of a great technological revolution which will mean the 
rebuilding of much of the industrial plant and the development of new 
transport facilities. Besides, land reclamation and the expansion of public 
works are long-range programs. This country is an engineer's paradise, 
for we are the most mechanical-minded people in the world. They say 
that that is the great talent of America, and I see nothing to be ashamed 
of in that. Engineers make the world easier to live in for everybody. 
Think of things like the great bridges and dams, the highways and air- 
ports. What would we do without them? 

(3) I like the life of action, and that is another reason I plan to be an 
engineer. My father had a very interesting life in Mexico. After five years 
there he went to Argentina. He had learned the language in Mexico, and 
had made a name for himself there. So he got a good offer in Argentina. 
He sent my mother and me back to the U. S. until I grew up a little, but 
he came to see us at the end of the first year and took us back to Argen- 
tina with him. We lived there four years. Then he went to India, and 
supervised the building of some bridges there. But he did not take us 
to India with him. He understood that the climate was too bad. And he 
was right, because he almost died there of dysentery. He never left 
America again, but his talk about his adventures gave me a desire for 
an active life, and he has never discouraged me. 

(4) I make my best marks in mathematics. Mathematics is the basis 
of engineering, and I think that a man should follow his best talent. I 
like other things, too, history for instance, and I read a good many novels 
and stories. But I cannot see myself making a profession of any of these 
things. Business would be too confining for me. I have an uncle who is 
a lawyer, and it seems to me that he never gets out of his office except 
to come home at night. 

Taking everything together, I think that engineering is the right 
profession for me. 


The writer here has a subject, which is expressed in the title. 
And if we examine the theme carefully we can dig out the reasons 
for his choice of a career: family background, the opportunity to 
make a good living, the appetite for action, and the aptitude for 
mathematics. These four reasons should give him the outline for 
his theme. 

But he is constantly bringing in material which does not bear 
directly on the subject or which is developed without reference to 
the main line of interest. For instance, he is so much impressed 
with his father's life that he devotes far too much attention to it: 
most of the first and third paragraphs. For present purposes we 
only need to know the barest facts about the father's career. The 
last part of the second paragraph, too, is not relevant. The writer 
may have two points here that an engineer feels himself char- 
acteristically American and that the engineer has the sense of being 
a useful member of society. But he does not state these points, and 
they are lost in his general remarks. If we get them at all, we get 
them by implication only. In the fourth paragraph, too, we find 
some irrelevant material the reference to the writer's interest in 
history and fiction, and the remark about his uncle's occupation. 


An effective discourse must have unity. And it must also have 
COHERENCE. That is, the elements of the discourse must stick to- 
gether. This seems to be another way of saying that a discourse 
must have unity, and in one sense that is true. The distinction may 
be stated thus: When we speak of unity we are referring primarily 
to the nature of the materials as related to the subject, and when 
we speak of coherence we are referring primarily to the way the 
materials are organized to give a continuous development of the 
subject. A discourse which lacks coherence will, in the larger sense, 
seem to lack unity, for even if the materials individually relate to 
the subject, we will not be able to see how they relate to each other. 

We can consider coherence in two respects: (1) as involving over- 
all organization of the discourse, and (2) as involving local transi- 
tions within the discourse. 



There is no one principle by which the materials of a discourse 
are to be organized. Obviously, a principle of organization good for 
describing a woman's face would not be good for telling the story 
of a baseball game or a battle, for explaining the causes of the 
Russian Revolution, or for arguing against the abolition of Greek 
letter fraternities. Different intentions involve different principles 
of organization. We shall study the basic intentions and some of 
their characteristic methods when we come to the chapters on de- 
scription, narrative, exposition, and argument, but for the present 
we can content ourselves with the common-sense principle: One 
thing should lead to another. 

The following piece of writing is coherent. 


(1) I suppose that my uncle Conroy is the person I admire most in 
the world. This statement would probably seem strange to a person who 
happened to visit in our house and see the old man who sits at a corner 
of the hearth, hunched over, shabbily dressed, and not saying much. He 
looks like the complete failure, and by ordinary standards he is. He has 
no money. He has no children. He is old and sick. But he has made his 
own kind of success, and I think he is happy. 

(2) At one time in his life he was a success by ordinary standards. He 
was the son of a poor Methodist minister (my mother's father), but he 
ran away from home in Illinois to Oklahoma back in the days when 
things were beginning to boom out there. He had a fine house in Okla- 
homa City and a ranch. He was a hail-fellow-well-met, and men and 
women liked him. He was a sportsman, kept good horses, and took long 
hunting trips to Mexico and Canada. Then one day, on his own ranch, 
his horse stumbled in a gopher hole and threw him. He was badly hurt 
and was in the hospital for many months. While he was still in the 
hospital the Depression came on. If he had been well and able to take 
care of his affairs, he might have saved some of his money from the 
crash. But as it was he lost everything. So he came back to Illinois, and 
my mother and father took him in. 

(3) It must have been an awful come-down for a man like that to be 
living on charity. But the worst was yet to happen, for he developed 
arthritis in a very painful form. I remember the first year or so, even 
though I was a very small child. He even tried to commit suicide with 


gas from the stove. But my mother saved him, and after that he began 
to change. 

(4) The first thing was that he began to take an interest in us chil- 
dren. He would read to us and talk to us. He helped us with our lessons. 
That relieved mother a great deal and made her life easier. My father 
was an insurance man and had a lot of paper work to do. It got so that 
my uncle took an interest in that, and before long he was helping my 
father by doing reports and writing letters. He helped my father tide 
over the bad time of the Depression. Then when my mother was ill 
for a long time, he learned to do some of the housework, as much as his 
strength would permit, and even dressed the two smaller children. 

(5) What he did was important, but more important was the way he 
did things. He was so natural about it. You never got the impression he 
was making any effort or sacrifice. We all got so we didn't notice what 
he did, and I am sure that that was what he wanted. 

(6) As I look back now, or when I go home and see Uncle Conroy, 
the biggest achievement, however, seems to be the kind of example he 
gave us all. He was often in pain, but he was always cheerful. If he 
felt too bad he simply hid away from the family for a while in his room 
what he called his "mope-room." He even made a joke out of that. 
And he didn't act like a man who had failed. He acted like a man who 
had found what he could do and was a success at it. And I think that he 
is a success. We all admire success, and that is why I admire my uncle 

We can see how each section of this theme fits into the general 
pattern. The main business of the writer is to tell why he admires 
his uncle, but he does not immediately set up the reasons. First, by 
way of introduction, he gives a brief sketch of the man as he now 
appearsthe man who is to be interpreted. The appearance of fail- 
ure in contrast to the reality of success gives dramatic interest, and 
excites the reader's curiosity. In the second paragraph he tells of the 
uncle's days of outward success. This topic does not get into the 
theme merely because the uncle, as a matter of fact, had such 
success. Many things that happened to him are certainly omitted 
here. Instead, it gets in because the taste of worldly success makes 
the uncle's achievement and shift of values more impressive. The 
third paragraph presents the despair of the uncle a normal re- 
sponse to bankruptcy and illness. This topic has a place in the gen- 
eral organization, for it states the thing that the uncle must fight 
against. The fourth, fifth, and sixth paragraphs define the nature of 


the uncle's achievement. The order here is one of ascending impor- 
tance, toward a climaxthe special practical things he did, the atti- 
tude he took toward the doing, the long-range effect of his example 
on others. (There is one small defect in the organization here. 
The reference to the uncle's cheerfulness in the sixth paragraph 
probably should go back into the fifth paragraph, for it really 
belongs under the heading of the uncle's attitude.) The sixth para- 
graph not only states the uncle's most important achievement, but 
serves as a kind of summary of the preceding material. 


Thus far we have been talking about what is involved in the 
over-all organization of a piece of writing. But the question of local 
transitions within the discourse is also extremely important. How 
do we get from one section to another, one paragraph to another, 
one sentence to another? 

Obviously there must be an intrinsic continuity: what one section, 
paragraph, or sentence presents must bear some relation to the 
whole subject and to what has just preceded. But even when there 
is this intrinsic continuity, we may have to help the reader by using 
certain devices of connection and transition, by giving him links or 

We can begin a section, paragraph, or sentence with some ref- 
erence to what has gone before. The repetition or rephrasing of 
something in the preceding unit will provide a link. For example, 
let us look at the link which ties together these two paragraphs: 

, . . All of these factors result in a condition of social unrest and eco- 
nomic uncertainty, which seems to presage the end of our civilization. 
Social unrest and economic uncertainty, however, are not always an 
unhealthy condition. Actually, that condition may be the prelude, not to 
ruin, but to great revolutionary gains. . . . 

The repetition of the phrase "social unrest and economic uncer- 
tainty" at the beginning of the second paragraph provides the link 
between the two. But pronouns and other words of reference (like 
such, similar, and so forth) may serve the same purpose. 

. . . All of these factors result in a condition of social unrest and eco- 
nomic uncertainty, which seems to presage the end of our civilization, 
This situation, however, need not fill us with alarm. . . . 



Such a situation, however, is not unhealthy. . . . 

Furthermore, there are words whose function is to indicate spe- 
cific relations: conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, and some adverbs. 
These words say what they mean. And, or, nor establish a co- 
ordinate connection. But, however, nevertheless establish a contrast. 
So, therefore, consequently establish a result. Moreover and further- 
more indicate additions or elaborations. Notice how the word how- 
ever is used in the example above. 

Another way to establish continuity is found in a large group of 
more or less conventional phrases. Such phrases are self-explanatory: 
"in addition," "as has been said/' "that is to say," "that is," "by con- 
sequence," "for example," "for instance," "as a result," "on the con- 

None of these lists is complete. They are merely suggestive. But 
they may serve to indicate the function of such words and phrases 
so that the writer can by his reading build up his own resources. 

We must not use such transitional words and phrases unless they 
are necessary. They are not ornaments, and they impede the reader 
rather than help him if the sense is clear without them. 


A piece of writing may be unified and coherent and still not be 
effective if it does not observe the principle of EMPHASIS. When this 
principle is properly observed the intended scale of importance of 
elements in the discourse is clear to the reader. All cats are black 
in the dark, but all things should not look alike in the light of a 
reasonable writer's interest in his subject. To change our metaphor, 
there is a foreground and a background of interest, and the writer 
should be careful to place each item in its proper location. Like 
unity and coherence, emphasis is a principle of organization. 

How do we emphasize an element in a piece of writing? 


The first and most obvious way is for the writer to state quite 
flatly his own view on the importance of a matter. If we turn back 


to the theme "The Person I Admire Most/' we find that paragraphs 
4, 5, and 6 represent a scale of importance. 

(4) The first thing was that he began to take an interest in us chil- 
dren. . . . 

(5) What he did was important, but more important was the way he 
did things. . . . 

(6) As I look back now, or when I go home and see Uncle Conroy, 
the biggest achievement, however, seems to be the kind of example he 
gave us all. . . . 

In depending on his own statement for emphasis the writer should 
remember that the actual content must justify the statement. Before 
he makes the statement, he must think through the subject and be 
sure that he really believes in his own statement. 


A second way is by position. "First or last" is a fairly sound rule 
for emphasis by position. This rule corresponds to two general 
methods for treating a subject. The main idea can be presented 
and then discussed or proved, or discussion or proof can lead up 
to the main idea. Ordinarily the second method is better, and the 
end is the most emphatic position, for the last impression on a 
reader is what counts most. But some rather conventionalized forms 
of writing, like news stories, put the most important material first. 
In any case, the middle is the least emphatic position. 


Proportion in itself is a means of emphasis. The most important 
topic in a discussion reasonably receives the fullest treatment. This 
principle, however, is more flexible than the preceding. In some 
writings the last and most important topic may have been so well 
prepared for by the foregoing discussion that it does not require 
elaborate treatment. The writer must decide each case on its own 
merits and be sure that he is not indulging in elaboration merely 
for the sake of elaboration. 


Even when there is no emphasis by proportion or position, the 
way of saying a thing may make it emphatic and memorable, 


So we have emphasis by style. Sharpness or vividness of phrasing, 
an illuminating comparison, an air of seriousness, a rhythm that 
sticks in the ear any of these things or several of them in com- 
bination may give emphasis. 

It is hard to say exactly what constitutes sharpness of phrasing, 
though we certainly recognize the dull phrase. 

Suppose Patrick Henry had said: "Liberty is a very important 
thing for a man to have. It means that he can pursue his own 
designs and develop his own fortunes and seek his own happiness 
so long as he does not interfere with the rights of other people. 
Therefore liberty is a very important thing. I had rather have 
liberty than anything else, for it is the basis of everything else. I had 
rather die than lose liberty." 

His audience would have yawned in his face. But what he actu- 
ally said was, "I know not what course others may take; but as for 
me, give me liberty or give me death!" and the words have come 
a long way from the room in colonial Virginia where they were 
spoken. The dramatic quality of the statement, the swelling balance 
of the rhythm, the economy of language these things make the 
statement memorable, when the mere idea, stated otherwise, would 
have been forgotten. 

Or suppose that John Randolph had said about a fellow-politician: 
"Henry Clay seems to be a very brilliant man, but his apparent 
brilliance is really just superficial cleverness. He is vain and strut- 
ting. He is also very corrupt." Nobody would remember the remark. 
But he actually said, "So brilliant, yet so corrupt, which, like a 
rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks." The comparison 
sums up all he meant, vividly and unforgettably, and we have one 
of the most savage insults in the language. 

Or suppose Lincoln had said at the end of his Second Inaugural 
Address: "We want to finish this war and have a fair peace. We do 
not want a vindictive peace but one that will restore the country 
to unity. We believe that we are right and are determined to win 
and have a fair peace. And after the war we must not forget to 
take care of the veterans and the dependents of those who were 
killed or wounded in the struggle." The sentiments would have 
done him credit, perhaps, but the sentiments would probably have 
vanished with the words spoken. What he actually said was: 


With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the 
right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work 
we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall 
have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which 
may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and 
with all nations. 

Here again it is style which makes the difference the precision 
and economy of statement, the concreteness and simplicity of ex- 
pression, the full, sonorous, sustained rhythm. 

Not many writers or speakers have the gift exhibited in these 
examples, but the principle exemplified here should apply to any- 
thing we write; the well-said thing is the memorable thing. No 
matter how important an idea is, it is lost if the words are blunder- 
ing. And almost anyone can, by practice and attention, gain enough 
skill to write honestly and cleanly. 


Flat statement, order of importance, proportion, and style are 
major means of emphasis, but there are certain minor ones. For 
instance, repetition of an idea can give it prominence. The danger 
here is that the repetition may become merely mechanical and 
therefore dull. To be effective, repetition must be combined with 
some variety and some progression in the treatment of the subject. 
Or there is the device of the short, isolated paragraph. The thing 
set off by itself strikes the eye. But not all short paragraphs are in 
themselves emphatic. The content and phrasing of the short para- 
graph must in itself appear worthy of the special presentation. 


There are certain devices of emphasis which often occur but 
which are frequently worse than useless. Irresponsible exaggera- 
tion always repels the reader. Catchwords and hackneyed phrases 
like "awfully," "terribly," "tremendously/* "the most wonderful 
thing I ever saw," "you never saw anything like it," "I can't begin 
to tell you," make a claim on the reader's attention that he is 
rarely prepared to grant. Random underlining and italicizing, or 
the use of capitals and exclamation points usually defeat their own 
purpose. Writers use these devices when they aren't sure that what 
they have to say will stand on its own merits. To insist that what 


you have to say is important does not prove the point. And the 
writer's business is to prove that point. 

In applying any of these means of emphasis the writer must first 
of all be sure that the thing emphasized is worth emphasizing. 
Common sense must help him here. Nothing else can. 


There are three main divisions into which any rounded discourse 
should each accomplish, and what should be their relations to each 


The introduction must really introduce. At some stage it must 
let the reader know the business in hand. Occasionally the title can 
be explicit enough to give the reader a good idea of that business, 
but usually the introduction must limit and fix the subject. It must 
state the precise question with which the discussion is to be con- 

Sometimes the introduction can properly concern itself with the 
background of the subject. If the subject, for example, is a new 
process in industrial chemistry, and the audience is composed of 
general readers, it may be necessary to inform them about the func- 
tion of such a process and about the nature of the old process 
before they can understand the significance of the new one. If you 
are explaining why a certain novel is good, you may properly intro- 
duce your remarks by saying what qualities you prize in fiction. 
Or if you are explaining the greatness of Galileo, you may not be 
able to make your point unless you describe the condition of science 
before he accomplished his work. But here, as when limiting and 
fixing the subject itself, you must have some idea of the audience. 
How much preparation is needed to make them get your point? 

An introduction may tell the reader what method of investiga- 
tion has provided the material for the discussion or what method 
of discussion you intend to pursue. This element in an introduction 
is ordinarily confined to more or less technical discussions. For 
instance, a physicist might describe the nature of his method of 
investigation before he analyzes his findings. Or an economist might 


tell what evidence he had assessed. As for the forecast of the 
method of discussion, this is only desirable when the method itself 
is of some importance. If, for instance, you are writing in defense 
of J. E. B. Stuart's cavalry operations at the time of the Battle of 
Gettysburg, your introduction might very well include a statement 
of your method. You might say that the points to be determined 
are: (1) Was Stuart acting under orders? (2) Was he acting against 
orders? (3) Was he acting at discretion? (4) If he was acting at 
discretion, what information was available to him? (5) On the 
grounds of information available to him, were his operations con- 
sistent with reason and military science? Then you might say that 
you propose to investigate these questions and rest your case upon 
the answers. Such an introduction is sometimes very useful when 
the material to be treated is complicated and the reader's interest 
might easily be distracted by some incidental matter. It serves as a 
blueprint or a signpost. 

One other job may be performed by an introduction. It may be 
used to catch the reader's interest and lure him into the subject. 
When an audience is already interested in the subject, this is super- 
fluous. But when you are writing for the general reader, this part 
of the work of the introduction may be very important. If you 
check through feature articles in newspapers or magazines, you 
will find that the introduction usually makes some bid for the 
reader's attention. It explains why the subject should interest the 
reader, how it touches his life, if only indirectly, or it presents some 
incident of dramatic interest, some suggestive anecdote, or some 
provocative question. 

Of these four general functions of an introduction, the first is the 
only essential one: The introduction must always lead the reader 
to the subject and must show him clearly what it is. The other 
functions are to be performed only when the occasion demands. 


It is difficult to make any significant generalizations concern- 
ing the main body of a piece of writing. Different subjects and 
interests call for different methods, and several of our subsequent 
chapters will be devoted to such questions. But this much may be 
insisted on now: The body of the discussion should not betray the 


promise of the introduction. It should really develop the introduc- 
tion. If the body does betray the introduction but seems good in 
itself, then you must go back and rewrite the introduction. The 
two things must be geared together. 


The conclusion gives you your last chance at your reader. If you 
fail there, you have probably failed throughout your work. 

Occasionally, a formal conclusion is not necessary, especially in 
short pieces where the reader can easily carry the whole business 
in his head. But when there is no conclusion, it is usually a good 
idea to make the last part of the main body of the theme the most 
important part, the climax, so that your strongest point will be 
freshest for the reader when he leaves you. As we have already 
said, the end is the most emphatic position. 

In more elaborate pieces of writing some formal conclusion is 
necessary to give the reader a perspective on the whole discussion. 
It may involve a summary of things the body of the discussion has 
established, but it should do more than summarize. It must also 
show how those things fit together to support your position or the 
effect you desire. It may be that you want to explain something, to 
convince the reader of the truth of something, to persuade him to a 
course of action, to make him think for himself about something. 
Whatever your dominant purpose may be, the conclusion should 
bring it into clear focus, The worst effect of all is for the reader, as 
he puts down your pages, to have only a hazy notion of what you 
meant to say. He should, rather, have a clear idea. 


In talking about emphasis we mentioned the problem of propor- 
tion. But in that connection it was a matter of local concern. What 
of proportion in relation to the big main divisions? 

Our answer cannot take the form of a mathematical ratio the 
body five times longer than the introduction, or something of the 
sort, and six times longer than the conclusion. But we must remem- 
ber that the introduction is just an introduction, a preparation for 
the main business, and that the main business is to be transacted 


in the body of the piece. If the introduction is long and cumber- 
some, and the body brief, then the reader gets the impression that 
the mountain has labored and brought forth a mouse. Likewise, 
if there is a formal conclusion, that conclusion should seem to be the 
blow that sinks the nail head in the wood. In short, it should "con- 
clude" the theme not start fresh considerations. If the conclusion is 
long and cumbersome, then the reader has another unfortunate 
impression. It is preposterous, too, for the mouse to labor and try 
to bring forth the mountain. Or to apply another saying, the tail 
should not wag the dog. As a kind of rule of thumb, we may venture 
that the body should be at least several times longer than the 
introduction or conclusion. 

To think otthe matter mechanically, however, is not the way to 
get at it. If the writer has a subject worthy of discussion, and if he 
understands the proper function of the introduction and conclusion, 
the problem of proportion is apt to take care of itself. 


A person writing into a subject blind may come out, by luck or 
instinct, with a well-organized and well-proportioned composition. 
But ordinarily the safe procedure is to think through the subject 
beforehand and set up a plan, an outline, of the projected discourse. 

There are various types of outlines ranging from the formal sen- 
tence outline down to a scratch outline composed of jottings as they 
come to mind in the first survey of the subject. For the moment, 
however, we shall concern ourselves with a simple topic outline. 

In our analysis of the theme "The Person I Admire Most" (p. 16), 
we have already indicated what such a preliminary outline might 
be. Let us now set it up. 

Statement of the subject: Why I admire my uncle Conroy 

I. My uncle as he now appears apparent failure and real success 

II. The background of my uncle's achievement 

A. His worldly success and ruin (paragraph 2) 

B. His illness and despair (paragraph 3) 


III. The nature of my uncle's achievement 

A. His practical achievements (paragraph 4) 

1. Help with the children 

2. Help with my father's business 

3. Help with my mother's illness 

B. His achievement in self-control (paragraph 5) 

1. Naturalness of his actions 

2. Cheerfulness in the face of pain 

(Now in paragraph 6; should be in paragraph 5) 

C. His greatest achievement, an example to othersthe summary 
of his other achievements (paragraph 6) 


IV. My uncle as a type of success and my admiration for him (para- 
graph 6) 

The writer of the theme probably should have made topic IV 
into a separate paragraph, a conclusion giving a statement of the 
author's definition of success and the application to his uncle's case. 
Nevertheless, he has written a theme which is fundamentally sys- 
tematic, which builds continuously toward its point. The outline 
defines the stages in that progression. 

A preliminary outline is a help in the actual writing of a theme, 
but it should not be followed slavishly. In the process of writing, 
new thoughts may come and new material may be suggested. The 
writer should always be ready to take advantage of these. He may 
have to stop the writing and go back to do a new outline, or he 
may be able to incorporate the new thoughts or new material in 
the actual body of the theme. In any event, it is a good idea to go 
back after the writing is completed and check against the original 
outline or, if necessary, make a new outline. When the bare bones 
are laid out, the writer can criticize the organization of his work. 

It is always a question, too, how fully the outline can predict 
the scale of a piece of writing. If the author of "The Person I Admire 
Most" made an outline, he might not have been able to predict 
exactly how much space each topic would take. For instance, topic 
III-A might have developed into three paragraphs instead of one, 
or topics II-A and II-B might have been managed in one paragraph 
instead of two. Such problems usually have to be settled in the 
course of actual composition when the writer discovers the scale 


on which he is working. But the matter of scale and proportion in 
itself is something which we shall come to a little later. 

The outline we have constructed for "The Person I Admire Most" 
is relatively simple. It should be adequate for the preliminary study 
of such a subject. But a writer who has trouble in organizing his 
material may do well to consult the Appendix on the Outline in 
this book ( p. 486 ) . A little practice in making sentence outlines may 
increase his power to deal with a body of material. But there is 
no virtue in outlining for its own sake. It is a means to an end, a 
help to straight thinking and well-organized writing. It is not an 
end in itself. 


The Kinds 
of Discourse 


WHEN a writer sets out to write he has some main intention, some 
central purpose. Let us look at this matter as an aspect of com- 
munication, and not as an aspect of expression. That is, let us 
suppose that the writer wishes to communicate something to a 
reader, to work some effect on him. 

First, his main intention may be to explain something, to make 
clear to the reader some idea, to analyze a character or a situation, 
to define a term, to give directions. He may wish, in other words, 
to inform him. 

Second, he may wish to make the reader change his mind, his 
attitude, his point of view, his feelings. He may appeal to the read- 
er's powers of logic in a perfectly objective and impersonal fashion, 
or he may appeal to his emotions, but in either case the intention 
is to work a change in him. 

Third, he may wish to make the reader see or hear something as 
vividly as the writer himself has seen or heard it, to make him get 
the feel of the thing, the quality of a direct experience. The thing 
in question may be a natural scene, a city street, a cat or a race 
horse, a person's face, the odor of a room, a piece of music. 

Fourth, he may wish to tell the reader about an event what 
happened and how it happened. The event may be grand or trivial, 
a battle or a ball game, a presidential campaign or a picnic, but 
whatever it is, the writer will be anxious to give the sequence in 
time and perhaps to give some notion of how one thing led to 


another. And above all his chief concern will be to give an imme- 
diate impression of the event, to give the sense of witnessing it. 


We can see, with only a moment of reflection, that these four 
types of intention correspond to the four basic kinds of discourse: 


embodies the wish to inform the reader, argument the wish to make 
the reader change his mind or attitude, description the wish to 
make the reader perceive something, narration the wish to make 
the reader grasp the movement of an event. 

What is important here is to understand that these traditional 
kinds of discourse are not arbitrary divisions of the subject of writ- 
ing, but that each corresponds to a main intention, a fundamental 
wish on the part of the writer. Each fulfills one of his needs. And 
it is important, too, to see that this main intention, this fundamental 
wish, relates both to the nature of the subject and the nature of 
the occasion. That is, one begins a piece of writing by asking him- 
self what kind of treatment is natural to the subject and what kind 
of effect he wants to work on the reader. 


Thinking back over various articles and books you have read, 
you may remark that none of these kinds of discourse often appears 
in a pure form. For instance, a novel will describe as well as narrate, 
it will give sections of exposition, it may even present argument. 
A magazine article on international affairs may very well employ 
narrative, as in an illustrative anecdote, or description, as in pre- 
senting the statesmen on whose decisions the settlement of affairs 
depends. Both exposition and argument may be intertwined in a 
most complicated fashion: the writer must make clear to the reader 
the state of affairs, and that calls for exposition, and he will prob- 
ably have in mind some convictions which he wants to see put into 
action by his reader, and that calls for argument. Even class re- 
ports, which tend to be almost pure exposition, may involve nar- 
rative. For instance, a report on a chemistry experiment may involve 
the presentation of an event the setting up of the apparatus, the 


sequence of occurrences. In fact, the form of exposition which deals 
with such a process is sometimes called expository narration because 
it is necessarily bound to a sequence in time. 

All of this does not mean that in a good and effective piece of 
writing the mixture of the kinds of discourse is irresponsible. There 
will always be a main intention, a fundamental wish. The class 
report will always be, by the nature of the case, an example of ex- 
position. The novel, no matter how much exposition, description, 
and argument it contains, will always be an example of narration. 
Other instances may not be so clear-cut, but in any instance, a good 
writer knows for what purpose he is using a given type of discourse. 
He will use it to support his main intention. 

Though most writing involves a mixture of the kinds of discourse, 
we can best study them in isolation, one by one. This study will 
mean the systematic analysis of relatively pure examples in order 
to observe the various types of organization appropriate to any one 
kind. It is only after one understands the kinds of discourse in a 
pure form that one can make them work together to give unity to 
a larger discourse. 


Before we discuss at length the four kinds of discourse that we 
have distinguished, we may make some other distinctions that will 
be useful to us. 

First, we shall distinguish the SUBJECTIVE and the OBJECTIVE use 
of language. Compare these two statements : "The girl had beautiful 
hair," and "The girl had black hair." The first statement is "subjec- 
tive." It represents a perceiving subject's impression of, and inter- 
pretation of, a fact. The second statement is, by comparison, quite 
objective. It presents a fact objectively that is, without personal 
interpretation and judgment. The fact presented is true, whether we 
think black hair is beautiful or not beautiful, or whether this head of 
black hair impresses us as beautiful or ugly. Subjective is inner and 
private; objective is outer and public. We tend to have quite dif- 
ferent standards of beauty; we tend to have rather general standards 
of what is black. 

But the statement that the girl has black hair is not wholly objec- 
tive. The girl's hair may be a dark brown and the person who claims 


that it is black may not have as keen a discrimination of colors as 
another. By comparison the statement "The girl weighs 116 pounds" 
is more nearly objective. For unless the scales are wrong or the 
person who reads them has made an error, that statement depends 
upon a universal standard. The Bureau of Weights and Measures 
at Washington furnishes us with a very precise standard of what 
a pound is. 

To sum up, the subjective represents the response of a subject 
who perceives, a response that reveals all the individuality of 
standard and bias and preconception and emotional coloring that 
attach to personal judgment. The objective represents an appeal to 
general standards with the elimination of personal bias and impres- 


Here are some further examples of objective and subjective 
statements. We may write, "The water was 31 per cent saturated 
with filterable solids," or we may write, "The water was stained a 
muddy brown." We may write, "The man was 5 ft. 3% in. tall," 
or we may write, "He was a runty little fellow." We may write, 
"The animal caught was a mature male of the species Rattus nor- 
vegicus weighing 1 Ib. 3 ] /> oz.," or we may write, "We caught a fat 
brown rat." 

Now all these statements report facts, not merely the first mem- 
bers of each pair of statements. How then do the first members of 
each pair differ from the second members of the pair? They differ 
in making use of a defined and agreed-upon set of classifications 
and measurements. That is why we call them objective. The word 
rat may suggest something loathsome, furtive, and destructive. 
Rattus norvegicus does not. Muddy water may call up happy mem- 
ories of the old swimming pool or unpleasant associations of dirt. 
The author interested in cold and scientific fact finds these associa- 
tions, whether pleasant or unpleasant, quite irrelevant to his pur- 
pose; moreover, how muddy is muddy? On the other hand, 31 per 
cent saturation provides an accuracy with which he is very much 
concerned. What is a runt? What is a runty man? That will depend 
upon the point of view; moreover, it implies a judgment, a disparag- 
ing judgment. The measurement 5 ft. 3% in. is an accurate state- 
ment and it gives us the fact quite apart from whether we think 


that it represents a satisfactory or an unsatisfactory height for a 

Scientific statement, of course, represents our nearest approach 
to complete objectivity. Scientific statements make use of some 
agreed-upon scheme of reference: an accepted classification of 
mammals, or Mendelyeev's Periodic Table, or the metric system of 
weights and measures, and so on. A very important consequence 
follows from this fact: scientific statements make reference to ab- 
stractions. To illustrate, Rattus norvegicus is not any particular 
member of the brown rat family. It is the family itself: that com- 
pound of characteristics which defines the particular species called 
the brown rat. Rattus norvegicus is an ideal rat. The personal equa- 
tion has been eliminated. Any competent biologist can say whether 
the specimen in question belongs to the family or not. 

We can say, then, that when the writer's main purpose is scien- 
tific his language tends to be technical and objective. It is technical 
in that it consists of special terms used strictly with reference to 
an agreed-upon scheme. It is objective in that the emotional color- 
ing of a particular observer has been eliminated. A strictly scientific 
purpose obviously demands an emotionally neutral vocabulary of 
this sort. 


The strictly scientific intention, however, represents an extreme. 
Very little of our writing turns out to be purely scientific. Moreover, 
important as the scientific intention is, it is not the sole intention 
of the writer. Let us consider the other intention, and to make the 
contrast as sharp as possible, let us take this other intention in its 
most extreme form. We might call it an "artistic" intention, though 
in using the term "artistic" we do not mean to limit it to the higher 
and more serious forms of literature. As we shall use it here, "artistic 
intention" includes the purpose that directs the telling of a good 
joke or the description of an exciting boxing match, or the writing 
of a warm letter to an intimate friend, and many other kinds of 
discourse which we use in our everyday life. The writer with this 
intention insists that AVC "see" the object, feel the experience, re- 
spond imaginatively to the whole scene portrayed. He uses terms 
which are particular and concrete and which invite the reader's 
reaction. Moreover, such a writer tends to deal with objects in their 


immediacy and concreteness. He does not abstract certain qualities 
and characteristics as the scientist does; he tends to fuse and com- 
bine them. It is easy to see why. 

A moment's reflection will show us that our actual experience 
of a thing comes to us with more fullness and richness than any 
single adjective, tied to the single sense, will indicate. We look at 
an apple and see the patch of red, and say, "The apple is red." But 
we are also prepared to say that it is, for example, "glossy" and 
"juicy-looking/* Even though we have not touched this particular 
apple or tasted it, other senses than sight become involved in our 
experience of the apple. Our past experiences with apples are oper- 
ating at the moment in our experience of the present apple. We see 
the apple and sense the special complex of qualities which mean 
"appleness" the color, the texture of the skin, the fragrance, the 
juiciness. So when we come to describe something, in ordinary 
speech, we may not merely assemble adjectives with the intention 
of making them indicate the qualities to be perceived by a single 
sense. Our ordinary use of language indicates something of the 
complication of the perception. When, for example, we say "glossy" 
of the apple, we are, in a way, fusing two senses, sight and touch. 
Or when we look at the frozen lake and say, "The ice is glassy," 
we evoke, with the word glassy, a whole complex of qualities which 
are fused in the single word slickness, hardness, transparency, and 

The kind of richness and fullness about which we have been talk- 
ing may involve also the element of interpretation. When we say, as 
above, "The ice is glassy," we attribute certain qualities to the ice,, 
though, of course, our statement implies a person who perceives. 
But when we say, "The music is soothing," the reference to a per- 
son who perceives is much more positively and intimately involved 
in the statement. For here the music is described only in terms of 
its effect upon a hearer. The soothing effect may take place because 
the music is soft, or has a certain type of melody and rhythm, or 
for some other reason, but the statement as given does not even 
mention those qualities; it mentions only the effect on a hearer. In 
other words, here the subjective reference of the description is ex- 
tremely important, for it is through the subjective reference, the 
effect on a hearer, that the person who reads the description be- 
comes aware of the nature of the music in question. 


Subjectivity, in the light of the artistic intention, becomes a virtue, 
not a vice. We want terms which suggest qualities, not bare tech- 
nical terms which bar all but one meaning. The thing to be avoided 
is technical dryness, since the reader is to respond powerfully to 
the experience set forth. 

What is the relation between the scientific-artistic distinction and 
the distinction of the four kinds of discourse? 

In an offhand way we tend to think that exposition and argument 
employ language that is objective, logical, scientific, and that de- 
scription and narration employ language that is subjective, emo- 
tional, artistic. Within limits, this is true, but only within limits. 
Exposition giving us information about an automobile motor would 
use objective, logical, scientific language, but exposition setting 
forth the motives of a human act might very well have to resort 
to the other kind of language. Or even if the main intention of 
argument is to convince by appealing to the logical faculties, we 
may have to resort to persuasion, to emotional appeals, to get a 
hearing for our argument, to present it with the right tone. Descrip- 
tion may as well concern itself with the floor plan of a house as 
with a beautiful woman or the effect of a sonata. Narration may 
give us the stages of a laboratory experiment or the experience of 
a courtship or a prize fight. 

We may regard the four kinds of discourse as representing dif- 
ferent basic intentions, but any one of these intentions may use 
either or both of the two kinds of appeals (objective, logical, sci- 
entific or subjective, emotional, artistic). 

In making the distinction between the two kinds of appeals we 
have deliberately used extreme examples. The extreme examples 
may make the difference come clear and sharp. In actual practice, 
however, our basic intention is not often purely scientific or purely 
artistic. And we must warn ourselves against a misleading over- 
simplification: we must not assume that all thinking can be con- 
ducted in a terminology that is technical and objective, and that 
all emotional language is vague and confused. To take extremes 
again, the poet may use language as precisely in his kind of dis- 
course as the physicist in his. 

Furthermore, though we have contrasted objective language with 
subjective language, and technical terms with suggestive and imag- 


inative terms, we go badly astray if we assume that, since the scien- 
tific intention makes use of objective and technical language, the 
artistic intention makes use merely of suggestive and subjective 
language. Far from it. Even a novel may include description which 
is rather studiedly objective and a poem, on occasion, may make 
use of highly technical language. 

Perhaps the best way to see the relation of these terms to the 
writer's intention is to return to our account of the nature of scien- 
tific language. It achieves its objectivity, as we have seen (p. 33), 
by using accepted terms and schemes of reference, and we have 
observed that these are arrived at by a process of abstraction. The 
individual's response is cut away from the term so as to leave it fixed 
and unchanging. But only abstractions (that is, generalized qualities 
and ideas) are fixed and unchanging. We get, not any individual 
rat, half-grown, mangy, dead in the trap, scuttling through the walls 
of a house, or the pet rat named "Jirn>" but rather Rattus norvegicus, 
that is, ratness an abstract rat. 

In other words, technical and objective terms represent a reduced 
language, core-meanings from which personal interpretation and 
implied meanings and suggestions have been removed. It is a spe- 
cialized language which is developed by abstracting cutting away 
from the richer and more complex language of our ordinary expe- 
rience all but the general qualities and characteristics. 

Instead, therefore, of arranging our terms in neat oppositions 


objective subjective 

technical suggestive 

we must see them arranged in this way: 



The segment of the circle represents a specialized intention with 
its appropriate devices. The circle as a whole represents our general 
intention of which the segment is a part. This may explain why in 
realizing the more general intention, we may use, not only a lan- 
guage which goes beyond the specialized techniques of the pure 
scientific intention, but also on occasion the specialized language 
as well. 

Finally, we need to remind ourselves once more that in the dis- 
cussion thus far we have dealt with extremes: that objective, for 
example, is not an absolute term but a relative term. Beautiful is 
more subjective than white, but white is more subjective than "the 
color without hue at one extreme end of the scale of grays, opposite 
to black." So with the other terms which we have used, such as 
subjective, technical, and so on. They are relative terms, not abso- 
lute. In actual practice we rarely make an appeal that is purely 
scientific or purely artistic, just as the four kinds of presentation 
rarely exist pure and unmixed. But it is necessary to make the dis- 
tinction sharply, for in the chapters that follow we shall need to 
refer to the "objective" and "technical" as contrasted in direction 
with the "subjective" and the "suggestive." 



EXPOSITION is the kind of discourse which explains or clarifies 
a subject. That is, as (the word exposition quite literally means, it 
sets forth a subject/ Its appeal is to the understanding. Description 
and narration may lead to understanding, but they lead to it by 
presenting the qualities and movement of their subject. Exposition, 
however, leads to understanding by explaining something about its 
subject.' Argument involves understanding in that it aims to con- 
vince of the truth or desirability of something, but its aim is to 
convince, not merely to explain. 

Exposition is the most common kind of writing, for it is applicable 
to anything which challenges the understanding the definition of 
a word, the way to a street address, the structure of a plant, the 
mechanism of a watch, the meaning of a historical event the motive 
of an act, the significance of a philosophical system. 


A piece of exposition may be regarded as the answer to a ques- 
tion about a subject. If the question has actually been asked us 
"How do I get to the Court House?" or "What were the causes of 
the American Revolution?" it is easy to frame an answer that does 
not waver from the point. But if we set out to write a piece of 
exposition without the benefit of a real, leading question, simply 
because we feel that a subject is interesting or important, we are 
very apt to give a confused account of the subject. We should 
always try to decide what INTEREST we want to appeal to. 


An informal list may suggest the kind of interests to which ex- 
position appeals: 

What is it? 

What does it mean? 

How is it put together? 

How does it work? 

Why is it the way it is? 

How did it come to be this way? 

When did it occur or exist? 

What is it worth? 

What is its importance? 

How well does it fulfill its intended function? 

We can ask other questions, of course, about a thing, whatever that 
thing may be, but these are among the most usual. 

Naturally, not all of these questions would be appropriate for 
the same subject. If we are trying to explain the nature of a triangle, 
we would scarcely ask when it occurred, for the nature of a triangle 
what makes a figure a triangle and not something else has no 
reference to time at all. Or if we are discussing the French Revolu- 
tion, we would scarcely ask how well it fulfilled its intended func- 
tion, for the Revolution was a complex event answering to no single 
intention. It would be appropriate, however, to ask about its causes 
or its importance. 

Already, in an earlier chapter (p. 12), we have discussed the 
problem of locating the real subject in a general topic, the concern 
that will give unity to a composition. The problem here is the same, 
but narrowed to apply to the methods of exposition. The interest 
we wish to appeal to determines the line we will follow in our 
discussion and will give that discussion its proper unity. We may, 
for instance, want to define a word, either to instruct our reader or 
to clarify our own thinking. We may want to describe a subjectto 
tell what its qualities are and relate those qualities to those of 
another subject. We may want to account for a subject tell how it 
came to exist. We may want to evaluate or criticize a subject. Any 
one of these endeavors would provide us with a unified discussion. 

A writer, however, may appeal to more than one interest in the 
same composition, and in any extended discussion he is almost 
certain to appeal to more than one interest. But in doing so he must 


be careful to keep them distinct. He must not mix up the answer to 
one question with the answer to another. He must see the interests 
as representing different stages in his single over-all treatment. 
Furthermore, if he does appeal to more than one interest, he must 
be sure that some relation is established among them, and that there 
is a logical progression from one to another. In other words, there 
must be clear division among the parts, and significant relation 
among the parts. 

Let us take an example. A writer wishes to write a review of 
Dickens's Oliver Twist. He knows that it is a novel, and he has a 
pretty good notion of what a novel is and can assume that his reader, 
too, has such a notion. But what kind of a novel is it? He decides 
that it is a novel of social protest. He is not so sure that his reader 
knows exactly what a novel of social protest is. So he sets out to 
define the term "novel of social protest," and decides that it is a 
novel in which the author's primary interest is to show the injustice 
in society. So far he has classified the novel and given a definition 
of the class into which it falls. 

Next he may summarize the story, present the characters, and 
comment on Dickens's attitude expressed in them. Now he is an- 
swering the question, "How is it put together?" He is explaining 
the organization of the book. 

Next, he may tell how Dickens drew on previous novels for sug- 
gestions in method, and on his own life and observation for mate- 
rial. Now he is answering the question, "Why is it the way it is?" 
He is giving an account of how the novel came to be. 

He may conclude by saying that the novel is good because the 
plot keeps the reader in suspense and because the reader sympa- 
thizes with little Oliver. And he may add that the novel served ^ 
useful purpose by helping to bring about social reform. In the first 
statement he would be evaluating the novel purely as a novel how 
well it fulfills certain requirements of fiction. In the second he would 
be evaluating the novel as a social force. In other words, he would 
be considering two different meanings of the question, "What is it 

This would not be the only line of discussion possible for a review 
of Oliver Twist, but it will illustrate how a writer may appeal to 
more than one interest and still be systematic. 



\We shall^ljriowVake up the ^study, of /the most usual methods of 
exposition^the ways we go about answering questions that demand 
exposition^ This is not to say that there is a method to correspond 
to each question on our list. Some methods may be used in answer- 
ing more than one question, and the answer to a single question 
may sometimes be made by more than one method or by a combina- 
tion of methods. It is useful, however, to remember that the methods 
are ways of answering questions, of appealing to interests. 

The same discourse for example, an editorial, an essay, a theme, 
a chapter in a text book may use more than one expository method. 
Often we do not find a method in its pure state. But here, where 
we are trying to understand the nature of each method, we shall 
be concerned with relatively pure examples. 


IDENTIFICATION is one of the simplest methods of exposition. It is 
one of the ways of answering the question, "What is it?" In one way, 
it is a kind of pointing by means of language. "Who is Mrs. Bertrand 
Smith?" somebody asks, and the answer is, "Oh, she is the blond 
woman in the black dress, sitting to the right of the white-haired 
old man." The reply has worked like pointing a finger. But perhaps 
Mrs. Smith is not there to be pointed at so easily. So the answer 
may be, "She is the woman who won the city golf tournament last 
year and then married the son of old Jason Smith, the banker." In 
either case the answer places the subject, Mrs. Smith, in such a 
context that she can be identified/) 

We constantly use such casual forms of identification. But we 
are using the same method if we begin an article on the Carmel 
Mission by writing: "The Carmel Mission stands just outside the 
village of Monterey, California. It was founded by Padre Junipero 
Serra who had come up from San Diego in the year 1770." We have 
tried to locate the subject. 

The same principle may apply if the thing we are trying to iden- 
tify, unlike Mrs. Smith or the Carmel Mission, has no concrete 
existence if, for instance, it is Scholastic philosophy. To identify it 


we might begin: "Scholastic philosophy is that system of thought 
developed in the late Middle Ages in Western Europe by the 
Catholic Church. The most famous philosopher associated with this 
system is Saint Thomas Aquinas." Here, again, we are in the process 

( If identification becomes elaborate it tends to absorb other exposi- 
tory methods; it begins, for example, to use analysis, comparison, 
or contrast; and the simple intention of identification may be lost 
in other and perhaps more interesting intentions in the discussion. 
Even so, we can distinguish this intention, and see that it has a 
method appropriate to itself, the method of locating, or placing, of 
making recognition possible^) 




^As identification may absorb other expository methods, so exposi- 
tion itself may absorb other kinds of discourse and use them for its 
purpose. Description, for instance, is frequently used for an exposi- 
tory purpose. In fact, the kind of description usually associated with 
exposition is so different from ordinary description that it has a 

\We can distinguish between technical description and ordinary 
description by considering the different types of occasion from 
which they arise. First, there is the occasion that demands informa- 
tion about the thing described. Second, there is the occasion that 
demands an immediate impression of the thing described. The first 
kind is expository, or technical, in so far as it aims to enlarge the 
understanding. But the second typethe type we ordinarily think 
of when we use the word description aims to suggest the qualities 
of the object as though it were immediately perceived. It aims to 
give an experience of the object through the imagination. We shall 

A full discussion of suggestive description will be reserved for a 
later chapter, 1 but for the present it is necessary to contrast it with 
technical description that we may better understand the use of 
description for exposition. Let us begin with some examples. 

1 See Chapter 5, pp. 195-199, below. 




Wellington Boulevard 

Attractive Cape Cod cottage, Ige. liv. rm., 13x25, knotty pine, stone 
fireplace; din. rm., sunny, 12 x 14; small den or libr., fireplace; kitchen, 
modern, elec. stove, Ige. gas refrig., dishwasher, all practically new; 
med.-size, concrete basement, gas furn., ht. watr.; 2 bedrms., 14 x 16, 
15 x 18; 2 baths, Ige. and small; roof white oak shingle. Lot well planted, 
landscaped, brook, 2 acres; heated garage, 2 cars; small greenhouse. 
Built by owner, 1936. Excellent condition. Take reasonable offer. Call: 


Dear Mother: 

We have found a place at last, and we love it, Jack just as much as I. 
I must tell you about it, so you can have some notion before you come 
to see us here. Well, you don't see it from the highway, for there is a 
high hedge across the front of the property with just a little gap that 
lets you into the lane, a winding lane among a grove of white oaks, like 
a lane going down to a pasture on somebody's farm. That's the whole 
impression just like a farm, a million miles away from town. When you 
pass the oaks you see a dip down to a brook, lined with willows, and a 
stone bridge, and just beyond the bridge the house on a slight rise that 
the brook curves around. The house is white and trim, two stories, but 
rather low, just seeming to crop out of the ground, with a couple of 
enormous oaks behind to give a background for it. You have the feeling 
that once you cross that bridge and enter that door you'll be safe and 
sound and the world will never come to bother you. 

When you do enter, you know that your feeling is right. There is a 
long room with a big fireplace, and windows to the east for the morning 
sun. It is a perfect room for the furniture which Grandmother left me, 
just the sort of room she would have loved, peaceful and old-fashioned. 
The instant you come in, you think of a fire crackling on the hearth, 
and a kettle humming to heat water for tea, and you see the copper 
glinting on the andirons. . . . 

The motives behind the two pieces of description are very dif- 
ferent. The seller of the house wants to give information about the 
house. The buyer of the house, writing to her mother, wants to give 
the feel, the atmosphere, of the house. 


The advertisement is an instance of technical description. Except 
in so far as we know the general type of Cape Cod cottage, we 
have no basis for visualizing the actual house. The writer of the 
advertisement has not been concerned that we should get an im- 
pression of his house; the only attempt in this direction is his use 
of the word sunny about the dining room. But if the writer has not 
been concerned to give us the picture and atmosphere of his house, 
he has been greatly concerned to give us a systematic and complete 
body of information about the house considered from a technical 
point of view as a shelter and a machine for living. 

We should find the same motive behind a naturalist's description 
of a species of bird, a mechanic's description of the ignition system 
of an automobile, or a physiologist's description of the structure of 
the human brain. In none of these examples would there be any 
attempt to make us perceive the thing described except in so far 
as that attempt would enlarge our understanding. 

In the excerpt from the letter above, however, the situation is 
reversed. The writer is concerned to make an appeal to her reader's 
senses, to establish the impression of the place, its quietness and 
isolation, its old-fashioned charm. The details she has selected for 
comment all contribute to this impression. (The suggestive descrip- 
tion does not, as does the technical, give a systematic and relatively 
complete body of information concerning the objectji Instead, it 
simply presents the details that support the sensory ana emotional 
effect the writer wishes to communicate. The technical description 
tends to be enumerative; the suggestive description tends to be se- 
lective and impressionistic^) 

(There is ; another and (very important distinction between the 
technical and the suggestive description. In the strictly technical 
description there is no place for interpretation by the writer. It is 
concerned only with the facts about the object, facts that can be 
observed by anyone. For example, when the writer of the advertise- 
ment of the Cape Cod cottage lists six rooms, or says that the living 
room is of knotty pine, he is stating a fact, something objective and 
beyond dispute. He is being strictly technical. But when he says 
that the cottage is "attractive" he is not being strictly technical. He 
is interpreting the situation according to his own idea of what con- 
stitutes attractiveness; Likewise when the buyer writes her letter and 
says that the house is peaceful and charming, she is interpreting. 


To another person with different tastes the place might not seem 
peaceful but depressing. 

i This is not to say that the suggestive description does not use 
facts. It must use facts if it is to give any sense of the reality of the 
thing described. But it uses its facts as related to some impression 
it wishes to communicate. The facts are interpreteol.) 

Let us take another pair of examples, examples in which the dif- 
ference is not so immediately obvious but is equally as important. 


The West Indies stand in a warm sea, and the trade winds, warmed 
and moistened by this sea, blow across all of them. These are the two 
great primary geographic facts about this group of islands whose area 
is but little larger than that of Great Britain. 

These trade winds, always warm, but nevertheless refreshing sea 
breezes, blow mostly from the east or the northeast. Thus one side of 
every island is windward, and the other side is leeward. The third great 
geographical fact about these islands is that most of them are mountain- 
ous, giving to the windward sides much more rain than the leeward sides 
receive. This makes great differences in climate within short distances, 
a thing quite unknown in the eastern half of the United States, where 
our slowly whirling cyclonic winds blow in quick succession from all 
directions upon every spot of territory. Thus both sides of the Appa- 
lachian Mountains are nearly alike in their rainfall, forest growth, and 
productive possibilities. On the contrary, the West Indian mountains 
have different worlds on their different slopes. The eastern or windward 
side, cloud-bathed and eternally showered upon, is damp and dripping. 
There are jungles with velvety green ferns, and forests with huge trees. 
The rainbow is a prominent feature of the tropic landscape. On the wind- 
ward side one receives a striking impression of lush vegetation. On the 
leeward side of the very same ridge and only a few miles distant there 
is another kind of world, the world of scanty rainfall, with all its devastat- 
ing consequences to vegetation. A fourth great geographic fact is the 
division of these islands into two great arcs, an outer arc of limestone 
and an inner arc of volcanic islands. The limestone areas are low. The 
volcanic areas are from moderately high to very high. Some islands have 
both the limestone and the volcanic features. j. RUSSELL SMITH and 
M. OGDEN PHILLIPS: North America, Chap. 40. 2 

- From North America by J. Russell Smith and M. Ogden Phillips, copyright, 
1940, by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 



Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an 
outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and 
the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect 
of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct vol- 
canoes than of isles; looking much as the world at large might, after a 
penal conflagration. 

It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolation, 
furnish a parallel to this group. Abandoned cemeteries of long ago, old 
cities by piecemeal tumbling to their ruin, these are melancholy enough; 
but like all else which has once been associated with humanity they still 
awaken in us some thoughts of sympathy, however sad. Hence, even 
the Dead Sea, along with whatever other emotions it may at times 
inspire, does not fail to touch in the pilgrim some of his less unpleasur- 
able feelings. . . . 

But the special curse, as one may call it, of the Encantadas, that which 
exalts them in desolation above Idumea and the Pole, is that to them 
change never comes; neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows. Cut 
by the Equator, they know not autumn and they know not spring; while 
already reduced to the lees of fire, ruin itself can work little more upon 
them. The showers refresh the deserts, but in these isles, rain never falls. 
Like split Syrian gourds, left withering in the sun, they are cracked by 
an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky. "Have mercy upon me," 
the wailing spirit of the Encantadas seems to cry, "and send Lazarus 
that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for 
I am tormented in this flame." . . . 

In many places the coast is rock-bound, or more properly, clinker- 
bound; tumbled masses of blackish or greenish stuff like the dross of 
an iron-furnace, forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which 
a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam; overhanging them with a swirl of 
grey, haggard mist, amidst which sail screaming flights of unearthly 
birds heightening the dismal din. However calm the sea without, there 
is no rest for these swells and those rocks, they lash and are lashed, even 
when the outer ocean is most at peace with itself. On the oppressive, 
clouded days such as are peculiar to this part of the watery Equator, 
the dark vitrified masses, many of which raise themselves among white 
whirlpools and breakers in detached and perilous places off the shore, 
present a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such 
lands exist.-HERMAN MELVILLE: "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles," 
The Piazza Tales. 


The first of these passages is from a geography of North America. 
Though it is not as brutally synoptic as the advertisement for the 
sale of the Cape Cod cottage, it has essentially the same kind of 
organization; it is an enumeration of facts pertinent to the special 
technical interest involved. Four "great geographic" facts are listed, 
and the consequences in terms of climate, vegetation, and appear- 
ance are indicated. There are occasional, and feeble, attempts to 
make the reader see the islands, as for instance in the phrases 
"cloud-bathed," and "velvety- green ferns," but the tendency is 
toward generalized information, toward abstraction. For instance, 
instead of giving us the sight of the rainbow in terms of images 
which would stir our imaginations, the writers simply say, "The 
rainbow is a prominent feature of the tropic landscape." Or instead 
of picturing for us the arid slopes of the leeward side of the moun- 
tains, they simply offer the phrase, "all its devastating consequences 
to vegetation." 

The second passage, like the first, is the description of a group 
of tropic islands. But Melville, the author, is not concerned to give 
us a list of the great geographic facts and their consequences. His 
description involves some of these facts, but the passage is not 
organized about an enumeration of them. It is organized in such 
a way as to return the reader continually to the sense of loneliness, 
ruin, and desolation which characterizes the islands. 

The passage begins with the comparison to heaps of cinders in 
a dumping ground, with that association of the used-up, the fin- 
ished, the valueless, the dreary. The first paragraph ends with the 
phrase "penal conflagration," which implies ideas not merely of 
ruin and waste but also of sin and punishment sin and punishment 
on a universal scale. The next paragraph is based on the ideas of 
the unhuman desolation, the blankness. The third is based on the 
idea of changelessness, the terrible monotony; but this monotony 
is presented as a "special curse," and is finally defined by the cry 
of Dives in Hell. In other words, in both the curse and the Biblical 
reference, we find an echo of the notion of sin and punishment, a 
continuation of the idea in the first paragraph. In the last paragraph 
appears again the image of the wasteland of cinders in the phrases 
"clinker-bound" and "like the dross of an iron-furnace." And also 
in the constant tumult of the sea, in the phrase "lash and are lashed," 


appears the idea of punishment and suffering, which becomes ex- 
plicit in the last sentence, "In no world but a fallen one could such 
lands exist." 

In other words, the whole passage is based on two things, the 
image of the cinder heap and the idea of sin and punishment, which 
combine to give the notion of a world after the Judgment, the final 
desolation. And it is this notion that provides the organizing prin- 
ciple for the description. It is the key to the interpretation that 
Melville gives to his facts. 

Since the purpose of technical description is to give information 
about its object, the kind of description called GENERALIZED DESCRIP- 
TION is one form it sometimes assumes. Generalized description 
presents the characteristics of a type rather than of a particular 
individual. If we set out to write a theme about the collie as a type, 
giving the points and qualities of the breed, we are using general- 
ized description. If, on the other hand, we set out to write a theme 
about Old Buck, our favorite dog, we are using suggestive descrip- 
tion, for we want to make clear to the reader what qualities the 
particular dog has. 

The following description of the North American Indian, from 
an old work on the subject, is obviously an example of generalized 

The general appearance of a North American Indian can be given in 
few words. . . . They are about of the average height which man attains 
when his form is not cramped by premature or excessive labor, but their 
erect posture and slender figure give them the appearance of a tall race. 
Their limbs are well formed, but calculated rather for agility than 
strength, in which they rarely equal the more vigorous of European 
nations. They generally have small feet. 

The most distinguishing peculiarities of the race are, the reddish or 
copper color of the skin; the prominence of the cheek-bone; and the 
color and quality of the hair. This is not absolutely straight, but some- 
what wavy, and has not inaptly been compared to the mane of the horse 
less from its coarseness than from its glossy hue and the manner in 
which it hangs. Their eyes are universally dark. The women are rather 
short, with broader faces, and a greater tendency to obesity than the 
men, but many of them possess a symmetrical figure, with an agreeable 
and attractive countenance. CHARLES DE WOLF BROWNELL: The Indian 
Races of North and South America, Chap. 1. 


The following description, however, is obviously particular and 

He had the spare, alert and jaunty figure that one often finds in army 
men, an almost professional military quality that somehow seemed to 
set his figure upon a horse as if he had grown there or had spent a 
lifetime in the cavalry. His face also had the same lean, bitter, profes- 
sional military quality; his speech, although good-natured and very 
friendly, was clipped, incisive, jerky, and sporadic, his lean weather- 
beaten face was deeply, sharply scarred and sunken in the flanks, and 
he wore a small cropped mustache, and displayed long frontal teeth 
when he smiled a spare, gaunt, toothy, yet attractive smile. 

His left arm was withered, shrunken, almost useless; part of his hand 
and two fingers had been torn away by the blast or explosion which had 
destroyed his arm; but it was not this mutilation of the flesh that gave 
one the sense of a life that had been ruined, lost, and broken irretriev- 
ably. In fact, one quickly forgot his physical injury; his figure looked 
so spare, lean, jaunty, well-conditioned in its energetic fitness that one 
never thought of him as a cripple, nor pitied him for any disability. No: 
the ruin that one felt in him was never of the flesh, but of the spirit. 
Something seemed to have been exploded from his life it was not the 
nerve-centers of his arms, but of his soul, that had been destroyed. There 
was in the man somewhere a terrible dead vacancy and emptiness, and 
that spare, lean figure that he carried so well seemed only to surround 
this vacancy like a kind of shell. THOMAS WOLFE: Of Time and the River, 
Chap. 70. 3 

Let us summarize the distinction between technical description 
and suggestive description. (The technical gives information about 
the object. The suggestive gives an immediate impression of the 
object. The technical tells us something about the object; the sug- 
gestive gives us the object in our imagination, almost as though it 
were before us. The technical tends to be abstract; the suggestive 
tends to be concrete. The technical tends to completeness in listing 
qualities of the object (with reference to the special interest that 
motivates the description); the suggestive tends to selectivity (with 
reference to the main impression desired). The technical employs 
a schematic organization defined by the special interest involved 
in the description (the listing of rooms, etc., in the first example, the 

* From Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe, copyright, 1935, by Ckarles 
Scribner's Sons. 


listing of the four great geographical facts, etc., in the second). The 
suggestive employs an organization defined by the main impression 
and response desired (peacefulness and charm in the letter, burned- 
out desolation in the essay by Melville). In addition, technical de- 
scription may be generalized and not particular. 
We can list the distinctions: 


information impression 

about the object the object 

abstract concrete 

completeness selectivity 

schematic organization impressionistic organization 

no interpretation interpretation 

(general) particular / 



(Another distinction 'may be useful in our thinking^ about descrip- 
tion, the distinction we have already made (p. 31 ) between OBJEC- 

When we say, "The apple is red," we point to a quality which 
the apple possesses. There is no reference here to any observer of 
the apple. This is a simple case of objective description. It is con- 
cerned only with the object being described. 

But when we say, "The music is soothing," we refer to the effect 
of the music upon a listener. The soothing effect may occur because 
the music is soft, and has a certain kind of melody and rhythm, 
but our statement as given does not mention those qualities ob- 
jectively. It only mentions the effect on the person who experiences 
the music, on the "subject" as he is called. The statement, then, is 
a simple example of subjective description./ 

Let us take some examples somewhat more complicated than our 
statements about the apple and the music. 

(1) If anyone wants to exemplify the meaning of the word "fish," he 
cannot choose a better animal than a herring. The body, tapering to 
each end, is covered with thin, flexible scales, which are very easily 
rubbed off. The taper head, with its underhung jaw, is smooth and 
scaleless on the top; the large eye is partly covered by two folds of 
transparent skin, like eyelids only immovable and with the slit between 


them vertical instead of horizontal; the cleft behind the gill-cover is very 
wide, and, when the cover is raised, the large red gills which lie under- 
neath it are freely exposed. The rounded back bears the single mod- 
erately long dorsal fin about its middle. THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY: "The 

In this passage we find a clear instance of description without 
reference to any observer. Information is given about the object 
with no interpretation: the facts are the facts. 

Let us turn to an example, however, in which an observer is 
specified, a passage in which Gulliver, a man of normal size who 
has been captured by the tiny Lilliputians, describes the house 
assigned to him. 

(2) At the place where the carriage stopped, there stood an ancient 
temple, esteemed to be the largest in the whole kingdom, which having 
been polluted some years before by an unnatural murder, was, accord- 
ing to the zeal of those people, looked upon as profane, and therefore 
had been applied to common uses, and all the ornaments and furniture 
carried away. In this edifice it was determined I should lodge. The great 
gate fronting to the north was about four foot high, and almost two 
foot wide, through which I could easily creep. On each side of the gate 
was a small window not above six inches from the ground: into that 
on the left side, the King's smiths conveyed fourscore and eleven chains, 
like those that hang to a lady's watch in Europe, and almost as large, 
which were locked to my left leg with six and thirty padlocks. Over 
against this temple, on t'other side of the great highway, at twenty foot 
distance, there was a turret at least five foot high. Here the Emperor 
ascended with many principal lords of his court, to have an opportunity 
of viewing me, as I was told, for I could not see them. JONATHAN SWIFT: 
Gulliver's Travels, Chap. 1. 

An observer is introduced into this scene, but the observer is a 
mere observer, a kind of device for registering the facts, and no 
reference is made to the effect of the scene upon him. The facts 
are presented objectively in themselves and the items mentioned 
(such as measurement, shape, color) are items about which objec- 
tive agreement would be relatively easy. So we see that the mere 
presence of an observer does not mean that a description may not 
be objective. The description is apparently subjective but is really 


Our next example also gives an observer: 

(3) I know not how it was but, with the first glimpse of the building, 
a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for 
the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, 
sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural 
images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me 
upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain, 
upon the bleak walls, upon the vacant eye-like windows, upon a few 
rank sedges, and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees with an 
utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation 
more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium: the 
bitter lapse into every-day life, the hideous dropping off of the veil. 
EDGAR ALLAN FOE: "The Fall of the House of Usher." 

The observer here, unlike Gulliver, is not a mere observer. What 
is important here is his reaction, his gloom, his depression. We get 
an impression of the scene, it is true, but the reaction is more impor- 
tant than the scene itself. We have only a small amount of factual 
information about the scene; there are the vacant windows in the 
building, there is the growth of sedge, there are the few decayed 
trees gone white. Everything else in the passage is devoted, directly 
or indirectly, to indicating a response to the scene. Not only is this 
true of the parts of the passage in which the narrator definitely 
states his personal reactions. It is also true of words like "bleak" 
and "eye-like" which pretend to describe the object but in reality 
indicate a response to the object. For example, the phrase "vacant 
eye-like windows" is really giving the morbid comparison of the 
house to a fleshless skull is really implying that the house is a 
house of death. 

What are we to make, however, of description in which no ob- 
server appears, but which indicates a very definite response for the 
reader? With this question in mind let us look at the following 

(4) The waters are out in Lincolnshire. An arch of the bridge in the 
park has been sapped and sopped away. The adjacent low-lying ground, 
for half a mile in breadth, is a stagnant river, with melancholy trees for 
islands in it, and a surface punctured all over, all day long, with falling 
rain. My Lady Dedlock's "place" has been extremely dreary. The 
weather, for many a day and night, has been so wet that the trees seem 
wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of the woodsman's axe 


can make no crack or crackle as they fall. The deer, looking soaked, leave 
quagmires where they pass. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the 
moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardy little cloud towards the green 
rise, coppice-topped, that makes a background for the falling rain. The 
view from my Lady Dedlock's own windows is alternately a lead- 
coloured view, and a view in Indian ink. The vases on the stone terrace 
in the foreground catch the rain all day; and the heavy drops fall, drip, 
drip, drip, upon the broad flagged pavement, called, from old time, the 
Ghost's Walk, all night. On Sundays, the little church in the park is 
mouldy; the oaken pulpit breaks out into a cold sweat; and there is a 
general smell and taste as of the ancient Dedlocks in their graves. 
CHARLES DICKENS: Bleak House, Vol. I, Chap. 2. 

As we have said, no observer is officially introduced into this 
scene, but a certain response to it is strongly indicated, a certain 
mood is developed. All details are presented to reinforce the im- 
pression of dampness, depression, and gloom. The river is "stag- 
nant," the blows of the ax make only "soft loppings," the report 
of the rifle "loses its sharpness in the moist air," the heavy drops 
"drip, drip, drip," the church is "mouldy," the pulpit "breaks out into 
a cold sweat," there is the general taste and smell of a tomb. Notice 
how the phrase "breaks out in a cold sweat," though applied to the 
damp wood of the pulpit actually serves to remind us of a situation 
that would make a human being do the same thing, and leads us 
up to the taste and smell of the Dedlocks in their graves. We can 
see that, though Dickens has apparently maintained an objective 
method (he has put no observer in the scene), the effect of the pas- 
sage is actually much closer to that from Poe than to the objective 
passage by Huxley with which we started. 


\What is the relation between the technical-suggestive distinction 
and the objective-subjective distinction? We can best answer this 
question by remembering "that technical description does not inter- 
pret its material and the suggestive description does7\Then we can 
set up a scheme to answer our question: 



Without an observer 

(1) Without observer and with (4) Without observer, apparently 
strictly objective method. (Huxley: objective in method, but with in- 
"The Herring") terpretation of material. (Dickens: 

Bleak House) 

With an observer 

(2) With observer, apparently sub- (3) With observer and with strictly 
jective in method, but with no ref- subjective method. (Poe: "The Fall 
erence to the observer's responses of the House of Usher") 

and with no interpretation. (Swift: 
Gullivers Travels) 

We cannot let this scheme stand, however, without some modify- 
ing comment. 

First, technical description of the strictest kind, such as the de- 
scription of a device in a handbook of mechanics ordinarily uses 
type 1. 

Second, even when suggestive description puts the greatest em- 
phasis on the interpretation of material, on the response of a speci- 
fied observer or of the reader, it must still give an impression of 
the object itself. It is not a mere presentation of responses. In the 
description of the House of Usher, for instance, we do have a pic- 
ture of the landscape. The point is that such physical items are used 
as will support the interpretation. 

Third, even in a composition where the over-all intention is sug- 
gestive, elements of technical description may appear. For example, 
the writer may want to give some general information about an 
object or a class of objects. In his novel Moby Dick, Herman Mel- 
ville is not primarily interested in writing a technical study of whal- 
ing and whaling ships, but we find in it such a description as the 
following, in which he is not trying to give us a vivid impression 
but to make us understand technically the characteristic structure 
of the tryworks of a whaler. So he uses a description which is objec- 
tive and is essentially of type 1. 

Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distin- 
guished by her try- works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most 
solid v&asonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed 


ship. It is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her 

The try-works are planted between the foremast and mainmast, the 
most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar 
strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick 
and mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The 
foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured 
to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and 
screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, 
and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway. 
Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in number, and 
each of several barrels' capacity. When not in use, they are kept remark- 
ably clean. Sometimes they are polished with soapstone and sand, till 
they shine within like silver punch-bowls. HERMAN MELVILLE: Moby 
Dick, Chap. 46. 

Another use of technical description in a composition where the 
over-all intention is suggestive may appear when the writer wants 
the reader to take a cool, detached, almost scientific attitude toward 
what is being presented. For example, Gulliver's Travels is a fan- 
tastic narrative, a set of absolutely impossible events, but the fact 
that Swift adopts an unemotional attitude, that he makes his de- 
scription technical, tends to lead the reader to accept the fantasy. 
The reader, of course, knows that the events are not true, that no 
such creatures as the Lilliputians ever existed, but he is willing to 
accept the illusion. 

With these reservations, our scheme of the relation of the tech- 
nical-suggestive distinction to the objective-subjective distinction 
may be useful. What we must remember is that such distinctions 
and relations are not always mathematically clear-cut, that the mind 
may carry more than one interest at a time. And this idea may lead 
us to a more general consideration of the uses of technical and sug- 
gestive description. 


We cannot say that either type of description is better than the 
other. Each has its uses, and at one time we find need for one and 
at another time the need for the other. In one department of our 


living we are concerned with information about the world; in an- 
other department, with the direct experience of the world; and the 
two types of description may be said to correspond to those two 
kinds of interest, to two kinds of motivation. JThe advertisement of 
the Cape Cod cottage is concerned with information about the 
object, the letter of the buyer, with her direct experience of the 
cottage and her feelings about it. 

We have already referred to this distinction (p. 42), but we may 
return to it here in considering the distinction between the two 
kinds of description and remember that (scientists appeal to our 
interest in information about the world and in explanation of the 
world, and that artists (of all kinds, painters, poets, novelists, musi- 
cians, and so forth) appeal to our interest in direct experience of 
the world. This means that we find technical description character- 
istically in scientific writing and suggestive description charac- 
teristically in the work of literary artists, poets or essayists or fiction 
writers. For instance, the geographers, describing the West Indies, 
are writing as scientists, and Melville, describing the Encantadas, 
is writing as an artist) 

Most of us are neither scientists nor artists and never shall be, but 
we all have a little of the scientist and a little of the artist in us. We 
want to know about the world and we want to extend our experi- 
ence of the world. At the same time, these two kinds of interest 
lead us, in so far as we become well-developed human beings, to 
the use of the two kinds of description. In so far as we are scientists 
we find a use for technical description, and in so far as we are 
artists we find a use for suggestive description. 

All of (this does not mean that we find technical description only 
in scientific works or suggestive description only in artistic works. 
Technical description may occur in a letter, an essay, a guidebook, 
a history, an advertisement wherever and whenever the impulse 
appears to give information about the qualities of an object. By the 
same token, suggestive description may occur in any piece of writ- 
ing which embodies the impulse for immediacy and vividness. Some- 
times, as we have said, both types may appear in the same work, 
whether its prevailing temper is scientific or artistic. J 



Asrwe can make a distinction between expository description and 
ordinary description we can make one between EXPOSITORY NARRA- 
TION and ordinary narration. Ordinary narration, as we shall see 
when we come to discuss it as a basic kind of discourse, is con- 
cerned with presenting an action. It aims to give the sense of the 
event as experienced, and it involves an appeal to the imagination. 
But narration may be employed merely to give information, to 
enlarge the understanding. If we give directions as to how to build 
a boat or make a cake, we are treating a sequence of events in time, 
and we are forced to use a form of narration. If we tell how radar 
works, we are again using a kind of narration. An instructor in 
military history lecturing on the First Battle of the Marne in World 
War I is concerned to make his class understand the stages of the 
event and the problems of tactics, but is not necessarily concerned 
to bring the event into the imagination of his audience. So he, too, 
is using expository narration. 

Expository narration, like expository description, may take a gen- 
eralized form. The lecturer on the First Battle of the Marne is not 
using generalized narration, for he is dealing with an individual 
event, but if he were to give instructions as to the proper method 
of executing a certain maneuver, he would be using generalized 
narration, for he would be concerned with a type of event, not with 
a particular event. So if we undertake to tell how a bill becomes 
a law or to give an account of fraternity rushing day, we should 
be using generalized narration. We would be concerned with a 

type of event, j 



Generalized description, as we have seen, is concerned with the 
qualities of a type, class, or group. (ILLUSTRATION^ISO (aims to ex- 
plain a type, class, or group, but it does so by presenting an exam- 
ple. It explains the general by presenting the particular) 

Here is an example (and by our own phrase, "here is an example," 
we announce that we are here about to use the method of illustra- 


tion) of the explanation of a class by presenting one member of it, 
a "Handsome Sailor": 

In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a 
stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally 
have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed marines, man-of-war's 
men or merchant sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty. In certain 
instances they would flank, or, like a bodyguard, quite surround some 
superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Alde- 
baran among the lesser lights of his constellation. The signal object was 
the "Handsome Sailor/' of the less prosaic time alike of the military and 
merchant navies. With no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, 
rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of natural regality, he seemed to 
accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates. A somewhat remark- 
able instance recurs to me. In Liverpool, now half a century ago, I saw 
under the shadow of the great dingy street-wall of Prince's Dock (an 
obstruction long since removed) a common sailor, so intensely black that 
he must needs have been a native African of the unadulterate blood of 
Ham. A symmetric figure much above the average height. The two ends 
of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the 
displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a 
Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. 

It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, 
beamed with barbaric good-humor. In jovial sallies right and left, his 
white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the center of a com- 
pany of his shipmates. ... At each spontaneous tribute rendered by 
the wayfarers to this black pagod of a fellow the tribute of a pause and 
stare, and less frequent an exclamation the motley retinue showed 
that they took that sort of pride in the evoker of it which the Assyrian 
priests doubtless showed for their grand sculptured Bull when the faith- 
ful prostrated themselves .HERMAN MELVILLE: Billy Budd, Chap. 1. 

In the following parable told by Jesus we find a general idea 
illustrated by a particular instance: 

And he began again to teach by the seaside: and there was gathered 
unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a ship, and sat in the 
sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. 

And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in 
his doctrine, 

Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: 

And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the wayside, and the 
fowls of the air came and devoured it up. 


And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and 
immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: 

But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no 
root, it withered away. 

And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, 
and it yielded no fruit. 

And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and 
increased; and brought forth, some thirty, some sixty, and some an 

And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. 

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve 
asked of him the parable. 

And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of 
the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things 
are done in parables: 

That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may 
hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, 
and their sins should be forgiven them. 

And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then 
will ye know all parables? 

The sower soweth the word. 

And these are they by the wayside, where the word is sown; but when 
they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word 
that was sown in their hearts. 

And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, 
when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; 

And have no root in themselves, and so endure for a time: afterward, 
when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately 
they are offended. 

And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the 

And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the 
lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh 

And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the 
word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirty-fold, some sixty, 
and some an hundred. Mark 4:1-20. 

The same method of giving the particular instance to explain the 
general idea appears here: 

A good neighbor, as the term was understood in the days when as a 
little girl I lived on a farm in Southern Michigan, meant all that 


nowadays is combined in corner store, telephone, daily newspaper, and 
radio. But your neighbor was also your conscience. You had to behave 
yourself on account of what the neighbors would think. 

A good neighbor knew everything there was to know about you and 
liked you anyway. He never let you down as long as you deserved his 
good opinion. Even when you failed in that, if you were in trouble he 
would come to your rescue. If one of the family was taken sick in the 
night, you ran over to the neighbors' to get someone to sit up until the 
doctor arrived. Only instead of sending for the doctor, you went for 
him. Or one of the neighbors did. 

The Bouldrys were that kind of neighbors. Lem Bouldry was a good 
farmer and a good provider. Mis' Bouldry kept a hired girl and Lem had 
two men the year round. They even had a piano, while the most the 
other neighbors boasted was an organ or a melodeon. Mis' Bouldry 
changed her dress every afternoon (my mother did too; she said she 
thought more of herself when she did), and they kept the front yard 

But the Covells were just the opposite the most shiftless family the 
Lord ever let set foot on land. How they got along my father said he 
didn't know, unless it was by the grace of God. Covell himself was ten 
years younger than my father, yet everybody called him "Old Covell." 
His face and hands were like sole leather and if his hair had ever been 
washed, it was only when he got caught in a rainstorm. Father said Old 
Covell would borrow the shirt off your back, then bring it around to 
have it mended; Mother said, well, one thing certain, he wouldn't bring 
it around to be washed. 

Yet the time Mis' Covell almost died with her last baby and the baby 
did die Mis' Bouldry took care of her; took care of the rest of the chil- 
dren too four of them. She stayed right there in the Covell house, just 
going home to catch a little sleep now and then. She had to do that, 
for there wasn't so much as an extra sheet in the house, much less an 
extra bed. And Mis' Bouldry wasn't afraid to use her hands even if she 
did keep a hired girl she did all the Covells' washing herself. 

But even Old Covell, despite his shiftlessness, was a good neighbor 
in one way: he was a master hand at laying out the dead. Of course, he 
wasn't worth a cent to sit up with the sick, for if it was Summer he'd go 
outside to smoke his pipe and sleep; and if it was Winter he'd go into 
the kitchen and stick his feet in the oven to warm them and go to sleep 
there. But a dead man seemed to rouse some kind of pride and re- 
sponsibility in him. There was no real undertaker nearer than ten miles, 
and often the roads were impassable. Folks sent lor my mother when 
or woman died, but Old Covell handled all the men. Though he 


never wore a necktie himself, he kept on hand a supply of celluloid 
collars and little black bow ties for the dead. When he had a body to 
lay out, he'd call for the deceased's best pants and object strenuously 
if he found a hole in the socks. Next, he'd polish the boots and put on a 
white shirt, and fasten one of his black ties to the collar button. All in all, 
he would do a masterly job. 

Of course, nobody paid Old Covell for this. Nobody ever thought of 
paying for just being neighborly. If anybody had ever offered to, they'd 
have been snubbed for fair. It was just the way everybody did in those 
half-forgotten times. DELLA T. LUTES: "Are Neighbors Necessary?" 4 

It is clear that in the excerpt from Melville description is used, 
in the parable narration is used, and in the essay on neighborliness 
both description and narration are used. But here we must observe 
that the description is not, strictly speaking, expository description. 
Taken in itself, it is suggestive description. It is used, however, for 
an expository purpose, to illustrate. The same situation prevails in 
regard to the narration. The parable, for instance, is an example 
of ordinary narration, and is not, in itself, expository narration. But 
it is used here for an expository purpose. In each of these instances, 
an expository intention dominates and gives unity to the composi- 


( In COMPARISON, as a method of exposition, we clarify a subject 
by indicating similarities between two or more things; in CONTRAST, 
by indicating differ ences.^Ve constantly and instinctively use com- 
parison and contrast, but they are not always used for expository 
purposes. For example, the poet making a comparison in a poem, 
or a painter making a contrast of two forms in planning the com- 
position of a picture, may not be doing so for an expository pur- 
pose. The poet or the painter is acting with an appreciative or artistic 
motivation ( see p. 33 ) , as contrasted with an expository or scientific 
one, and all of us, even though we may not write poems or paint 
pictures, sometimes make comparisons and contrasts out of a simi- 
lar motivation to gain vividness, to appeal to the imagination. 
We also use comparison constantly and instinctively for exposi- 

4 From "Are Neighbors Necessary?" by Delia T. Lutes. Reprinted by per- 
mission of the American Mercury and Mrs. Cecily I. Dodd. 


tory purposes. A child asks, "What is a zebra?" And we are apt to 
reply, "Oh, a zebra it's an animal sort of like a mule, but it's not 
as big as a mule. And it has stripes like a tiger, black and white 
stripes all over. But you remember that a tiger's stripes are black 
and orange." Here we have used both comparison and contrast. 
We have compared the shape of the zebra to that of the mule, but 
have contrasted the two animals in size. And we have compared 
the stripes of ti. zebra to the stripes of a tiger, but have contrasted 
them in color. It the child knows what mules and tigers are like, he 
now has a pretty good idea of a zebra. But our instinctive applica- 
tion of coirnparison and contrast can be made more useful if we are 
systematic. ' 

To be systematic means, for one thing, to understand the purpose 
for which a comparison or contrast is made. (We may distinguish 
three types of purpose. In the first place our purpose may be to 
inform the reader about one item, and we may do so by relating it to 
another item with which the reader is already familiar. Second, we 
may wish to inform the reader about both items involved, and do 
so by comparing or contrasting them in relation to some general 
principle with which the reader is already familiar and which 
would apply to both. For example, if we are reviewing two novels 
we may compare and contrast them by reference to what we assume 
our reader knows about the principles of fiction. Third, we may 
compare and contrast items with which the reader is already 
familiar for the purpose of informing him about some general prin- 
ciple or idea. For example, a student of political science, already 
well acquainted with the governmental systems of the United States 
and England, might undertake to compare and contrast those sys- 
tems for the purpose of understanding, or of explaining to others, 
the nature of democratic government.^ 

To be systematic means, also, to understand the area of interest 
involved in a comparison or contrast. Jty[ ere differences and mere 
similarities are not very instructive^To compare and contrast a 
hawk and a handsaw would not be very profitable^ No common 
area of interest brings them together and makes them worth treat- 
ing. A zoologist might, however, profitably compare a hawk and a 
wren, for his interest in them as living creatures would embrace 
both. Or a student of the laws of flight might compare a hawk and 
an airplane. J 



When we come to apply comparison and contrast in extended 
form we find that there are two general ways of organizing the 
material. First, we can fully present one item and then fully present 
the other. Second, we can present a part of one item and then a 
part of the other, until we have touched on all the parts relevant 
to our comparison or contrast. 

Each of these methods of organization has its ~*ty. The first 
method is, generally speaking, appropriate when the two items 
treated are relatively uncomplicated, or when the points of com- 
parison and contrast are fairly broad and obvious. It is clear that 
in a very extended and complicated presentation the reader could 
not carry enough detail in his mind to be properly aware of all the 
points of comparison and contrast. When a great many details are 
involved the second method is more apt to be useful. It is possible, 
of course, to work out a sort of compromise. One can present the 
first of the items in full, and then in presenting the second refer 
the reader, ppint by point, to the earlier treatment for comparison 
or contrast.^ ' 

Here is an example of the first type of organization: 

My father died when I was a small child, and I do not even remember 
him. I was raised by my mother and my maternal grandfather, in whose 
house we lived until I came to college. My mother loved her father and 
I have no reason to think he did not love her, but they were so different 
that I was aware from the first of a conflict between them. Or, if it was 
not a direct conflict between them, it was a conflict between what they 
stood for. And both of them exerted a strong influence over me. There- 
fore, as I grow up, I think more and more about their contrasting per- 
sonalities and values and try to detect in myself the traces of each of 
them. I do this because I am trying to understand myself. 

My grandfather, whose name was Carruthers McKenzie, was of 
Scotch-Irish blood, and belonged to the Presbyterian Church. He looked 
like those pictures of pre-Civil War statesmen who had long, bony faces, 
sunken cheeks, and straggly beards, like John C. Calhoun, for instance. He 
was a man with an iron will if I ever saw one, and all of his way of life 
was one long discipline fop himself and everybody about him. But it was 
a discipline chiefly for himself. He never spent a day in bed in his life 
until his last illness, and yet he was probably ill a good part of his life. 
I used to see him spit blood when I was a child. After he died and he 


died of a cancer of the stomach the doctor told us that he could not 
understand how any man could keep on his feet so long without giving 
in to the pain which he must have suffered before his collapse. There 
was discipline enough left over for my mother and me and the two 
Negroes who worked about the place. We had morning prayers and 
evening prayers. I had to read the Bible an hour a day and learn long 
passages by heart. My grandfather was a prosperous man, but I never 
had a nickel to spend which I had not earned, and his rates of pay- 
ment for my ^-^res were not generous. I was never allowed to speak in 
the presence oftny elders unless I could show some great practical reason 
for it. From the time I was eight on, I had to study three hours in the 
afternoon and at least two hours at night, except for week ends. My 
grandfather never uttered a word of praise to me except now and then 
the statement, "You have done your duty." As one could guess, my 
grandfather never told jokes, was scrupulous about all kinds of obliga- 
tions, never touched an alcoholic beverage or even soft drinks, and wore 
sober black, winter and summer. 

My mother must have taken after her own mother, who was of South 
German parentage, and a Catholic by training. Her people had come to 
this country just before her birth. My mother's mother had given up her 
religion to marry my grandfather, and had taken on his way of life, but 
she died very young. My mother looked like her pictures. My mother 
was rather short in stature and had a rather full but graceful figure, the 
kind they call "partridge-y." She had round, pink cheeks and a com- 
plexion like a child's. She had blue eyes, very large. They always seemed 
to be laughing. My mother loved to laugh and joke, and spent a great 
deal of time in the kitchen with Sally, the Negro cook. They laughed 
and talked together a great deal. My mother was a good mother, as the 
phrase goes; she loved me and she was careful of all my wants. But she 
also liked idleness. She would sit on the veranda half the afternoon and 
look across the yard, just rocking in her chair and enjoying the sunshine. 
And she went to bridge parties and even took an occasional glass of 
wine or, as I imagine, a highball. 

She was made for a good time and noise and people, and when my 
grandfather was out of the house, she used to romp and play with me or 
take me on long walks in the country back of our place. I am now sure 
that she would have got married very soon if she had not felt it best to 
keep me in my grandfather's house and with the advantages which his 
prosperity would give me. For after I grew up, when I was eighteen 
and went off to college, she got married. 

She married the kind of man you would expect her to pick. He was 
big and strong-looking, with a heavy black mustache with a little gray 


in it. He smokes cigars and he likes fine whisky. He has a Packard 
agency in the city and he keeps a little plane out at the airport. He 
loves sports and a good time. My mother has married exactly the man 
for her, I think, and I am enough like my mother to think he is fine, 
too. But as I look back on my grandfather he died three years ago 
when I was seventeen I have a great admiration for him and a sneak- 
ing affection. 

What follows is an example of the mixed type of organization. We 
can see how in the second paragraph the contrasting characteristics 
leads even to the use of balanced sentences treating a single point 
of contrast. 

We have divided men into Red-bloods and Mollycoddles. "A Red- 
blood man" is a phrase which explains itself; "Mollycoddle" is its op- 
posite. We have adopted it from a famous speech by Mr. Roosevelt, 5 
and redeemed it perverted it, if you will to other uses. A few examples 
will make the notion clear. Shakespeare's Henry V is a typical Red- 
blood; so was Bismarck; so was Palmerston; so is almost any business 
man. On the other hand, typical Mollycoddles were Socrates, Voltaire, 
and Shelley. The terms, you will observe, are comprehensive and the 
types very broad. Generally speaking, men of action are Red-bloods. 
Not but what the Mollycoddles may act, and act efficiently. But, if so, 
he acts from principle, not from the instinct for action. The Red-blood, 
on the other hand, acts as the stone falls, and does indiscriminately 
anything that comes to hand. It is thus that he carries on the business 
of the world. He steps without reflection into the first place offered him 
and goes to work like a machine. The ideals and standards of his family, 
his class, his city, his country, his age, he swallows as naturally as he 
swallows food and drink. He is therefore always "in the swirn"; and he 
is bound to "arrive," because he has set before him the attainable. You 
will find him everywhere in all the prominent positions. In a military 
age he is a soldier, in a commercial age a business man. He hates his 
enemies, and he may love his friends; but he does not require friends 
to love. A wife and children he does require, for the instinct to propa- 
gate the race is as strong in him as all other instincts. His domestic life, 
however, is not always happy; for he can seldom understand his wife. 
This is part of his general incapacity to understand any point of view 
but his own. He is incapable of an idea and contemptuous of a prin- 
ciple. He is the Samson, the blind force, dearest to Nature of her chil- 

5 Theodore Roosevelt. 


dren. He neither looks back nor looks ahead. He lives in present action. 
And when he can no longer act, he loses his reasons for existence. The 
Red-blood is happiest if he dies in the prime of life; otherwise, he may 
easily end with suicide. For he has no inner life; and when the outer 
life fails, he can only fail with it. The instinct that animated him being 
dead, he dies too. Nature, who has blown through him, blows else- 
where. His stops are dumb; he is dead wood on the shore. 

The Mollycoddle, on the other hand, is all inner life. He may indeed 
act, as I said, but he acts, so to speak, by accident; just as the Red- 
blood may reflect, but reflects by accident. The Mollycoddle in action is 
the Crank; it is he who accomplishes reforms; who abolished slavery, for 
example, and revolutionized prisons and lunatic asylums. Still, primarily, 
the Mollycoddle is a critic, not a man of action. He challenges all stand- 
ards and all facts. If an institution is established, that is a reason why 
he will not accept it; if an idea is current, that is a reason why he should 
repudiate it. He questions everything, including life and the universe. 
And for that reason Nature hates him. On the Red-blood she heaps her 
favors; she gives him a good digestion, a clear complexion, and sound 
nerves. But to the Mollycoddle she apportions dyspepsia and black bile. 
In the universe and in society the Mollycoddle is "out of it" as inevitably 
as the Red-blood is "in it." At school, he is a "smug" or a "swat," while 
the Red-blood is captain of the Eleven. At college, he is an "intellectual," 
while the Red-blood is in the "best set." In the world, he courts failure 
while the Red-blood achieves success. The Red-blood sees nothing; but 
the Mollycoddle sees through everything. The Red-blood joins societies; 
the Mollycoddle is a non-joiner. Individualist of individualists, he can 
only stand alone, while the Red-blood requires the support of a crowd. 
The Mollycoddle engenders ideas, and the Red-blood exploits them. 
The Mollycoddle discovers and the Red-blood invents. The whole struc- 
ture of civilization rests on foundations laid by Mollycoddles; but all 
the building is done by Red-bloods. The Red-blood despises the Molly- 
coddle, but, in the long run, he does what the Mollycoddle tells him. 
The Mollycoddle also despises the Red-blood, but he cannot do with- 
out him. Each thinks he is master of the other, and, in a sense, each is 
right. In his lifetime the Mollycoddle may be the slave of the Red-blood; 
but after his death, he is his master, though the Red-blood may know it 

Nations, like men, may be classified roughly as Red-blood and Molly- 
coddle. To the latter class belong clearly the ancient Greeks, the Italians, 
the French and probably the Russians; to the former the Romans, the 
Germans, and the English. But the Red-blood nation par excellence is 


the American; so that in comparison with them, Europe as a whole might 
almost be called Mollycoddle. This characteristic of Americans is reflected 
in the predominant physical type the great jaw and chin, the huge teeth, 
the predatory mouth; in their speech, where beauty and distinction are 
sacrificed to force; in their need to live and feel and act in masses. To 
be bom a Mollycoddle in America is to be born to a hard fate. You 
must either emigrate or succumb. This, at least hitherto, has been the 
alternative practiced. Whether a Mollycoddle will ever be produced 
strong enough to breathe the American atmosphere and live, is a ciucial 
question for the future. It is the question whether America will ever be 
civilized. For civilization, you will have perceived, depends on a just 
balance of Red-bloods and Mollycoddles. Without the Red-blood there 
would be no life at all, no stuff, so to speak, for the Mollycoddle to work 
upon; without the Mollycoddle, the stuff would remain shapeless and 
chaotic. The Red-blood is the matter, the Mollycoddle the foim; the 
Red-blood the dough, the Mollycoddle the yeast. On these two poles 
turns the orb of human society. And if, at this point, you choose to say 
that the poles are points and have no dimensions, that strictly neither 
the Mollycoddle nor the Red-blood exist, and that real men contain 
elements of both mixed in different proportions, I have no quarrel with 
you except such as one has with the man who states the obvious. I am 
satisfied to have distinguished the ideal extremes between which the 
Actual vibrates. The detailed application of the conception I must leave 
to more patient researchers. G. LOWES DICKINSON: "Red-bloods and 
Mollycoddles/* Appearances. 6 


v CLASSIFICATION and DIVISION are ways of thinking in terms of a 
system of classes. 

By a class we mean a group whose members have significant 
characteristics in common. What constitutes a significant character- 
istic may vary according to the interest involved. For example, a 
maker of cosmetics may think of women in groups determined by 
complexion, and the secretary of a Y.W.C.A. may think in groups 
determined by religious affiliations. What is significant for the 
maker of cosmetics is not significant for the Y.W.C.A. secretary^) 
Or, to take another example, the registrar of a college may group 

6 From: Appearances by G. Lowes Dickinson. Copyright 1914 by G. Lowes 
Dickinson. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, .Igp. 


students according to grades, and the gymnasium instructor accord- 
ing to athletic ability. The registrar and the gymnasium instructor 
have different interests in classifying the same body of students.N 
C By a system we mean a set of classes ranging from the most 
inclusive down through the less inclusive; Let us set up a simple 
example of such a system: 

(I) A college student body 

Religious affiliation No religious affiliation 

I i 

Protestant Non-Protestant 

Here the group student body is the most inclusive class. Under 
it we find classes less and less inclusive. 

What is the difference between classification and division? Our 
most useful way of thinking about this question is to regard them 
as opposite movements, one down and one up, within a system. 
In division we start with a class and divide it into subclasses by 
reference to whatever characteristic is dictated by the interest 
prompting the division. If, however, we start with the individuals, 
arrange them in groups and then relate those groups to a more 
inclusive group or a set of more inclusive groups, we have per- 
formed a classification.! 

Suppose we wish to classify the books we own. We may begin 
by sorting out the individual items into classes, let us say (1) short 
stories, (2) novels, (3) lyric poetry, (4) narrative poetry, (5) prose 
drama, (6) verse drama, (7) critical essays, (8) informal essays, (9) 
ethics, (10) logic, (11) political history, (12) economic history, (13) 
social history, (14) literary history, (15) geometry, (16) algebra. We 
see immediately that some of the classes are related to each other 
in terms of superior classes more inclusive classes. For instance, 
we see that short stories and novels belong in a class together, the 
class of fiction, and we see that there are several kinds of history 
represented. Next, we observe that several classes, even more in- 
clusive, are involved literature, for example. So we can set up a 
scheme which covers this particular collection of books. 



Books we own 


Class 1 

Class 2 



I I 1 

Philosophy Mathematics History 

n n n . . 

rv/roo 3 e* *a5 r* r 2S2 >> >* 

Liiass o & > ^3^ SS ^^ 

CO H H V <6 

Q, fX ^9 "9 ^ ^ 

O O 4> O ^r 

"H ^. & OT y 

fe -5 s 2 :-g 

j g > fi & ' 


.5? So 

This scheme indicates the classification of the books in this par- 
ticular collection. But we understand that we do not have examples 
of all kinds of books. For example, in class 1 we do not have science 
or theology. In class 2 under philosophy we have only ethics and 
logic, and under mathematics, only geometry and algebra. In class 
3 under poetry, we have only lyric and narrative poetry, and under 
the essay, only critical and informal essays. So we find many classes 
blank in our particular scheme, classes which would not be blank 
in the scheme for the classification of books for a great library 
having copies of all kinds of books. The method of classification for 
our little collection and for the great library would be, however, 
the same. 

The scheme which we have set up by classifying the books in 
our collection would indicate equally well a division, for the dif- 
ference is not in the kind of scheme we arrive at but in the way 
we go about setting up the scheme. 

In general, there are two kinds of schemes. Scheme I above is an 
example of the SIMPLE and scheme II an example of the COMPLEX. 

In the simple scheme we recognize, at any stage, only two classes, 
which we can indicate by X and Non-X, for example, the class 
Protestant and the class Non-Protestant. No matter how far we 
carry such a scheme, we use this same method. For example, under 
the class Protestant, we would not put the various denominations, 


but only two classes, say Methodist and Non-Methodist. The 
dummy, then, for a simple scheme always looks like this: 

(HI) X 


X 3 Non-Xs 

X 4 ]\on-X 4 

In the complex scheme we recognize individually at each stage 
all the classes available. For example, in scheme II we indicate at 
the first stage four classes (literature, philosophy, mathematics, 
history] and would recognize other such general groups if they were 
represented in the collection with which we are dealing. At the 
second stage we indicate various groups under each head. For 
example, under the head of literature we indicate four classes (fic- 
tion, poetry, drama, essay}. That is, we are prepared to indicate 
as many classes at any stage as we can distinguish on the basis of 
whatever interest is determining the process. The dummy for a 
complex scheme, then, varies from instance to instance, but is of 
this general type: 

(IV) A 


G H I J K 

I I I I I 

n n n n n n 


In dealing with such schemes it is customary to use the two 
terms GENUS (plural: GENERA) and SPECIES (plural: SPECIES) to indi- 


cate the superior and the inferior class in a system. The upper class 
is called the genus and each subclass immediately under it is called 
a species. For example, in the dummy above, D is a species of the 
genus A, and G is a species of the genus C. Or to return to scheme 
II the class fiction is a species of the genus literature, and the class 
lyric poetry is a species of the genus poetry. But we must remember 
that what is regarded as a species at one stage is regarded at the 
next stage below as a genus. The class fiction, for example, is 
regarded as a species of the genus literature, but as the genus 
including the species short story and the species novel. A class may 
be regarded as species or genus, according to whether we look 
above or below it. 

To be useful a scheme must fulfill certain requirements: 

I. There can be only one principle of division applied at each 

II. The subclass under any class must exhaust that class. 

Rule I: We can best understand what is at stake here by looking 
at an extreme and ridiculous instance. Suppose we try to divide a 
student body into tall and short, men and women. Here two princi- 
ples of division would be employed at the same time, namely, 
height and sex. But obviously these two principles cannot be applied 
at the same time, for they are at cross purposes with each other. 
They result in what is called a CROSS DIVISION. A member of the 
student body would necessarily be either a man or a woman, and 
at the same time would be classifiable with reference to height. 
Two competing principles are involyed. 

But can we ever apply more than one principle to a class without 
getting the nonsense of a cross division? We can do so if we apply 
the principles in sequence and not at the same time. Let us take 
an example. Suppose that we want to discover or exhibit the pro- 
portion of Protestant veterans in a college student body. We have 
here two principles, veteran and religious affiliation. First, we might 
divide the student body on the basis of religious affiliation in gen- 
eral. This would give the first stage. Then we might divide the class 
religious affiliation into the classes Protestant and non-Protestant. 
Thus, at the second stage, we have isolated the class Protestant 9 
the particular religious affiliation we are concerned with. At this 
point we can introduce our second principle. So now wo divide the 


class Protestant into the classes veteran and nonveteran for a third 
stage. So we get the following scheme: 

A college student body 

Religious affiliation No religious affiliation 

Protestant Non-Protestant 

Veteran Nonveteran 

The thing to remember is to avoid applying the second principle 
until the first has been worked out to its conclusion. We do not 
apply the principle veteran until we have worked out the principle 
religious affiliation as far as our interest dictates. It may be said, of 
course, that when we apply the second principle veteran we are 
really beginning a new system. And in one sense this is true. But, 
in any case, the over-all scheme gives us exactly what we need. 

Rule II: To restate this rule, the sum of the members of the sub- 
classes under a class must equal the sum of the members of the 
class. In other words, we must account in the subclasses for all 
members of the class. For example, dividing a student body into 
Methodists, Baptists, Jews, and Catholics does not account for all 
members of the student body if there are also in it some atheists 
and Presbyterians. This problem of accounting for all the members 
of a group does not arise in a simple system as indicated by scheme 
III. At any stage we have only X and Non-X as subgroups, and the 
formula necessarily takes all members into account. The problem 
does arise in a complex system. If in scheme II we had forgotten 
to include the class philosophy we would not have accounted for 
all the books in the collection being classified. And of course scheme 
II as it now stands would be shockingly defective in this regard 
if it were regarded as applying to the books of a large general 
library, which would have dozens of classes of books not accounted 
for here. 

In an essay or some other type of discussion we may find a very 
elaborate system running through several stages, but ordinarily 


there are only one or two stages. The following selection is a classi- 
fication of the kinds of thinking. 

We do not think enough about thinking, and much of our confusion 
is the result of current illusions in regard to it. Let us forget for the 
moment any impressions we may have derived from the philosophers, 
and see what seems to happen in ourselves. The first thing that we notice 
is that our thought moves with such incredible rapidity that it is almost 
impossible to arrest any specimen of it long enough to have a look at it. 
When we are offered a penny for our thoughts we always find that we 
have recently had so many things in mind that we can easily make a 
selection which will not compromise us too nakedly. On inspection we 
shall find that even if we are not downright ashamed of a great part of 
our spontaneous thinking it is far too intimate, personal, ignoble, or trivial 
to permit us to reveal more than a small part of it. I believe this must be 
true of everyone. We do not, of course, know what goes on in other 
people's heads. They tell us very little and we tell them very little. The 
spigot of speech, rarely fully opened, could never emit more than driblets 
of the ever renewed hogshead of thought noch grosser wies Hcidel- 
bcrger Pass [even larger than the Heidelberg vat]. We find it hard to 
believe that other people's thoughts are as silly as our own, but they 
probably are. 

We all appear to ourselves to be thinking all the time during our 
waking hours, and most of us are aware that we go on thinking while we 
are asleep, even more foolishly than when awake. When uninterrupted 
by some practical issue we are engaged in what is now known as a 
reverie. This is our spontaneous and favorite kind of thinking. We allow 
our ideas to take their own course and this course is determined by our 
hopes and fears, our spontaneous desires, their fulfillment or frustration; 
by our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates and resentments. There is 
nothing else anything like so interesting to ourselves as ourselves. All 
thought that is not more or less laboriously controlled and directed will 
inevitably circle about the beloved Ego. It is amusing and pathetic to 
observe this tendency in ourselves and in others. We learn politely and 
generously to overlook this truth, but if we dare to think of it, it blazes 
forth like the noontide sun. 

The reverie or "free association of ideas" has of late become the sub- 
ject of scientific research. While investigators are not yet agreed on the 
results, or at least on the proper interpretation to be given to them, 
there can be no doubt that our reveries form the chief index to our 
fundamental character. They are a reflection of our nature as modified by 
often hidden and forgotten experiences. We need not go into the matter 


further here, for it is only necessary to observe that the reverie is at all 
times a potent and in many cases an omnipotent rival to every other kind 
of thinking. It doubtless influences all our speculations in its persistent 
tendency to self-magnification and self- justification, which are its chief 
preoccupations, but it is the last thing to make directly or indirectly for 
honest increase of knowledge. Philosophers usually talk as if such think- 
ing did not exist or were in some way negligible. This is what makes 
their speculations so unreal and often worthless. 

The reverie, as any of us can see for himself, is frequently broken and 
interrupted by the necessity of a second kind of thinking. We have to 
made practical decisions. Shall we write a letter or no? Shall we take the 
subway or a bus? Shall we have dinner at seven or half-past? Shall we 
buy U. S. Rubber or a Liberty Bond? Decisions are easily distinguish- 
able from the free flow of reverie. Sometimes they demand a good deal 
of careful pondering and the recollection of pertinent facts; often, how- 
ever, they are made impulsively. They are a more difficult and laborious 
thing than the reverie, and we resent having to "make up our mind" 
when we are tired, or absorbed in a congenial reverie. Weighing a de- 
cision, it should be noted, does not necessarily add anything to our 
knowledge, although we may, of course, seek further information before 
making it. 

A third kind of thinking is stimulated when anyone questions our 
belief and opinions. We sometimes find ourselves changing our minds 
without any resistance or heavy emotion, but if we are told that we are 
wrong we resent the imputation and harden our hearts. We are incredibly 
heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an 
illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their com- 
panionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, 
but our self-esteem, which is threatened. We are by nature stubbornly 
pledged to defend our own from attack, whether it be our person, our 
family, our property, or our opinion. A United States Senator once re- 
marked to a friend of mine that God Almighty could not make him 
change his mind on our Latin-American policy. We may surrender, but 
rarely confess ourselves vanquished. In the intellectual world at least 
peace is without victory. 

Few of us take the pains to study the origin of our cherished convic- 
tions; indeed, we have a natural repugnance to so doing. We like to 
continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, 
and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assump- 
tions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them. The 
result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding argu- 
ments for going on believing as ice already do. 


I remember years ago attending a public dinner to which the Governor 
of the state was bidden. The chairman explained that His Excellency 
could not be present for certain "good" reasons; what the "real" reasons 
were the presiding officer said he would leave us to conjecture. This 
distinction between "good'* and "real" reasons is one of the most clarify- 
ing and essential in the whole realm of thought. We can readily give 
what seem to us "good" reasons for being a Catholic or a Mason, a 
Republican or a Democrat, an adherent or opponent of the League of 
Nations. But the "real" reasons are usually on quite a different plane. Of 
course the importance of this distinction is popularly, if somewhat ob- 
scurely, recognized. The Baptist missionaiy is ready enough to see that 
the Buddhist is not such because his doctrines would bear careful inspec- 
tion, but because he happened to be born in a Buddhist family in Tokio. 
But it would be treason to his faith to acknowledge that his own par- 
tiality for certain doctrines is due to the fact that his mother was a 
member of the First Baptist Church of Oak Ridge. A savage can give all 
sorts of reasons for his belief that it is dangerous to step on a man's 
shadow, and a newspaper editor can advance plenty of arguments against 
the Bolsheviki. But neither of them may realize why he happens to be 
defending his particular opinion. 

The "real" reasons for our beliefs are concealed from ourselves as well 
as from others. As we grow up we simply adopt the ideas presented to 
us in regard to such matters as religion, family relations, property, busi- 
ness, our country, and the state. We unconsciously absorb them from 
our environment. They are persistently whispered in our ear by the 
group in which we happen to live. Moreover, as Mr. Trotter has pointed 
out, these judgments, being the product of suggestion and not of reason- 
ing, have the quality of perfect obviousness, so that to question them 
"is to the believer to carry skepticism to an insane degree, and will be 
met by contempt, disapproval, or condemnation, according to the nature 
of the belief in question. When, therefore, we find ourselves entertaining 
arl opinion about the basis of which there is a quality of feeling which 
tells us that to inquire into it would be absurd, obviously unnecessary, 
unprofitable, undesirable, bad form, or wicked, we may know that that 
opinion is a non-rational one, and probably, therefore, founded upon 
inadequate evidence." 7 

Opinions, on the other hand, which are the result of experience or of 
honest reasoning do not have this quality of "primary certitude." I re- 
member when as a youth I heard a group of businessmen discussing the 
question of the immortality of the soul, I was outraged by the sentiment 
of doubt expressed by one of the party. As I look back now I see that 

7 Instincts of the Herd, p. 44. 


I had at the time no interest in the matter, and certainly no least argu- 
ment to urge in favor of the belief in which I had been reared. But 
neither my personal indifference to the issue, nor the fact that I had 
previously given it no attention, served to prevent an angry resentment 
when I heard my ideas questioned. 

This spontaneous and loyal support of our preconceptions this process 
of finding "good" reasons to justify our routine beliefs is known to mod- 
ern psychologists as "rationalizing" clearly only a new name for a very 
ancient thing. Our "good" reasons ordinarily have no value in promoting 
honest enlightenment, because, no matter how solemnly they may be 
marshaled, they are at bottom the result of personal preference or preju- 
dice, and not of an honest desire to seek or accept new knowledge. 

In our reveries we are frequently engaged in self-justification, for we 
cannot bear to think ourselves wrong, and yet have constant illustrations 
of our weaknesses and mistakes. So we spend much time finding fault 
with circumstances and the conduct of others, and shifting on to them 
with great ingenuity the onus of our own failures and disappointments. 
Rationalizing is the self -exculpation which occurs when we feel our- 
selves, or our group, accused of misapprehension or error. 

The little word my is the most important one in all human affairs, and 
properly to reckon with it is the beginning of wisdom. It has the same 
force whether it is my dinner, my dog, and my house, or my faith, my 
country, and my God. We not only resent the imputation that our watch 
is wrong, or our car shabby, but that our conception of the canals of 
Mars, of the pronunciation of "Epictetus," of the medicinal value of sali- 
cine, or the date of Sargon I, are subject to revision. 

Philosophers, scholars, and men of science exhibit a common sensi- 
tiveness in all decisions in which their amour propre is involved. Thou- 
sands of argumentative works have been written to vent a grudge. How- 
ever stately their reasoning, it may be nothing but rationalizing, stimu- 
lated by the most commonplace of all motives. A histoiy of philosophy 
and theology could be written in terms of grouches, wounded pride, and 
aversions, and it would be far more instructive than the usual treatments 
of these themes. Sometimes, under Providence, the lowly impulse of 
resentment leads to great achievements. Milton wrote his treatise on 
divorce as a result of his troubles with his seventeen-year-old wife, and 
when he was accused of being the leading spirit in a new sect, the 
Divorcers, he wrote his noble Areopagitica to prove his right to say what 
he thought fit, and incidentally to establish the advantage of a free press 
in the promotion of Truth. 

All mankind, high and low, thinks in all the ways which have been 
described. The reverie goes on all the time not only in the mind of the 


mill hand and the Broadway flapper, but equally in weighty judges and 
godly bishops. It has gone on in all the philosophers, scientists, poets, 
and theologians that have ever lived, Aristotle's most abstruse specula- 
tions were doubtless tempered by highly irrelevant reflections. He is re- 
ported to have had very thin legs and small eyes, for which he doubtless 
had to find excuses, and he was wont to indulge in very conspicuous 
dress and rings and was accustomed to arrange his hair carefully. 8 
Diogenes the Cynic exhibited the impudence of a touchy soul. His tub 
was his distinction. Tennyson in beginning his "Maud" could not forget 
his chagrin over losing his patrimony years before as the result of an 
unhappy investment in the Patent Decorative Carving Company. These 
facts are not recalled here as a gratuitous disparagement of the truly 
great, but to insure a full realization of the tremendous competition 
which all really exacting thought has to face, even in the minds of the 
most highly endowed mortals. 

And now the astonishing and perturbing suspicion emerges that per- 
haps almost all that had passed for social science, political economy, 
politics, and ethics in the past may be brushed aside by future genera- 
tions as mainly rationalizing. John Dewey has already reached this con- 
clusion in regard to philosophy. 9 Veblen 10 and other writers have re- 
vealed the various unperceived presuppositions of the traditional political 
economy, and now comes an Italian sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, who, in 
his huge treatise on general sociology, devotes hundreds of pages to 
substantiating a similar thesis affecting all the social sciences. 11 This 
conclusion may be ranked by students of a hundred years hence as one 
of the several great discoveries of our age. It is by no means fully worked 
out, and it is so opposed to nature that it will be very slowly accepted 
by the great mass of those who consider themselves thoughtful. As a 
historical student I am personally fully reconciled to this newer view. 
Indeed, it seems to me inevitable that just as the various sciences of 
nature were, before the opening of the seventeenth century, largely 
masses of rationalizations to suit the religious sentiments of the period, 
so the social sciences have continued even to our own day to be rationali- 
zations of uncritically accepted beliefs and customs. 

8 Diogenes Laertius, Book V. 

9 Reconstruction in Philosophy. 

10 The Place of Science in Modern Civilization. 

11 Traite de Sociologie Generate, passim. The author's term "derivations" 
seems to be his precise way of expressing what we have called the "good" 
reasons, and his "residus" correspond to the "real" reasons. He well says, 
"L'homme eprouve le besoin de raisonner y et en outre d'etendre une voile sur 
ses instincts et sur ses sentiments" hence, rationalization. ( p. 788. ) His aim is 
to reduce sociology to the "real" reasons, (p. 791.) 


It will become apparent as we proceed that the fact that an idea is 
ancient and that it has been widely received is no argument in its favor, 
but should immediately suggest the necessity of carefully testing it as a 
probable instance of rationalization. 

This brings us to another kind of thought which can fairly easily be 
distinguished from the three kinds described above. It has not the usual 
qualities of the reverie, for it does not hover about our personal com- 
placencies and humiliations. It is not made up of the homely decisions 
forced upon us by everyday needs, when we review our little stock of 
existing information, consult our conventional preferences and obligations, 
and make a choice of action. It is not the defense of our own cherished 
beliefs and prejudices just because they are our own mere plausible 
excuses for remaining of the same mind. On the contrary, it is that 
peculiar species of thought which leads us to change our mind. 

It is this kind of thought that has raised man from his pristine, sub- 
savage ignorance and squalor to the degree of knowledge and comfort 
which he now possesses. On his capacity to continue and greatly extend 
this kind of thinking depends his chance of groping his way out of the 
plight in which the most highly civilized peoples of the world now find 
themselves. In the past this type of thinking has been called Reason. 
But so many misapprehensions have grown up around the word that 
some of us have become very suspicious of it. I suggest, therefore, that 
we substitute a recent name and speak of "creative thought" rather than 
of Reason. For this kind of meditation begets knowledge, and knowledge 
is really creative inasmuch as it makes things look different from what 
they seemed before and may indeed work for their reconstruction. 

In certain moods some of us realize that we are observing things or 
making reflections with a seeming disregard of our personal preoccupa- 
tions. We are not preening or defending ourselves; we are not faced by 
the necessity of any practical decision, nor are we apologizing for believ- 
ing this or that. We are just wondering and looking and mayhap seeing 
what we never perceived before. 

Curiosity is as clear and definite as any of our urges. We wonder what 
is in a sealed telegram or in a letter in which someone else is absorbed, 
or what is being said in the telephone booth or in low conversation. 
This inquisitiveness is vastly stimulated by jealousy, suspicion, or any 
hint that we ourselves are directly or indirectly involved. But there ap- 
pears to be a fair amount of personal interest in other people's affairs 
even when they do not concern us except as a mystery to be unraveled 
or a tale to be told. The reports of a divorce suit will have "news 
value" tor many weeks. They constitute a story, like a novel or play or 
moving picture. This is not an example of pure curiosity, however, since 


we readily identify ourselves with others, and their joys and despair then 
become our own. 

We also take note of, or "observe," as Sherlock Holmes says, things 
which have nothing to do with our personal interests and make no 
personal appeal either direct or by way of sympathy. This is what Veblen 
so well calls "idle curiosity." And it is usually idle enough. Some of us 
when we face the line of people opposite us in a subway train im- 
pulsively consider them in detail and engage in rapid inferences and 
form theories in regard to them. On entering a room there are those who 
will perceive at a glance the degree of preciousness of the rugs, the 
character of the pictures, and the personality revealed by the books. But 
there are many, it would seem, who are so absorbed in their personal 
reverie or in some definite purpose that they have no bright-eyed energy 
for idle curiosity. The tendency to miscellaneous observation we come 
by honestly enough, for we note it in many of our animal relatives. 

Veblen, however, uses the term "idle curiosity" somewhat ironically, 
as is his wont. It is idle only to those who fail to realize that it may be a 
very rare and indispensable thing from which almost all distinguished 
human achievement proceeds, since it may lead to systematic examina- 
tion and seeking for things hitherto undiscovered. For research is but 
diligent search which enjoys the high flavor of primitive hunting. Occa- 
sionally and fitfully, idle curiosity thus leads to creative thought, which 
alters and broadens our own views and aspirations and may in turn, 
under highly favorable circumstances, affect the views and lives of 
others, even for generations to follow. An example or two will make this 
unique human process clear. 

Galileo was a thoughtful youth and doubtless carried on a rich and 
varied reverie. He had artistic ability and might have turned out to be 
a musician or painter. When he had dwelt among the monks at Vallom- 
brosa he had been tempted to lead the life of a religious. As a boy he 
busied himself with toy machines and he inherited a fondness for mathe- 
matics. All these facts are on record. We may safely assume also that, 
along with many other subjects of contemplation, the Pisan maidens 
found a vivid place in his thoughts. 

One day when seventeen years old he wandered into the cathedral 
of his native town. In the midst of his reverie he looked up at the lamps 
hanging by long chains from the high ceiling of the church. Then some- 
thing very difficult to explain occurred. He found himself no longer 
thinking of the building, worshipers, or the services; of his artistic or 
religious interests; of his reluctance to become a physician as his father 
wished. He forgot the question of a career and even the graziosissime 
donne. As he watched the swinging lamps he was suddenly wondering 


if mayhap their oscillations, whether long or short, did not occupy the 
same time. Then he tested this hypothesis by counting his pulse, for that 
was the only timepiece he had with him. 

This observation, however remarkable in itself, was not enough to 
produce a really creative thought. Others may have noticed the same 
thing and yet nothing came of it. Most of our observations have no 
assignable results. Galileo may have seen that the warts on a peasant's 
face formed a perfect isosceles triangle, or he may have noticed with 
boyish glee that just as the officiating priest was uttering the solemn 
words, Ecce agnus Dei, a fly lit on the end of his nose. To be really 
creative, ideas have to be worked up and then "put over/' so that they 
become a part of man's social heritage. The highly accurate pendulum 
clock was one of the later results of Galileo's discovery. He himself was 
led to reconsider and successfully to refute the old notions of falling 
bodies. It remained for Newton to prove that the moon was falling, and 
presumably all the heavenly bodies. This quite upset all the consecrated 
views of the heavens as managed by angelic engineers. The universality 
of the laws of gravitation stimulated the attempt to seek other and equally 
important natural laws and cast grave doubts on the miracles in which 
mankind had hitherto believed. In short, those who dared to include in 
their thought the discoveries of Galileo and his successors found them- 
selves in a new earth surrounded by new heavens. 

On the 28th of October, 1831, two hundred and fifty years after 
Galileo had noticed the isochronous vibrations of the lamps, creative 
thought and its currency had so far increased that Faraday was wonder- 
ing what would happen if he mounted a disk of copper between the 
poles of a horseshoe magnet. As the disk revolved an electric current 
was produced. This would doubtless have seemed the idlest kind of 
experiment to the stanch businessmen of the time, who, it happened, 
were just then denouncing the child-labor bills in their anxiety to avail 
themselves to the full of the results of earlier idle curiosity. But should 
the dynamos and motors which have come into being as the outcome of 
Faraday's experiment be stopped this evening, the businessman of today, 
agitated over labor troubles, might, as he trudged home past lines of 
"dead" cars, through dark streets to an unlighted house, engage in a 
little creative thought of his own and perceive that he and his laborers 
would have no modern factories and mines to quarrel about if it had not 
been for the strange practical effects of the idle curiosity of scientists, 
inventors and engineers. 

The examples of creative intelligence given above belong to the realm 
of modern scientific achievement, which furnishes the most striking in- 
stances of the effects of scrupulous, objective thinking. But there are, of 


course, other great realms in which the recording and embodiment of 
acute observation and insight have wrought themselves into the higher 
life of man. The great poets and dramatists and our modern story-tellers 
have found themselves engaged in productive reveries, noting and ar- 
tistically presenting their discoveries for the delight and instruction of 
those who have the ability to appreciate them. 

The process by which a fresh and original poem or drama comes into 
being is doubtless analogous to that which originates and elaborates so- 
called scientific discoveries; but there is clearly a temperamental dif- 
ference. The genesis and advance of painting, sculpture, and music offer 
still other problems. We really as yet know shockingly little about these 
matters, and indeed very few people have the least curiosity about 
them. 12 Nevertheless, creative intelligence in its various forms is what 
makes man. Were it not for its slow, painful, and constantly discouraged 
operations through the ages man would be no more than a species of 
primate living on seeds, fruit, roots, and uncooked flesh, and wandering 
naked through the woods and over the plains like a chimpanzee. 

The origin and progress and future promotion of civilization are ill 
understood and misconceived. These should be made the chief theme of 
education, but much hard work is necessary before we can construct our 
ideas of man and his capacities and free ourselves from innumerable 
persistent misapprehensions. There have been obstructionists in all 
times, not merely the lethargic masses, but the moralists, the rationaliz- 
ing theologians, and most of the philosophers, all busily if unconsciously 
engaged in ratifying existing ignorance and mistakes and discouraging 
creative thought. Naturally, those who reassure us seem worthy of honor 
and respect. Equally naturally those who puzzle us with disturbing criti- 
cisms and invite us to change our ways are objects of suspicion and 
readily discredited. Our personal discontent does not ordinarily extend 
to any critical questioning of the general situation in which we find 
ourselves. In every age the prevailing conditions of civilization have 
appeared quite natural and inevitable to those who grew up in them. 
The cow asks no questions as to how it happens to have a dry stall and 
a supply of hay. The kitten laps its warm milk from a china saucer, with- 
out knowing anything about porcelain; the dog nestles in the corner of 

12 Recently a re-examination of creative thought has begun as a result of new 
knowledge which discredits many of the notions formerly held about "reason/* 
See, for example, Creative Intelligence, by a group of American philosophic 
thinkers: John Dewey, Essays in Experimental Logic (both pretty hard books): 
and Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilization. Easier than these and 
very stimulating are Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, and Woodworth, 
Dynamic Psychology. 


a divan with no sense of obligation to the inventors of upholstery and 
the manufacturers of down pillows. So we humans accept our break- 
fasts, our trains and telephones and orchestras and movies, our national 
Constitution, our moral code and standards of manners, with the sim- 
plicity and innocence of a pet rabbit. We have absolutely inexhaustible 
capacities for appropriating what others do for us with no thought of a 
"thank you." We do not feel called upon to make any least contribution 
to the merry game ourselves. Indeed, we are usually quite unaware that 
a game is being played at all. 

We have now examined the various classes of thinking which we can 
readily observe in ourselves and which we have plenty of reasons to 
believe go on, and always have been going on, in our fellow men. We 
can sometimes get quite pure and sparkling examples of all four kinds, 
but commonly they are so confused and intermingled in our reverie as 
not to be readily distinguishable. The reverie is a reflection of our long- 
ings, exultations, and complacencies, our fears, suspicions, and dis- 
appointments. We are chiefly engaged in struggling to maintain our 
self-respect and in asserting that supremacy which we all crave and 
which seems to us our natural prerogative. It is not strange, but rather 
quite inevitable, that our beliefs about what is true and false, good and 
bad, right and wrong, should be mixed up with the reverie and be in- 
fluenced by the same considerations which determine its character and 
course. We resent criticisms of our views exactly as we do of anything 
else connected with ourselves. Our notions of life and its ideals seem to 
us to be our own and as such necessarily true and right, to be defended 
at all costs. 

We very rarely consider, however, the process by which we gained 
our convictions. If we did so, we could hardly fail to see that there was 
usually little ground for our confidence in them. Here and there, in this 
department of knowledge or that, some one of us might make a fair 
claim to have taken some trouble to get correct ideas of, let us say, the 
situation in Russia, the sources of our food supply, the origin of the 
Constitution, the revision of the tariff, the policy of the Holy Roman 
Apostolic Church, modern business organization, trade unions, birth 
control, socialism, the League of Nations, the excess-profits tax, prepared- 
ness, advertising in its social bearings; but only a very exceptional person 
would be entitled to opinions on all of even these few matters. And yet 
most of us have opinions on all these, and on many other questions of 
equal importance, of which we may know even less. We feel compelled, 
as self-respecting persons, to take sides when they come up for discus- 
sion. We even surprise ourselves by our omniscience. Without taking 
thought we see in a flash that it is most righteous and expedient to 


discourage birth control by legislative enactment, or that one who decries 
intervention in Mexico is clearly wrong, or that big advertising is essen- 
tial to big business and that big business is the pride of the land. As 
godlike beings why should we not rejoice in our omniscience? 

It is clear in any case, that our convictions on important matters are 
not the result of knowledge or critical thought, nor, it may be added, 
are they often dictated by supposed self-interest. Most of them are pure 
prejudices in the proper sense of that word. We do not form them 
ourselves. They are the whispering of "the voice of the herd." We have 
in the last analysis no responsibility for them and need assume none. 
They are not really our own ideas, but those of others no more well 
informed or inspired than ourselves, who have got them in the same 
humiliating manner as we. It should be our pride to revise our ideas and 
not to adhere to what passes for respectable opinion, for such opinion 
can frequently be shown to be not respectable at all. We should, in 
view of the considerations that have been mentioned, resent our supine 
credulity. As an English writer has remarked: 

"If we feared the entertaining of an unverifiable opinion with the 
warmth with which we fear using the wrong implement at the dinner 
table, if the thought of holding a prejudice disgusted us as does a foul 
disease, then the dangers of man's susceptibility would be turned into 
advantages." JAMES HARVEY ROBINSON: The Mind in the Making, Chap. 
2. 1S 


In one sense we can say that DEFINITION answers the question, 
"What is it?" A small child asks, "What is a zebra?" and the grown- 
up replies, very unscientifically, that a zebra is a kind of horse, but 
not as big as a real horse, with black and white stripes. The grown- 
up has given a description of the animal. 

In another and stricter sense, however, it can be said that a defini- 
tion is not of a thing, but of the word referring to the thing. Its 
function is to tell how to use the word. It sets the bound or limit 
within which the word will apply as the derivation of the word 
definition implies (it comes from two Latin words, de meaning 
concerning, and finis meaning limit). This idea of definition as the 
limiting of a word is illustrated in the demand frequently made 

13 From The Mind in the Making by James Harvey Robinson. Copyright, 
1921, by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1949, by Bankers Trust Company. 


during an argument: "Define your terms." And by TERM we mean 
any word or group of words that constitutes a unit of meaning 
that refers to one thing or idea. 

We shall discuss definition as the definition of a term, but it is 
clear that we cannot define a term without some knowledge of the 
thing to which the term refers. So the process of making a definition 
involves knowledge. It is not a mere game of words. Not only may 
definition enlarge the understanding of the person who receives 
a definition, but the process of definition may lead the maker of the 
definition to clarify his own mind on the subject involved. 


A definition falls into two parts, the element to be defined and 
the element which does the defining. The two elements form an 
equation, that is, one can be substituted for the other in a statement 
without changing the sense in any respect. 

For example, we may define a slave as a human being who is the 
legal property of another, and then set this up as an equation: 

The to-be-defined = the definer 

Slave is human being who is the legal property 

of another. 

Now if we make a statement using the word slave, we may sub- 
stitute the definer ("human being who is the legal property of an- 
other") for that word without any change of sense. The statement, 

1. To be a slave is worse than death. 

has exactly the same meaning as the statement, 

2. To be the legal property of another is worse than death. 

We must remember that the adequacy of the original definition 
is not the point here. We may have given an inadequate definition, 
but in so far as we are willing to stand by our definition we are 
willing to substitute the definer for the to-be-defined in any state- 
ment. Furthermore, the truth or falsity of any particular statement 
is not relevant. What is relevant is that the two elements form an 
equation, are CONVERTIBLE. 

When the elements are not convertible, we do not have a real 



To get a notion of the process of definition let us take a very 
simple situation. A small child who has never seen a cat receives 
one as a pet. The father tells the child that the animal is a cat- 
a kitty. The proud parent now assumes that the child knows what 
the word cat means, but he may be surprised one day to find the 
child pointing at a Pekingese and calling, "Kitty, kitty." It is obvious 
that the child is using the word to mean any small, furry animal, 
and when the father takes him to the park the child is very apt to 
call a squirrel a kitty, too. 

The father now undertakes to give the child a definition of cat. 
To do so he must instruct the child in the differences between a 
cat, a Pekingese, and a squirrel. In other words, he undertakes to 
break up the group the child has made (all small, furry animals) 
into certain subgroups (cats, Pekingese, squirrels) by focusing atten- 
tion upon the differences, the DIFFERENTIA. 

If the child understands his father, he now has the knowledge to 
give a definition of the word cat a very inadequate definition but 
a kind of definition. If we question the child we may elicit a defi- 

Questioner: What does cat mean? 

Child: It's a little-bitty animal, and it's got fur. 

Questioner: But dogs have fur, too, and dogs aren't cats. 

Child: Yes, but dogs bark. Cats don't bark. Cats me-ow. And cats 
climb trees. 

Questioner: But squirrels have fur, and they climb trees and are 

Child: Yes, but squirrels don't just climb trees like cats. They 
live in trees. And they don't me-ow like cats. 

The child has put cat into a group (small, furry animals) and then 
has distinguished the subgroup of cats from other subgroups of 
Pekingese and squirrels. 

If we chart the child's reasoning we get something like this: 

GROUP small, furry animals 

SUBGROUP cats Pekingese squirrels 


The pattern of the child's definition is the pattern of all defini- 
tion. It involves, we see, the kind of scheme we have already studied 
under classification and division. Here the class small, furry animals 
is the genus, and the classes cats, Pekingese, and squirrels are the 
species. Definition involves placing the relevant species under its 
genus and then indicating the characteristics which distinguish it 
from other species of the same genus. So we get the formula: 

Definition of species = genus + differentia 

The pattern of the child's definition of cat is the pattern of all 
definition, but the particular definition will not serve in an adult 
world. The classifications the child is using are not significant, since 
smallness and furriness are not sufficiently particularized traits. A 
zoologist would go about the business differently. 

He might begin by saying: "A csitFelis domestica, we call it is 
a digitigrade, carnivorous mammal, of the genus Felis, which in- 
cludes the species tiger (Felis tigris), the species ocelot (Felis par- 
dalis), the species lion (Felis leo), the species cougar (Felis concolor), 
and several other species. All the species of the genus Felis have 
lithe, graceful, long bodies, relatively short legs, with soft, padded 
feet, strong claws which are retracted into sheaths when not in 
use, powerful jaws with sharp teeth, and soft, beautifully marked 
fur. The cat is the smallest species of the genus, usually measuring 
so-and-so. It is the only species easily domesticated. . . ." 

Like the child, the zoologist has set up a group (which he calls 
a genus), and has given the characteristics of the group. Then he 
has broken up the group into several subgroups (each of which he 
calls a species). Last he has set about pointing out the differences 
between the species cat and the other species of the same genus. 
Set up as a scheme, his thinking has this form: 

GENUS Felis 

SPECIES Felis domestica Felis tigris Felis leo Felis concolor etc. 
(cat) (tiger) (lion) (cougar) 

The form used by the zoologist is, we see, the same as that used 
by the child. The difference is that the zoologist thinks in significant 
classes. It is true that for him the words genus and species have a 


somewhat different meaning from the meanings we use in referring 
to classification and division. For the zoologist the word genus 
means a group of species closely related structurally and by origin, 
and the word species means a group whose members possess nu- 
merous characteristics in common and do or may interbreed to 
preserve those characteristics. This difference comes from the fact 
that the zoologist is dealing with living forms. But despite these 
differences in the meaning of genus and species he uses them in 
his pattern of definition in the same way we have used them. 

Though our thinking may follow the pattern of genus and species, 
we do not ordinarily use those terms in framing a definition. To de- 
fine bungalow we may say that the species falls under the genus 
house and give the differentia distinguishing it from other species, 
other types of houses. Set up formally the scheme would be this: 

GENUS House 

SPECIES Bungalow Ranch Dutch Southern Georgian etc. 
house colonial colonial 

Ordinarily, however, we would not use the technical terms. We 
might say: "A bungalow is a kind of house. It differs from some 
kinds, like the Dutch colonial, the Georgian, and the Southern 
colonial, in that it has only one story. But it differs from other one- 
story types, like the ranch house, in that its floor plan is so-and-so." 
The important thing is the pattern of thought. 


If we are not content with a definition given us for instance, the 
definition of cat given by the zoologist we may push the giver back 
by asking more about the genus in which he has located the species 
under discussion. If we ask the zoologist about the genus Felis, he 
may say that it is a group under the family Felidae, which contains 
another genus, the genus Lynx. If, after he has established the 
differentia here between the genera Felis and Lynx, we are still not 
satisfied, he may patiently repeat the process, going up the scale 
to another group, for instance, mammals, and on above that to 
vertebrates, and on above that to animals. We would conclude with 
some very elaborate scheme, roughly as follows: 


Stage 5: \ 

Vertebrates Nonvertebrates 
Stage 4: | 

I I 
Mammals Nonmammals 
Stage 3: | 

i m 

Felidae Other families 

Stage 2: \ 

Felis Lynx 

Stage 1: \ 

Felis domes tica Felis ligris Felis leo etc. 

If we keep forcing the zoologist upward from stage to stage, he 
will in each instance give us a new definition by the same method. 
The only difference will be that what has been the main group in 
Stage 1, for example, becomes the subgroup in Stage 2, and so on 
up the scale. Here he is seeking a point where the questioner will 
feel at home, where he and the questioner will have common 

Common ground is necessary for an effective definition. Such 
common ground may be difficult to discover in a transaction be- 
tween a scientist, for instance a zoologist, who employs a highly 
technical language and a highly technical scheme based on the 
structures of living creatures, and a layman who deals in language 
and in appearances in a rough-and-ready way. But if the scientist 
wishes to communicate with the layman he must find a common 
gifound and a common language. 

(This principle of the common ground for a definition is very 
important, for it implies that a definition is not only of some term 
but is for somebody. The giver of the definition can only define by 
reference to what his particular audience already knows or is will- 
ing to learn. 

This knowledge must be of two kinds. 

First, since any definition must be in words, the giver of the defi- 
nition must use words that his audience is, or can readily become, 


acquainted with. For instance, when the zoologist refers to the cat 
as a "digitigrade mammal," and so on, he is using words that no 
small child and few adults would know. In such cases, the zoologist 
would have to explain further that digitigrade means "walking on 
the toes" the way a cat does, as opposed to "walking on the whole 
foot" (plantigrade) the way a man does. In this way the zoologist 
would provide the common ground in words which would make 
the definition effective. 

Second, the giver of a definition must appeal to information which 
his audience has or can readily get. For instance, there is no use in 
trying to define the color beige to a man blind from birth. If you 
say that beige is a light grayish color, the natural color of wool, you 
have really said nothing to him. For he has had no experience of 
color. It will do no good to continue and say that gray is a mixture 
of black and white. If you go on and give the physicist's definition 
of color, referring to wave lengths of light, you run into the same 
difficulty. He can grasp the notion of wave length, but he has no 
basis for knowing what light is. You run into a defect in his experi- 
ence, in his knowledge. 


Assuming, however, that the giver of the definition finds the com- 
mon ground in regard to both words and knowledge, there are still 
certain principles to be observed if the definer is truly to enlarge 
the audience's understanding of the to-be-defined. 

I. The to-be-defined must be equivalent to the definer. 

II. The to-be-defined must not be part of the definer. 

III. The definer must not be negative unless the to-be-defined is 
negative. v 

y I. We see immediately that in principle I we are repeating the 
notion that a definition involves an equation, the possibility of sub- 
stitution of one element of the definition for the other. But it may 
be useful to break this notion down: 

1. The definer must not be broader than the to-be-defined. 

2. The definer must not be narrower than the to-be-defined. 

We have an example of the violation of principle 1 if we define 
table as a piece of furniture on which we put dishes, lamps, ashtrays, 
books, or knickknacks. The definer is here too broad because it 
would equally well apply to sideboards, chests of drawers, buffets, 


or what-nots on which we put dishes, lamps, and so forth. The 
definer says some things that are true, but these true things apply 
too widely. To put it another way, we can say that the definition 
does not properly consider the differentia which would distinguish 
the various species under the genus furniture. 

We have an example of the violation of principle 2 if we define 
table as the piece of furniture on which we serve our meals. Here 
the definer is too narrow, because it would not apply to some types 
of tables, such as end tables, study tables, bedside tables, or sewing 
tables. It really only applies to a subspecies of the species table, 
and not to the species. Yet the species table is what is involved in 
the definition. 

II. The to-be-defined is part of the definer when it is defined in 
whole, or in part, in terms of itself. This occurs in two sorts of cases: 

1. When a word or phrase of the to-be-defined, or a variation of 
a word or phrase, is significantly repeated in the definer. 

2. When an idea of the to-be-defined, though in different words, 
is significantly repeated in the definer. 

We get an example of the first when we define the word statis- 
tician by saying it means anyone who makes a profession of com- 
piling and studying statistics. The trouble here is that statistics is a 
mere variation of statistician. The essential question, "What kind of 
thing does a statistician do?" is left unanswered because we have 
not yet defined statistics. Or if we define man as a human being, 
we commit the same error. In these cases the definer tells a truth, 
but it is not a new truth. It is a truth already implicit in the to-be- 
defined. There has been no real enlargement of understanding. To 
state the matter another way, there has been a circle in the defini- 
tion: you come back to your starting point. 

In the first type of circular definition, it is clear that when we 
repeat in the definer a word or words of the to-be-defined we repeat 
an idea already expressed. But it is possible to repeat an idea in 
different words, and this, too, gives a circle in the definition. For 
example, we have a circle in the definition when we say that fast 
means having a rapid rate of motion. The definer does not really 
enlarge our notion of the to-be-defined because the word rapid, the 
key word in the definer, really repeats the idea of fast, the word to 
be defined. 


III. If we define a positive to-be-defined by a negative definer 
we may wind up with something like this: "Tiffin is what the 
English in India call a meal not eaten in the morning." Now it is 
perfectly true that tiffin is not eaten in the morning. It is eaten at 
noon. But the trouble with the negative statement is that it does 
not exclude other possibilities than morning. According to the defi- 
nition given above, tiffin might just as well be eaten in the afternoon 
or the evening. The truth in the definer is not the whole truth, and 
the definition fails to establish the necessary equation between the 
elements of the definition. 

When, however, the to-be-defined is negative when its nature 
involves some deficiency it is correct to use a negative definer. For 
example, it is correct to define the word widow as a woman who 
has lost her husband by death, for here the^idea of loss, of deficiency, 
is the essential notion in the to-be-defined, j 


Early in the discussion of definition we said that definition not 
only is useful to a person who receives it but may also be useful to 
the person who makes it. It is a way of thinking, a way of clarifying 
one's own views. This consideration is not very important in deal- 
ing with a word like house. With a little information we can make 
a workable definition. But sometimes a little information is not all 
we need. We may need to think through a very complicated set 
of relations. We may need a discussion and not a simple definition^ 
Let us take for an example the following discussion of the meaning 
of the word labor. 

It is easy to meet with definitions or at least descriptions of the term 
labour, especially among non-British economists. We need hardly notice 
the definition of Cicero, who says, "Labor est functio quaedam vel animi 
vel corporis." If we are thus to make labour include all action of mind 
or body, it includes all life. . . Malthus expressly defines labour as 
follows: "The exertions of human beings employed with a view to re- 
muneration. If the term be applied to other exertions, they must be 
particularly specified/' In this proposition, however, the word remunera- 
tion is very uncertain in meaning. Does it mean only wages paid by other 
persons than the labourer, or does it include the benefit which a la- 
bourer may gain directly from his own labour? . . . 


It is plain that labour must consist of some energy or action of the 
body or mind, but it does not follow that every kind of exertion is to be 
treated in economics. Lay has restricted the term by the following con- 
cise definition: "Travail; action suivie, dirigee vers un but" The action 
here contemplated excludes mere play and sport, which carries its whole 
purpose with it. There must be some extrinsic benefit to be purchased 
by the action, which moreover must be continued, consistent action, 
directed steadily to the same end. This correctly describes the great 
mass of economic labour which is directed simply to the earning of 
wages and the producing of the commodities which eventually consti- 
tute wages. But there is nothing in this definition to exclude the long- 
continued exertions of a boat's crew training for a race, the steady prac- 
tice of a company of cricketers, or even the regular constitutional walk 
of the student who values his good health. Moreover, no considerable 
continuity of labour is requisite to bring it under economic laws. A poor 
man who gathers groundsell in the morning and sells it about the streets 
the same afternoon may complete the circle of economic action within 
twenty-four hours. . . . 

Senior has given a definition of the term in question, saying, "Labour 
is the voluntary exertion of bodily or mental faculties for the purpose of 
production." Here the term production is made the scapegoat. Does 
production include the production of pleasure or prevention of pain in 
every way? Does it include the training of the cricketer? The word 
"voluntary," again, excludes the forced labour of slaves and prisoners, 
not to speak of draught animals. Yet many economic questions arise 
about the productiveness of the exertions of such agents. . . . 

Some later economists consider pain or disagreeableness to be a 
necessary characteristic of labour, and probably with correctness. Thus 
Mill defines labour as "muscular or nervous action, including all feel- 
ings of a disagreeable kind, all bodily inconvenience or mental annoy- 
ance connected with the employment of one's thoughts or muscles, or 
both, in a particular occupation." He seems to intend that only what is 
disagreeable, inconvenient or annoying, shall be included. Professor 
Hearn also says that such effort as the term labour seems to imply is 
"more or less troublesome." It may be added that in all the dictionaries 
pain seems to be regarded as a necessary constituent of labour. 

Nevertheless it cannot possibly be said that all economic labour is 
simple pain. Beyond doubt a workman in good health and spirits, and 
fresh from a good night's rest actually enjoys the customary exertion of 
his morning task. To a man brought up in the steady round of daily 
trade and labour, inactivity soon becomes tedious. Happiness has been 
defined as the reflex of unimpeded energy, and whatever exactly this 


may mean, there can be no doubt that any considerable degree of 
pleasure can be attained only by setting up some end to be worked 
for and then working. The real solution of the difficulty seems to be 
this that, however agreeable labour may be when the muscles are 
recruited and the nerves unstrained, the hedonic condition is always 
changed as the labour proceeds. As we shall see, continued labour 
grows more and more painful, *and when long-continued becomes almost 
intolerable. However pleasurable the beginning, the pleasure merges into 
pain. Now when we are engaged in mere sport, devoid of any con- 
scious perception of future good or evil, exertion will not continue beyond 
the point when present pain and pleasure are balanced. No motive can 
exist for further action. But when we have any future utility in view the 
case is different. The mind of the labourer balances present pain against 
future good, so that the labour before it is terminated becomes purely 
painful. Now the problems and theorems of economics always turn upon 
the point where equality or equilibrium is attained; when labour is itself 
pleasurable no questions can arise about its continuance. There is the 
double gain the pleasure of the labour itself and the pleasure of gaining 
its produce. No complicated calculus is needed where all is happy and 
certain. It is on this ground that we may probably dismiss from economic 
science all sports and other exertions to which may be applied the 
maxim leave off as soon as you feel inclined. But it is far otherwise with 
that advanced point of economic labour when the question arises whether 
more labour will be repaid by the probability of future good. 

I am by no means sure that it is possible to embody in a single defini- 
tion the view here put forward. If obliged to attempt a definition, I 
should say that labour includes all exertion of body and/or mind 
eventually becoming painful if prolonged, and not wholly undertaken 
for the sake of immediate pleasure. This proposition plainly includes all 
painful exertion which we undergo in order to gain future pleasures or 
to ward off pains, in such a way as to leave a probable hedonic bal- 
ance in our favor; but it does not exclude exertion which, even at the 
time of exertion, is producing such a balance. WILLIAM STANLEY JEVONS : 
The Principles of Economics, Chap. 14. 14 

The author ends by putting labor in the general group of "exer- 
tion of body and/or mind," and by distinguishing it from other 
possible types of exertion. He has used the formula of definition. 
But he arrives at his own definition by a discussion of previous 
definitions. He criticizes them and indicates his reason for rejecting 

14 From The Principles of Economics by William Stanley Jevons. Reprinted 
by permission of The Macmillan Company. 


them. It is through this criticism that he sets up the differentia for 
his own definition. 

Let us take another word, liberty, which is probably even more 
difficult to define than labor. Offhand, we think we have a very 
clear notion of its meaning, but when we try to define it we may 
become aware of our own ignorance or vagueness. We have some 
notion, no doubt, that liberty means being able to do what one 
likes. But reflection shows us that we cannot mean that if we hold 
that the word has any reference to the real world we live in. For 
no one is free to do what he likes. All sorts of things thwart us, our 
physical limitations, our intellectual limitations, our economic limi- 
tations, social pressures, laws. We can say, of course, that we choose 
to use the word liberty to refer to the state of being able to do what 
one likes; and that statement, if we are consistent in our use of the 
word, will constitute a kind of definition. But if we wish to use the 
word as having some reference to the actual situation of human 
beings, we must explore the concept more fully. 

Such an exploration would undoubtedly lead us very far afield. 
We would find that we had gone far beyond the kind of vest-pocket 
definition which appears in a dictionary. We would write an essay 
or a book. And innumerable essays and books have been written 
in the attempt to define liberty. 

How might we go about framing a definition of liberty? 

The word liberty is used to refer to several different things. It 
may refer to the theological question of the relation of the human 
will in relation to God's will and foreknowledge. It may refer to the 
psychological question of whether the human being makes choices 
or is a very complicated mechanism that responds but does not 
choose. It may refer to the question of the relation of the individual 
to society. Before we attempt a definition of the word we obviously 
must decide which reference here is our concern. 

John Stuart Mill begins his famous essay "On Liberty" by 
indicating the particular aspect of the subject which he intends to 
treat. "The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the 
Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philo- 
sophical Necessity; but Civil or Social Liberty: The nature and 
limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society 
over the individual." 

Having in this fashion confined his interest to social liberty, Mill 


then proceeds to distinguish the different conceptions of social liberty 
which have prevailed at different times and places: (1) immunities 
under a "governing One, or a governing tribe or caste" who did 
not govern "at the pleasure of the governed'*; (2) constitutional 
checks under the same type of government as above; (3) the right 
to elect rulers; (4) the right to protection against the will of the 
majority as expressed through government; (5) the right to protec- 
tion against social pressure. Set up as a scheme we have this: 

Social Liberty 


Mill then goes on to point out that in the modern world concep- 
tions 1, 2, and 3 are outmoded, for the historical situations account- 
ing for them no longer prevail. Thus conceptions 4 and 5 are left 
as the special content of his subject which may be called Social 
Liberty in its modern reference. 

But Social Liberty in its modern reference has various areas of 
application, which must be distinguished from each other. These 
various areas of application are: (a) liberty of "consciousness" 
liberty of conscience, of thought, and of opinion, and by exten- 
sion, of expression; (b) liberty of "tastes and pursuits" liberty 
of framing the "plan of our life to suit our own character"; (c) 
liberty of "combination" liberty of individuals to unite, the indi- 
viduals combining "being supposed to be of full age, and not forced 
or deceived." So we can develop our scheme: 

Social Liberty 

Social Liberty in its modern reference 

By making this series of distinctions Mill has limited and ex- 
plained the area of his discussion. He can now proceed to frame 


his definition with some assurance that his audience will see where 
the definition can be applied and by what line of thought it was 

All the way through his discussion Mill is conscious of the fact 
that the liberty of one individual cannot be thought of apart from 
the liberty of other individuals, for all are members of a society. 
Therefore, if one individual, in pursuing what he takes to be his 
liberty, infringes upon or limits the liberty of another individual, 
he is not exercising his liberty but is doing something else. That is, 
liberty must be understood as meaning the maximum liberty of all 
individuals and not the mere opportunity of one individual to do 
what he pleases. 

Having developed that thought, Mill can now define Social Lib- 
erty in its modern reference as the pursuit of "our own good in 
our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of 
theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it." It may be said, of course, 
that Mill is really defining the term justifiable liberty and not the 
term liberty. But this, he says, is the only liberty that "deserves the 
name." That is, he would use the term liberty only to apply to the 
situation just described, and his definition means something to us 
because of the discussion that has preceded it. 

Let us turn to another famous essay, "What is a University?" by 
John Henry Newman, as an example of extended definition. This 
is the first paragraph: 

If I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what 
a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designa- 
tion of a Studium Generate, or "School of Universal Learning/' This 
description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one 
spot; from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for 
every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there 
be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is 
a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners 
from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy 
the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University 
seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circula- 
tion of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent 
of country. 

We remember that both Jevons and Mill move toward a defini- 
tion through a discussion, but here we see that Newman starts with 


a definition. The definition is the basis for a discussion, the discus- 
sion being a development of the implications of the original defini- 


We can see another difference between the essay by Mill and 
that by Newman. Mill looks back over history to see what has been 
understood by liberty at different times in the past, but the defini- 
tion he finally gives is for his own time and not for any past time. 
Newman, too, looks back to the past, and begins his first paragraph 
by referring to an earlier notion. But he does not contrast the earlier 
notion with a modern notion. Instead, he uses the old notion to help 
him define the word university in a modern reference. What he 
draws from the old term Studium Generate he applies to the new 
term university. 

A study of the use of a term in the past may be useful, then, 
because of either continuity or contrast. For example, if we are 
asked to define the term American democracy, we may very profit- 
ably raise the historical question. Do we understand the same thing 
by it as the Founding Fathers did? What must we make of the fact 
that the Founding Fathers did not believe in universal suffrage and 
that we may? Are there any elements of continuity? 


- As it is sometimes useful to know the history of the use of a term, 
it is sometimes useful to know the derivation of a term. Every word 
has a history, and the history of the word itself may lead to a fuller 
notion of its meaning. For instance, it helps us to understand the 
meaning of the word philosophy to learn that it derives from a 
Greek word meaning the love of wisdom. The derivation may indi- 
cate or explain some basic meaning. For instance, an article on 
asceticism begins as follows: 

ASCETICISM: the theory and practice of bodily abstinence and self- 
mortification, generally religious. The word is derived from a Greek word 
(doxew) meaning "to practice/' or "to train," and it embodies a metaphor 
taken from the ancient wrestling place, where victory rewarded those 
who had best trained their bodies. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th edi- 


Here the derivation of the word really enlightens us about the 
significance of self-denial for the religious person: it is like the train- 
ing of an athlete. 


We begin to see some of the ways in which the simple definition 
may be extended. We may start by looking into the derivation of 
the term to be defined. We may follow Newman's method of defin- 
ing a present term by reference to an old usage. We may look at 
the history of various meanings of a term as a background for a 
present meaning, as Mill looks at the history of liberty. We may 
extend the discussion through several stages as Mill does, to locate 
the precise area in which the definition will apply. We may develop 
a definition by a series of illustrations, comparisons, and contrasts, 
as Newman does in the body of his essay. We may do any or all of 
these things, We may, in fact, do anything that will really help 
to make our definition clear. 

(In writing an extended definition we may find, of course, that we 
are running away from the strict concern of definition into illustra- 
tions, for example, or comparisons and contrasts. Other intentions 
may become dominant over the intention to define. If we are 
setting out to write a definition, and only a definition, this wavering 
of intention may confuse us and our readers. But definition may be 
merely the beginning of a piece of exposition, and may be subordi- 
nate to other intentions. Then, what is important is to be able to 
use the method of definition as far as it is fruitful for understand- 
ing the subject. Definition is, in the end, a device for reaching 


I ANALYSIS is the method of dividing into component parts. The 
word means loosening into parts. The method can be applied to 
anything that can be thought of as having parts. We can analyze 
an object such as a dog, a house, a tree, a picture. We can analyze 
an idea such as nationalism, religion, or treachery. We can analyze 
an organization such as a church, a corporation, a university, or 


We must make a distinction between PHYSICAL ANALYSIS and CON- 

In physical analysis some object is spatially separated into its 
components^ If a clockmaker takes a clock apart, he performs a 
physical analysis. If a student of zoology dissects a pickled dogfish, 
he performs a physical analysis, i If a chemist makes a chemical 
analysis of a sample of butter, he performs a physical analysis^) 

Obviously an idea cannot be separated into parts like cogs and 
springs or chemical elements. An idea can be analyzed only into 
other ideas. For instance, the idea of nationalism can be analyzed 
only in terms of human motives, attitudes, and interests. Nor can 
an organization be analyzed by spatial separation. For example, a 
corporation cannot be analyzed by physically grouping the indi- 
vidual chairs, desks, typewriters, and filing cabinets which appear 
in various departments. These objects do not constitute the depart- 
ments, nor do the physical persons employed in the respective 
departments. We can analyze a corporation only by understanding 
what constitutes the function of a department.^ 

, In dealing with nationalism or a corporation, then, we must per- 
form the analysis in our minds, by the use of our reason. This is 
conceptual analysis. It must be remembered, however, that con- 
ceptual analysis may be used to report on subjects which have 
physical existence. For instance, when the chemist, instead of per- 
forming a chemical analysis before his class, describes the com- 
position of a substance, he is giving a conceptual analysis. The fact 
that he has earlier made a chemical analysis of the substance in 
his laboratory does not mean that the present analysis is physical. 

Conceptual analysis is the kind which concerns us here, the kind 
which we can perform in our minds and report in words, in a 


Analysis, as we have said, is a method of dividing into parts. In 
this statement we should emphasize the word method. An analysis 
does not take place by accident, but by design, in the light of 
some principle. A baby tearing up the morning paper can scarcely 
be said to perform an analysis. 

We can propose an analysis only if we regard the thing analyzed 


as constituting a determinate structure. A thing constitutes a struc- 
ture when its components may be regarded not as assembled at 
random but as being organized, as having necessary relations to 
each other. For example, we do not regard a pile of bricks as a 
structure, but we do so regard a brick wall. We regard an automo- 
bile as a structure, a human body, a corporation, a textbook, a tree. 
In each of these things some principle determines the relation 
among the parts. 

/ According to our different interests, we may regard the same 
object as having various kinds of structure. For example, the bot- 
anist would regard an apple as one kind of structure, and there- 
fore would analyze it into, shall we say, stem, skin, flesh, seeds, 
and so forth, whereas a chemist would regard it as another kind and 
would analyze it into certain chemical elements, or a painter would 
regard it as still another kind and would analyze it into a pattern 
of color. Each man would perform his analysis in terms of a 
particular interest, and the interest prompting his analysis would 
decide the kind of structure which he took the object to be, and 
the kind of structure which he took it to be would determine what 
might be regarded as a part of the structure. 

In illustrating the fact that the same thing may be regarded as 
having different kinds of structure, we have used an example having 
physical existence, an apple. But the same thing may hold good of 
something with no physical existence, say a short story. We may 
regard it as a grammatical structure, for it is made up of words. Or 
we may regard it as a fictional structure, that is, as being composed 
of plot, of characters, of theme things which we can think of and 
discuss as separate elements. Or an institution may be regarded as 
having different kinds of structure. For instance, we may regard 
the family as an educational structure, an economic structure, or 
a moral structure. Each of these structures implies different rela- 
tionships among the members of a family. 


We have said that a thing may be regarded as a structure when 
its parts may be regarded not as assembled at random but as being 
organized, as having necessary relations to each other. So a com- 


plete analysis does not merely specify the parts of the thing analyzed 
but indicates the relation among parts. It tells how the parts fulfill 
their individual functions in composing the structure in which they 
participate. It tells what principle binds them together. For in- 
stance, a lecturer in political science analyzing the structure of our 
government would not only name the three main divisionslegis- 
lative, judicial, and executive but would indicate the significance 
of each in the government. Otherwise, his audience would learn 
little from him. Or if we analyze a theme into its parts introduc- 
tion, discussion, and conclusion we make our analysis intelligible 
by telling what constitutes an introduction, what it is supposed to 

We have said that in making an analysis it is useful to indicate 
the relation among the parts distinguished. In fact, we may go even 
further and say that a part is to be distinguished as an element 
which has some significant relation to the whole. In analyzing the 
ignition system of an automobile we are not concerned with the 
color of the insulation on the wires. The color has no significant 
relation. Or in analyzing a corporation we can scarcely be con- 
cerned with the age of the second vice-president or his taste in 
cigars. We are concerned only with his relation to the corporation 
as a corporation, not with his individual qualities in so far as they 
have no bearing on his job. 


, Such analysis as we have been discussing analysis which divides 
a thing into its parts can be regarded as a form of expository 
description (p. 42). It is a way of explaining the thing analyzed. 
It is technical in its method, and aims, not at giving a vivid imme- 
diate impression, but at leading to an understanding of the thing 
analyzed. When the analysis is concerned with a type, we have 
generalized description. In the example below we see that the 
analysis is of a type of mechanism, not of a particular set of radar 
equipment. It is concerned with the parts which must be present 
in any radar set if that set is to fulfill its proper function. We notice 
that, though the primary intention is to distinguish the parts, there 
is also a clear indication of the use of each part in the structure. 


Practically every radar set is made up of the following major parts or 

1, A modulator; 2, A radio-frequency oscillator; 3, An antenna with 
suitable scanning mechanism; 4, A receiver; and 5, An indicator. 

While the physical form for each of these components may vary 
widely from one kind of radar set to another, each radar must have 
this complement of parts in order to function. 

1. The modulator is a device for taking power from the primary 
source (which may be the commercial power line, a special engine or 
motor-driven generator, or storage batteries) and forming suitable volt- 
age pulses to drive the r-f oscillator in its bursts of radio-frequency 
oscillations. In other words, it is the modulator which turns on the radio- 
frequency oscillator to oscillate violently for a millionth of a second or 
so, turns it off sharply and keeps it in repose until time for the next 

2. The radio-frequency oscillator is a vacuum tube of suitable de- 
sign, or a group of such tubes, which will oscillate at the desired radio 
frequency and give the desired bursts of radio-frequency power when 
connected to the modulator. The development of suitable oscillator tubes 
has been one of the major achievements of the radar art. It is a rela- 
tively simple job to produce a radio-frequency oscillator which will give 
oscillations of any desired frequency provided one is satisfied with a 
power of only a few thousandths of a watt. In the receiving part of a 
radar circuit this amount of power is adequate. A practical radar trans- 
mitter, however, must generate during its momentary bursts of oscilla- 
tion a power which may run into hundreds of kilowatts. Since the 
oscillator is turned on a small fraction of the time, the average power is 
usually hundreds of times less than the peak power, but even the average 
power may run up to the order of one kilowatt. Thus, practical radar 
equipment requires extremely high frequency oscillators running at 
powers thousands of times greater than was thought possible a few 
years ago. 

3. The problem of antenna design is also one of the major problems 
in radar, incomprehensible as this may seem to the operator of a home 
radio receiver, who finds a few yards of wire strung up on his roof ade- 
quate for his purpose. A suitable radar antenna must have the following 

a. It must be directional; that is, it must concentrate the radio energy 
into a definitely defined beam, since this is the method by which 
the direction to the objects detected is determined. 

b. It must be highly efficient. All of the generated power must go into 


the beam and none must leak off into "side lobes" in other direc- 
tions, since such side lobes may often be fatally confusing; and, 
c. The radar antenna must be capable of being directed or scanned 
from one point in space to another, and on shipboard and in air- 
craft it must frequently be stabilized to take out the motions of the 
ship or airplane itself. 

An antenna may be made directional either by building it up of an 
array of small antennas or dipoles, suitably spaced and phased to con- 
centrate the energy in one direction, or it may be built on the search- 
light principle of spraying the energy into a large parabolic "mirror," 
which focuses the energy into a beam. In either case, the larger the 
antenna, the sharper the beam for any given wave length. Sometimes 
antennas may be longer in one direction than the other, giving a beam 
which is sharper in the first direction and thus fan shaped. 

The scanning of the portion of space which the radar set is intended 
to cover must usually be done by mechanical movement of the antenna 
structure itself. This means that the structure, whatever its size, must 
swing around or up and down to direct the beam in the necessary 
direction. In certain cases where one needs to scan only a small sector, 
techniques have been worked out for rapid electrical scanning not re- 
quiring the motion of the whole antenna structure itself. So far, how- 
ever, there has been no method for extending this rapid electrical 
scanning to cover more than a relatively small sector. Radars for directing 
guns which need accurate and fast data in a small sector are making 
use, however, of this valuable technique. 

To carry the radio-frequency energy from the oscillator to the an- 
tenna, and the echo from the antenna to the receiver, wires and coaxial 
cables are used at ordinary wave lengths. For microwaves, however, it 
is more efficient to use wave guides, which essentially are carefully pro- 
portioned hollow pipesand the transmission system hence is often 
called "plumbing." 

4. The problem of the receiver for radar is also a complex one. In 
practically all radars the superheterodyne principle is employed, which 
involves generating at low power a radio frequency fairly close to that 
received, and "beating" this against the received signals, forming an 
intermediate frequency, which is then amplified many times. Curiously 
enough the crystal, used as a detector and mixer, has again come into 
its own in microwave receivers. The peculiar characteristics of pulse sig- 
nals require that receivers be built with extremely fast response, much 
faster even than that required in television. The final stages must prepare 
the signals for suitable presentation in the indicator. The receiver nor- 


mally occupies a relatively small box in the complete radar set, and yet 
this box represents a marvel of engineering ingenuity. A particularly 
difficult piece of development is concerned with a part closely connected 
with the receiver. This is a method of disconnecting the receiver from 
the antenna during intervals when the transmitter is operating so that 
the receiver will not be paralyzed or burned out by the stupendous 
bursts of radio-frequency energy generated by the transmitter. Within 
a millionth of a second after the transmitter has completed its pulse, 
however, the receiver must be open to receive the relatively weak echo 
signals; but now the transmitter part of the circuit must be closed off so 
it will not absorb any of this energy. 

5. It is the indicator of a radar that presents the information collected 
in a form best adapted to efficient use of the set. Nearly (but not quite) 
all radar indicators consist of one or more cathode-ray tubes. In the 
simplest or "A" type of presentation the electron beam is given a deflec- 
tion proportional to time in one directionsay, horizontally and propor- 
tional to the strength of the echo pulse in the other say, vertically. If 
no signals are visible, then one sees a bright horizontal line (the "time 
base") across the tube face, the distance along this line representing time 
elapsed after the outgoing pulse. A returning echo then gives a V-shaped 
break in the line at the point corresponding to the time it took the echo 
to come back. The position of the "pip" along this line measures the 
distance to the reflecting object. There are many variations of this type 
of indicator for special purposes, but most radars have an A-scope, even 
when other types are also provided. 

Many types of radar whose antennas "scan" various directions employ 
the PPI tube. Here the time base starts from the center of the tube and 
moves radially outward .n a direction corresponding to that in which the 
antenna is pointing. This time base rotates in synchronism with the 
antenna. The returning signal, instead of causing a break in the time 
base, simply intensifies its brilliance for an instant. Hence each signal 
appears as a bright spot of light at a position corresponding to the range 
and bearing of the target. Thus a maplike picture of all reflecting objects 
appears in the cathofle-ray tube face. 

Since the antenna can usually be -otated only slowly (e.g., from 1 to 
20 r.p.m.) and since the light from an ordinary cathode-ray tube fades 
away almost instantly, one might expect not to see a "map" at all, but 
only bright flashes at various spots as the antenna revolves. Some way 
had to be found to make the brightness of these flashes persist for many 
seconds after they were produced. Special screens were developed which 
continue to glow for some time after being lighted by a signal. Thus the 


whole map is displayed at once. OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION: Radar: 
A Report on Science at War. 16 


The kind of analysis which we have been discussing provides the 
answ er to such a question as, "How is it put together?" But when we 
undertake to answer the question, "How does it work?" we give 
what is called FUNCTIONAL ANALYSIS. (We have to say how the parts 
of a thing, whatever that thing is, relate to each other in action 
so that that thing fulfills its characteristic function. We are, further- 
more, concerned with the stages of a process. We have to explain 
how something comes about, and this means that our analysis will 
be in a time sequence^ 

(' Since it is in time sequence, this kind of analysis is a form of 
expository narration. It may be of a particular event, say the stages 
by which an inventor arrived at the solution of a problem, or it may 
be of an event which is characteristically repeated, say the manu- 
facture of hydrochloric acid or the training of a football squad. 
In the latter instance, the analysis of the stages of an event charac- 
teristically repeated, we get generalized narration. 

It is easiest to understand functional analysis if we think of it as 
applied to some mechanism. If we take an alarm clock, for instance, 
we can see how the spring provides power, how this power is con- 
trolled by a system of reducing gears and a checking device so 
that it does not expend itself in one spurt, how the pace of expendi- 
ture is evenly controlled so that the movement of the hands serves 
as a register of time, and how at a certain fixed point the alarm is 
released. We are concerned with the parts here, but only in so far 
as they relate to the special function of the mechanism. In so far 
as we undertake to explain the process by which the special func- 
tion is fulfilled, we are giving a functional analysis. In other words, 
our primary concern is with stages in a process, and the parts are 
interesting to us only in so far as they are associated with stages. 
To take another example, it is not functional analysis to list the 
components of apple pie and describe their relation to each other, 

15 From Radar: A Report on Science at War, issued by the Office of War 
Information, sponsored by the Office of Scientific Research and Development, 
the War Department and the Navy Department, obtainable from the Superin- 
tendent of Documents, U. S. Government Printing Office. 


but it is functional analysis to tell how to make a pie. When we 
give these directions, we are dealing with stages in a process. 

The same general principle, the concern with stages, applies when 
we are dealing, not with a mechanism or with directions for mak- 
ing or doing something, but with an organization or institution. 
It is one thing, (for instance, to describe the organization of our 
government, and it is quite another to tell how a bill becomes law, 
how legality may be tested in the Supreme Court, and how the law 
may be enforced. In telling how the bill becomes law, and so on, 
we are giving a functional analysis. 

(Functional analysis, then, is the method by which we distinguish 
the stages in a process which may be regarded as having a charac- 
teristic function or purpose. Though we use the word functional to 
describe the particular kind of analysis, we may distinguish between 
the characteristic function and the characteristic purpose of what- 
ever is analyzed. An example may enlighten us. If we are discussing 
a university, we can treat the subject in terms of purpose, for it is 
an institution created by men to gain certain ends. But if we are 
discussing the circulation of the blood, we can treat the subject 
only in terms of a characteristic function. We cannot say that pur- 
pose is involved. Or to take another contrasted pair of examples, 
if we give directions for making an apple pie, we are treating our 
subject in terms of purpose, but if we discuss the stages of develop- 
ment of an apple, we are treating the subject in terms of function. 
In both instances we can, of course, observe a regular pattern, but 
in one case we interpret the pattern as representing purpose and 
in the other as representing function. 

Sometimes we can fruitfully distinguish both function and pur- 
pose in a thing which we wish to analyze. For instance, it might 
be said that we give an analysis of a radar set in terms of function: 
it operates because of certain natural laws which cannot be said to 
represent purpose. But at the same time the equipment is con- 
structed to use those natural laws for a purpose. Man has a purpose 
in constructing the equipment. To construct the set man has manip- 
ulated certain materials in terms of natural laws (the only way he 
could manipulate the materials) to achieve a certain purpose. He 
cannot manipulate his circulatory system. So we may take the fact 
of manipulation as the point of distinction. 

What is the significance of this distinction for purposes of exposi- 


tion? It is a way of defining our subject, of knowing exactly what 
sort of structure we are dealing with. And that in itself is a step 
toward understanding. 

Below is an example of functional analysis applied to a mecha- 
nism, something created by man to fulfill a certain purpose, a radar 
set. Contrast the method used here with the previous analysis of 
the set into its parts. 

In radar, unlike communications, the transmitter and the receiver are 
located at the same place, and more often than not have a common 
antenna. The transmitter is actually sending out energy only a very 
small part of the time; it sends out this energy in very intense bursts of 
small duration, called pulses. These pulses may be only a millionth of a 
second long. After each pulse, the transmitter waits a relatively long 
timea few thousandths of a second before sending out the next pulse. 
During the interval between pulses, the receiver is working and the 
signals it receives are the echoes of the powerful transmitted pulse from 
nearby objects. The nearest objects will give echoes coming very soon 
after the transmitter pulse is finished; those farther away give later 
returns. The elapsed time between the transmission of the pulse and 
the reception of its echo measures the distance of the object giving that 
echo ship, airplane, mountain, or building from the place where the 
radar set is located. This is possible because the elapsed time is just 
that required for the pulse, which travels with the speed of light, to 
get there and back. Light travels very fast, as everybody knows, hence 
these intervals are very small. Their exact measurement is one of the 
technical triumphs of modern radar. Since light goes 186,000 miles a 
second, or 328 yards each millionth of a second, and since it must travel 
twice out and back the distance from radar to target, an object 1,000 
yards from the radar will give an echo only six-millionths of a second 
later than the transmitted pulse. This is a rather short time, by prewar 
standards, but we have learned how to measure time like this with an 
accuracy which corresponds to only 5 or 10 yards range, or about one- 
thirtieth of a millionth of a second. 

The use of pulses, as we have seen, gives a simple means of measuring 
the range. How, then, is the direction in which a target lies determined? 
This is done by providing the radar with a directional antenna, which 
sends out the pulses in a narrow beam, like a searchlight. This antenna 
may be rotated as the pulses are sent out, and we get back a "pip" 
(radar slang for a target indication) when the antenna is pointed toward 
its target. We get the strongest pip when the beam of energy sent out 
by the radar is pointed directly at the target. The bearing of the antenna 


which is also the bearing of the target may then be read off and 
used to point a warship's guns, or set the course of a bomber, or direct 
a fighter to intercept an enemy plane, or for other use the particular 
purpose of the equipment dictates. 

An even more spectacular indication of the direction and range of 
the target is obtained with the use of the PPI Plan Position Indicator. 
In this case, the radar echoes are caused to draw a map on the face of 
a cathode-ray tube. The radar operator could imagine himself sus- 
pended high above the set, whether on a ship or plane or on the ground, 
looking down on the scene spread out below. No matter how many 
targets surround the radar set, each is indicated by a blob of light on 
the tube face the direction of the blob from the center indicating the 
target's range. The whole picture is there. It is not like television; the 
blobs do not actually look like ships or planes, but are interpretable to a 
trained operator. 

Still other ways of displaying radar echoes are used. On a battleship, 
for example, where exact range is desired to lay the 16-inch guns, the 
radar echoes are so displayed that the operator can read a range scale 
down to a few yards. In the case of Army antiaircraft fire, the radar 
antenna actually moves automatically so that it always points at the plane 
without help from an operator, and the guns follow automatically by 
remote control. Other types of radar use other types of displays, de- 
signed to perform one or another special purpose. 

What we may call the sharpness of vision of a radar set its ability to 
distinguish separately the echoes from two targets close together and at 
the same distance from the radar depends on the sharpness of the radar 
beam. With an antenna of given size, the beam will become sharper and 
sharper as the wave length decreases. In fact, for a given antenna size, 
the beam width is just proportional to the wave length. The earliest radar 
worked on wave lengths of several meters, with correspondingly broad 
beams, unless large antennas were used. Then there was a great flowering 
of equipment working near a meter and a half, which was, at the begin- 
ning of the war, about the shortest wave length at which radio tech- 
niques had been worked out. The wartime period of development has 
witnessed an intensive exploitation of shorter and shorter wave lengths. 
OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION: Radar: A Report on Science at War. 

Here is an example of functional analysis applied to an organiza- 
tion, our financial system. This is not a very orderly piece of exposi- 
tion as compared with the analysis of radar. But we can reduce it 
to order by extracting the answers to several questions: (1) What 
would be the four functions of a financial system in our society? 


(2) How were these functions related to each other to produce the 
present system? (3) How would these functions be related in what 
Brandeis calls a beneficent system? 

How the masters of credit-financing gradually, through processes of 
interlocking directorates, achieved their complete overlordship of finance, 
industry, insurance, communication, and transportation is a long story 
too long to be told here. The interested reader can get it most vividly in 
Louis (now Justice) Brandeis' Other People's Money. In that book he 

"The dominant element in our financial oligarchy is the investment 
banker. Associated banks, trust companies and life insurance companies 
are his tools. Controlled railroads, public service and industrial corpora- 
tions are his subjects. Though properly but middlemen, these bankers 
bestride as masters America's business world, so that practically no large 
enterprise can be undertaken successfully without their participation or 

It is well to ponder these words: "practically no large enterprise can 
be undertaken successfully without their participation or approval." They 
are an ironic commentary upon the statement so often made by the 
defenders of the economic status quo that the present system is one 
which encourages the utmost freedom of initiative. "These bankers 
bestride as masters America's business world." 

"The key to their power," Brandeis continues, "is combination." In 
the first place, there was the legal consolidation of banks and trust com- 
panies; then there were affiliations brought about by stockholders, voting 
trusts, and interlocking directorates in banking institutions which were 
not legally connected; and finally, there were the gentlemen's agree- 
ments, joint transactions, and "banking ethics," which unofficially elim- 
inated competition among the investment bankers. 

In the second place, the organization of railroads into huge systems, 
the large consolidations of public service corporations, and the creation 
of industrial trusts directly played into the hands of the associated New 
York bankers, for these businesses were so vast that no local, independent 
bank could supply the necessary funds. 

These factors alone, however, "could not have produced the Money 
Trust . . . another and more potent factor of combination was added." 
It is this third factor that is most astounding. 

Investment bankers were dealers in stocks, bonds, and notes. As such, 
they performed one necessary function in our kind of society. In order 
that they should possess the public's confidence, they had to be able, with 
complete objectivity, to estimate the soundness of what they sold. Hence 


they could not themselves, properly, have an interest in the investments. 
They had to be middlemen pure and simple. 

But not so. Through the purchases of voting stock they became the 
directing power in the very enterprises railroads, public service and 
industrial corporations that were the issuers of the securities they sold. 

But more than this. They purchased voting stock in the great enter- 
prises, like life insurance companies and other corporate reservoirs of 
the people's savings, that were the buyers of securities. So they made 
for themselves a ready market for the securities which they themselves 

And finally, they became the governing power in banks and trust 
companies. These were the depositories of the savings of the people. As 
holders of these savings they were able to make loans to (their own) cor- 
porations; these in turn could issue securities that the investment bank- 
ers could readily sell to their own corporations as well as buy at figures 
acceptable to themselves and sell at conveniently higher prices to their 
own depositors and the public. 

"Thus four distinct functions, each essential to business, and each 
exercised, originally, by a distinct set of men became united in the 
investment banker. It is to this union of business functions that the 
existence of the Money Trust is mainly due." 

And Brandeis concludes his analysis with this ominous observation: 

"The development of our financial oligarchy followed, in this respect, 
lines with which the history of political despotism has familiarized us: 
usurpation, proceeding by gradual encroachment rather than by violent 
acts; subtle and often long-concealed concentration of distinct functions, 
which are beneficent when separately administered, and dangerous only 
when combined in the same persons. It was by such processes as these 
that Caesar Augustus became master of Rome." H. A. OVERSTREET: A 
Declaration of Interdependence, Chap. 3. 16 


Sometimes we are called upon to deal with a subject which we 
cannot easily treat with reference to function or purpose. For in- 
stance, a historical event. 

It is true that a historical event may involve human purposes, 
many human purposes, but the event itself cannot be understood 
merely by reference to those purposes. The individual purposes 

16 Reprinted from A Declaration of Interdependence by H. A. Overstreet, by 
permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1937 by the pub- 
lishers. The late Justice Brandeis is quoted by permission of Susan Brandeis. 


may be too numerous, too various, and too confused. By the same 
token we cannot find a characteristic function. Or different people 
may find different functions, as it were, according to their interpre- 
tation of history. For example, it is hardly precise to say that the 
French Revolution had a function in our sense of the word, in the 
sense that the human heart has a function in the circulation of the 

If we cannot discuss an event, however, with reference to a 
purpose or function, we may, at least, try to distinguish the stages 
in the process. We can sort out the steps. Our concern is to establish 
the facts in their chronological order and to arrange them so that 
they can be grasped as some sort of pattern. We may want to do 
this as a preliminary to further study, but if we can do no more we 
can at least try to see the pattern of sequence in time. This kind 
of analysis we may call CHRONOLOGICAL ANALYSIS. 

For example, in an article on the last days of General Rommel, 
who was in command of the German forces supposed to defend 
France against the British and American landings on D-Day, June 6, 
1944, the author analyzes the complex event into its stages: 

There were to be five acts in the swift concluding drama of Rommel's 
career and of his world. Roughly stated, their themes in sequence were: 
initial stupefaction, improvisation, frustration, desperation, and final 
liquidation. WILLIAM HARLAN HALE: "The End of Marshal Rommel." 

Then the author proceeds to discuss each stage. The chronologi- 
cal analysis gives him the frame for his treatment, for his interpre- 


We often want to go beyond a mere sequence in time. One way 
to do this is to consider cause and effect. CAUSAL ANALYSIS is con- 
cerned with two questions: "What caused this?" and "Given this 
set of circumstances, what effect will follow?" In answering the first 
we must reason from effect back to cause, and in answering the 
second, from cause forward to effect. Again, as with chronological 
analysis, this kind of analysis usually takes the form of expository 
narration. We are accustomed to think of cause and effect in a time 
sequence, a chain of happenings. 



What do we understand by cause? We all have a rough-and- 
ready notion. We have to have a notion of it in order to manage 
our daily lives. The burnt child shuns the fire only after he has 
learned that a certain act, putting his finger in the flame, is followed 
by a certain unpleasant effect, a burn. He has made a connection 
between events. 

Cause is a certain kind of connection between events. It is the 
kind of connection that enables us to say that without event A, 
event B would not have come about, and whenever you have A 
you will have B. 17 


The connection between cause and effect, between our A and 
our B, is relatively immediate. Sometimes we encounter an idea of 
cause that ignores the immediate connectionthat regards as a 
cause of B whatever goes to provide, however remotely, the con- 
ditions that have resulted in the existence of B. In the poem "Flower 
in the Crannied Wall," by Tennyson, we see that idea: 

Flower in the crannied wall, 

I pluck you out of the crannies, 

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand, 

Little flower but if I could understand 

What you are, root and all, and all in all, 

I should know what God and man is. 

The poet says that if he could explain the flower he could explain 
God and man. He is here thinking of a tissue of relationships bind- 
ing the whole universe so that to know the "cause" of the flower 
would be to know the entire universe. 

To take another example, one might say, by this wide use of the 

17 The use of the word event here may be objected to. It may be said, for 
instance, that the word thing might be substituted, at least on some occasions, 
for the word event. We may say that a nail is the cause of the fact that the 
picture hangs on the wall, and that a nail is a thing. But it is not the nail 
as a thing that sustains the picture. It is its state of being in the wall that 
causes the picture to be sustained, and its state of being in the wall is an 
event. There must be things, of course, for there to be events, but the event 
is what we are concerned with. The state of a thing is an event, in the mean- 
ing of the word in our discussion. 


word cause, that the birth of the grandfather (A) is the "cause" of 
the death of the grandson (B) for had the grandfather not existed, 
the grandson would not have existed, and had the grandson not 
existed, he could not have died. 

In our discussion, however, we are concerned with a more imme- 
diate idea of cause: the death of the grandson is in our ordinary 
view caused by, shall we say, a fall from a stepladder and not by 
the birth of the grandfather. By and large, the more immediate the 
relation between A and B the more certainly it can be discussed 
as cause. 


What we take to be the cause of an event is, in one way, dictated 
by our special interest in the event. When the little grandson falls 
from the stepladder and is killed, a neighbor, commenting on the 
event, would be satisfied by the fact of the fall from the ladder as 
the cause. But the mother might take her own carelessness as the 
cause: she left the stepladder standing on the edge of the back 
porch instead of putting it away in the closet where it belonged. 
Or a physiologist might take a more scientific view of the cause and 
say that death was the result of a fracture of the skull of such and 
such a nature. 

In its own perspective, in relation to the special interest brought 
to bear on the event, each of these statements may be true. What 
is important is to know what we are doing when we take a particu- 
lar line of interest to explain an event. 


An event does not take place in complete isolation. It takes place 
in the world, and many factors constitute its setting. To study the 
cause of something we must give some attention to the setting, the 
situation in which it occurs. 

Let us take a simple instance, one that could be set up as an 
experiment. To a clockwork device which will sway back and forth 
when hung on a string, we attach a little bell. The bell will ring 
as the device oscillates on its string. The whole thing is hung inside 
a large glass jar. When the mechanism swings, we can hear the 
bell ring. But let us pump the air out of the jar. The bell will con- 


tinue to swing back and forth and the clapper will strike the sides 
of the bell, but now we can hear no sound. The bell does not ring. 18 

We know why. For there to be a sound, there must be a medium 
in which the sound waves can travel to our ears. When there was 
air in the jar there was a sound because the air was the medium 
for the waves. But when there is no air, there is no sound. 

In this situation we may call the air a CONDITION. And a condition, 
as we use the word, is whatever factor existing in a situation will 
permit the effect to appear. It is a factor that we regard as a kind 
of background to the event being considered. Yet it must be a 
significant background. Some background factors are not significant. 
For instance, in our experiment the color of the glass of the jar is 
not significant. It has no relation to the event. A change in the 
color of the glass will not alter the event. 19 

18 This account of the experiment is paraphrased from L. S. Stebbing, A 
Modern Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed., London, 1933, pp. 270-71. 

19 How do we distinguish a condition from a cause? If, in our jar experi- 
ment, we are thinking of cause in its most immediate connection, we may 
take the stroke of the clapper against the side of the bell to be the cause of 
the sound. In that case, we regard the motion generated by the clockwork 
mechanism to be, like the presence of the air, a condition. But we might take 
the motion of the mechanism to be the cause, and regard the free-swinging 
clapper as a condition, a factor that permits the event to take place. 

So we cannot make an absolute distinction between condition and cause. 
We must return to our notion that the interest we bring to bear on a situation 
is significant in our taking one factor rather than another to be the cause. We 
focus our interest on one factor, and assume the presence of the others. For 
instance, Tennyson, looking at his flower in the crannied wall, might have 
said that the cause was the fact that a bird had dropped a seed there. But 
without the conditions of nutrition, moisture, heat, and light, he would not 
have had the flower. When he selected one factor as the cause of the event, 
he was assuming the presence of the others. In a fuller sense, then, the cause 
of the flower is the complex of factors, of conditions. And so it may be said 
of any event. 

What is important in thinking about cause is to know what we are doing 
if we take some single factor to be the cause of an event. We must try to 
know how the factor we have selected is related to other factors. Or if we 
take a group of factors to be the cause, we must try to know what relation 
they bear to each other and to the event. And this leads us to the distinction, 
discussed above, between two kinds of condition. 



There are two kinds of condition, SUFFICIENT CONDITION and 


Let us take a situation in which the event B occurs. In this situa- 
tion X is a factor, a condition. The condition X is a sufficient con- 
dition if, other things being the same, B occurs whenever X is 
present. But suppose that B occurs on some occasions when X is 
not present. For example, the bell of our experiment might be 
heard when some other gas than air was present in the jar. In that 
case the air is a sufficient condition, but it is not necessary: some 
other gas will do. Or to take another example, we may say that 
whenever we do not bank the furnace at night, the fire goes out. 
Not banking the furnace is, then, a sufficient condition. But it is 
not a necessary condition. The furnace may also go out if the 
damper is closed or if there is not enough fuel. 

To illustrate a necessary condition, we may take a situation in 
which B never occurs when the condition Y is absent. It is neces- 
sary for Y to be present for B to occur. Thus we may say that nutri- 
tion is a necessary condition of human life, or that fuel is a nec- 
essary condition for the functioning of the furnace. 

But we can have a condition that is necessary and not sufficient. 
To have the spark plugs in order is a necessary condition for the 
running of our automobile. But this is not a sufficient condition. 
Among other things, we must have the battery connected. Nor is 
nutrition a sufficient condition of human life. Many other condi- 
tions must prevail at the same time for life to exist. 


When we say that A is the cause of B, we are not merely refer- 
ring to the particular case of a particular A and a particular B. 
We are also implying that a general principle exists, that under the 
same circumstances any A would cause a B. We imply a principle 
of uniformity behind the particular case. Let us take a simple 

Tom asks, "Why did Jane behave so strangely last night at 

Jack replies, "Because she was mad at her husband/' 

Tom asks, "How do you know?" 


Jack replies, "That's the way she always behaves when she gets 
mad at him." 

Tom asks, "You must have been around the family a lot?" 

Jack replies, "Sure, I lived in the house for a year." 

When Jack says that the cause of Jane's conduct was her anger 
at her husband he is not merely commenting on the particular 
instance. And Tom's further question elicits the fact that a principle 
of uniformity is involved: Jane behaves this way every time she 
gets angry with her husband. The principle here may not be one 
on which we can depend with any great degree of certainty. On 
some future occasion she may not merely be short with her husband 
at dinner but may kick the cat, get a divorce, or shoot her husband 
in the shoulder with a Smith and Wesson .38. But past observation 
gives us some degree of probability that when Jane is angry with 
her husband she merely behaves in a certain way at dinner, that a 
principle of uniformity is involved. 

The same principle is involved in what we call a law of nature. 
A chemist says that when we ignite hydrogen in the presence of 
oxygen we will get water, H 2 O. The element hydrogen and the 
element oxygen will always behave the same way under specified 
conditions. At least we believe that to be true because the two ele- 
ments have always behaved that way in the past. We must appeal 
to experience and to a number of instances. 

Furthermore, the principle of uniformity refers only to the essen- 
tial characteristics of the situation. For instance, it doesn't matter 
whether the laboratory worker igniting hydrogen in the presence 
of oxygen is a Catholic or a Jew, a Republican or a Democrat, a 
Chinese or a Greek. Or to take Charles Lamb's story of the boy who 
accidentally discovered how to roast a pig by burning down a house, 
the boy had not isolated the essential characteristic of the situation: 
he had not learned that he didn't have to burn down a house every 
time he wanted roast pig but could make a small fire in the yard. 
He had not isolated the essential characteristic of fire that would 
do the roasting. 

Or let us examine the treatment of the sick in a certain primitive 
tribe. The medicine man undertakes to cure the patient by a draught 
of a brew, the sacrifice of three cocks, and a dance around the pallet. 
In a fair number of instances the patient recovers. A modern phy- 
sician examining the situation regards the sacrifice and dancing as 


irrelevant to a cure. But he analyzes the brew and discovers that 
one of the plants always present has a purgative effect. He has 
located the essential characteristic, and now only has to persuade 
the tribe that a dose of castor oil is cheaper, quicker, and better for 
stomach-ache than the medicine man's ritual. The principle of uni- 
formity applies to the essential characteristic, the effect of castor oil 
on the human body. 


How do we reason about the cause-and-effect relation in a situa- 

To begin with we must keep in mind two primary notions: 

1. A cannot be the cause of B if A is ever absent when B is 

2. A cannot be the cause of B if B is ever absent when A is 

This is but another way of saying that, under a given set of 
circumstances, A and B are uniformly related. 

Let us notice the phrase, "under a given set of circumstances." 
It is relatively easy in a laboratory to control the circumstances of 
an experiment, and to repeat the experiment any number of times 
in the same circumstances. This gives the experimenter the chance 
to try different combinations of factors until he has isolated the 
one factor or the group of factors which he can regard as a cause. 
If, for example, his situation has factors A, X, Y, and Z as possible 
causes for the effect B, he can show by a process of elimination 
that A will cause B, and that X, Y, and Z will not. 

But it is hard to control the circumstances outside of the labora- 
tory. And many events in the outside world that we want to ex- 
plain cannot be repeated at will. We must examine the cases we 
have and try to make sense of them. Furthermore, many events are 
enormously complicated. More than one factor contributes to the 
effect, and we have a complex and not a simple cause. Situations 
involving human behavior are difficult to treat in terms of cause 
and effect, but we are constantly making the effort despite the com- 
plexity of factors involved. The advertising man, the politician, the 
teacher, the mother of a family, the sociologist, the historian they 
are all trying to reason about human behavior. We must make the 


effort, even if we know that we can scarcely hope for a full measure 
of success. 

Even if we cannot hope for full success in dealing with compli- 
cated situations we can at least reduce our margin of error by 
remembering certain things. First, we can examine the situation to 
try to see what is essential in it. In every event there are certain 
factors that are not relevant to the event, things that are merely 
associated with it. We must rule those factors out of our considera- 

For an example, we can take the following passage: 

Whenever I see the movement of a locomotive I hear the whistle and 
see the valves opening and wheels turning; but I have no right to con- 
clude that the whistling and the turning of wheels are the cause of the 
movement of the engine. 

The peasants say that a cold wind blows in late spring because the 
oaks are budding, and really every spring cold winds do blow when 
the oak is budding. But I do not know what causes the cold winds to 
blow when the oak buds unfold, I cannot agree with the peasants that 
the unfolding of the oak buds is the cause of the cold wind, for the force 
of the wind is beyond the influence of the buds. I see only a coincidence 
of occurrences such as happens with all the phenomena of life, and I 
see that however much and however carefully I observe the hands of the 
watch, and the valves and wheels of the engine, and the oak, I shall 
not discover the cause of the bells ringing, the engine moving, or of the 
winds of spring. To do that I must entirely change my point of view and 
study the laws of the movement of steam, of the bells, and of the wind. 
LEO TOLSTOY: War and Peace, Book XI, Chap. 1. 

The fact that something is merely associated with something else 
in time does not mean that it is to be regarded as either cause or 
effect of the thing. In fact, one of the commonest failures in reason- 
ing about cause and effect is to assume that if something comes 
after something else it is to be regarded as the effect. The Russian 
peasant in Tolstoy's novel thinks the cold wind is the effect of the 
budding of the oak because it comes after it. To avoid such an 
error, we must try to find the essential characteristic in the situa- 
tion we are studying. 

We must remember, too, that we are concerned with a principle 
of uniformity. That means that we must consider more than one 
case. We must check other situations which seem similar to our 


situation in order to find what is constant from one to the other. 
For example, if a historian should wish to find what situations pro- 
voke revolutions, he would study as many revolutions as possible 
to locate the common factors. Then he might venture a conclusion. 
But studying one revolution would scarcely give him grounds fot 
a conclusion. When we try to find the cause of a given effect, we 
appeal to what we know about uniformities beyond the particular 

We must remember that we are dealing with a complex of 
factors. Therefore we must not be too ready to seize on one 
factor as the cause. We must analyze as fully as possible the factors 
involved and try to see what group of factors must be present for 
our effect to take place. In situations involving human behavior, 
for example, a historical event, we may have difficulty distinguish- 
ing between factors that are relevant to the event and factors that 
are present as mere background. If we can accomplish this much, 
we have done a great deal. Then if we discuss some single factor 
or group of factors as cause, we must remember the relation of 
that factor or group of factors to the other factors present. 

One last caution: in studying a situation we must try to be system- 
atic. In the foregoing discussion of cause many of the ideas have 
probably struck the reader as something he already knew. He has 
known them. He has been making judgments of cause and effect 
all his life in fishing and hunting, in games, in gardening, in labora- 
tory work, in crossing the street. Being acquainted with the ideas 
is not, however, quite enough. One must make a practice of apply- 
ing them systematically to a situation. If the reader can think 
straight about a problem of cause and effect, then it will be easy 
for him to write well about it. And to think straight, he must be 
systematic in applying ideas (see Appendix on Causal Analysis, 
p. 475). 


In this chapter we have considered various expository methods 
in relatively pure form, for example, definition by itself, or illustra- 
tion by itself. But in actual practice the methods are often mixed. 
We move from one to another as the occasion demands. This is 
only natural, for the methods are methods of thought and in treat- 


ing the same subject we may be compelled to use different kinds 
of thinking to reach a full understanding. Or in appealing to a single 
interest we may have to use different methods. Suppose we are deal- 
ing with the question, "What is it worth?'* We have to make an 
evaluation of whatever the "it" happens to be. But to make an 
evaluation we may have to classify the thing, then analyze it, then 
think of its effects, then compare it with a standard we set up for 
the kind of thing it is. 

We must not be bound by the methods. We must see them as 
tools which we use. And at any moment we should be able to use 
whatever will accomplish the purpose at hand. 


EXPOSITION is the kind of discourse which explains or clarifies a 
subject. It appeals to the understanding, and can be applied to 
anything which challenges the understanding. 

A piece of exposition may be regarded as the answer to a ques- 
tion, whether or not the question has in reality been asked. In 
giving a piece of exposition one should know what question, or 
questions, he wishes to answer, what INTEREST he wishes to appeal 
to. For example, "What is it?" "What does it mean?" "How is it put 
together?" "How does it work?" "When did it exist or occur?" "What 
is it worth?" If a writer wishes to appeal to more than one interest, 
he should keep these various interests distinct and should establish 
the relationship among them. 

IDENTIFICATION and ILLUSTRATION are simple ways of answering 
the question, "What is it?" 

Identification is a kind of pointing by language, a way of locating 
the subject in time and place, or in relation to some system. When 
it becomes elaborate it tends to move over into other types of ex- 
position, such as comparison or classification. 

Illustration is the method employed when some class or group 
is identified by giving a particular instance of the class or group. 
The particular instance may be an object, an event, a person, an 
idea anything^ which may be conceived of as belonging to a certain 
class or group. \ 


description which does not aim at presenting a vivid impression of 


its subject, as does ordinary or SUGGESTIVE DESCRIPTION, but aims at 
giving information about its subject. It is scientific rather than 
artistic in its nature. GENERALIZED DESCRIPTION is expository descrip- 
tion applied to a class. 

EXPOSITORY NARRATION corresponds to ordinary narration as ex- 
pository description corresponds to ordinary description. It is nar- 
ration used to give information, and may be applied to a class to 


sin COMPARISON we clarify a subject by indicating similarities be- 
tween two or more things, in CONTRAST by indicating differences; 
Comparison and contrast as methods of exposition are most effective 
when used systematically. This means that^they should represent 
some purpose and should be undertaken in some area of interest) 
Comparison and contrast may be organized in either of two ways. 
We may fully present one item, and then fully present another. Or 
we may present one part of one item and then a part of the other, 
until we have touched on all the parts relevant to our comparison 
or contrast. The methods, of course, may sometimes be mixed.\ 
(CLASSIFICATION and DIVISION are ways of thinking in terms of a 
sysfem of classes. A class is a group whose members have significant 
characteristics in common. What constitutes a significant character- 
istic, however, may vary according to the interest involved. For 
instance, a cosmetic-maker may classify women by complexion 
and the secretary of a Y.W.C.A. by religious affiliation. A system 
is a set of classes ranging from a most inclusive class down through 
less and less inclusive classes. Division represents a downward 
movement of subdivision by classes from a most inclusive class 
through less and less inclusive classes. Classification, however, starts 
with individuals, arranges them in groups, and then relates those 
groups to more inclusive groups above. To be useful a scheme of 
classes must conform to the following rules of division: 

I. There can be only one principle of division applied at each 

II. The subgroups under any group must exhaust that group. 

III. The same principle of division that is applied in the first 
stage must be continued through successive stages if such exist,/ 

(DEFINITION is one way to answer the question, "What is it?" 
But strictly speaking, definition is of a word, or phrase, and 
not of the thing indicated by the word or phrase. It is a way of 


telling how properly to use the word or phrase. It sets the limit 
of meaning. But a definition cannot be made without knowledge 
of the thing behind the word. So the process of definition may lead 
to an enlargement of understanding not only of the word but of 
the thing referred to. 

A definition has two parts, the element to be defined and the 
element that defines. The elements are parts of an equation. That 
is, one may be used for the other in a discourse without changing 
the meaning. 

The process of definition is the placing of the to-be-defined in a 
group (called the GENUS) and the differentiating of it from other 
members of the same group (SPECIES) by pointing out the qualities 
which distinguish it (DIFFERENTIA). 

Definition is not only of some term but is for somebody. The 
audience must be considered, and the definition must refer to what 
the audience knows or is willing to learn. The language and the 
experience of the audience must be regarded. There must be a 
common ground for the definition. 

Once the common ground is established, there are certain princi- 
ples to be regarded: 

I. The to-be-defined must be equivalent to the definer. 

II. The to-be-defined must not be part of the definer. 

III. The definer must not be negative unless the to-be-defined is 

For a complicated to-be-defined the simple definition may not be 
satisfactory. It is sometimes impossible to appeal to a generally 
accepted notion, and the writer must develop his own definition in 
detail. For example, a word like democracy or liberty cannot be 
defined simply. It requires an EXTENDED DEFINITION, a discussion. 

The DERIVATION of a word is sometimes helpful in setting up a 
definition, even when the application of the word has changed 
during its history.) 

ANALYSIS is the method of dividing into component parts. It can 
be applied to anything that can be thought of as having parts. There 
are two kinds of analysis, PHYSICAL ANALYSIS and CONCEPTUAL ANAL- 
YSIS. In physical analysis some object is spatially separated into its 
components, as when a clockmaker takes a clock apart. But things 
like ideas and institutions cannot be dealt with except in the 
mind, by the use of reason, as when we analyze the organization 


of a government. Conceptual analysis, the kind which is performed 
in the mind and can be reported in words, is what concerns us here. 
l^We can propose an analysis only if we regard the thing to be 
analyzed as having a structure. A thing has a structure when its com- 
ponents may be regarded not as assembled at random but as being 
organized, as having necessary relations to each other. The same 
thing may be regarded as being different kinds of structures. The 
botanist regards the apple as one kind of structure, and the chemist, 
as another. The same principle may apply to things which cannot 
be physically analyzed, such as ideas or organizations. 

Analysis when fully realized not only divides into parts but indi- 
cates the relation among parts, their place in the structure. In fact, 
we may regard a part as whatever can be described as having a 
necessary place in a structure. 

FUNCTIONAL ANALYSIS answers the question, "How does it work?" 
It is concerned not primarily with the parts of a thing analyzed but 
with the stages of some sequence. This means that functional 
analysis is a kind of expository narration. 

Functional analysis can be applied to anything which involves 
a process: to the working of a mechanism or the working of an insti- 
tution, to natural processes, such as the growth of a seed, or to 
human processes, such as making or doing something. 

CHRONOLOGICAL ANALYSIS is concerned with determining the stages 
of an event when the event is one which cannot be treated as hav- 
ing a function, for example, a historical event. It is a preliminary 
step toward fuller understanding and interpretation. 

CAUSAL ANALYSIS deals with the relation of cause and effect./ 

CAUSE is the kind of connection between events that enables us 
to say that without event A, event B would not have come about, 
and whenever you have A, you will have B. 

The connection must be considered as relatively IMMEDIATE. In 
one sense, the whole universe is a tissue of relationships and any- 
thing, however remote, may be taken to be a "cause" of something 
else. But only immediate connections tell us very much. 

What we take to be the cause of an event may be dictated by 
our INTEREST. A coroner investigating the death of a child would 
state the cause as a fall from a stepladder, whereas the mother 
might take her negligence to be the cause. 

An event does not take place in complete isolation. Various fac- 


tors constitute a setting for the event. A factor which, existing in 
the situation, will permit the effect to appear is called a CONDITION, 

There are two kinds of condition, SUFFICIENT CONDITION and NEC- 

For example, take a situation in which the event B occurs and in 
which the factor X is present as a condition. The condition X is 
sufficient if, whenever X is present, B occurs. But in such an ex- 
ample, if B still occurs with X absent and some other factor taking 
its place, then X is not a necessary condition. A necessary condition 
is one which must be present for the effect to take place. 

When we speak of a cause we refer to some PRINCIPLE OF UNI- 
FORMITY. Under the same circumstances the A would always cause 
the B. This is the principle involved in what is called a law of 
nature. Hydrogen ignited in the presence of oxygen always gives 
us water. 

To reason about cause, we must keep in mind two principles: 

1. A cannot be the cause of B if A is ever absent when B is 

2. A cannot be the cause of B if B is ever absent when A is 
present. That is, A and B are uniformly related. 



ARGUMENT is the kind of discourse used to make the audience 
(reader or listener) think or act as the arguer desiresi It is some- 
times said that the purpose of argument is not doublets just stated, 
but single in other words, that its purpose is to lead the audience 
to act. In the final analysis there is justification for this view, for a 
way of thinking means by implication a way of acting, and acting 
is the fulfillment of a way of thinking.) As Justice Holmes says, 
"Every idea is an incitement." But in practice we can distinguish 
between the two purposes. 


It is sometimes said that argument may make either or both of 
two appeals, the appeal to understanding and the appeal to emo- 
tions, and that in appealing to the understanding, argument aims to 
CONVINCE, and in appealing to the emotions, aims to PERSUADE) Here 
we shall)take a stricter view, and (treat argument as an appeal to 
the understanding. How, then, does it differ from other forms of 
discourse, which also involve, in various ways, an appeal to the 


(Argument differs from the other kinds of discourse because of the 
basic situation in which it originates. Argument implies conflict or 
the possibility of conflict. We do not argue with a person who 


already agrees with us, but with a person who is opposed to us or 
who is undecided. Furthermore, argument implies a conflict be- 
tween positions. We do not argue about a subject if only one posi- 
tion can possibly be taken in regard to it. The arguer presumably 
believes that his position is the only reasonable position, but by the 
fact of arguing at all he recognizes that another position, no matter 
how mistakenly, is held or may be held. The purpose of argument 
is to resolve the conflict in which the argument originates. The 
arguer argues to convince, to win.\ 

The situation of conflict distinguishes argument from the other 
kinds of discourse, but in the course of achieving his purpose of 
resolving the conflict the arguer may resort to the other kinds of 
discourse, especially to exposition. In fact, if a dispute is really 
based on the misunderstanding of a set of facts, mere exposition 
may be enough to win the argument. Argument, like the other 
kinds of discourse, rarely appears in an absolutely pure form. Here, 
as in the other kinds of discourse, we define a particular piece of 
speaking or writing in terms of its dominant intention. The domi- 
nant intention of a piece of argument, no matter how much descrip- 
tion, narration, or exposition it may use, is to make the audience 
change its mind or conduct. 

rAigument, either as the dominant intention or a subsidiary in- 
tention, may appear in many forms. It appears in conversation, in 
public addresses, in the lawyer's presentation of his case, in feature 
articles, in editorials, in textbooks on any subject, in essays, in 
poetry, in history, in drama, in fiction. It properly appears wherever 
the possibility of conflict between positions appears. The salesman 
trying to sell a car uses argument. The historian trying to prove 
that a certain event took place at a certain time uses argument. 
The congressman speaking on behalf of a bill uses argument. The 
dramatist setting two characters into conflict may use argument. 
But no matter what form argument takes, the general principles 
involved remain the same) In this chapter we shall try to examine 
some of the principles. With many of them we are already ac- 
quainted, for in so far as we have been able to argue reasonably 
we have always been thinking in accordance with them. 



Argument gains its ends by an appeal to the understanding, to 
man's reasoning nature. We ordinarily recognize this fact when we 
say of a speaker, "He didn't really have an argument; he merely 
carried the audience by appealing to their emotions." Such a speaker 
has persuaded but he has not convinced. The advertiser who puts 
the picture of a sweet-faced, gray-haired grandmother beside the 
picture of his ice box is not appealing to reason but to emotion. 
He may have a good sales argument in favor of his ice box on 
grounds of economy, efficiency, or convenience, but he is not pre- 
senting it. The political speaker who screams, "Every red-blooded 
American will vote for John Jones, the friend of the people!" is not 
offering an argument any more than the defense lawyer who points 
to the accused murderer and, with tears in his voice, demands of 
the jury, "This man before you, this simple man who loves his 
children, who prays for them every night would you send him to 
the gallows? You fathers and mothers, would you make those poor 
babes fatherless?"' The advertiser may sell the ice box) the politician 
may get the votes, the lawyer may get an acquittal for the accused 
;ty the appeal to the emotions, but in no case has an argument been 
offered. N 

The objection may be raised: "What does it matter Jf the adver- 
tiser ,or politician or lawyer 'didn't offer an argument? ^The ice box 
was good or the politician was honest and able or the accused was 
innocent." 'If the ice box was good, etc., then the question is merely 
a practical one: Is the simple appeal to the emotions the best and 
safest way of achieving the good purpose? Perhaps not, for if an 
audience becomes aware that no real argument is being offered, 
that there is only an attempt to play on its emotions, it may feel 
that it is being treated like a child, that proper respect is not being 
paid to its powers of reason, that it is being duped and betrayed. 
So the appeal to the emotions may backfire, and regardless of the 
merits of the case there may be blind resentment instead of blind 

( But another objection, may be raised: "Suppose the advertiser 
or politician or lawyer did gain his purpose, no matter what the 
merit of the case.\He won, didn't he? And isn't the object to win?" 


If the ice box was not good, the question now becomes a moral one-. 
Is a man entitled to practice a fraud merely because he has the 
ability to do so in this instance to sway people by the appeal to 
the emotions? But the same question would apply if the man did 
not appeal to the emotions of his audience but offered them mis- 
leading arguments.^ 

If the appeal to the understanding is the appeal of argument, 
then what becomes of the appeal to the emotions? Nothing becomes 
of it. It is still a very important consideration. It remains important 
even in relation to argument. If we have a good case on logical 
grounds, we may still lose it because we present it untactfully, be- 
cause we do not know how to make the most of the temperament 
and attitude of the audience. Frequently the problem may be to 
"persuade" the audience to give our logical case an examination. 
Persuasion begins in the attempt to find common ground in atti- 
tudes, feelings, sentiments. And only if we find such common ground 
as a starting point can we ordinarily hope, in the end, to win an 
agreement about the matter of argument. Persuasion is very impor- 
tant in the strategy of argument,) and at the end of this chapter we 
shall discuss it. But for the present we shall consider questions 
arising from the consideration of argument as an appeal to the 


What is argument about? People argue about anything, we may 
answer. But that is not a specific answer. 

To illustrate: 

John comes upon a group obviously engaged in a heated argu- 
ment. "What are you arguing about?" 

Jack answers: "Football." 

John asks: "What about football?" 

Jack answers: "About who won the Army-Navy game in 1936." 

John laughs and says: "For the Lord's sake, what are you wasting 
your breath for? Why don't you telephone the information bureau 
at the newspaper and find out?" 

John is right. When a fact can be established by investigation, 
there is no need to establish it by argument. Why argue about the 
length of a piece of string if there is a ruler handy? 


Or again suppose John asks his first question, and Jack replies, 

John asks: "What about football?" 

Jack answers: "Which is the better game, football or basketball?" 

John laughs again, and says: "For the Lord's sake, what are you 
wasting your breath for? You can't settle that. A guy just likes the 
game he likes. Take me, I like tennis better than either of them." 

John is right again. An argument about a matter of mere taste 
is useless, and in so far as the word "better" x in the above conver- 
sation merely means what one happens to like, there is no proper 
matter for argument. 

Anyone sees immediately the absurdity of an argument between 
two children about whether candy is better than pie. Such a dis- 
agreement permits of no conclusion. No process of reason can lead 
to an agreement between the taste buds of Sally's mouth and the 
taste buds of Susie's mouth, for both sets of taste buds give "truth" 
for the person to whom they belong. But a doctor could argue that 
spinach is better than either candy or pie for the child. He can do 
so because he has a definite objective standard, the child's health, 
to which he can appeal. 

In other words, a matter of absolute taste is not a matter for 
argument. Only a matter of judgment is a matter for argument. We 
must remember, however, that there is no single sharp and fast line 

1 Expressions like "better," "more desirable," "to be preferred," "greater," 
"good," "acceptable," and so forth, may indicate mere preference, an un- 
arguable question of taste, and in ordinary usage this is frequently so. When 
dealing with such an expression, one should ask questions which will determine 
whether or not the word has an objective content. Take the simple statement: 
"That is a good horse." We immediately have to ask, "Good for what?" For 
draying, for racing, for the bridle path, for the show ring, for the range? Or 
does the speaker merely mean that the horse is gentle, responsive, and affec- 
tionate, a sort of pet? By forcing the question we may discover the real meaning 
behind the original statement. But sometimes there is no meaning beyond the 
question of taste. Somebody says: "Jake is a good guy." If you force the 
question here and get the reply, "Oh, he's just regular, I like to be around 
him," you discover that the statement has no objective content. It tells you 
nothing about Jake. As the philosopher Spinoza puts it, Paul's opinion about 
Peter tells more about Paul than about Peter. 

Useful forcing questions to apply to such expressions are: What is it good, 
desirable, etc. for? What is it good in relation to? Is the standard invoked 
objective and therefore worth discussing? 


between matters of taste and matters of judgment. In between obvi- 
ous extremes, there is a vast body of matters about which it is 
difficult to be sure, and each question must be examined on its own 

Let us take, for example, an argument about whether Words- 
worth or Longfellow is the finer poet. Are we dealing with a matter 
of taste or a matter of judgment? 

If one person says, "I don't care what other people think, I just 
like Longfellow better," he is treating the whole business as a matter 
of taste. He is making no appeal to reason. But if another person 
tries to set up a standard for poetic excellence in general and tests 
the poets by that standard, he is making an appeal to judgment. He 
might say, for instance, that Wordsworth has greater originality in 
subject matter, has more serious ideas, has had more influence on 
later poets, and uses fresher and more suggestive metaphors. He 
might not win agreement, but he is at least using the method of 
argument, is trying to appeal to reason in terms of an objective 

But let us come back to our original illustration. We notice that 
in both instances when Jack says that he and his friends are arguing 
about football, John asks: "What about football?" 

John is bound to ask this question if he has any real curiosity 
about the argument. For football, in itself, is no matter for argu- 
ment. It may provide the material for an argument, but that is all. 
There must be something "about" football which is the matter for 
argument. So John asks the question. 

Jack answers: "Oh, about the Michigan-Purdue game last Satur- 

John says: "Gosh, but you are thick-headed. What about the 

Jack answers: "About Randall and Bolewiensky." 

John says: "Well, I give up! What about Randall and Bolewien- 

Jack answers: "About who is the more useful player/' 

John says: "Well, it is sure time you were telling me." 

John's thick-headed friend has finally managed to state what the 
argument is about. If there is an argument here, somebody holds 
that Randall is a more useful player than Bolewiensky and some- 
body denies it. In other words, the argument is about a PROPOSITION. 


A proposition is what an argument is about, and is the only thing 
an argument can be about. The argument develops when some- 
body affirms a proposition and somebody else denies it. 


A proposition is the declaration of a judgment. It is a statement 
that can be believed, doubted, or disbelieved. A proposition states 
something as a fact or states that some line of action should or 
should not be followed. So we have PROPOSITIONS OF FACT and 
PROPOSITIONS OF POLICY. A lawyer arguing that his client has an 
alibi for a certain time is dealing with a proposition of fact. A bond 
salesman trying to sell a bond to an investor is dealing with a 
proposition of policy. The typical statement of a proposition of fact 
is is or does. The typical statement of a proposition of policy is 

( The^mere presence in a statement, however, of is or does cannot 
be taken to indicate a proposition of fact. For instance, the follow- 
ing statement uses is: 

It is desirable to abolish the poll tax. 

But the statement means that the poll tax should be abolished. It 
indicates a line of action. Therefore, it is a proposition of policy. 

Likewise, the mere presence of should does not necessarily indi- 
cate a proposition of policy. For instance: 

Any experienced reader of poetry should regard Wordsworth as 
a better poet than Longfellow. 

This statement really means that any experienced reader of poetry 
does regard Wordsworth as a better poet than Longfellow. It is a 
statement of fact that may be believed, doubted, or disbelieved. 

So the typical form of a proposition can be disguised, and one 
must look to the fundamental intention of a statement arid not to 
its accidental phrasing. 


v In formal debate the proposition is ordinarily given as a resolu- 
tion: Resolved, That the United States should adopt free trade. 


Or: Resolved, That the language requirements for the B.A. degree 
should be abolished. 

Formal debates, however, make up only a fraction of all argu- 
ment. We find argument in a hundred other places wherever any- 
one is trying to lead us to accept something as a fact or to accept 
a line of action. Ordinarily the proposition underlying an argument 
is not formally stated, and sometimes may not be stated at all. For 
instance, the arguer may refrain from giving the proposition because 
he is sure the audience already grasps it, or because he wishes to 
lead the audience by degrees to discover it for themselves. In cer- 
tain kinds of propaganda, for example, the arguer deliberately con- 
ceals the proposition in order to deceive the audience. 

If an arguer wishes to think straight he ought to be able to state 
his proposition. If he is to be effective he must know exactly what 
is at stake in the argument, and the best way to be sure that he 
knows what is at stake is to frame the proposition, at least for him- 
self. And the proposition should be single, clear, and unprejudiced. 


A proposition should be single. It should not express more than 
one idea for argument. We must fix here on the phrase, "one idea 
for argument." Even the proposition, "This rose is red," expresses 
more than one idea. It says that the "this" is a rose, and it says that 
the "this" is red. But obviously it intends to present only one point 
for argumentthe redness. Presumably the idea that the "this" is 
a rose is expected to pass without question. s 

. It is always possible, of course, that someone may challenge an 
idea which is not put forward for argument but is implied in the 
proposition. In such a case the argument then turns on a new prop- 
osition. For instance, suppose I say, "The whale is the most intelli- 
gent fish." Obviously, I intend the argument to turn on the question 
of the intelligence of the whale. But a zoologist may challenge an- 
other idea of my proposition by saying that a whale is not a fish. 
This may start another argument based on the idea in my original 
proposition that a whale is a fish. Or I may take the zoologist's word 
that the whale is a mammal, and restate my original proposition: 
"A whale is the most intelligent creature living in water/') 

( To say that a proposition should be single does not "mean that 
a total argument may not involve more than one arguable idea. 


Many arguable ideas may appear in the course of an argument. But 
each idea should be treated separately to avoid confusion. The dis- 
cussion of this question will be postponed, however, until we treat 
the organization of argument. 


A clear proposition says what we mean)) But it is not easy to say 
what we mean. Most words as we ordinarily use them do not have 
very precise limits. Even words which refer to an objective physical 
situation may be vague. How "tall" is a tall man? Five feet, eleven? 
Six feet? Six feet, three? Any of these men would be well above 
average height, but there is a great range here. So we may say 
"tallish," "tall," or "very tall" to indicate the scale; but even then 
we might hesitate about the choice of a word. Or (take the word 
"bald." How much hair must be lacking before we can say that a 
man is bald? The word does not fix an objective standard although 
it does refer to an objective situation? 1 

(The problem is even more complicated when we come to words 
like "good," "cute," or "progressive" which do not refer to objective 
physical situations. What is really said in the proposition, "Mary 
is the cutest girl in town"? The word "cute" indicates some lauda- 
tory or appreciative attitude on the part of the speaker, but it does 
not tell us very much about Mary^ Or if we hear, "Mr. Black is a 
progressive citizen," what are we to understand? That Black works 
hard, pays his taxes, treats his family decently, saves money, and 
stays out of jail? Or that he is interested in improving the local 
school, bringing new factories to town, and planting flowers in the 
park? Or that he has a certain political philosophy? Such a word 
tells us very little about Mr. Black. It seems to indicate some gen- 
eral approval on the part of the speaker, but we don't know exactly 
what, and the odds are that he does not know either. The word is 

Let us take another example of vagueness, the proposition, "Soviet 
Russia is more democratic than England." 

A person defending the above proposition might argue that 
Russia is more democratic than England because in its system 
there are no hereditary titles, because great fortunes cannot be 
accumulated, and because the worker is glorified. A person attack- 
ing the proposition might argue that England is more democratic 


because actual political power is in the hands of leaders chosen by 
the majority of voters in free elections, because there is freedom 
of speech, and because a man can choose his occupation. The word 
"democratic" is vague, and the two disputants are using it in dif- 
ferent senses. They can have no argument on the original proposi- 
tion until they have agreed on a definition of democracy. And this, 
of course, may mean that the argument shifts to a new proposition: 
"Democracy is so-and-so." 

Many words, like "democracy," have no generally accepted 
meaning to which we can refer. Even the dictionary does not help 
us much with such a word. It can give us authority for a word like 
"horse," for to zoology a horse is a horse wherever we find it. As 
for "democracy," the dictionary may give us some idea of several 
more or less well-accepted senses and may start us on the way to 
a clear statement, but the dictionary definition can rarely be full 
enough to cover the meaning of such a word as it will appear in 
an argument. In framing a proposition we should try to fix the 
definition ( pp. 83-91 ) of any significant word, to determine exactly 
what we mean by it, and then we should stick to that definition. 
Until both parties to an argument agree about terms, there can be 
no fruitful meeting, indeed, no meeting. 


/A proposition should not only be single and clear. It should also 
be unprejudiced. That is, it should not smuggle into the proposition 
anything which implies a foregone conclusion to the argument. 
The following is not an unprejudiced proposition: "The unsanitary 
condition of the slaughter pens at Morgansville is detrimental to 
the public health." It is prejudiced, for the adjective unsanitary 
really means "detrimental to the public health." If we accept that 
word into the proposition, there is nothing arguable: the point of 
the argument has been already settled. The question has been 
begged, to use the phrase ordinarily applied to such a situation. 


' We have to understand our proposition before we can argue 
about it. Some propositions can be understood immediately, but 
some can only be understood if we go into the HISTORY OF THE 


QUESTION that is, if we inform ourselves about the circumstances 
which brought the argument into being. For instance, in a debate 
about tariffs some knowledge of how they have worked in this 
country and elsewhere would be almost essential to a full under- 
standing of what is really at stake at the present moment. Even a 
matter of definition of words in a proposition may depend on our 
knowledge of the history of the question. For similar reasons it is 
important to understand the OCCASION OF THE DISCUSSION that is, 
what makes the argument significant at the present moment.) 


But once we understand our proposition we are still not ready 
to argue it. Common sense tells us that there may be many argu- 
ments for and against a given proposition. Though the proposition 
properly stated is single, reasons for and against it may be plural. 
The single idea of the proposition may raise various questions for 
controversy. When a question is ESSENTIAL to the proposition, we 
call it an ISSUE. And any question is essential if its defeat means 
the defeat of the proposition. An issue, then, is a point of funda- 
mental importance in the argument, and the affirmative side, the 
side supporting the proposition, must win on all issues in order to 
win on the proposition. 

Let us take a simple example. The constitution of a certain 
college honor society, which we shall call the Corinthians, specifies 
that a student to be eligible for membership must (1) have a scho- 
lastic average of B or above, (2) have won a letter in at least one 
college sport, (3) have made some substantial contributions to the 
general good of the college community, and (4) have conducted 
himself as a gentleman during the period of his college career. 
William Smith is proposed for election. His sponsor argues that 
Smith has made an A-average, has won the state junior champion- 
ship in swimming, has brought about a reform of the student coun- 
cil system by his editorials in the college paper, and is a person of 
high character and good manners. Smith seems certain of election 
until one Corinthian refers to the constitution and regretfully points 
out that Smith cannot fulfill requirement 2. "But he is an excellent 
athlete," the sponsor retorts; "he can out-swim anybody in this 


"That's not the point," the other Corinthian replies. "The consti- 
tution explicitly states that to be eligible a student must have won 
a letter in at least one sport. And Rutherford College has no swim- 
ming team, and therefore does not give a letter for swimming/* 

If the constitution is taken seriously, Smith's eligibility must be 
denied. The proposition is that Smith is eligible for membership 
in the Corinthians, and the constitution is the source of authority 
for the requirements for eligibility. Each of those requirements is 
essential, and in the argument about Smith's eligibility would there- 
fore properly be an issue. 


It is important to notice here that the opposition does not contest 
Smith's eligibility on every point. It admits that Smith has made 
a scholastic average of B or above, has made some substantial con- 
tribution to the general good of the college community, and has 
conducted himself as a gentleman. The proposition really depends 
on the college letter in athletics. Now in most arguments, some 
issues are uncontested. These are called ADMITTED ISSUES. The re- 
maining issues (or issue) are called CRUCIAL ISSUES. They are the 
points on which the real argument takes place. 


Let us return for a moment to the case of Smith's eligibility. 
Suppose someone says: "Well, Smith ought to be elected, and if a 
man like Smith can't get in under the present constitution, then 
the constitution ought to be changed." That may be true, but that 
is another problem, and would have to be considered on its own 
merits. This situation is similar to certain cases at law in which one 
may feel that the letter of the law defeats justice. For example, 
a defending lawyer in a first-degree murder case may argue that 
his client had suffered intolerable provocation, that the victim had 
grievously slandered the defendant's wife, and that the defendant, 
a simple man raised in rather primitive surroundings, had thought 
killing the slanderer to be the only course of honor and decency. 
The prosecution argues that this is no issue in the case, because 
the legal definition of murder is such and such, and makes 110 recog- 
nition of the provocation of slander, or of the personal background 
of the accused. The prosecutor is, of course, right. The law defines 


the issues by which the proposition, that so-and-so is guilty of 
murder in the first degree, must stand or fall. If the jury does 
acquit the defendant, it does so out of sentiment, prejudice, or some 
notion of justice which is inconsistent with the law. 

The case of William Smith or of the murderer is very simple, for 
the issues are defined beforehand by a document eligibility for 
membership by the constitution of the Corinthians, or murder by 
the law. In many arguments, however, we must locate the issues 
for ourselves. We do this by making an ANALYSIS of the proposition. 

In making the analysis of a proposition we do not arbitrarily 
decide that certain questions are issues. They are implied in the 
proposition, and we must locate them, or discover them. In a rough- 
and-tumble argument, undertaken without preparation, two reason- 
ably intelligent opponents will eventually isolate at least some of 
the issues; but in the clash of argument, issues develop more or less 
hit-or-miss. If there is time for preparation, as there usually is in 
writing a theme or an article, we should try to determine the issues 

The first step in this process is to set up all the possible argu- 
ments on each side of the proposition. In first draft such a list may 
be a very crude affair, with important and unimportant items Jum- 
bled together, but it will give a kind of preview of the problem. 
Even in this form, however, we can see that arguments tend to 
go in pairs, a negative as opposed to an affirmative. Not all argu- 
ments may, however, be paired. The negative may admit certain 
points, and naturally does not offer arguments in regard to them. 

Let us set up such a preliminary list for the proposition of policy 
that the United States should adopt universal military training. 


1. There is a dangerous inter- 
national situation and the 
United States has no clearly 
defined policy to meet it. 

2. The present army of the United 
States will be inadequate for 
a major conflict as soon as the 
atomic bomb is possessed by 
other nations. 




3. Within a few years our trained 
reserves will be over-age. 

4. The next war will probably 
move rapidly to a decision and 
will give no time to train and 
equip an army. 

5. The tensions in international 
relations at present are serious 
and a war may come within a 
few years. 

6. Our possible enemies are main- 
taining large armies. 

7. Military training gives young 
men a sense of responsibility 
and discipline which is valu- 
able in any occupation of 
later life. 

8. The United Nations does not 
guarantee our safety. 

9. No cost is too great to pay for 
our national safety. 

10. Military training does not fos- 
ter immorality. 

11. Military training will produce 
specialists and even if the next 
war is a war fought with 
atomic bombs, robot planes, 
etc., trained men are required 
to operate such mechanisms 
and ground troops will always 
be required to occupy and 
hold territory. 


No nation can now afford to under- 
take a war, least of all the nations 
which might be arrayed against 
us. Further, there are no insupera- 
ble difficulties to peace. 

If other nations are assured of our 
good faith by our relative dis- 
armament, they will reduce their 
own forces. 

The time spent in military train- 
ing seriously impairs the education 
of young men, and reduces their 
efficiency in later life. 

The United Nations has not been 
given a fair trial; we must show 
our good faith in it. 

The country is burdened with a 
great national debt and needs to 
practice economy if our system is 
to survive. 
Military life fosters immorality. 

The next war will be a war of 
specialists, and a large body of 
ordinary troops would be useless. 



12. Universal military training does Universal military training would 
not aggravate the international signify to the world that we had 
situation. Instead our pre- no faith in the possibility of peace 
paredness would tend to pre- and would precipitate an arma- 
vent a conflict. ment race. 

13. Victory would be possible in The next war, if it comes, will be 
a future war, for there is a war of total destruction; there- 
reason to believe that defenses fore the only hope of survival for 
can be developed against the civilization is to bend every effort 
new methods of attack. for peace by developing a world 

federation or a world government. 

This list is not systematic. The items are jotted down as they 
occur in a first survey of the subject. So in revising the list we must 
try to put things together that are closely related in meaning. For 
instance, if we finally keep 7 and 10, we must put them in some 
relation to each other, for they both bear on the effect of military 
training on the education and the morality of young men. 

Order, however, is not the only thing we must consider. There 
are four other considerations which we can introduce at this stage. 

I. Are the arguments all significant? 

II. Do they cover the subject? 

III. Do they overlap each other? 

IV. Does any really include more than one idea? 

With these considerations in mind we can see that 7, 9, and 10 
do not bear on the proposition. They raise questions concerning 
the effects on education (7) and morality (10) of military training, 
and of the cost (9) of the military training. Obviously, if the na- 
tional survival is at stake (and that is what is implied in the word 
should of the proposition), these questions are not significant. 

Upon inspection we may discover that the issues do not cover 
the subject. First, we may notice that, though 2, 3, and 4 imply the 
need for military policy, no such argument is stated. And certainly 
such an important point should be stated. Second, we discover that 
the question of pacifism is nowhere mentioned. Pacifism is a sweep- 
ing and important argument, either when grounded on the notion 
that all war is sinful and is never justifiable or when grounded on 


the idea that nonviolence eventually defeats violence. A person 
arguing the negative side might not believe in pacifism and there- 
fore would not wish to raise the objection, but anyone intending 
to support the affirmative side would have to include the argument 
for the sake of completeness. He cannot be sure what arguments 
may appear. 

As for overlapping among arguments, we find several instances. 
Items 1A and 5A overlap, for they both affirm the danger in the 
existing situation. Furthermore, 2A, 3A, and 4A might be fused, 
for they are closely related as arguments for the notion that a mili- 
tary policy is needed. And if items 7 and 10 had not already been 
excluded as not significant, they should be fused. 

Last we find that item 1A really includes two ideas, one concern- 
ing the danger in the international situation and the other concern- 
ing the lack of any policy, either political or military, to combat the 
danger. The same is true of 13N, which states two ideas, one that 
another war would destroy all civilization, the other that the hope 
for survival lies in a world federation or a world government. 

If now we try to systematize what we have, we get something 
like the following: 


1. There is a dangerous inter- 
national situation. 

2. The United States has no pol- 
icy to meet the danger, either 
political or military. (1, 8) 2 

3. There is need for a military pol- The need is for a political policy, 
icy, for (a) as soon as the secret 

of the atomic bomb is in the 
hands of other nations, our 
present force will be inadequate 
for a major conflict, (b) within 
a few years our trained reserves 
will be over-age, and (c) the 
speed with which the next war 
would move to a decision would 
give no time to train and equip 
an army. (2, 3, 4) 

2 Numbers in parentheses refer to numbers in first draft of possible issues. 




4. Our possible enemies are main- 
taining large armies. (6) 

5. Military training would help to 
prepare specialists, and even if 
the next war is fought with 
atomic bombs, robot planes, 
etc., large numbers of men are 
required to operate such mech- 
anisms and ground troops will 
always be required to occupy 
and hold territory. (11) 

6. Our preparedness would tend 
to prevent a conflict. 

7. Victory would be possible in a 
future war, for there is reason 
to believe that defenses can be 
developed against the new 
methods of attack. (13) 

8. We can hope for the develop- 
ment of international safe- 
guards, but we cannot be sure 
of them at this date. (8) 

9. There are theoretical arguments 
against pacifism even on re- 
ligious grounds. (For instance, 
most churches do not preach 
pacifism as such.) If we take 
the argument that nonviolence 
always conquers violence in 
the end, we find no evidence 
for this in history. In any case 
the argument for pacifism is ir- 
relevant on practical grounds 
because in neither this country 
nor any other are there many 


If other nations are assured of our 
good faith, they will reduce their 
armaments. (6) 

The next war will be a war oi 
specialists, and military training 
would not produce them. Further- 
more, in such a war, large bodies 
of troops would be useless. 

Universal military training would 
signify that we had no faith in 
peace and would precipitate an 
armament race. (12) 

The next war, if it comes, will be 
a war of total destruction for all 
involved. (13) 

The only hope for survival lies in 
world federation or world govern- 
ment. (13) 

War is morally wrong and should 
not be resorted to for any reason. 
But even if war were not wrong 
on moral grounds, pacifism would 
still be a good policy, for non- 
violence always conquers violence 
in the end. 


We see here that some new material has been introduced. Since 
a statement has emerged that there is need for a military policy (3), 
the negative counters by stating the need for a political policy 
instead. And the arguments for and against pacifism now appear 
in the list. We also see that there are no negative arguments for 
items 1 and 2. The negative admits these points. 


The second draft is more systematic and complete than the first. 
But we can further simplify the treatment and more definitely locate 
the issues. We need to carry on our analysis and find the big, main 
issues under which merely particular arguments can be organized. 
We are here dealing with what is called a proposition of policy, 
which means that the argument is about the best way of accom- 
plishing some end; and in arguments of this sort there are cer- 
tain STOCK QUESTIONS which can be applied to the material as a 
kind of guide for locating issues. These stock questions help us, 
first, to simplify our material, and second, to establish the essenti- 
ality of our issues. 3 

I. Is there a need for some change? 
II. Will the policy suggested by the proposition be effective? 

III. Are the possible benefits of this policy greater than any new 
disadvantage which it may create? 

IV. Is the proposed policy better than any alternative policy? 

Upon reflection we may see that I includes 1, 2, 3, and 4; that 
II includes 5 and 7; that III includes 6; 4 and that IV includes 8 
and 9. 

" See essential issues, p. 135. 

4 It might be said that 6 really belongs under II, and that there is no III to 
be considered in the present argument. There is some ground for this view, 
for if, as 6A states, preparedness would help prevent a conflict, then that 
policy would be effective in maintaining national safety. But if, as in 6N, 
emphasis is on the new, or increased danger, which preparedness would create 
by precipitating an armament race, then we can consider this as a definite 
disadvantage it increases the danger already existing. It will be found that 
in practice II and III often overlap to a degree, but the difference in emphasis 
between them is important. We can find, however, perfectly clear-cut cases of 
difference between II and III. For example, a farmer might decide that a dam 
on a creek would stop erosion on his land would be an effective policy for 


We should now be prepared to set up the issues. When formally 
stated, issues appear as questions so phrased that the affirmative 
must answer yes to them if the proposition is to stand. 


I. t 1. Is there a dangerous international situa- 

tion? (1) * 
* 2. Is there need for a military policy? (2, 3, 4) 

II. 3. Would the universal military training be an 

effective military policy? (5, 6, 7) 

III. 4. Would the advantages of universal military 

training outweigh the dangers that it might 
create or aggravate? (6) 

IV. 5. Is universal military training better than 

any alternative policy? (8, 9) 

To summarize what we have done thus far: First, we have set 
up, more or less at random, opposed particular arguments. When- 
ever we have found a pairing of an affirmative and a negative argu- 
ment, we have located a point of collision, a possible issue. Second, 
we have analyzed these possible issues to see that they (1) are 
relevant and essential, (2) cover the subject, and (3) do not overlap 
each other or do not individually include more than one possible 
issue. Third, after the analysis we have drawn a revised list of 
affirmative and negative arguments. Fourth, to the revised list we 
have applied the four stock questions as a guide: (1) Is there a need 
for change? (2) Will the policy suggested by the proposition be 
effective? (3) Are the possible benefits of this policy greater than 
any new disadvantages which it might create? (4) Is the proposed 
policy better than any alternative policy? We have given each issue 
thus defined the form of a question which demands an affirmative 

that purpose (II). But he then might discover that the dam would flood some 
of his best pasture land further up the creek. This would be a new disadvan- 
tage, and would raise a new question ( III ) . 

It might also be said that 5 belongs under IV, for the negative, by implica- 
tion at least, suggests an alternative policy, the creation of an army of special- 
ists. But this really raises the question of the effectiveness of the policy sug- 
gested by the proposition. So II and IV overlap on this point. 

5 Numbers in parentheses refer to numbers in the second draft of possible 


answer if the proposition is to be supported. These questions are 
the issues. 

We may note that the first issue, since it is not contested by the 
negative on our list, is an admitted issue. We may note also that 
under each issue we have indicated the particular arguments from 
the revised list which should be discussed under the general head 
provided by that issue. For instance, under issue 2, we have placed 
arguments 2, 3, and 4 from the revised list. 

If we have done our work well, we now have the material organ- 
ized for our argument. This does not mean that the arguments need 
follow this order. We might, for example, want to dispose of the 
question of pacifism and to point out reasons for pessimism concern- 
ing a system of international arrangements (topic 5 in our final list 
of issues) before arguing the specific merits of universal training. 
Or the strategy of persuasion for a particular audience might make 
us take a very indirect approach to the whole subject. We might, 
for instance, want to paint a vivid picture of the destruction our 
cities would suffer if we were caught unprepared. But the arrange- 
ment of issues as set up provides a reasonable scheme for treating 
the subject. A student, in the theme given below, has followed this 
scheme in arguing on the affirmative side. (The numbers in paren- 
theses refer to the steps in the revised draft.) 


(1) No thinking person can deny that the world at this date is in ter- 
rible confusion. While World War II was going on, many of us thought 
that victory over the evil forces of Nazism and Fascism would bring in 
a new day and give us a happier world than man had ever known. Those 
of us who were really in the show had to feel that way to keep on going. 
We had to feel that or we had to be sure we didn't feel anything at all. 
But in May, 1947, now that we are back home and in school or holding 
jobs, we find that what we expected has not come true. Any newspaper 
we pick up tells us that much. 

There are several things making for this terrible confusion. The con- 
quered countries are in a desperate condition and some of those on the 
winning side are not much better. France, Greece, and China are suf- 
fering from many shortages and actual hunger, at times to the point of 
starvation. In the conquered countries there are many people who are 
just waiting for a chance to avenge their defeat, and they are ready to 


sign on with anybody who may help them. Behind this confusion there 
is the struggle between two very different notions of how the world 
ought to be run. Soviet Russia stands for one notion, and the United 
States stands for the other. In other countries, France, Germany, Italy, 
China, and even England, those two notions divide the people into 
parties and even into armed camps. The two notions are communism 
and democracy. There is the making here of a war which would make 
previous war look like a Boy Scout jamboree. 

(2) The United States has no clear policy in international affairs to 
meet this crisis. The loan to Greece and Turkey is something, but no- 
body could say that it is a long-range policy and answers all our ques- 
tions. We do not even know what we want to do about the United 

(3) It is certainly important to get a foreign policy and work for 
peace, but it is also important to get a military policy. When the war 
was over everybody wanted to get home, and this was only human. 
Also the atomic bomb made us feel safe. But the result is that right now 
we are a disarmed nation, and (3a) soon the atomic bomb will be in the 
hands of other nations. (3b) Within a few years, too, most of our trained 
reserves will be a little too old to make the best soldiers. (3c) And if 
another war comes, it will move so fast there will not be time to train 
and equip forces. (4) Our possible enemies are not making this mistake, 
for they are maintaining large armies and are training new men. As soon 
as they get the secret of the bomb, our edge will be gone. 

Universal military training is something that we need to safeguard our 
future. I know that there are arguments against this, but I do not believe 
that they will stand up against the facts. 

(5) The first argument which you often hear is that universal military 
training would not be desirable because the new type of war will be a 
war of specialists which universal military training would not produce. 
But this depends on the kind of training which is given. The training 
can be adapted to changing military needs. But in any case, there is 
good reason to believe that there will always be a place for the guy in 
the mud. I was one of them myself, and I know that they always had 
to send us in sooner or later. Large bodies of troops will be required to 
occupy and hold territory. 

(6) The second argument is that universal military training would 
provoke an armament race. The answer is that the race is already on, 

6 This argument is not placed according to the scheme. It really concerns a 
disadvantage which might be created by the proposed policy (stock question 
III), but here it is placed between two arguments for the effectiveness of 
universal military training (stock question II). 


but at the present is merely a one-sided race. The other countries are 
racing to get what we have got the A-bomb. But they are also building 
up big armies. If we showed that we mean to be strong, it might dis- 
courage other countries and make them want to come to an under- 

(7) The third argument is that the next war, if it comes, will be a war 
of general suicide. It is said that nobody will survive except a few 
starved and diseased people among the ruins. This picture is too pessi- 
mistic. I do not want to deny what horrors of war can be, for I have 
seen some of them in West Germany when we went in. But the history 
of war shows that for every weapon of offense a weapon of defense de- 
velops sooner or later. Our scientists and military men should develop 
defenses just as they should develop weapons of offense. We have to 
do all we can to be sure that we are prepared if the war conies. And 
one of the things necessary is to adopt universal military training. 

(8) Even people who admit that a strong military policy might be 
effective in itself sometimes argue that a better plan is to try to set up a 
world system of some kind. Any sensible person wants to avoid war, and 
one way to do that is to work for international understanding. But we 
are a long way from a system which we can depend on, and there is no 
reason why we should commit suicide as a nation in trying to get one. 
If we are strong we can enter into any international arrangements with a 
good bargaining position. 

(9) There is one other argument which sometimes crops up in dis- 
cussions about military training. That is the pacifist argument. People 
say that war is sinful and that you should never fight. Now I respect 
some of the people who argue that way. One of my best high school 
buddies was a pacifist, and when war came he went to a C.O. camp. 
I respect him, but I think that he was a crackpot. It is against human 
nature to take everything lying down, and that is really what pacifism 
amounts to. The man who lies down gets stepped on. History shows 
that. But there really aren't enough pacifists in this country or any other 
to make the subject worth arguing about. 

To sum up, I say, "Work for peace, but prepare for war." Teddy 
Roosevelt's idea of walking softly and carrying a big stick still makes 
sense, for the world has not changed much since his day. And one big 
stick that the United States can carry is universal military training. 


The proposition argued above is, of course, a proposition of 
policy. But how do we go about establishing the issue, or issues, in 


a proposition of fact? In the case of the eligibility of William Smith 
for membership in the Corinthians, the issues were defined before- 
hand by a document the constitution of the society. But there are 
propositions of fact in which the issues are not established before- 
hand by any such definition. 

Let us take a very simple instance, one in which there can be 
only a single issue. If two men in the wilderness wish to cross a 
stream, one of them may propose that they drop a tree across it. 
The other objects that the available tree is too short. They can 
establish the height of the tree by geometric calculation, but they 
cannot establish the width of the stream. Therefore the proposition 
(the tree is long enough) is a matter of judgment, and is subject to 
argument. Several arguments, good or bad, may be offered on either 
side, but there is only one issue: Is the tree long enough? In such 
cases of simple fact, the proposition itself establishes the issue. But 
in other cases the fact may not be simple, and there may be no prior 
definition of the issues (as in the case of William Smith and the 

Let us take such an example: John did right in leaving his fortune 
to the Ashford Medical Foundation. 

First, are we sure that this 5s a proposition of fact? At first glance 
it may look like a proposition of policy, for it contains the phrase 
"did right" which seems to imply policy. Certainly, we would have 
a proposition of policy if it were stated: John will do right to. ... 
Or: John should leave. . . . But in its original form, the proposition 
concerns an event that has already taken place, and concerns the 
nature of the event, not a course of action to be pursued. This 
becomes clear if we translate the proposition into the standard 
form: John's conduct in leaving his fortune to the Ashford Medical 
Foundation is (or was) right. So we have an is proposition, not a 
should proposition. 

Second, how can we establish the issues? To do so, we must de- 
cide what we mean by the word "right" the predicate of the 
proposition. Suppose the opponents agree that a deed is morally 
right only if it fulfills all of the following requirements: (1) the doer 
is responsible, (2) the doer undertakes the deed for a laudable 
motive, and (3) the consequences of the deed are beneficial. The 
issues then become: 


1. Was John of sound mind when he made his will? 

2. Was his motive laudable? 

3. Will the money be used for a beneficial activity? 

The affirmative must establish all of these points in order to win 
the argument. Suppose that there is no doubt of John's sanity, and 
no doubt that the money will be used for a good purpose. Suppose 
that these facts are admitted. Yet if the negative establishes that 
John, in a fit of fury at his daughter for making a marriage with- 
out his consent, changed his will, then the motive is a bad one, for 
the deed comes out of spite and offended vanity. Therefore the 
proposition would be lost. 

In such propositions of fact, where the fact is complex, the locat- 
ing of the issues becomes a matter of analyzing the fact. In practice 
this may mean defining the key word (or words) in the proposition, 
as right in the example that we have just discussed. 


When you get into an argument, you may be pretty sure that 
your opponent will be from Missouri. He will say, "Seeing is believ- 
ing," and what he wants is the EVIDENCE. Without evidence you can 
only offer your own unsupported views, which you already know 
the opponent will not accept for if he did accept them there would 
have been no argument in the first place. 

Evidence is whatever can be offered as support for a proposition^ 


What constitutes evidence? <Teople constantly appeal to facts, or 
try to appeal to facts, to support argument. "The facts of the case" 
are important as evidence, but they are not the only thing which 
can be used as evidence. People also appeal to opinions of other 
people who are supposed to have authority. "Expert testimony" is 
offered in the courtroom as evidence to support a case. The murder 
trial may bring out the alienist, the ballistics expert, the medical 
examiner, and any number of other experts whose opinions are to 
he considered by the jury. Presumably they base their testimony 
on facts, but what the jury is asked to accept is their opinion, their 
judgment of the facts. 


The expert may be wrong, and experts frequently disagree among 
themselves; and what they disagree about is ordinarily not the facts 
but their interpretation of the facts. Opinion, therefore, appears as 
evidence. But not only the so-called expert opinion may appear as 
evidence. Even before the law we find what is called the character 
witness, and what the character witness finally offers is his opinion. 
In ordinary argument people constantly invoke opinion of all sort 
"Mr. Allen says so, and I should think he would know," or "The 
New York Times says so." The author of the student theme on uni- 
versal military training invokes the opinion of Teddy Roosevelt: 
Roosevelt's opinion about carrying the big stick is used as evidence, 

Fact or opinion may constitute evidence. What tests can we apply 
to them to satisfy ourselves that they are worth admitting into an 


A fact must be made to stick. That is, the fact must be a fact. 
What is offered as a fact may turn out to be merely a mistaken 
opinion. We know this pattern well from detective stories. A "fact" 
points to the guilt of a certain character. He is arrested by the 
stupid police sergeant. The clever detective proves that the "fact* 
was not a fact at all. The true criminal had worn the hooded rain- 
coat which everybody at the house party associated with Miss Per- 
kins, and he had been mistaken for her in the mist on the beach. The 
"fact" that Miss Perkins was observed near the scene of the crime 
at a certain hour turns out to be not a fact at all, and justice is 

To stick, a fact must be (1) verifiable or (2) attested by a 
reliable source. 


Certain facts can be established by referring to some regularity 
in nature that a certain type of cord would not support a certain 
weight, that potassium permanganate will explode under certain 
conditions, that the robin's egg is a certain shade of blue with 
brown markings, that a certain night of the year did not have a 
full moon, that rigor mortis sets in at a certain time after death. 
Such facts belong to a pattern in nature which is observable, and 


to test a particular fact we refer it to the pattern. We have an 
example in a story about one of Abraham Lincoln's law cases. A 
witness testified that he had observed a certain event. Lincoln asked 
him how, and he replied that he had seen it by moonlight. By pro- 
ducing an almanac, Lincoln showed that there had been no moon 
on the night in question. Lincoln tested the fact by referring it to 
a natural pattern. We shall here use the word verifiable in this 


Suppose, however, Lincoln had not been able to check the wit- 
ness by an almanac. What questions could he have asked to deter- 
mine the reliability of the evidence offered by the witness? Four 
questions are relevant in such cases: 

1. Was there opportunity for the witness to observe the event? 

2. Was the witness physically capable of observing the event? 

3. Was the witness intellectually capable of understanding the 
event and reporting accurately? 

4. Was the witness honest? 

The first question is clear enough, but the others are a little more 
complicated. For instance, if a blind newsman attests that Bill Sims 
was present in a railway station at such a time, how good is his 
evidence? Was he capable of observing the event? If it can be 
demonstrated that the blind man is capable of recognizing a step 
and was acquainted with the step of Bill Sims, who stopped at his 
newsstand every day to buy cigarettes, then it can be assumed that 
the newsman is capable of recognizing Bill Sims' presence at a 
certain time. If, furthermore, it can be accepted that the news- 
man has common sense, is not given to delusions, flights of fancy, 
or exaggerations, and has a good memory, then it can be assumed 
that he is intellectually capable of understanding and reporting the 
event. What remains is the question of honesty. If the newsman 
has no connection with the case, if no malice, profit, or other special 
interest is involved, then it can be readily assumed that his report 
is an honest one. But if some motive which might make him color 
or falsify the report can be established, then this fact must be 
assessed in relation to what is known about the newsman's general 
character. Generally speaking, an interested witness is a poor wit- 


ness. Even if he is honest, his report does not carry prompt convic- 
tion, especially to a hostile or indifferent audience. 

The case we have given for reliability here the blind newsman's 
testimony is a relatively simple one. But it illustrates the kind of 
questions that must be raised in all situations involving testimony. 
A historian trying to determine the truth about an event long past, a 
Congressional committee conducting a hearing on an economic situ- 
ation, a farmer shopping for a new tractor are all engaged in 
assessing the reliability of testimony, and must ask the same ques- 

To sum up: only facts that are verifiable or reliably attested 
should be admitted into the argument. 


We can set up a parallel set of tests for the admission of opinion 
into the argument. Corresponding to the first requirement for the 
admission of a fact, we find the authority of an opinion. There is no 
use in introducing an opinion to support our argument if the opin- 
ion will carry little or no weight. For instance, no lawyer would 
want to introduce as expert a witness who had no reputation for 
competence in his particular field. The manufacturer of athletic 
supplies wants a champion, not a dud, to endorse his tennis racquet, 
and the manufacturer of cosmetics wants a lady of fashion or a 
famous actress to give a testimonial for the facial cream. We should 
be as sure as possible that any authority which we invoke in an 
argument is a real authority: a second-rate navy is no navy, and a 
second-rate authority is no authority, when the moment of combat 


How do we find out if an authority is real authority? "Ask the 
man who owns one," a famous advertising slogan suggests; and the 
maker of a washing machine shows the picture of a happy house- 
wife standing by her prized contraption. The advertisers here appeal 
to authority on the principle that the proof of the pudding is in 
the eating: ask the eater, for he is an authority. This is a kind of 
rough-and-ready authority based on experience, useful but very 
limited in the degree of conviction which it can carry. Very prob- 
ably the automobile buyer has not used many different makes of 


cars and the housewife has not used many different kinds of wash- 
ing machines. The opinion of an impartial technical expert who 
had tested many makes of car or washing machine for efficiency, 
durability, and so forth, would carry much more authority. Here 
we appeal to experience too, but to the experience of the expert. 

Authority is very often based on an appeal to success. The rich 
man is supposed to know how to make money, the famous painter 
how to paint pictures, the heavyweight champion how to fight. 
Success carries prestige and predisposes us to accept the pronounce- 
ment of the successful man. But we should still scrutinize each case. 
Perhaps the rich man got rich by luckhe happened to get into 
business at a time of expansion and rising markets. No doubt he 
himself attributes his success to his own sterling character, shrewd- 
ness, and indefatigable industry, but we may be more inclined to 
trust the evidence of the economic situation of his time. Or the 
famous painter may have struck a prejudice and a fashion of his 
time, and history is littered with the carcasses of artists of all kinds 
whose success was the accident of the moment. The heavyweight 
gives us a better case, for it is a simpler case he merely had to 
square off with one man at one moment and slug it out. But perhaps 
a granite jaw, a fighting heart, and an explosive punch gave him 
the championship, and all that he has to say about training, foot- 
work, and strategy may be wrong. He didn't succeed by luck, like 
the businessman or the painter he really did flatten the opponent 
by his own force but he may give the wrong reasons for his suc- 
cess. The fact of success doesn't mean that the successful man really 
knows the conditions of his success. And he can speak with author- 
ity only if at that point he knows. Many successful people are like 
the man who lived to be a hundred and revealed his secret for 
long life: "I never read less than one chapter of the Holy Writ a 
day or drink more than three slugs of likker a night/' 

Not infrequently we encounter an appeal to what, for lack of a 
better phrase, we may call authority by transference. Because a 
man is considered an authority in one field, it is assumed that he 
is an authority on anything. The famous musician is used as an 
authority on statesmanship, the great mathematician is appealed to 
as an authority on morality, and the great physicist on religion; 
the All-America fullback endorses a certain breakfast food, and a 
debutante prefers such-and-such a cigarette. This sort of reasoning 


is obviously nonsensical and pernicious, for it is simply a means 
of imposing on the gullibility of the audience. And because it is a 
means of imposing on gullibility, it is very common. 

Authority, too, has some relation to time. What was acceptable 
as authority at one time may not be acceptable at another. In any 
field where the body of knowledge is constantly being enlarged 
and revised, timeliness is very important. A book on chemistry or 
physics written ten years ago may now lack authority in certain 
respects, or a history of the American Civil War written in 1875 
may now be considered very misleading. Or should George Wash- 
ington's views on foreign policy influence our own? We want the 
best authority of our time. 

What tests, in the end, can we apply? There are no ready-made 
tests. We must, in the end, use our own judgment to select the 
authority by which we wish to support our argument. This seems 
to leave us where we started; but that is not quite true. Finding 
the man who might know is, after all, different from finding out 
for ourselves what he knows. If we are dealing with authority pre- 
sumably based on experience, we can ask about the nature of the 
experience (one washing machine or ten washing machines?) and 
the intelligence and training of the person who has had the experi- 
ence. If we are dealing with authority based on success, we can 
inquire into the nature of the success (how much was luck?) arid 
into the capacity of the successful person for analyzing the means 
to success. And we should not forget to ask if the authority of the 
successful man is being used as authority by transference. Further- 
more, we have to ask if our authority is timely. 

Let us suppose that we wish to find an authority on some point 
of American history. It will not do to go to the library and take 
down the first book on the subject. The mere fact of print bestows 
no authority, for every error is somewhere embalmed between 
boards. We have to find out something about the author. Is he of 
recent date? (That is, would he have available the latest research 
on the subject?) Does he have any special bias or prejudice which 
must be discounted? Does he occupy a responsible position or has 
he had other professional recognition? (That is, is he on the faculty 
of some important university, have his works been favorably re- 
viewed, and so forth?) How do his views compare with the views 
of some other historians of recognized importance? And all this 


means that we have to find out something about the field of Ameri- 
can history, even if we are not capable of settling the particular 
point in question by our own investigation. 


One more thing must be considered. The authority is going to 
be used for a particular audience, and is intended to be effective 
for that audienceif not the opponent, at least some listener. Effec- 
tive authority is authority which is acceptable to the particular 
audience. The Mohammedan Koran carries no authority to a Cath- 
olic, the Pope carries no authority to a Methodist, and the first 
chapter of Genesis carries no authority to a geologist. If we can use 
an authority our audience already knows and respects, we have an 
initial advantage. If this is not possible, then we must establish the 
prestige of the authority. We can sometimes do this merely by 
informing the audience, but sometimes we must resort to persua- 
sion. And, as we have said, the discussion of persuasion will be 


Once we have our evidence we must know how to reason about 
it if it is to support our position. So reasoning is essential to argu- 

The whole process of living, from first to last, is a long education 
in the use of reason. Fire burns, cats scratch, pulling things off 
tables brings a frown or a spanking-^we learn these great truths 
early. Later on we learn other truths-ja stitch in time saves nine, 
honesty is the best policy, to be good is to be happy. We say we 
learn from experience (or from somebody else's experience), but 
that is not quite true. Experience would teach nothing if we could 
not reason about experience. ; 

Reasoning, therefore, is not something which we learn from books) 
The race learned it the hard way over a long time: if your powers 
of reason failed you too often you were liquidated by the falling 
tree, a saber-toothed tiger, or a neighbor who had reasoned out 
that a sharp stone tied to the end of a stout stick gave him certain 
advantages in a dispute. (But we can train our powers of reason by 
learning something about the reasoning process.) 



^Reasoning is the process by which the mind moves from certain 
data (the evidence) to a conclusion which was not giveii) We can 
make this progress from data to conclusion because we recognize 
some regularity in the world we are dealing with.^ We recognize a 
regularity of cause and effect, and a regularity of subject and 

The cause-and-effect relationship has already been discussed at 
some length in the chapter on Exposition. 7 We continually use the 
cause-and-effect relationship in our ordinary reasoning. But we also 
continually use the subject-attribute relationship.(For instance, we 
know that green apples are sour. Therefore we do riot eat the green 
apple we find on the bough. Here green apples (subject) are affirmed 
to have a certain attribute (sour), and when we encounter the sub- 
ject we conclude that the attribute is present. Or we believe that 
a sales tax is unfair. So we vote against such-and-such a tax because 
it is a sales tax. ] 


Let us examine two examples of reasoning, examples of [the kind 
of reasoning called INDUCTION.! A businessman has hired five boys 
at different times from the Hawkins School and has found them all 
honest, well mannered, and well educated. Therefore, when the 
sixth boy comes along for a job the man will be inclined to hire him. 
In other words, the man has generalized from the five instances 
to the conclusion that all boys from Hawkins School are honest, 
well mannered, and well educated. The man has made a GENERAL- 
IZATION, moving from a number of particular instances to the 
general conclusion that all instances of the type investigated will 
be of this same sort^ 

To take a second example of generalization, after long observa- 
tion men have concluded that water always freezes at a certain 
temperature, 32 degrees. Behind this conclusion, as behind the con- 
clusion about the boys of. Hawkins School, lies the assumption that 
a certain regularity exists. In regard to the water, we assume that 

7 Pages 111-119. A further discussion appears in the Appendix on Cause (pp. 
475 ff.). 


the same kind of thing in nature always behaves the same way 
under the same conditions metal expands when heated; in a 
vacuum falling bodies, no matter what their mass, move at the 
same rate. Without this assumption of regularity we could not 
accept the conclusion we arrive at from examining the individual 
instances, and in fact, all science is based upon this assumption. 

The principle of regularity also applies in the reasoning about 
the boys from Hawkins School. We assume that certain intellectual 
standards are maintained, that certain manners are insisted upon, 
that honesty is inculcated, and that the stupid, idle, boorish, or dis- 
honest boy is not graduated. It does not matter that the conclusions 
we reach in these two instances compel different degrees of assent. 
We scarcely doubt that the next pail of water we leave out will 
freeze at a certain temperature, but we do doubt that absolutely 
all graduates of Hawkins School are models of education, manners, 
and honesty. We recognize here that the principle of regularity 
(Hawkins' standards) in human nature is scarcely as dependable 
as the principle of regularity in nature. The school has tried to 
weed out the incompetent, the boorish, and the dishonest, but 
human nature is very complicated and human organizations are 
very fallible. 


We recognize that the conclusion we reach about the boys from 
Hawkins School is only a probability, but students of logic tell us 
that from the strictly logical standpoint the conclusion that water 
always freezes at 32 degrees is also a probability. This is true be- 
cause no argument which moves from some to all can give more 
than a probability. Undoubtedly millions of instances of water 
freezing at 32 degrees have been observed, but all instances past, 
present, and future have not been observed. After examining a 
certain number of instances we take the leap from the some to 
the all, the INDUCTIVE LEAP. We cannot be sure about the all. It does 
no good to appeal to the principle of regularity in nature by saying 
that water is water and will always behave the same way, for that 
principle is itself simply derived from the inspection of a number 
of instances and itself represents a leap from some to all. 

What tests can we apply to reduce the risk of error in making 
the inductive leap? 



First, a fair number of instances must be investigated. An instance 
or two proves nothing. Somebody says: "All Chinese are short and 
slender. Why, I used to know one out in Wyoming, and he wasn't 
more than five feet tall and I bet he didn't weigh more than a 
hundred pounds." Or: "All boys from St. Joseph's College are snobs. 
There was a fellow from home. . . ." We all know this type of 
reasoning, and can see that it proves nothing. A fair number of 
instances have not been examined. But there is no way to determine 
certainly what is a fair number of instances. We simply have to 
use the evidence possible to us under the given circumstances and 
remember that only the untrained mind is rash enough to leap with- 
out looking. 

Second, the instances investigated must be typical. In a labora- 
tory the scientist may be able to test a substance to be sure it is 
typical of its kind. He could detect alcohol in a sample of water 
and would, therefore, not use that sample in an experiment to 
demonstrate the freezing point of water. 

But sometimes we have to assume, without testing the fact, that 
the instances available are typical. For example, the businessman 
who has hired five boys from Hawkins School assumes that they 
are typicalthat other boys from the school will be like them. At 
other times, however, when we are making out a case, we can 
choose from among a number of instances for our investigation; in 
such a situation we should be sure that the instances chosen are 
representative. Let us consider the problem of a sociologist who, 
for some purpose, wishes to give a description of the life in the 
southern Appalachians. The sociologist picks three settlements, in- 
vestigates the pattern of life there, and concludes that life (in 
general) in the southern Appalachians is such-and-such. But an 
opponent may point out that the settlements chosen are not typical, 
that the people are of Swiss descent and maintain a good many 
Swiss customs. The sociologist's generalization, then, may be worth- 
less because his instances are not typical. 

Third, if negative instances occur they must be explained. Obvi- 
ously, any negative instance occurring among those which we are 
using as a basis for a generalization will reduce the validity of the 
generalization unless we can demonstrate that the negative instance 


is not typical, and therefore need not be considered. For example, 
if the businessman who has hired five Hawkins boys and found 
them all honest, hires a sixth and finds that he is pilfering in the 
stock room, the businessman may decide that he must give up the 
generalization that the Hawkins graduates are desirable employees. 
But he discovers that the boy who did the pilfering is a very special 
case, that he is really unbalanced, is a kleptomaniac, and conse- 
quently cannot be taken as typical. Therefore, the businessman 
returns to his generalization that Hawkins graduates are desirable 
employees. ^ 

To summarize^ the tests for making a generalization are: 

1. A fair number of instances must be investigated. 

2. The instances investigated must be typical. 

3. All negative instances must be explained, j 


^Another type of induction is by ANALOGY.\ This type of reasoning 
is based on the idea that if two instances are alike in a number of 
important points they will be alike in the point in question. For 
example, a board of directors might argue that Jim Brown would 
make a good corporation executive because he has been a colonel 
in the army. The analogy here is between the requirements for a 
good army officer and a good business executive. The points of 
similarity might be taken as the ability to deal with men, the ability 
to make and execute policy, the willingness to take responsibility. 
Then if Brown has been successful as a colonel it may be assumed 
that he will be successful as a business executive. 

We can arrive at certain tests for analogy similar to those for 

1. The two instances compared must be similar in important 

2. Differences between the two instances must be accounted for 
as being unimportant. 

In addition to these tests, we must remember that increasing the 
number of similar instances tends to strengthen our argument. For 
example, if Brown, the man being considered for an executive posi- 
tion in the corporation, has been a successful division chief in a 
government bureau as well as a successful colonel, his case is 


strengthened in the eyes of the board. But in the case of analogy, 
as of generalization, we can arrive only at probability. 


On this point of probability we can distinguish the two types 
of induction (generalization and analogy) from the type of reason- 
ing known as DEDUCTION. Deduction does not give probability; it 
gives certitude. 

The most familiar example of deduction is found in ordinary 
geometry, the geometry we studied in high school. The system 
starts with certain axioms. For instance: "Things that are equal to 
the same thing are equal to each other.'* Or: "If equals be added 
to equals the wholes are equal." 

There is no attempt in the system of geometry to prove these 
axioms. They are the starting point we accept. (They are LOGICALLY 
PRIMITIVE in the deductive system of geometry.) Once we accept 
them, the whole system necessarihj follows. Accepting the axioms 
we can deduce our first theorem. Then, having thus obtained the 
first theorem, we can prove the second, and so on throughout the 
system generated by the axioms. Once we have the axioms the sys- 
tem must necessarily follow. It cannot be otherwise. 


Deductive reasoning appears, however, in other forms than ge- 
ometry. Let us take an example of the type of reasoning called the 

All men are mortal. 
Socrates was a man. 
.". Socrates was mortal. 

We are reasoning here about a relation among three classes, 
mortal creatures, men, and Socrates. It may help us to think of the 
matter as a series of concentric circles, one small (Socrates), one 
medium-size (men), and one large (mortal creatures). We put the 
medium-size circle in the large one, and then the small circle in 
the medium-size circle. Then, obviously, the small circle is included 
in the large circle. We see this from the following chart: 



Each class is indicated by a TERM in the syllogism, the small class 
by the MINOR TERM, the medium-size class by the MIDDLE TERM, 
and the large class by the MAJOR TERM. The syllogism itself is com- 
posed of three propositions, the first two called PREMISES, and the 
third called the CONCLUSION. The proposition containing the major 
term is called the MAJOR PREMISE and that containing the minor 
term the MINOR PREMISE. 

All men are mortal, (major premise) 
Socrates was a man. (minor premise) 
.*. Socrates was mortal, (conclusion) 

The minor term is, we see, the subject of the conclusion, the 
major term the predicate of the conclusion, and the middle term 
the term that has made their relation in the conclusion possible. 

Let us take another piece of reasoning that seems to have the 
same form: 

Some soldiers are corporals. 

All sergeants are soldiers. 

.'. All sergeants are corporals. 

We sense immediately that there has been a slip in the reasoning. 
And we can see why if we chart the relations among the classes in 
the syllogism: 

The major premise (Some soldiers are corporals) says that the 
class corporals falls within the class soldiers, but the word some 
tells us that part of the class soldiers falls outside the class corporals. 
So for this premise we get Fig. 1. 

The minor premise (All sergeants are soldiers) says that the class 
sergeants falls within the class soldiers, but this means that some 
of the class soldiers falls outside the class sergeants. So we get Fig. 2. 



The conclusion (All sergeants are corporals) says that the class 
sergeants falls within the class corporals. It pretends to make the 
same kind of figure we had for Socrates in the end, but it cannot do 
so. For it is clear that the premises have given us no ground for any 
relation between the class sergeants and the class corporals. The 
premises have merely put the two classes within the third class 
soldiers. So the only figure we could reasonably get would be Fig. 3. 

Fig. 1 

Fig. 2 

Fig. 3 

The argument is not VALID. There has been a slip in the reasoning. 
This is not the only kind of slip in reasoning that we may make 
in dealing with classes. Let us take another example: 

All banks are financial institutions. 
Some building and loan companies are not banks. 
.*. Some building and loan companies are not financial institu- 

The major premise (All banks are financial institutions) says that 
the class banks falls within the class financial institutions. So we 
get Fig. 4. 

The minor premise (Some building and loan companies are not 
banks) says that part of the class building and loan companies falls 
outside the class banks. This gives Fig. 5. 

Fig. 4 

Fig. 5 


The conclusion (Some building and loan companies are not finan- 
cial institutions) tells us that some of the class building and loan 
companies falls outside the class financial institutions. But this does 
not follow. We know that the class banks falls inside the class 
financial institutions, and the part of the class building and loan 

(and not) 

Fig. 6 

companies which falls outside of the class banks may still fall inside 
the class financial institutions, as would be the case with Fig. 6. 
In either one of the faulty arguments given above we know at a 
glance that the conclusion is wrong, because we know the facts of 
the case. We know that sergeants are not corporals and that all 
building and loan companies are financial institutions. But some- 

Fig. 7 

times we may not know the facts; then we have to depend on the 
correctness of the reasoning. For instance, are we impressed by the 
following argument of a political candidate? 

"Every Congressman who voted for the Jones-Higgins Bill be- 
trayed this state. But I did not vote for it. Therefore, I am no traitor 
to your interests, but will fight to the death for them. . . ." 


We are not impressed, for the candidate has not offered any 
finally convincing argument that he is not a traitor to the public 
interest. Voting for the Jones-Higgins Bill is not the only way a 
Congressman can betray the public interest. 

What he wants his conclusion to look like is represented in Fig. 7. 
But all we are sure of is that the candidate belongs outside the class 
of those who voted for the Jones-Higgins Bill. For all he has proved, 
he may still be inside the class of traitors to the public interest, and 
we may have Fig. 8. 

In any reasoning about relations among classes, it is necessary 
for us to look behind the words and see what and how much is said 
to be included within what. And it is some- 
times helpful to use charts such as we have 
made above, at least until one is experi- 
enced in dealing with this type of reason- 
ing. And when we make a chart if, in 
diagramming the second premise, we auto- 
matically diagram the conclusion, then the 
argument is valid. This is the case, we 
recall, with the chart about Socrates. We 
diagram the major premise by putting the pj g g 

class men into the class mortal creatures. 

Then when we diagram the minor premise by putting the class 
Socrates into the class men we find that we have automatically 
diagrammed the conclusion: Socrates was mortal. Socrates is put 
into the class of mortal creatures. 8 


We have spoken of valid syllogisms, those in which the process 
of reasoning is correct. But we may reason correctly and still not 
have a true conclusion if we start with a mistaken assumption, a 
premise which is not true. For instance, let us look at this syllogism: 

All legless creatures that crawl are snakes. 
Worms are legless creatures that crawl. 
.'. Worms are snakes. 

In this the reasoning is correct: // all legless creatures that crawl 
were snakes, then worms, which are legless, crawling creatures, 

8 For a more detailed discussion see the Appendix on the Syllogism, p. 481. 


would be snakes. But we know that the major premise (All legless 
creatures that crawl are snakes) is not true. Therefore, no matter 
how correct the reasoning may be, we cannot depend upon it to 
give us a true conclusion. 

In other words, a syllogism may be valid (correct in its reasoning) 
and its conclusion may be untrue. But we always want true conclu- 
sions. Therefore, we must be careful to inspect our premises. Truth 
of the premises is as necessary as correct reasoning. 


We can make four basic kinds of propositions about relations 
among classes: 

1. All X is in Y. All men are mortal 

2. All X is excluded from Y. (Or: No X is in Y.) No whales are 

3. Some X is in Y. Some women are cruel. 

4. Some X is excluded from Y. Some heroes are not recognized. 
Many propositions about relations among classes do not come to 

us, however, in such simple forms. When that is true, our first step 
must be to see into which of these basic kinds the proposition is 
translatable. Often we can do this almost instinctively. There is no 
difficulty, for instance, in seeing that the proposition, "Warm gases 
ascend," can be translated into the form, "All warm gases are in the 
class of things that ascend." But some instances are more difficult 
and require careful analysis. Propositions containing restrictive and 
exclusive terms such as all but, only, and all except are especially 
apt to give trouble. 

For example, the proposition, "None but the brave deserve the 
fair," seems at first glance to mean, "All the brave deserve the fair." 
But a little reflection shows us that such is not the case, and that 
it really means, "All who deserve the fair are some of the brave," 
and is an example of type 1. Or to take another proposition, to say, 
"Only students willing to work will pass this course," does not mean, 
"All students willing to work will pass this course." Rather, it means, 
"All who pass this course will be in the class of those who are 
willing to work." Students who are badly prepared or are stupid 
may not pass even if they are willing to work. 



In addition to the ordinary syllogism, there are two kinds of 
syllogism which we shall look at briefly. The first we shall call rea- 
soning by either-or, though it has a technical name, the DISJUNCTIVE 

Let us set up an example. Upon going into the kitchen and find- 
ing the steak off the table and on the floor under the sink, we think 
that either the cat or the dog has pulled it down. Then we discover 
that the cat is locked in the barn to catch rats. Therefore the dog 
must have committed the crime. The formula is simple. We decide 
on two possibilities. We exclude one. Naturally the other becomes 
our conclusion. 

To get a true conclusion, we must be sure, as with the ordinary 
syllogism, that our starting point is dependable. 

First, the either or premise must really cover the case. The al- 
ternatives must be exhaustive. In the example of the cat and dog, 
if the cat was locked in the barn and the dog was out chasing rab- 
bits, the premise simply does not cover the case. We have to investi- 
gate further to cover the possibilities. We find that, after all, it was 
curly-headed little Willie who pulled the steak off the table and 
deserves the licking. 

Second, we must really mean the either or. The possibilities must 
be distinct with no overlap between them. They must be exclusive. 
Let us examine a piece of reasoning which may be faulty because 
there is an overlap between the possibilities set up. 

To maintain peace we must have either the United Nations or a 

system of international police. 
But a system of international police is undesirable. 
.'. We must have the United Nations. 

If we take it in fact that the United Nations does not involve a 
basic system of international police, then the conclusion is valid. 
But if we take it that the United Nations does involve a system 
of international police, then the conclusion is not acceptable. It is 
not because the two items of the either-or are not distinct: interna- 
tional police occurs in both, of them, stated in one and implied in 
the other. The result is that in one premise we say that international 
police is undesirable, and then say it is desirable (under another 
name) in the conclusion. But this makes nonsense. 


To be sure that our starting point for reasoning by either-or is 
satisfactory we have to know what we are talking about. We must 
examine the facts and use our common sense to be sure that the 
either-or covers the case and that there is no overlap between the 


Reasoning by if-then deals with a condition and a result. The 
condition being fulfilled, the result follows. The technical name of 
this kind of reasoning is the HYPOTHETICAL SYLLOGISM. 

We constantly use reasoning of this kind, as in the statement, "If 
you had banked the furnace, we would have had heat this morn- 
ing." Fully stated, the argument would go like this: 

If you do not bank the furnace, the fire will die. 
But you did not bank the furnace. 
/. The fire died. 

The reasoning above is correct. We have affirmed the if, the con- 
dition, and therefore the result necessarily follows. But the reason- 
ing is also correct if we deny the then, as in the following instance: 

If you do not bank the furnace, the fire will die. 

But the fire has not died. 

.'. You did bank the furnace. 

The following example does not, however, give us correct reason- 

If you do not bank the furnace, the fire will die. 

The fire died. 

.'. You did not bank the furnace. 

The conclusion here is not necessarily acceptable. The fire may 
have died because the furnace was not banked, but it also may 
have died from other causes. For instance, there may not have been 
enough fuel. That is, not banking the furnace is a sufficient but not 
a necessary condition of the fire's going out. (See the discussion 
of sufficient and necessary conditions, p. 115.) For the reasoning 
in this last example to be valid, the if would have to mean only if. 
Most errors in reasoning of the type of if-then come about because 


we interpret an if as an only if. Of course, there are instances where 
the if is legitimately to be interpreted as only if. But this is a matter 
of the truth of the premise with which we start, and if we mean 
only if we should say so in the premise. 


In discussing each type of reasoning, inductive or deductive, we 
have tried to indicate the characteristic errors into which we may 
fall. An argument that does not follow the course of reasonan 
argument that involves such an erroris called a FALLACY. In induc- 
tion a generalization based on too few instances is a fallacy (p. 157). 
Or an analogy based on instances different in important respects 
is a fallacy (pp. 157-58). And again, in deduction when the major 
and the minor terms are not properly related in the syllogism we 
have a fallacy (pp. 159-63). 

There are fallacies which we have not touched on, at least not 
directly, which are all too common in argument. They are EQUIVO- 

SEQUiTUR (Latin for "it does not follow"). 


Equivocation is the fallacy of using the same term in different 
meanings in the same argument. Here is a well-known example: 

Even scientists recognize a power beyond nature, for they speak of 
"natural law"; and if there is law, there must be a power to make the 
law; such a power beyond nature is called God; therefore scientists 
believe in God. 

Here the word law is used equivocally, in two meanings. In the 
sense in which scientists use it when they speak of "natural law" 
it means the recognition of regularity in natural process the law 
of gravity, for example. Here the sense is descriptive. But in the 
second sense it means what is ordinarily meant in government, a 
command given by a superior authority. Here the sense is prescrip- 
tive. Since the whole argument is based on the word law, it does 
not make sense as an argument if the word shifts its meaning. It 
may be true that a number of scientists do believe in God, but that 
does not make this a good argument. 



Begging the question occurs when the arguer assumes something 
to be true which really needs proof. We have already seen (p. 134) 
how this occurs in prejudiced propositions, such as "This unjust 
tax should be repealed." To say that the tax is unjust is equivalent 
to saying that it should be repealed. Yet the repeal is what the 
argument is supposed to be about. The word unjust smuggles into 
the proposition as already accepted what is supposed to be at stake 
and under debate. 

The same principle appears on a larger scale whenever we argue 
in a circle. For example: 

A: I admire Rembrandt's painting "The Night Watch." 

B: Why? 

A: Because it is a great painting. 

B: How do you know? 

A: All the best critics say it is. 

B: How do you know who are the best critics? 

A: Why, the best critics are those who recognize great painting. 

Here speaker A gives a circle in the proof. He sets out to prove 
that the painting is great by appealing to the best critics, and then 
identifies the best critics as those who recognize great painting. This 
instance is very simple, but sometimes the begging may be con- 
cealed in a very elaborate argument. We must always be on the 
watch for it, for such question-begging is an attempt to establish 
a thing by itself. 


An arguer ignores the question when he introduces any consid- 
eration that will distract from what is really at stake. There are 
numberless ways of doing this. A competing question may be set 
up so that argument is shifted to new ground. Or an appeal may 
be made to some emotional attitude having nothing to do with the 
logic of the case. For instance, if a man arguing for a Republican 
candidate shifts the issue from the candidate's qualifications to the 
praise of Lincoln, the great hero of the party, he is ignoring the 
question. Or if a Democrat leaves a present question and begins 
to discuss the glorious achievements of Thomas Jefferson, he is 
ignoring the question. Or if a lawyer defending a man accused of 


murder does not deal with the question of guilt, but argues that 
the victim was a wicked man or that the family of the accused is 
worthy of pity, we have the same situation. 

One of the commonest forms of ignoring the question is to shift 
from the question to the character or personality of the opponent. 
We get an instance when the husband criticizes his wife and she 
replies, "Well, you aren't so perfect yourself 1" She has ignored the 
rights and wrongs of the question, her own burnt bread or bad 
arithmetic or overbid at bridge, and has begun to discuss his short- 
comings. Or we get an instance when we argue that we cannot 
endorse a certain political measure because the Congressman who 
proposes it is divorced or drinks. We have shifted from the measure 
to the man. ) 


Non sequitur, as we have said, means, "It does not follow." In 
one sense, of course, any fallacy is a non sequitur, because by the 
very nature of the case the conclusion does not follow from fal- 
lacious reasoning. But here we shall use the term to cover certain 
more special kinds of argument. 

For instance, it may be argued: "William Brown doesn't drink 
or smoke, and so he ought to make a good husband." But it is obvi- 
ous that a man who does not drink or smoke may still make a bad 
husband. He may gamble, or loaf, or beat his wife. Or it may be 
argued: "Harry Thompson would make a good governor, because 
he belongs to the upper classes." We know, however, that belong- 
ing to a certain social class proves nothing about a man's ability 
or integrity. So the conclusion that Thompson would make a good 
governor does not follow. A connection has been asserted which 
does not exist. 

A somewhat more complicated form of non sequitur appears in 
a piece of parental reasoning like this: "As soon as I increased 
Billie's allowance, his grades at school began to fall. Therefore we 
ought to reduce his allowance since having extra money makes him 
idle." But Billie may have been suffering from eye strain, or may 
have fallen in love, or may now be taking up a subject for which 
he is badly prepared. Or let us take another example: "Just after 
Herbert Hoover was elected President we had the greatest depres- 
sion in history. How can you respect a man like that?" 


In the argument about Billie and the argument about Hoover the 
same thing has happened. It is argued that because A (an increase 
in Billie's allowance or the election of Hoover) precedes B (Billie's 
bad grades or the depression), A must necessarily be the cause of B. 
This occurs when the arguer does not understand the nature of a 
cause (pp. 117-19) or does not take the trouble to analyze the situa- 
tion. He simply assumes that if one thing precedes another, it is the 
cause of that other.) 


Some understanding of fallacies is useful to help us reason 
straight, but it is also useful to help us locate defects in an opposing 
argument. If we can point out a fallacy in an opposing argument, 
we can REFUTE that argument, and REFUTATION is a powerful sec- 
ondary weapon for maintaining our own position. Even if we are 
not engaged in a debate but are simply writing a piece of argument, 
we often find that we have to refute certain arguments arguments 
which we can anticipate. Or we may want to refute certain argu- 
ments already made in order to clear the ground for our own views. 

It is npt necessary to memorize a list of fallacies to discover de- 
fects in reasoning or to reason straight. Many people who have 
never heard the word fallacy can reason straight or locate defects 
in the reasoning of another person. When we meet the example of 
a fallacy in cold type on the page of a textbook, we are inclined 
to say, "Nobody with common sense would commit such an error." 
That is true. But common sense is not so common, after all, and 
sometimes we have to work for it. 


When we first study the syllogism we are inclined to feel that 
to do so is a waste of time because in actual practice we rarely use 
or encounter it. It seems so remote from the texture of living argu- 
ment and reasoning that we think it impractical, nothing but a 
schoolbook exercise. 

Now it is true that we rarely encounter the syllogism in the form 
which we have treated here. But that does not mean that it may 
not lie behind manv arguments which we make or attend to. As a 


matter of fact, syllogistic reasoning is often embedded in the body 
of a discourse like the bones in the flesh and it may serve the same 
purpose as the bones. This may be so even when part of the syl- 
logism is never stated at all, when it is assumed that the audience 
will supply the unstated part. We may say that such a piece of 
reasoning is an implied syllogism. But it has a technical name, 
ENTHYMEME ("in the mind"). 

A hunter says: "This setter has not been well trained. It is gun- 
shy/' Behind his remark lies a syllogism, which we can formally 
set up: 

A gun-shy setter is not well trained, (major premise) 
This setter is gun-shy, (minor premise) 
.". This setter is not well trained. 

We see immediately that in the hunter's remark the major premise 
does not appear. It is assumed that his audience has it in mind. So 
in his statement we have an implied, and not a developed, syllogism. 

Similarly, a minor premise or a conclusion may be suppressed. 
In the following example the conclusion is suppressed: "A girl who 
is selfish with her mother and father probably won't make a good 
wife, and Susie certainly imposes on her parents. Now that ought 
to give you something to think about if you continue to go around 
with her.*' Set up formally, the syllogism appears: 

A girl who is selfish, etc., probably won't make a good wife. 
Susie is selfish (imposes on her parents). 

.". Susie will not make a good wife (what you had better think 

These examples are very simple, and we seize on their meaning 
in a flash without the necessity of framing the argument in full. 
But sometimes the basic argument is more deeply embedded in the 
midst of evidence, examples, and other material. Here is a para- 
graph from an editorial: 

Nobody denies that our economic situation is desperate and that we 
are facing a crisis, and nobody denies that there is great need for wise 
legislation in all matters affecting the business of the nation. We must 
scrutinize with redoubled attention every bill which comes before 
Congress and try to see what its effect will be in this sphere of activity. 
This is undoubtedly necessary with the present bill to lower taxes. If it 


is passed it will have an inflationary effect. What attitude shall we take 
toward the present bill? 

The main point here concerns the tax reduction bill. It is assumed 
that the present situation is desperate and that good legislation is 
needed. All of that is background. The argument to follow can 
really be divided into two syllogisms linked together: 

Tax reduction promotes inflation. 

The present bill would reduce taxes. 

.'. The present bill would promote inflation. 

The conclusion of this syllogism provides a premise for the next 
one, the link in the argument. 

Whatever produces inflation is bad. 
The present bill would promote inflation. 
.". The present bill is bad. 

Neither the major premise nor the conclusion of this syllogism 
is stated in the editorial. The editorial writer feels that his reader 
knows that inflation is bad, and he feels that the conclusion about 
this particular bill will strike the reader more powerfully if the 
reader is forced to come to it himself. The reader will himself 
answer the question: "What attitude shall we take toward the pres- 
ent bill?" 

An extended argument may be a tissue or chain of implied syl- 
logisms, the conclusion of one becoming a premise in the next. The 
writer trusts his reader to grasp the line of reasoning without the 
full statement. But a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and 
if we are making an argument we must be careful not to insert a 
link that will not bear the strain of the argument. A good way to 
avoid this danger is to go back over an argument to inspect each 
implied syllogism and to make sure that in its developed form 
it would be valid. 


The composition of an extended argument calls for very careful 
planning. One point must lead to another, effect must be traced 
to cause, premise must give conclusion. Random thoughts, no mat- 


ter how important in themselves, will not carry conviction. There- 
fore it is a good idea to think through an argument before begin- 
ning the actual writing. To prepare a systematic outline of the argu- 
ment is the best way to be sure that the subject is covered and the 
relationship among the parts is clear. 

When a lawyer prepares the BRIEF of a case, he does just this. 
The brief is not a set of jottings and suggestions. It is the full out- 
line of an argument. The brief is the arrangement in logical se- 
quence and in logical relationship of the evidence and the argument 
on one side of the dispute. The brief makes complete sense in itself, 
even to a reader who is not previously familiar with the dispute. 

The process of drawing a brief in the law or for a formal debate 
of any sort is a very complicated one. But for ordinary purposes 
we can dispense with some of the subtleties and refinements useful 
to the lawyer or debater. We cannot, however, dispense with the 
requirements listed above: logical sequence, logical relationship, 


The brief is divided into three general sections: INTRODUCTION, 


The introduction should give whatever information is necessary 
for an understanding of the situation: proposition, definition of 
terms, history of the question, immediate occasion of the dispute, 
statement of admissions and issues. Not all of these items are neces- 
sary in all briefs, but the proposition and the statement of issues 
are always demanded. In any event, nothing not acceptable to both 
sides should appear in the introduction. The argument presents all 
the evidence and the inferences drawn from that evidence step by 
step to lead to the single conclusion desired. When such are de- 
manded it also presents refutations of opposing views and answers 
possible objections to its own. The conclusion summarizes the fun- 
damental points of the argument and when necessary shows how 
they relate to the question at stake. 


It is important so to arrange the items of the brief on the page 
that the relationship among them is immediately clear. Each of the 
three main sections should be treated independently, with a system 


of numbering complete under that section. Main headings under a 
section should be given Roman numerals, the subdivisions scaling 
down in importance marked A, 1, a. A dummy form will make the 
system clear. 







A. etc., 

It is important to keep the indentations on the left margin con- 
sistent in each class and to be sure that a class of lower importance 
is more deeply indented than the class just above it. If more sub- 
divisions are needed than are indicated here, the system can be 
begun over again with the key numerals and letters in parentheses. 
For instance, if subdivisions are needed under a, we can use (/), 
(A), (1), and so forth. But for ordinary purposes such an extension 
is rarely necessary. 

In the second section of the brief (the argument), a new ele- 
ment is introduced that is not shown in the dummy above. Here we 
have to indicate the relation of evidence to the inferences drawn 
from the evidence. That is, / is true because of A, and A is true 
because of 1 and 2, and 1 is true because of a and b. We give the 
conclusion (as I) and work back through a chain of reasons. 

So for the argument we can fill out the dummy thus: 

I. because (or for) 9 

A. because 

1. . because 

a. and 


9 We may make a distinction for this purpose of a brief between because 


Thus all the relationships are indicated as a chain of proof. If we 
need to interrupt the chain of proof to refute an opposing view or 
to answer an objection, we can do it as follows: 

c (following b above). The view that (so-and-so) is true 
can be refuted because 

(I) _ and 

(II) -- 

c. The objection that (so-and-so) is not valid because 

(II) ---- 

Such a form can be used at any necessary level, and not merely 
at the level of a, b, and so on. 


Let us see how we would go about using a brief in preparing a 
theme. Suppose we have been given the proposition: "Scientists 
should refuse to participate in research which may lead to the 
production of military weapons/' 

We may have an immediate, almost instinctive reaction to the 
proposition, either for or against it, or we may not be able to reach 
a conclusion without further consideration. In either case, we feel 
it worth while to get some acquaintance with the literature on the 
subject. If we have not made up our own mind, the arguments by 
others may help us. If we have made up our own mind, we may 

and /or, using because to mean the cause of, and for to mean the reason for 
believing the truth of. Let us take a simple example: 


I. Three people died in Morgansville in traffic accidents this week, because 

A. The driver, in one instance, was intoxicated, and 

B. The streets, in the other instances, were slick with ice. 


I. Three people died in Morgansville in traffic accidents this week, for 

A. I saw one person die, and 

B. The Morgansville Herald reported the deaths of two other persons in 
the issue of May 21. 

The point here is to indicate clearly what is being asserted, the cause of an 
event or the reason for believing the event to have occurred. 


find arguments in support of our view, and we shall certainly en- 
counter arguments against our view which we should be prepared 
to refute. 

If we went to the library to investigate the question we might 
find a considerable body of material on the subject. After reading 
such material we might have reached an opinion of our own. Let 
us suppose that we wish to attack the proposition, to take the 
negative side. 

Sometimes the history of a question is important, and that is true 
here. The events of the past war make the question very important. 
So we may begin our brief with the "History of the Question." 
Then we may move on to a statement of the "Occasion for Discus- 
sion." That is, the immediate discussion is provoked by a general 
debate going on over the country. Then we want to be sure that 
we know exactly what the real issues are. So we set up a section 
on "Issues." Then we are ready to give the body of the argument. 

We might make a brief like the following: 


I. Proposition: Scientists should refuse to participate in research which 

may lead to the production of military weapons. 
II. History of the Question 

A. The atomic bomb made clear the destructive power of modern 

1. Scientists realize this power. 

a. Dr. Kistiakowsky, who witnessed the Alamogordo ex- 

plosion called it "the nearest thing to doomsday." 
(William L. Laurence, Dawn over Zero: The Story of 
the Atomic Bomb, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, 
p. 11) 

b. Albert Einstein says that atomic war might destroy two- 

thirds of mankind. ("Einstein on the Atomic Bomb," as 
told to Raymond Swing, Atlantic Monthly, CLXXVI, 
November 1945, 43) 

2. Laymen realize this power. 

a. The press has been full of information on this point, and 
there have been numerous articles and books, like John 
Kersey's Hiroshima (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 
and Norman Cousins's Modern Man is Obsolete (New 
York, Macmillan, 1946). 


B. Efforts have been made to curb the use of atomic energy for war. 

1. The Atomic Commission has been set up in this country. 

2. The United Nations are trying to reach an agreement to 

bar the bomb. 

III. Occasion for Discussion 

A. There has been debate among scientists about their responsi- 

1. Norbert Wiener refused to give information about research 

having military significance. ("A Scientist Rebels," Atlantic 
Monthly, CLXXIX, January 1947, 46) 

2. Louis N. Ridenour attacked Dr. Wiener's position. ("The 

Scientist Fights for Peace," Atlantic Monthly, CLXXIX, 
May 1947, 80-83) 

3. The American Scholar published a forum on the relation of 

scientists to war (XVI, Spring 1947, 213-225) and a set of 
letters in reply ("Should the Scientists Resist Military In- 
trusion?" XVI, Summer 1947, 353-360). 

IV. Issues 

A. Does the scientist behave morally by refusing to participate? 

B. Does the refusal to participate practically serve the cause of 



I. To refuse is not moral, for 

A. In so far as the scale of war is a determining factor, the refusal 

is morally meaningless, for 

1. The fact of killing constitutes the moral question without 
reference to the number of victims. (Louis N. Ridenour, 
op. cit.y p. 82) 

B. The scientist who refuses neglects some of the broader moral 

issues, for 

1. If he believes that this system of government has moral 

value, it is worth defending in war, and 

2. If in case of such a war he had not assisted in preparation 

or refused to participate in research, after the com- 
mencement of war, he would want victory at somebody 
else's expense. 
II. To refuse is not practical, for 

A. No distinction can nqw be drawn between research which may 

have a military value and research which may not, for 
1. Scientific advance depends on a number of individual dis- 
coveries and ideas, the importance of no one of which 
by itself can be predicted, for 


a. No one scientist or discovery made the atomic bomb pos- 
sible. (William L. Laurence, op. cit.) 
2. A scientific discovery may lead to both a peaceful and a 

warlike purpose, for 
a. An airplane may drop a bomb or carry serum. 

B. In total war the "whole range of industrial and technical know- 

how in the world becomes a military factor." (William Yandell 
Elliott, "Facts and Values," American Scholar, XVI, Summer 
1947, 358) 

C. The idea that the scientist is a special case to be distinguished 

from the farmer, factory worker or manager, mother, and so 
forth, can be refuted, for 

1. Food, manufactured goods, and manpower are all necessary 
in war. 

D. If scientists did refuse to participate, the cause of peace would 

not necessarily be advanced, for 

1. If the scientists in this country should refuse, the policy in 

other countries would not be affected, and 

2. If scientists everywhere refused to work, war could still be 

carried on with the weapons which can now be manu- 

E. The problem of maintaining peace is not a scientific one, for 

1. Science does not define values (Christian Gauss, "The Threat 

of Science," Scribners, LXXXVII, May 1930, 467-478), and 

2. Peace must be maintained at the practical level of applied 

values, for 

a. World-wide economic adjustments would promote peace, 


b. Political arrangements are necessary to set up the ma- 

chinery of peace. 


I. It follows that the scientist would serve no moral or practical pur- 
pose by refusing to continue his research. 

We notice that in such a brief every item is a complete sentence 
making its own point, and that if we read the argument through 
the relationship of each item to the chain of proof is clear. Further- 
more, whenever a reference is given for some printed piece of evi- 
dence, the reference is given full bibliographical form. 10 

10 See Appendix 3, pp. 486-516 for information about bibliographical forms. 


When such a brief has been completed, most of the work for an 
argument has been done. All that remains is to develop the material 
so that it will be attractive reading. Here is a theme developed from 
the preceding brief. 


INTRODUCTION The scientists of the world are in a peculiar position. 
For a long time, almost ever since the beginning of 
modern science, people have been looking to the scien- 
tists for a better world for them to live in. And in our 
time we were all taught from childhood that the scien- 
tists would not only bring plenty to the world but would 
also bring peace. Many of the scientists themselves 
must have believed this too. But now science has just 
shown everybody how powerful it is to destroy as well 
as to create, and some of the scientists are afraid of 

1 1 what they have done. l Some of them have gone so 

far as to say that they will refuse to engage in any re- 
search leading to the invention of military weapons. 

2 n, A. 2 The day the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima science 

became the central fact for warfare. Science has always 
been used to improve weapons, but this time it provided 
the weapon which in a single instant destroyed a city 
and conquered an empire. 

3 n, A, 1 8 The scientists were the first to realize that this was 

a new period in history. William L. Laurence in his book 
Dawn over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb * tells 

4 n, A, 1, a how 4 Dr. Kistiakowsky, one of the scientists watching 

the trial explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, said it 
was "the nearest thing to doomsday that one could pos- 

5 n, A, 1, b sibly imagine." And 5 Albert Einstein, the great scientist 

whose work made the bomb possible, has said that the 
bomb may destroy two-thirds of mankind.! 

6 n, A, 2 6 Ordinary people, too, are aware of the danger as we 

can tell by picking up any newspaper or magazine. Al- 

7 n, A, 2, a most everybody has read 7 John Kersey's story of Hiro- 

shima J and the horrible effects of the bomb, and many 

New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, p. 11. 
f "Einstein on the Atomic Bomb/' as told to Raymond 
Swing, Atlantic Monthly, CLXXVI, November 1945, 43. 
f New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946. 


people have read the book by Cousins called Modern 
Man is Obsolete* 

8 n, B 8 Some things have been done to curb the use of 

9 n, B, 1 atomic energy for war. For example, 9 the Atomic Com- 
10 11, B, 2 mission has been set up in this country, and the 10 United 

Nations are trying to control the use of atomic energy. 

11 m, A n It is only natural that scientists, who made the 

bomb, should try to do something about the use of 

12 in, A, 1 science for war. When 12 Norbert Wiener, who is a 

prominent mathematician and who did research for 
World War II, was asked for some information about 
his work, he wrote a letter refusing to have anything 
more to do with creating armaments. His letter was pub- 
lished under the title "A Scientist Rebels." f This letter 
caused a long debate among scientists which is still going 
on. The scientists cannot agree about Dr. Wiener's course 

13 in, A, 2 of action. For instance, 13 Louis N. Ridenour \ attacked 

14 m, A, 3 Dr. Wiener's position, and the 14 American Scholar 

published a forum on the relation of scientists to war 
with letters in reply in a later issue. 

15 iv 15 Since this is a problem that concerns everybody, 

we should all think about it. I am not a scientist or a 
politician, but I do have my views on the subject for 
what they are worth. It seems to me that Dr. Wiener is 
wrong. I shall try to argue my views on two main points. 

16 iv, A 16 First, is the refusal of a scientist to participate in 

any research that may be used for military purposes 

17 iv, B morally good? 17 Second, if he refuses, does he really 

serve the cause of peace? I do not mean to say that 
these two questions can be completely separated, but 
for the sake of this discussion I shall tiy to keep them 

ARGUMENT There are several objections to the idea that a refusal 

18 1, A to participate in such research is morally good. 18 First, 

it seems clear to me that on moral grounds there is no 

difference between an old-fashioned war and a new- 

New York, Macmillan, 1946. 
f Atlantic Monthly, CLXXIX, January 1947, 46. 
| "The Scientist Fights for Peace," Atlantic Monthly 
CLXXIX, May 1947, 80-83. 

XVI, Spring 1947, 213-225, Summer 1947, 353-360. 


19 1, A, 1 fashioned one. 19 The number of people killed, and 

whether they are soldiers in the field or civilians in 
cities, does not change the moral question. That has 
been there all the time. I shall quote from the article 
by Louis N. Ridenour, who has written an answer to 
Dr. Wiener. On this point he says: "God told Moses, 
'Thou shalt not kill' not 'Thou shalt not kill with atomic 
energy, for that is so effective as to be sinful/ " * 

20 1, B 20 Second, the scientist who refuses research on Dr. 

Wiener's grounds does not see some of the broader moral 

21 1, B, 1 issues. 21 If he believes that this country gives a moral 

way of life, with more liberty than some other, he might 
have to admit that war would be necessary under some 
circumstances to defend it. But this would contradict his 

22 1, B, 2 other opinion. 22 And if he still held to his refusal to par- 

ticipate in research, he would still want to share in the 
benefits of victory in such a war. This means that he 
would want somebody else to do the scientific work and 
the fighting so that he could keep his own hands clean 
and his conscience clear. But that does not seem moral 
to me, to make somebody else do the dirty work for you. 

23 ii 2S I shall turn now to the question, does the scientist's 

refusal do any practical good? Does it serve the cause of 
peace? I believe that Dr. Wiener has made this matter 
appear too simple just as he has made the matter of 
morality appear too simple. There are several objections 
that occur to me. 

24 n, A 24 First, how can the scientist tell which piece of re- 

search may serve a military purpose and which will not? 

25 n, A, 1 25 Scientific advance depends on a number of individual 

discoveries and ideas. Anybody who reads Dawn over 

20 n, A, 1, a Zero, which I have already mentioned, 20 will see how 

many single pieces of research lay behind the atomic 

bomb. And nobody could have guessed that many of 

27 n, A, 2 them would ever be used to kill human beings. 27 Further- 

more, when the scientific discovery does lead to a ma- 
chine or a process, that machine or process may be used 

28 n, A, 2, a for either a peaceful or a warlike purpose. 28 An airplane 

dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and an airplane may be 
used to carry serum to a baby dying of diphtheria. 

* Ridenour, op. cit, p. 82. 


29 n, B 29 When we think about what is required to carry on 

a modern war, we see another objection. Food, all sorts 
of manufactured goods, and man power are necessary, 
as well as weapons. The farm, the factory and the 
nursery are just as important from one point of view as 
the laboratory. William Yandell Elliott, Professor of 
Government at Harvard University, has made this point 
in writing about science and war: * "The whole range 
of industrial and technical know-how in the world be- 

80 n, c comes a military factor." 30 Would Dr. Wiener want 

every farmer to quit raising corn, every worker to quit 
making automobiles or playing cards, and every woman 

31 n, c, 1 to stop having children? 31 To be consistent he would 

have to demand that, for food, manufactured goods, and 
man power are all necessary in war. 

82 n, D 32 For a third objection, I can suggest that even if Dr. 

Wiener's view were adopted by all the scientists in this 

33 n, D, 1 country peace would not be guaranteed. 33 There is no 

reason to believe that all other nations would stop re- 

34 n, D, 2 search. 84 Furthermore, even if all scientists everywhere 

refused to work, war could still be carried on with the 
weapons which people already know how to make. 

35 n, E 85 This leads to my last objection, that the problem of 

maintaining peace is not a scientific one at all. Science 
gives us the technical know-how, as Dr. Elliott calls it, 
but it does not tell us what to do with that know-how. 

36 11, E, 1 30 We have to figure out the good and the bad for our- 

selves. I can refer to an essay by Christian Gauss on this 
point. He says: "Quite evidently there are certain ques- 
tions which the scientist can answer and certain others 
which he cannot. Among these latter are questions as 
important as the following: Is this holy or is this obscene? 
Is this beautiful or is this ugly? Is this good or is this 
evil?" f 

87 n, E, 2 37 When we get around to figuring out the good and 

bad for ourselves, we find that we are involved in things 

38 H, E, 2, a like economics and politics and not in science. 38 If 
scientific methods were applied to producing food and 
goods all over the world, many of the causes for war 

"Facts and Values/' American Scholar, XVI, Summer 
1947, 358. 

f"The Threat of Science," Scribners, LXXXVII, May 
1930, 470. 


would be removed. But that is an economic problem. 

89 n, E, 2, b so And it is by political arrangements at home and 
abroad that we can set up the actual machinery for 

CONCLUSION If my line of argument is sound, then the refusal of a 

scientist to participate in any research which might have 
military value is not admirable morally and does no 
practical good. And if that is true, the scientist should 
continue to follow his chosen occupation. He can work 
for peace in other ways which we hope will be more 
effective than his laboratory strike. 


We notice that the author of the theme has very closely followed 
the brief, step by step. This is not always necessary. Sometimes 
the author may want to plunge into the very middle of his argu- 
ment, at what he considers the crucial point, and then later set up 
the background of the question. Or he may move to the question 
by anecdote or illustration and thus catch the interest of his audi- 
ence. Or he may state his conclusion first, and then give his reasons. 
We rarely find an article or essay which sticks slavishly to the line 
of the brief. 

But the ability to draw up a brief remains important, It is a very 
good way for the author to clear his own mind. After he has cleared 
his own mind, he can then more readily adapt his method to his 
audience. And in any event, it is advisable for the inexperienced 
writer to follow very closely the line of the brief when he comes 
to the actual composition of his argument. 

The theme given above is rather elaborate and runs to nearly 
2,000 words. It is really a "readings" theme in the form of an argu- 
ment. But the same method can be used on a theme of any scale. 
Even in a very short theme involving an argument, it is well to brief 
the material before beginning the actual writing. 


In the beginning of this chapter we said that, though argument 
makes the appeal to reason and aims at conviction, the appeal to 
the emotions, persuasion, may be very important as the strategy 


of presenting an argument. The appeal to reason and the appeal to 
emotion can be distinguished, but both may appear in the same 

The human being is a unit, after all, and his reason and his emo- 
tions are but different aspects of that unity. Even the most rigor- 
ously impersonal and logical mathematician is driven to his work 
by some desirehe feels that knowledge is good in itself, that using 
his faculties is good, that to satisfy his curiosity is good. He is not 
thinking what his work is good /or, merely that it is good. 

Though all our reasoning is undertaken in the broad context of 
our emotional life and in the end we want it to lead to satisfactions 
of the emotional life, the emotions may locally, at a given moment, 
get in the way of the exercise of reason. Then we get a kind of short 
circuit, and the short-range satisfaction of the emotions will defeat 
the long-range satisfaction. So Tom Smith votes Republican (or 
Democratic) against his long-range interests, just because his grand- 
father fought under General Sherman (or General Lee). So Jack 
Brown hits the bottle to avoid a problem instead of facing the 
problem and trying to solve it. So Susie Perkins makes a joke at the 
expense of a friend just to please her own vanity in her wit, and 
loses a friend. 

Reason should serve to show us the way to long-run satisfaction; 
but sometimes, human nature being what it is, we have to appeal 
to short-range satisfactions in order to lead someone to see the long- 
range satisfaction. We have to make a person feel that the immedi- 
ate effort is worth while. Our problem is to find the way to establish 
fruitful contact with him. That is the problem of persuasion in 

We cannot expect our ideas, no matter how good they are, to 
make their way readily if we do not know how to present them. 
Even the scientist is irritated and put off if he does not find clarity 
in the discussion he is attending to no matter how valuable the 
ideas may be in that discussion; and mathematicians talk about 
"elegance" in a proof just as a woman might speak of style in a 
dress or a painter about the execution of a picture. And when we 
get away from the cold, accurate language of mathematics and 
science into the warm and confused language of the ordinary world, 
the way of presenting an idea becomes even more important. The 


right way may predispose our audience to hear us out, to listen 
with sympathy, to give us the benefit of the doubt. 


What is the "right way"? There is no single right way, for what 
is right for one subject and one audience is wrong for another. 
But the right way always accomplishes one basic thing: it catches 
the attention of the audience, and it defines a common ground for 
speaker or writer and audience. 

The good writer or speaker is aware of his occasion (p. 3), and 
the occasion involves (1) the speaker, (2) the subject, and (3) the 
audience. All three are interrelated, and we have to ask several 
questions about them: 

1. What is the attitude of the audience toward the subject? 

2. What is the speaker's attitude toward the subject? 

3. What kinds of treatment will the subject permit? 

4. What is the audience's attitude toward the speaker? 

5. What is the speaker's attitude toward his audience? 

The right way to catch and hold the attention of the audience 
and to find common ground with them depends on the answers 
to these five questions. 

If we are addressing an audience already specially interested in 
our subject, half our battle is won. The writer of an article in a 
scientific journal can assume that his reader is interested; he is 
addressing the specialist. The speaker addressing a mass meeting 
to protest a particular tax bill can depend on his audience. But the 
writer of an article on a scientific subject or on some theory of 
taxation in a popular magazine like the Atlantic Monthly or Colliers 
has to capture his audience, and capture it quickly. 

What catches the eye? The moving object or the bright object, 
not the fixed or the dull. And what catches the eye catches the 
mind. So drama and vividness are important. The sharp anecdote, 
the interesting or shocking scene, the memorable phrase, the dis- 
turbing questionall of these devices may be used to catch the 
attention. We know them all from the pages of magazines, the 
platform, and the pulpit. When they are really relevant to the topic 
under discussion when the anecdote makes a point or the question 
truly leads into the discussion such devices are effective. When 


they are not relevant, the audience may feel that it is being patron- 
ized and imposed upon. 

Sometimes, however, the writer can dispense with devices like 
scenes or anecdotes, and catch the attention of the audience by 
showing immediately that the topic which the audience had felt 
was very remote from its concerns is really of great importance. 
For instance, Tibet is fairly remote from the concerns of the ordi- 
nary citizen, but if the writer can show that Tibet may become very 
significant in the general political picture of the Orient and that 
world stability depends on stability in the Orient, then the ordinary 
citizen realizes that he has some interest in Tibet. The problem, 
then, is to move fast enough; you have to prove to the reader im- 
mediately that what you are talking about really concerns him and 
may affect his life. 

Once the audience's attention has been caught, the game is 
merely begun. Vividness remains important, even though the vivid- 
ness may no longer concern scenes or anecdotes but phrasing or 
apt similes and metaphors, and the drama may not involve people 
but the clash of ideas and opinions. The audience must be con- 
stantly aware of what is going on, what issues are at stake, how 
the argument moves from one point to another, and that ground 
has been gained. It must catch the sense of impending climax, the 
sense of an objective. Without clarity of language and organization 
this is not possible: we cannot then hold the attention of the 

These considerations are relative to a particular situation to the 
answers we would have to give to our first three questions in the 
particular situation. We might, for instance, catch the attention of 
an audience which had a neutral attitude toward our subject, but 
then find that in doing so we had falsified our own attitude toward 
the subject. The anecdote that might be right for a political article 
might be wrong for the pulpit simply because in the pulpit it would 
falsify the basic attitude of the speaker toward the subject. If the 
speaker is urgent and serious about his subject and wants to impress 
that fact upon his audience, he cannot use devices which contradict 
his own basic attitude, or if he does so he must use great skill in 
making the transition back to the effect he fundamentally desires. 
And for some subjects certain methods of treatment are inappli- 
cable. Even clarity is a relative matter, for what is clear to some 


people is not clear to others, and some subjects cannot be simplified 
beyond a certain point. The question is always, "Clear for whom 
and clear about what?" 


So far we have been concerned with the problem of catching 
and holding the attention of the audience. But there is the problem 
of finding the common ground. This is the final problem, for if we 
do not find this common ground, everything else is meaningless. 
We have already touched on this question in speaking of the possi- 
bility of catching the interest of the audience by showing that a 
subject like Tibet which had seemed to be of no concern is really 
of great concern. In such attempts we try to find the common 
ground between the audience and the subject. 

But there remains the problem of finding the common ground 
between audience and speaker or writer. Without finding this, it 
is impossible to convince the audience. As we have said earlier, in 
the most impersonal and technical piece of argument, it is assumed 
that there is the common ground of definition and reason. This 
common ground must always be found, but most often this is not 
enough. We have to overcome prejudices, personal hostilities, habits 
of feeling and thinking, inherited attitudes. And to do this we must 
find a starting point acceptable to the audience. Let us take an 

Suppose Mr. Brown has a strong anti-Semitic attitude and Mr. 
Smith is arguing against that view. 

SMITH: Look here, I know how you feel, but I'm just curious to know 

how it squares with your other views. It just doesn't seem 

consistent with what I know about you. 
BROWN: What do you mean? 
SMITH: Well, just the way you manage your affairs, the way you treat 


BROWN: What's that got to do with it? 
SMITH: Well, nobody ever said you aren't a straight shooter, or didn't 

believe in justice, or any of these things. Like that time when 


BROWN: That hasn't got anything to do with it. 
SMITH: You don't deny that you believe in people getting justice. 
BROWN: Sure, I don't deny that, but 


Smith has tried to locate the common ground. He has made Brown 
admit that he has a notion of justice. Now he has the job of making 
Brown see what justice would mean in a particular situation. That 
may be a hard job, but at least there is a starting point in the com- 
mon agreement that justice is desirable. But suppose that Brown 
denies that he is interested in justice. 

BROWN: Look here, I know justice is all right, by and large. But, buddy, 

this is a tough world and a man's got to look out for himself. 

He's got to watch his interests. 
SMITH: OK, let's forget that justice stuff. A man's got to walch his 

own interests. That's right. It's a good practical point of view. 
BROWN: I'm a practical man. 
SMITH: Well, the question just boils down to what a man's interests are, 

doesn't it? 
BROWN: Sure. 
SMITH: Now on the Jewish question, maybe our interests aren't as 

simple as they sometimes seem 

Smith has here accepted the common ground of practical self- 
interest. Now his job is to show that in the light of self-interest 
anti-Semitism may be a short-sighted policy in any society. Again, 
he may not convince his friend, but at least he has a starting point. 

We have to find the starting point. If there is no starting point 
possible, argument is not possible. There remains only the resort 
to force if a question is to be resolved. 

To find the common ground we must know our audience and 
know ourselves. And when we are sure about what we do agree on 
we must say to the audience: "We disagree about the question 
before us, but we really agree on something more important than 
the question before us, something that lies deeper than the ques- 
tion. And since we do agree on that deeper question, I can show 
you that we ought to agree on the present question/* We do not 
say that in so many words, but that is what we mean to convey. 

We must convey this if we are to overcome the hostile attitude 
of the audience. By and large, we must convince the audience that 
our own attitude toward it is friendly. There are times when a 
brutal shock may bring an audience to its senses and may startle 
it into thought, but even then the audience, in the end, must come 
to feel that the motive behind giving the shock is a responsible one. 
Hard words mean nothing to a man unless he respects or likes the 


speaker of the hard words. So tact, fair-mindedness, patience, and 
respect for the audience are essential. They are not only essential 
for persuasion in argument. They are important for many kinds of 
writing. And all of this comes down to a matter of TONE. The chap- 
ter on Tone will discuss this subject at length. 



f Argument is the kind of discourse used to make the audience 
(reader or listener) think or act as the arguer desires. It appeals to 
the understanding, and aims to CONVINCE. It differs from the other 
forms of discourse in that it arises, directly or indirectly, from a 
situation of conflict in ideas or attitudes. 

VAn argument cannot be about a subject considered as a vague 
generality, or about a question of mere taste. An argument must 
be about a PROPOSITION, a statement that can be believed, doubted, 
or denied. A proposition represents a judgment. 

^There are two kinds of propositions, Propositions of FACT and 
propositions of POLICY. /The proposition of fact asserts that some- 
thing is true. The proposition of policy asserts that a certain line 
of action is desirable. ^ 

/~ X V 

(A proposition should be SINGLE) It should not express more than 
one idea for argument. Even thoiigh an extended argument involves 
several propositions, each one must still be single, and must be 
argued individually. 

^ A proposition should be CLEAR) That is, it should not contain 
terms which are not understood, and the accepted terms should be 
understood in a single sense for the purpose of that argument. An 
argument cannot proceed unless all concerned accept the definition 
of the terms involved. 

(A proposition should be UNPREJUDICED} The wording should not 
smuggle in anything which would imply a foregone conclusion to 
the argument, anything that "begs the question." 

(Some propositions can be understood immediately, but for some 
we must know the HISTORY OF THE QUESTION in order to know ex- 
actly what is at stake. And for similar reasons it is sometimes neces- 
sary to know the OCCASION OF THE DISCUSSION. The particular circum- 
stances may modify the meaning. 
The single idea of the proposition may raise several reasons for 


and against it. We should study the proposition to determine what 
are the points on which controversy may focus. An essential point 
is called an ISSUE. 

A point is essential if its defeat means the defeat of the proposi- 
tion. The supporter of a proposition must win on all the issues to 
win on the proposition. (A whole argument can hinge on one point, 

(There are two kinds of issues, ADMITTED and CRUCIAL. An issue on 
which both parties to an argument are in agreement is admitted. 
The issue (or issues) on which they are not in agreement is crucial.) 
We arrive at the issues by making an ANALYSIS of the proposition. 
To analyze a proposition, all possible arguments on both sides are 
listed, the affirmative facing its negative, when such pairing is pos- 
sible. There is no pair for an admitted issue. That is, there is nothing 
on the opposing side against it. The next step is to reduce the points 
of .argument to the fundamental ones. 

^When the proposition is one of policy certain STOCK QUESTIONS 
may help to reduce the arguments to order.) These stock questions, 
which can be applied to the individual points, are: 

1. Is there a need for change? 

2. Will the policy suggested be effective? 

3. Are the possible benefits of the suggested policy greater than 
any new disadvantages? 

4. Is there any alternative policy better than the proposed one? 
In a proposition of fact the location of the issues becomes a 

problem of defining the fact, or facts, by which the proposition 
stands or falls. ) 

(The actual process of argument involves EVIDENCE, whatever can 
be offered as support for an argument. Evidence is of two kinds, 

(To be acceptea as fact a piece of evidence must be VERIFIABLE 
or ATTESTED by a reliable sourceA 

Verifiable evidence, as we use the phrase here, is the kind 
that can be established by referring to some regularity in nature. 
For instance, it can be verified by a test that a certain cord will 
support a certain weight or that water will freeze at a certain tem- 
perature. Or it can be verified that the moon was full on a certain 


Evidence by testimony can be subjected to the following tests: 

1. Was there opportunity for the witness to observe the event? 

2. Was the witness physically capable of observing the event? 

3. Was the witness intellectually capable of understanding and 

4. Was the witness honest? 

But neither verifiable evidence nor attested evidence is valuable 
if it is not truly relevant to the issue in question. 

The reliability of evidence of opinion depends on the AUTHORITY 
of the person giving the opinion. Experience and success are gen- 
erally taken to signify authority, but neither is reliable unless the 
person who is experienced or successful is capable of analyzing his 
experience or the means of his success. Authority, too, must be 
considered in relation to time. What is acceptable as authority at 
one time may not be accepted at another. The authority of a physi- 
cist of 1850 would not necessarily be accepted today. Furthermore, 
what is acceptable as authority for one audience may not be accept- 
able for another. 

In evidence of opinion, as in evidence of fact, the question of 
relevance must be considered. 

Once evidence is available it must be reasoned about in an argu- 
ment. Reasoning is the process by which the mind moves from 
certain gjven data (evidence) to a conclusion that was not given. 

There are two types of reasoning, INDUCTION and DEDUCTION. 

There are two types of induction, GENERALIZATION and ANALOGY^ 

Generalization is the process of moving from a number of particu- 
lar instances to a general conclusion that all instances of the type 
being investigated will be the same; For example, if five boys from 
the Hawkins School prove honest we generalize that all boys from 
that school will prove honest. But there is always a risk in general- 
ization. At the best it can only give probability. There is an INDUC- 

To reduce the risk of error, the following rules can be applied: 

1. A fair number of instances must be investigated. One or two 
instances indicate nothing. 

2. The instances investigated must be typical of the class being 

J$. If negative instances occur they must be explained. 
( Analogy is the type of reasoning based on the idea that if two 


instances are alike in a number of particulars they will be alike in 
the point in question!) For example, it may be reasoned that a man 
who has made a success as a high officer in the army will make a 
success as a business executive, for both things involve the ability 
to organize and to command. 

As in generalization, there is always a risk in analogy. To reduce 
the risk, the following rules can be applied: 

1. The two instances compared must be alike in important re- 

Differences between the two instances must be accounted for. 

(^ Whereas induction can give only probability, deduction can give 

certitude) A deduction starts from certain assumptions, like the 

axioms in geometry, which if accepted necessarily generate the 

system that follows. 

fbeductive reasoning appears in the SYLLOGISM. The syllogism 
consists of two propositions, called premises, and a conclusion, as 

All men are mortal, (major premise) 
Socrates was a man. (minor premise) 
.'. Socrates was mortal, (conclusion) 

The premises involve three terms, the MAJOR TERM, the MINOR 
TERM, and the MIDDLE TERM. The major term is the term that consti- 
tutes the predicate of the conclusion (mortal), the minor term the 
subject of the conclusion (Socrates), the middle term the link 
between the major and minor terms (man, men). The process estab- 
lishes relations among classes. We can chart the syllogism above 
by thinking of a nest of boxes: a small box (Socrates) placed in a 
medium-size box (men), and that placed in a large box (mortal 

When the process of reasoning is correct in a syllogism, the syl- 
logism is said to be VALID. But a valid syllogism may not give a true 
conclusion if the premises are not true. Therefore, to be sure of 
getting a true conclusion the premises must be inspected. 

In addition to the ordinary syllogism there are two other types, 
the EITHER-OR (called the DISJUNCTIVE) syllogism, and the IF-THEN 
(called the HYPOTHETICAL) syllogism.} 

i In reasoning by either-or, two possibilities are set up, one is ruled 
out, and therefore the second must be accepted. The two items of 


the either-or must really cover the case cover all possibilities. And 
the two items must not have any overlap. 

Reasoning by if-then deals with a condition and a result. If the 
condition is fulfilled, the result follows. Most errors in this form of 
reasoning come from misinterpreting the if of the condition to mean 

An argument, either inductive or deductive, that does not follow 
the course of reason is called a FALLACY. There are numerous 
fallacies, but four of common occurrence are EQUIVOCATION, BEG- 

(Latin for "it does not follow"). 

Equivocation occurs when a significant word in an argument is 
used in two senses.^ 

Begging the question occurs when the arguer assumes something 
to be true which really needs proof, as in a prejudiced proposition 
or in arguing in a circle.; 

/An arguer ignores the question when he introduces any consid- 
eration which will distract from what is really at stake, as when 
he shifts the interest of the argument or makes an appeal to the 
emotions and prejudices of the audience^) 

(Non sequitur occurs when an arguer asserts a connection between 
two items which does not exist; for example, when a thing is taken 
to be the cause of another simply because it comes before it in 
time or is associated with ity 

\Some understanding of fallacies is useful to straight thinking, but 
it is also useful for REFUTATION, the attack on an opposing argument. 
Syllogisms in developed form rarely appear in extended argu- 
ment, but the implied syllogism, called ENTHYMEME, is common. 
A syllogism is implied when one of the three elements, major 
premise, minor premise, or conclusion, is suppressed, and it is 
assumed that the audience can supply it. Often an extended argu- 
ment is a chain of enthymemes. 

\^The composition of an extended argument calls for careful plan- 
ning. The systematic outline for an extended argument is called a 
BRIEF. It is the arrangement in logical sequence and in logical rela- 
tionship of the evidence and the argument on one side of a dispute. 
The brief makes complete sense in itself, even to a reader who is 
not previously acquainted with the dispute. 

(The brief is divided into three parts, INTRODUCTION, ARGUMENT 


or DISCUSSION, and CONCLUSION^ The introduction gives whatever is 
necessary for an understanding of the situation, certainly the propo- 
sition and the statement of admissions and issues, and sometimes 
the definition of terms, the history of the question, and the immedi- 
ate occasion of the dispute. Each of the three main sections of the 
brief is to be treated independently. Within the section, main 
headings are indicated by Roman numerals, with subdivisions indi- 
cated in descending importance by A, I, a. In the section of argu- 
ment the relation between evidence and inference is indicated. For 
example, Z is true because of A, and A is true because of 1 and 2, 
and 1 is true because of a and b. The brief moves down from state- 
ment through a chain of proof. 

After the brief is made, the arguer may not necessarily follow its 
order. He may, for instance, begin his actual presentation at what 
he considers a crucial point. But the brief does provide him with 
the skeleton of the argument. 

(it has been said that argument, strictly considered, appeals to the 
reason. But PERSUASION, the appeal to the emotions, is very useful in 
leading the audience to the content of the argument. 

Persuasion depends to a large extent upon VIVIDNESS of presenta- 
tion and upon discovering the COMMON GROUND between the arguer 
and his audience7)The quality of vividness catches interest, and the 
discovery of a common ground overcomes hostility or indifference. 
For persuasion, it is necessary to exhibit tact, fair-mindedness, 
patience, and respect for the audience. 



DESCRIPTION, as we shall understand the word in this discus- 
sion, is the kind of discourse concerned with the appearance of 
the world. It tells what qualities a thing has, what impression it 
makes on our senses. It aims to suggest to the imagination the thing 
as it appears immediately before an observer. We call this kind of 
description SUGGESTIVE to distinguish it from another kind, exposi- 
tory description, or technical description, which is really a form 
of exposition, and has already been discussed. 1 


Even suggestive description may appear in close association with 
other kinds of discourse. It may be used in connection with exposi- 
tion 2 or with argument, 8 but more often, in fact quite commonly, 
it appears in connection with narration. When we are telling a 
story, we must, if we wish our audience to grasp it as real, give 
some impression of the scene and of the persons involved. In neither 
conversation nor writing do we ordinarily set up the necessary de- 
scription as a long, separate, preliminary part of the whole composi- 
tion; instead, we tend to weave it into the body of the narrative as 
the occasion demands. The vivid stroke of description, small in itself 

1 Page 42. Review the section on the distinction between suggestive descrip- 
tion and technical description. 

2 See Chap. 3, p. 61. 
a See Chap. 4, p. 185. 


and apparently unimportant, may lend the touch of reality and may 
stir the imagination so that the reader is ready to accept and re- 
spond to the whole composition. 

Here is a piece of narrative which has been stripped of all its 
descriptive elements: 

The other waved the cigar, the other hand in Horace's face. Horace 
shook it, and freed his hand. "I thought I recognized you when you got 
on at Oxford/' Snopes said, "but I May I set down?" he said, already 
shoving at Horace's knee with his leg. He flung the overcoat on the seat 
and sat down as the train stopped. "Yes, sir, I'm always glad to see any 
of the boys, any time . . ." He leaned across Horace and peered out 
the window at a station. " 'Course you ain't in my county no longer, but 
what I say a man's friends is his friends, whichever way they vote. 
Because a friend is a friend, and whether he can do anything for me 
or not ..." He leaned back, the cigar in his fingers. 

Here is the passage in its original form, with the descriptive ele- 
ments italicized. Notice how they give the sense of reality, or the 
immediately observable world, to what otherwise would be a bare 
synopsis of events. 

The other waved the cigar, the other hand, palm-up, the third finger 
discolored faintly at the base of a huge ring, in Horace's face. Horace 
shook it and freed his hand. "I thought I recognized you when you got 
on at Oxford," Snopes said, "but I May I set down?" he said, already 
shoving at Horace's knee with his leg. He flung the overcoat a shoddy 
blue garment with a greasy velvet collar on the seat and sat down as the 
train stopped. "Yes, sir, I'm always glad to see any of the boys, any 
time . . ." He leaned across Horace and peered out the window at a 
5777 all dingy station with its cryptic bulletin board chalked over, an 
express truck bearing a wire chicken coop containing two forlorn fowls, 
at three or four men in overalls gone restfully against the wall, chewing. 
" 'Course you ain't in my county no longer, but what I say a man's 
friends is his friends, whichever way they vote. Because a friend is a 
friend, and whether he can do anything for me or not . . ." He leaned 
back, the unlighted cigar in his fingers. WILLIAM FAULKNER: Sanctuary, 
Chap. 19. 4 

It is clear that in the passage above description is subordinate 
to narrative. As a matter of fact, description is usually subordinate 

4 From Sanctuary by William Faulkner, copyright, 1931, by Random House 


when it appears mixed with some other kind of discourse, and it 
rarely appears alone in any very extended form. This is only to be 
expected, for description, which has to do with the appearance of 
the world, cannot satisfy us very long. We are constantly straining 
beyond the appearance of things; we want to see what they do and 
know what they mean, or we are interested in our own responses 
to and ideas about them. Therefore, though description can present 
us with the vivid appearance of things, it is constantly moving over, 
in ordinary use, into narrative and exposition and, even, argument, 
the kinds of discourse which express our fuller interests. 

This is not to say, however, that a capacity for description is not 
important for any writer. Without the resources of description most 
kinds of composition would be very bare and unconvincing fiction, 
poetry, letters, feature articles, reporting, history, essays, biography, 
speeches, and even certain kinds of philosophical writing. Descrip- 
tion is far more important than its mere proportion in what we read 
would seem to indicate. And furthermore, any attempt to under- 
stand its principles will sharpen our own perceptions and increase 
our pleasure in both literature and the real world we live in. 


Description, and particularly suggestive description, is the kind 
of discourse that has primarily to do with the appearance of the 
world, with the way things present themselves to our sense. We say, 
"The apple is red," and we refer to what the sense of sight tells us 
about the apple. But we also say, "The tweed is rough," or "The 
music is loud," or "The milk is sweet," or "The lilies are fragrant," 
and in so doing appeal to other senses, touch, hearing, taste, smell. 
We are also aware of the world in terms of heat and cold, and 
weight, pressure, and strain, and we have a language to describe 
that awareness, too. 

The descriptive sentences just given are crude and general. They 
do not make us vividly aware of the thing described. A good writer 
is not satisfied with such crude and general descriptions. He is 
interested in making close discriminations and in indicating slight 
differences. Therefore, he must be a good observer. Even if he is 
writing a description of an imagined object rather than one really 
before his eyes, he can be successful only if his mind is stored with 
impressions drawn from actual experience. 


Therefore, a person who wants to become a good writer should 
make some effort to train his powers of observation and to expand 
his vocabulary, especially in words that indicate differences in per- 
ception. He must tie his perceptions and his words together. The 
loud noise must cease to be loud noise for him, and must become 
the crash, the bang, the thud, the clatter, the clash, the boom, the 
bong, the clang, the howl, the wail, the scream, or whatever most 
vividly presents the thing he has heard. And the same for the other 
senses, for all the senses are important to the writer who wants to 
give a clear picture of the world. 

Here are three bits of description, each one primarily concerned 
with impressions of a single sense. Note the discriminations made 
in each passage and the language used to record the close observa- 

To tell when the scythe is sharp enough this is the rule. First the stone 
clangs and grinds against the iron harshly; then it rings musically to one 
note; then, at last, it purrs as though the iron and stone were exactly 
suited. When you hear this, your scythe is sharp enough; and I, when 
I heard it that June dawn, with everything quite silent except the birds, 
let down the scythe and bent myself to mow. HILAIRE BELLOC: "The 
Mowing of a Field," Hills and the Sea. 6 

He knew the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young 
Spring grass at noon; the smell of cellars, cobwebs, and built-on secret 
earth; in July, of watermelons bedded in sweet hay, inside a farmer's 
covered wagon; of cantaloupe and crated peaches; and the scent of 
orange rind, bitter-sweet, before a fire of coals .THOMAS WOLFE: Look 
Homeward, Angel, Chap. 8. 

When I think of hills, I think of the upward strength I tread upon. 
When water is the object of my thought, I feel the cool shock of the 
plunge and the quick yielding of the waves that crisp and curl and 
ripple about my body. The pleasing changes of rough and smooth, 
pliant and rigid, curved and straight in the bark and branches of a tree 
give the truth to my hand. The immovable rock, with its juts and warped 
surfaces, bends beneath my fingers into all manner of grooves and 
hollows. The bulge of a watermelon and the puffed-up rotundities of 
squashes that sprout, bud, and ripen in that strange garden planted some- 

5 From Hills and the Sea by Hilaire Belloc, copyright, 1935, by Charles 
Scribner's Sons. 


where behind my finger-tips are the ludicrous in my tactual memory and 
imagination. HELEN KELLER: The World I Live In, Chap. I. 6 

In the first of these selections the sense of hearing is dominant, 
in the second the sense of smell, and in the third, the sense of touch. 
But in the third selection, which comes from a remarkable book 
written by a woman blind and deaf almost from birth, we also find 
temperature and pressure and strain: the coolness of the water and 
the "upward strength" of the hill. 

As we can see from the quotations above, especially from the 
first two, a single sense may be dominant in a piece of description. 
But generally speaking, we may limit ourselves far too much if we 
insist on making the impression of a single sense dominant. This is 
certainly true if we think of description as a business of tying the 
single adjective to the single sense impression, as we do when we 
say, "The apple is red." When we observe the apple we observe 
much more than the color, and if we describe only the color, even 
if we find the exact word or phrase such as "tawny-freckled" in- 
stead of the general word red we still leave out, as we have said 
earlier, a great deal that we have observed. 7 

We have observed not only color. We are prepared to say that 
the apple is, for example, "slick-looking," or "juicy-looking," and 
many other things besides. Other senses than sight are involved 
in our experience of the apple. Our past experiences with apples 
are operating in our experience of the present apple. We are not 
touching the present apple, but we are prepared to say that it is 
slick-looking. And so on. We see the apple and sense the complex 
of qualities which mean "appleness" the color, the texture, the 
fragrance, the juiciness. That is to say, our experience of the apple 
is more massive than the response of one sense. A good writer often 
tries to indicate something of the massiveness of perception. 

Our ordinary use of language illustrates this massiveness. When 
we say "slick-looking" of the apple, we are, in a way, fusing two 
senses, sight and touch. Or when we look at a frozen lake and say, 
"The ice is glassy," we evoke with the word glassy a whole com- 
plex of qualities which are fused in the single word slickness, hard- 

6 From The World I Live In by Helen Keller, copyright, 1908, by the Cen 
tury Company. Reprinted by permission of Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. 

7 See p. 34 above. 


ness, transparency, brightness. Though description may sometimes 
confine itself to the report of a single sense, it frequently tries to 
fuse the report of several senses to give impression of the fullness 
of the experience, the unity of perception. 


We have already seen how the facts selected by Melville in his 
description of the volcanic islands (p. 46), by Poe in his description 
of the House of Usher (p. 52), and by Dickens in his description 
of the Dedlock estate (p. 52) are all related to the single effect the 
writer desires to create, Each writer wishes to leave his reader with 
a single DOMINANT IMPRESSION, a single attitude, a single feeling. 

A writer should try to select and organize his material so that 
such a single impression is dominant. Vividness of detail is impor- 
tant, for without that the reader does not really grasp the object 
in his imagination, but vividness alone is not enough to insure a 
good description. There must be the basic line of feeling, the unify- 
ing idea, to make it memorable for him. Contradictory and irrele- 
vant items in a description disturb the reader and leave him at a 
loss. In such a case he may not even understand why the descrip- 
tion is given in the first place. 

For example, if Dickens had presented in some detail the roaring 
fires on the hearths in the Dedlock mansion and the steaming 
roasts and puddings on the table, he would have distracted from 
the interpretation he wishes the scene to bear. Undoubtedly the 
Dedlock family had roaring fires and steaming roasts, but that is 
not the point. The point is what the writer wants a description to 
work on the reader. 


Even if a writer knows what dominant impression he wishes to 
give and knows what items will contribute to his effect, he still has 
to settle certain questions of method. No one can lay down formulas 
that will assure the writer of success, but the understanding of 
certain principles will help him avoid confusion and will sharpen 
his effects. 


We can consider the problem under two general heads: PATTERN 
and TEXTURE. The first, pattern, has to do with the general organiza- 
tion; the second, texture, has to do with the nature of the details, 
and their interrelation. 


Under pattern we are here concerned with the various principles 
by which a piece of description may be organized. If one observes 
a person, an object, or a scene, it has its proper unity in a flash 
we recognize a friend, a tree, a familiar room, a meadow with woods 
beyond. But if, when we set out to describe one of these things, 
we give a mere catalogue of unrelated details, a mere enumeration 
of this, that, and the other, the sense of vital unity is gone. 

The reason is not far to seek. In fact, when we look at something, 
even though our attention is focused on some one aspect, we are 
constantly aware of the totality; it is all there before us at one time. 
In description, however, the details are presented to us one after 
another; instead of the simultaneous presentation which we find in 
fact, we now have presentation in sequence. Since simultaneous 
presentation is impossible in description, the writer must provide 
some pattern into which the reader can fit the details if he is to 
give them a proper unity. 


The most obvious method of ordering details is dictated by the 
arrangement of the details in the object; we describe from left to 
right, or from top to bottom, giving each item as it comes. But as 
it comes to whom? There must be an observer, specified or implied. 
And that observer occupies, as it were, a certain fixed point of view, 
specified or implied, from which he can read off the details. 

Study the following description of an English cathedral: 

Let us go together up the more retired street, at the end of which 
we can see the pinnacles of one of the towers, and then through the 
low, grey gateway with its battlemented top and small latticed window 
in the center, into the inner private-looking road or close, where nothing 
goes in but the carts of the tradesmen who supply the bishop and the 
chapter, and here there are little shaven grassplots, fenced in by neat 
rails, tfefore old-fashioned groups of somewhat diminutive and exces- 
sively trim houses, with little oriel and bay windows jutting out here 


and there, and deep wooden cornices and eaves painted cream colour 
and white, and small porches to their doors in the shape of cockleshells, 
or little, crooked, thick, indescribable, wooden gables warped a little on 
one side; and so forward till we come to the larger houses, also old- 
fashioned, but of red brick, and with gardens behind them, and fruit 
walls, which show here and there, among the nectarines, the vestiges 
of an old cloister arch or shaft; and looking in front on the cathedral 
square itself, laid out in rigid divisions of smooth grass and gravel walk, 
yet not uncheerful, especially on the sunny side, where the canons' 
children are walking with their nurserymaids. And so, taking care not to 
tread on the grass, we will go along the straight walk to the west front, 
and there stand for a time, looking up at its deep-pointed porches and 
the dark places between their pillars where there were statues once, 
and where the fragments, here and there, of a stately figure are still 
left, which has in it the likeness of a king, perhaps indeed a king on 
earth, perhaps a saintly king long ago in heaven; and so higher and 
higher up to the great mouldering wall of rugged sculpture and con- 
fused arcades, shattered, and grey, and grisly with heads of dragons 
and mocking fiends, worn by the rain and swirling winds into yet un- 
seemlier shape, and coloured on their stony scales by the deep russet- 
orange lichen, melancholy gold; and so, higher still, to the bleak towers, 
so far above that the eye loses itself among the bosses of their traceries, 
though they are rude and strong, and only sees, like a drift of eddying 
black points, now closing, now scattering, and now settling suddenly into 
invisible places among the bosses and flowers, the crowd of restless birds 
that fill the whole square with that strange clangour of theirs, so harsh 
and yet so soothing, like the cries of birds on a solitary coast between 
the cliffs and sea. JOHN RUSKIN: The Stones of Venice, Vol. I, Chap. 4. 

In this passage, the author has very carefully specified the ob- 
server, in this case the reader, who is invited to go with him. 
And he specifies even more carefully the point in space from which 
the cathedral is to be viewed; he even conducts the reader to that 
point on the west side. The order of the details in the description 
then follows the order in which the observer would meet those 
details as he raised his eyes slowly upward. The items given us in 
the earlier part of the passage belong to the ground level; the last 
item is the birds above the tower. 


Sometimes, however, the observer, specified or implied, does not 
occupy a fixed point in space, but moves from one point to another. 


Then another principle of sequence comes into play, a principle well 
illustrated by the following passage: 

Our path took us between the Sakhara and the Sukhur by a narrow 
gorge with sandy floor and steep bare walls. Its head was rough. We 
had to scramble up shelves of coarse-faced stone, and along a great 
fault in the hill-side between two tilted red reefs of hard rock. The 
summit of the pass was a knife-edge, and from it we went down an 
encumbered gap, half-blocked by one fallen boulder which had been 
hammered over with the tribal marks of all the generations of men who 
had used this road. Afterwards there opened tree-grown spaces, collect- 
ing grounds in winter for the sheets of rain which poured off the glazed 
sides of the Sukhur. There were granite outcrops here and there, and a 
fine silver sand underfoot in the still damp water-channels. The drainage 
was towards Heiran. T. E. LAWRENCE: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chap. 
31. 8 


Sometimes, however, the object of a description is too large or 
unwieldy for unity of impression to be achieved by either of the 
methods involving, as specified or implied, a "real" point of view. 
In such a case, the writer may give unity by means of what we 
may call a FRAME IMAGE; he can compare the whole object to some 
smaller object which can be visualized, and which will serve as a 
frame into which the reader's imagination can fit the necessary 
details of the object being described. For instance, let us take the 
following example: 

The nether sky opens and Europe is disclosed as a prone and emaciated 
figure, the Alps shaping like a backbone, and the branching mountain- 
chains like ribs, the peninsular plateau of Spain forming a head. Broad 
and lengthy lowlands stretch from the north of France across Russia like 
a grey-green garment hemmed by the Ural mountains and the glistening 
Arctic Ocean. -THOMAS HARDY: The Dynasts, Part I. 9 

In this example, the writer has begun by providing the frame 
image and then giving the details which are to be set in the frame. 
But sometimes the writer will reverse the process; that is, he will 

8 From: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Copyright 1926, 1935 
by Doubleday & Company, Inc. 

9 From Thomas Hardy: The Dynasts. Copyright, 1904 by The Macmillan 
Company and used with their permission. 


first give the details, perhaps a swarm of them which stimulate and 
baffle the reader's imagination, and then give the frame image which 
will suddenly reduce all to order. Here is a very simple example 
of the method: 

I studied M. de Charlus. The tuft of his grey hair, the eye, the brow 
of which was raised by his monocle to emit a smile, the red flowers in 
his buttonhole formed, so to speak, the three mobile apices of a con- 
vulsive and striking triangle. MARCEL PROUST: The Guermantes Wat/, 
Part I, Chap. 1. 


In the types of pattern thus far discussed, the position of an 
observer, specified or implied, determines the organization of the 
details, but his reactions and interests are irrelevant. We shall now 
turn, however, to examples in which the emphasis is subjective, in 
which the reactions and interests of the observer, specified or im- 
plied, provide the basic principle for ordering and unifying the 

The first of these patterns based on the observer we may call 
pattern by mood. We have already had examples of this. The pas- 
sage from Foe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (p. 52) gives 
us an example with the observer specified, and the passage from 
Dickens's Bleak House (p. 52) gives us an example with the ob- 
server implied. In neither of these descriptions does the writer 
follow a mechanical order. Instead, he arranges the items of the 
scene to build toward the subjective effect desired. At the end Poe 
describes the effect of his scene as the horrible dropping off of a 
veil, and Dickens concludes with the general taste and smell of the 
Dedlocks in their graves. In each of these passages the mood is 
established very early and pervades the whole, though with mount- 
ing intensity. 

In some instances of effective description, however, the mood 
does not so definitely pervade the whole passage. Rather, it may 
appear early as a kind of lead and then be dropped or be presented 
only by implication. Or the description may begin with an accumu- 
lation of details which seem to be collected almost at random but 
are brought to focus in the end by the emergence of a dominant 


The following passage is an example of the last type of pattern: 

Except for the Marabar Cavesand they are twenty miles off the 
city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than 
washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, 
scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are 
no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be 
holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide 
and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples 
ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in 
gardens or down* alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. 
Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it 
lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and 
the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped 
in the eighteenth century, nor was it ever democratic. There is no paint- 
ing and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made 
of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous is 
everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it 
might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil. Houses 
do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of 
the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but in- 
destructible form of life. E. M. FORSTER: A Passage to India, Chap. I. 10 


Just as mood may give the principle of unity, so a special interest 
may provide it. If a man out to shoot quail and a man out to paint 
a landscape look at the same field, their different interests mean 
different kinds of observation. The hunter focused attention on the 
clump of brush as possible cover for a covey; the painter looks at 
it merely as one form in his total composition and as a patch of 
color in relation to other colors, the tawny of the dry sage and the 
blackness of the tree trunks beyond. 

In the following passage there are many details which would be 
vivid in any description, but we notice that what holds the whole 
passage together is the special interest with which the scene is 
regarded. Here a soldier is inspecting a bridge which he intends 
to dynamite. The structure of the bridge and the location of the 
enemy defenses are what finally concern him. 

10 From A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, copyright, 1924, by Harcourt 
Brace and Company, Inc. 


The late afternoon sun that still came over the brown shoulder of the 
mountain showed the bridge dark against the steep emptiness of the 
gorge. It was a steel bridge of a single span and there was a sentry box 
at each end. It was wide enough for two motor cars to pass and it 
spanned, in solid-flung metal grace, a deep gorge at the bottom of which, 
far below, a brook leaped in white water through rocks and boulders 
down to the main stream of the pass. 

The sun was in Robert Jordan's eyes and the bridge showed only in 
outline. Then the sun lessened and was gone and looking up through the 
trees at the brown, rounded height that it had gone behind, he saw, now, 
that he no longer looked into the glare, that the mountain slope was a 
delicate new green and that there were patches of old snow under the 

Then he was looking at the bridge again in the sudden short trueness 
of the little light that would be left, and studying its construction. The 
problem of its demolition was not difficult. As he watched he took out 
a notebook from his breast pocket and made several quick line sketches. 
As he made the drawings he did not figure the charges. He would do 
that later. Now he was noting the points where the explosive should be 
placed in order to cut the support of the span and drop a section of it 
back into the gorge. It could be done unhurriedly, scientifically and 
correctly with a half dozen charges laid and braced to explode simul- 
taneously; or it could be done roughly with two big ones. They would 
need to be very big ones, on opposite sides and should go at the same 
time. ERNEST HEMINGWAY: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Chap. 3. 11 

It does not greatly matter what the nature of the interest is. The 
dynamiter's interest in the bridge holds this passage together, and 
makes the bridge serve as a focus for the scene. But in the follow- 
ing passage the comparison which Huckleberry Finn draws between 
houses in town and the house of the Grangerford plantation pro- 
vides the unifying interest: 

It was a mighty nice family, and a mighty nice house, too. I hadn't 
seen no house out in the country before that was so nice and had so 
much style. It didn't have an iron latch on the front door, nor a wooden 
one with a buckskin string, but a brass knob to turn, the same as houses 
in a town. There warn't no bed in the parlor, nor a sign of a bed; but 
heaps of parlors in town has beds in them. There was a big fireplace that 
was bricked on the bottom, and the bricks was kept clean and red by 

11 From For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, copyright, 1940, 
by Charles Scribner's Sons. 


pouring water on them and scrubbing them with another brick; some- 
times they wash them over with red water-paint that they call Spanish- 
brown, same as they do in town. They had big brass dog-irons that could 
hold up a saw-log. There was a clock on the middle of the mantelpiece, 
with a picture of a town painted on the bottom half of the glass front, 
and a round place in the middle of it for the sun, and you could see the 
pendulum swinging behind it. SAMUEL CLEMENS: The Adventures of 
Huckleberry Finn, Chap. 17. 


In the examples of pattern by mood and pattern by interest given 
above, we find more than a mere listing of things or the qualities 
of things. Something is said about the things; we find fully formed 
sentences, one leading to another to give a unified paragraph. But it 
is possible to list things or qualities with relation to a dominant 
mood or interest and successfully give an impression of unity by 
enumeration without formal organization. This method is called 
impressionistic. Here is an example of it, the description of the main 
street in a small Middle western town. 

From a second-story window the sign, "W. P. Kennicott, Phys. & 
Surgeon," gilt on black sand. 

A small wooden motion-picture theater called "The Rosebud Movie 
Palace." Lithographs announcing a film called, "Fatty in Love." 

Rowland & Gould's Grocery. In the display window, black, overripe 
bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping. Shelves lined with red 
crepe paper which was now faded and torn and concentrically spotted. 
Flat against the wall of the second story the signs of the lodges the 
Knights of Pythias, the Maccabees, the Woodmen, the Masons. 

Dahl & Oleson's Meat Market a reek of blood. SINCLAIR LEWIS: Main 
Street, Chap. 4. 12 


As has already been pointed out, description is frequently used 
in conjunction, almost in fusion, with other modes. It is difficult 
sometimes to say of a passage whether it is primarily descriptive 
or narrative or expository or argumentative in its emphasis. But 
sometimes we observe passages which, we feel, are primarily de- 
scriptive in emphasis but which are organized in terms of, for 

12 From Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, copyright, 1920, by Harcourt, Brace 
and Company, Inc. 


instance, a narrative element. In such passages the descriptive de- 
tails, if given in isolation, would be merely an enumeration of items 
with only a slight degree of unity of impression. But the line of 
action or explanation or argument holds them together, gives them 
their focus, so that the reader gets an effect of unity. It is difficult 
to find an appropriate name for this method, but perhaps the phrase 
"absorbed description" will serve. 

Here is an example of absorbed description: 

They called a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. A deputation 
waited upon her, knocked at the door through which no visitor had 
passed since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years 
earlier. They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from 
which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and 
disuse a close, dank smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was 
furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture. When the Negro opened 
the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; 
and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, 
spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel 
before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss Emily's father. 

They rose when she entered a small, fat woman in black, with a thin 
gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning 
on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small 
and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plump- 
ness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long 
submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in 
the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed 
into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the 
visitors stated their errand. 

She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in the door and listened 
quietly until the spokesman came to a stumbling halt. Then they could 
hear the invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain. WILLIAM 
FAULKNER: "A Rose for Emily." 13 

In the passage above we can readily isolate the parts which are 
purely descriptive. For instance, in the second paragraph, except 
for the first part of the first sentence and the last part of the last 
sentence, there is nothing but description. But in the following 
passage the description is much more completely absorbed; it is" a 

13 From "A Rose for Emily," These Thirteen by William Faulkner, copyright, 
1931, by Random House, Inc. 


matter of words and phrases, and not of sentences and sections of 
paragraphs, and yet the scene is very fully suggested. 

In the square bedroom with the big window Mama and Papa were 
lolling back on their pillows handing each other things from the wide 
black tray on the small table with the crossed legs. They were smiling 
and they smiled even more when the little boy, with the feeling of sleep 
still in his skin and hair, came in and walked up to the bed. Leaning 
against it, his bare toes wriggling in the white fur rug, he went on eating 
peanuts which he took from his pajama pocket. He was four years old. 
"Here's my baby," said Mama. "Lift him up, will you?" 
He went limp as a rag for Papa to take him under the arms and swing 
him up over a broad, tough chest. He sank between his parents like a 
bear cub in a warm litter, and lay there comfortably. He took another 
peanut between his teeth, cracked the shell, picked out the nut whole 
and ate it. KATIIERINE ANNE PORTER: "The Downward Path to Wis- 
dom." 14 


We have tried to distinguish several typical methods for unifying 
description, but in actual practice these methods may often be 
combined. Sometimes the most vivid effects can be obtained by 
the mixed method. Here is an example: 

About four in the morning, as the captain and Herrick sat together 
on the rail, there arose from the midst of the night, in front of them, 
the voice of the breakers. Each sprang to his feet and stared and listened. 
The sound was continuous, like the passing of a train; no rise or fall 
could be distinguished; minute by minute the ocean heaved with an equal 
potency against the invisible isle; and as time passed, and Herrick waited 
in vain for any vicissitude in the volume of that roaring, a sense of the 
eternal weighed upon his mind. To the expert eye, the isle itself was 
to be inferred from a certain string of blots along the starry heaven. 
And the schooner was laid to and anxiously observed till daylight. 

There was little or no morning bank. A brightening came in the east; 
then a wash of some ineffable, faint, nameless hue between crimson and 
silver; and then coals of fire. These glimmered awhile on the sealine, and 
seemed to brighten and darken and spread out; and still the night and 
the stars reigned undisturbed. It was as though a spark should catch 
and glow and creep along the foot of some heavy and almost incom- 

14 From The Leaning Tower and Other Stories by Katherine Anne Porter, 
copyright, 1944, by Katherine Anne Porter. Reprinted by permission of Har- 
court, Brace and Company, Inc. 


bustible wall-hanging, and the room itself be scarcely menaced. Yet a 
little after, and the whole east glowed with gold and scarlet, and the 
hollow of heaven was filled with the daylight. 

The isle the undiscovered, the scarce believed in now lay before 
them and close aboard; and Herrick thought that never in his dreams 
had he beheld anything more strange and delicate. The beach was excel- 
lently white, the continuous barrier of trees inimitably green; the land 
perhaps ten feet high, the trees thirty more. Every here and there, as 
the schooner coasted northward, the wood was intermitted; and he could 
see clear over the inconsiderable strip of land (as a man looks over a 
wall) to the lagoon within; and clear over that, again, to where the far 
side of the atoll prolonged its pencilling of trees against the morning 
sky. He tortured himself to find analogies. The isle was like the rim of a 
great vessel sunken in the waters; it was like the embankment of an 
annular railway grown upon with wood. So slender it seemed amidst 
the outrageous breakers, so frail and pretty, he would scarce have 
wondered to see it sink and disappear without a sound, and the waves 
close smoothly over its descent. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: The Ebb 
Tide, Chap. 7. 18 

In the passage by Stevenson we notice that we have a location 
and an observer specified. At one time in the course of the descrip- 
tion (the view across the atoll) we find the method of simple spatial 
ordering used. At another time, the principle of sequence comes 
into play. In fact, it comes into play in two different ways. First, 
we have the principle of sequence in time (in the coming of dawn) 
and then we have it in space, with the moving point of view, as I. e 
schooner coasts northward along the island. But we also find the 
frame image used to give us a clearer notion of the island: Herrick, 
the observer, "tortured himself to find analogies," and to describe 
the atoll we find the frame image of the "rim of a great vessel 
sunken in the waters/' or of the "embankment of an annular railway 
grown upon with wood." We may notice, furthermore, that a certain 
mood, the response to a fragile and dreamlike beauty, dominates 
the whole description Herrick's response to the scene, and we may 
notice that there is an organization in terms of climax, for only at 
the end of the passage as given here do we get the full statement 
of the frame image and of the basic mood. 

If the passage were read in its full context, we should be able 

15 From The Ebb Tide by Robert Louis Stevenson, copyright, 1905, by 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 


to observe that the method of unity in terms of interest is employed 
throughout, for the schooner is seeking an entrance to the harbor 
inside the atoll, and the final concern, in reference to the narrative, 
is to find anchorage. 

The use of a mixed method, certainly of a mixed method which 
employs as many individual methods as the above passage, offers 
certain difficulties to the inexperienced writer. By and large, it is 
better for the inexperienced writer to try the simpler approaches 
to his material, at least until he is confident that he understands 
the principles involved in the various methods and has acquired 
some skill in adapting them. 


Pattern, as we have seen, is concerned with the ordering of the 
details of description. Texture, which we shall now discuss, is con- 
cerned with the nature of the details presented. 

How are the details actually presented in a description selected 
from among all the details which might have been presented? Al- 
ready, in discussing the difference between technical and suggestive 
description and in explaining what is meant by a dominant impres- 
sion, we have touched on the problem of SELECTION (pp. 42-53, 
200), but we have not explored it. 

It is clear that no one can hope to render all of the details of an 
object to be described, and it is also clear that if one could render 
all of the details we should have a mere enumeration, tedious and 
mechanical, without giving the unified impression the object actu- 
ally makes upon an observer. But what the writer wants to do is to 
give his reader such a unified impression. To do this he must select 
the details which will suggest the whole object and set the reader's 
imagination to work. 

But what are the grounds on which selection is to be made? We 
may break this question down into two other questions: 

1. What details are vivid in the object? 

2. What details are significant for the impression the writer con- 
siders dominant? 

Vividness and significance these are the two considerations 
which should govern selection of details. It is possible that the same 


detail may be both vivid and significant, but for the purpose of 
discussion we can consider these qualities independently. 


A descriptive detail is vivid if it is striking, if it can set the 
imagination to work so that the reader calls up the object in his 
mind's eye. In the following description the most obvious quality 
of the scene, the contrast between brilliant light and black shadow, 
is emphasized. The writer does not give a detailed description of 
the town. Instead, he gives what would be the most obvious and 
striking characteristic, the light effect which would blur out other 
aspects of the Arab town when the observer first encountered it. 

But when at last we anchored in the outer harbor, off the white town 
hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which 
swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out 
like a drawn sword and struck us speechless. It was midday; and the 
noon sun in the East, like moonlight, put to sleep the colors. There were 
only lights and shadows, the white houses and black gaps of streets; in 
front, the pallid lustre of the haze shimmering upon the inner harbors; 
behind, the dazzle of league after league of featureless sand, running up 
to an edge of low hills, faintly suggested in the far away mist of heat. 
T. E. LAWRENCE: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chap. 8. 10 

This seizing on the most striking and obvious characteristic is a 
very natural method. Time after time we encounter a bit of descrip- 
tion introduced by some such statement as, "The most impressive 
feature of his face was his wide, innocent, childlike blue eyes which 
seemed to offer trust to all the world," or, "The first thing you 
noticed as you topped the hill was a pond lying in the cup of the 
valley, reflecting the brilliance of the sky." The writer indicates 
what feature in the object would first catch attention. 

Vividness, however, may be gained by indicating some detail 
which might escape ordinary observation. In such a case, it is the 
precision and subtlety of the description which makes the object 
come alive for us. John Burroughs, the naturalist, in a passage on 
the art of observation, gives a list of vivid details which would 

i"" Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Copyright 1926, 1935 
by Doublet^ & Company, Inc. 


escape most observers but which present a vivid sense of a series 
of scenes and moments: 

His senses are so delicate that in his evening walk he feels the warm 
and cool streaks in the air, his nose detects the most fugitive odors, his 
ears the most furtive sounds. As he stands musing in the April twilight, 
he hears that fine, elusive stir and rustle made by the angleworms reach- 
ing out from their holes for leaves and grasses; he hears the whistling 
wings of the wood-cock as it goes swiftly by him in the dusk; he hears 
the call of the killdee come down out of the March sky; he hears far 
above him in the early morning the squeaking cackle of the arriving 
blackbirds pushing north; he hears the soft, prolonged, lulling call of 
the little owl in the cedars in the early spring twilight; he hears at night 
the roar of the distant waterfall, and the rumble of the train miles across 
country when the air is "hollow"; before a storm he notes how distant 
objects stand out and are brought near on those brilliant days that we 
call "weather-breeders." When the mercury is at zero or lower, he notes 
how the passing trains hiss and simmer as if the rails or wheels were 
red-hot. JOHN BURROUGHS: Leaf and Tendril, Chap. I. 17 

The rustling of the angleworms gives a vivid and immediate sense 
of the stillness; more vivid and immediate than any number of more 
usual and easily observable details. Or take the squeaking cackle 
of the blackbirds; it is the absolutely right phrase to describe the 
sound, and because of the accuracy of the observation, our imagina- 
tion fills the sky with the flock of birds passing over. 

Were it not for the detail of the dyed hand, we would have only 
a vague sense of the presence of the handsome young sailor in the 
following description: 

Cast in a mould peculiar to the finest physical examples of those Eng- 
lishmen in whom the Saxon strain would seem not at all to partake of 
any Norman or other admixture, he showed in face that humane look 
of reposeful good nature which the Greek sculptor in some instances 
gave to his heroic strong man, Hercules. But this again was subtly 
modified by another and pervasive quality. The ear, small and shapely, 
the arch of the foot, the curve in the mouth and nostril, even the in- 
durated hand dyed to the orange-tawny of the toucan's bill, a hand 
telling of the halyards and tar-buckets; but above all, something in the 
mobile expression, and every chance attitude and movement, something 

17 From Leaf and Tendril by John Burroughs, through the courtesy of 
Houghton Mifflin Company. 


suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces; all 
this strangely indicated a lineage in direct contradiction to his lot 
HERMAN MELVILLE: Billy Budd, Chap. 2. 

And in the following portrait it is the detail of the pimples that 
makes the person come alive to the reader's imagination: 

Complicated, but light, transparent, and innocently immodest was the 
dress of his daughter, tall and slender, with magnificent hair gracefully 
Dombed; her breath was sweet with violet-scented tablets, and she had 
a number of tiny and most delicate pink pimples near her lips and be- 
tween her slightly powdered shoulder blades. IVAN BUNIN: "The Gentle- 
man from San Francisco/' 18 

The process of seizing on either the striking characteristic or the 
small, sharply perceived detail may lead to exaggeration and carica- 
ture. The detail, as it were, becomes the whole object. In the first 
of the following passages, Dickens takes the obvious oiliness of 
Mr. Chadband as the key to the description of his appearance and, 
finally, of his character: 

Mr. Chadband is a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general 
appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system. Mrs. Chad- 
band is a stern, severe-looking, silent woman. Mr. Chadband moves 
softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk 
upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were 
inconvenient to him, and he wanted to grovel; is very much in a perspira- 
tion about the head; and never speaks without first putting up his great 
hand, as delivering a token to his hearers that he is going to edify them. 
CHARLES DICKENS: Bleak House, Chap. 19. 

Dickens uses a striking detail and exaggerates it into the whole 
person, but in the following passage the writer uses the trivial 
detail of Miss Plimsoirs nose, and the little drop of moisture at its 
tip, as the main feature of the comic portrait of the poor old maid. 

Miss Plimsoll's nose was sharp and pointed like that of Voltaire. It was 
also extremely sensitive to cold. When the thermometer fell below 60 
it turned scarlet; below 50 it seemed a blue tinge with a little white 
morbid circle at the end; and at 40 it became sniffly and bore a perma- 
nent though precarious drop below its pointed tip. I remember with 
what interest I watched that drop as we drove from the station at Sofia. 

18 Reprinted from The Gentleman from San Francisco by Ivan Bunin, by 
permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 


My parents went in front in the first carriage and Miss Plimsoll and I 
followed in the brougham. The night was cold and we drove along an 
endless wind-swept boulevard punctuated by street lamps. With the 
approach of each successive lamp Miss Plimsoll's pinched little face 
beside me would first be illuminated frontways, and then as we came 
opposite the lamp, spring into a sharp little silhouette, at the point of 
which the drop flashed and trembled like a diamond. HAROLD NICOL- 
SON: "Miss Plimsoll," Some People. 12 


By significance in the selection of detail we mean the quality 
which contributes to the dominant impression of a description. And 
by the dominant impression we mean the mood the writer intends 
to communicate, the attitude he intends to create in the reader, or 
idea about the object he wishes to suggest. 

We have already touched on this topic in our discussion of the 
dominant impression (p. 200) and in our remarks on the passage 
from Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (p. 52), the descrip- 
tion of the Dedlock estate from Dickens's Bleak House (p. 52), 
and the passage from Melville's "The Encantadas" (p. 46). In each 
of these examples, as we have seen, the selection is made to build 
up a certain mood or to indicate a certain idea. In each example, 
the writer refrains from introducing any item which might distract 
from the dominant impression. 

In the following description of the Arab town, Jidda, we can see 
how the writer uses details that contribute to the effect of stealth 
and sinister, brooding quiet: 

The style of architecture was like crazy Elizabethan half-timber work, 
in the elaborate Cheshire fashion, but gone gimcrack to an incredible 
degree. House-fronts were fretted, pierced and pargetted till they looked 
as though cut out of cardboard for a romantic stage-setting. Every storey 
jutted, every window leaned one way or other; often the very walls 
sloped. It was like a dead city, so clean underfoot, and so quiet. Its 
winding, even streets were floored with damp sand solidified by time 
and as silent as the tread of any carpet. The lattices and wall-returns 
deadened all reverberation of voice. There were no carts, nor any street 
wide enough for carts, no shod animals, no bustle anywhere. Every- 
thing was hushed, strained, even furtive. The doors of houses shut softly 

19 From Some People by Harold Nicolson. Reprinted by permission of the 
author and Constable and Company. 


as we passed. There were no loud dogs, no crying children; indeed, 
except in the bazaar, still half asleep, there were few wayfarers of any 
kind; and the people we did meet, all thin, and as it were wasted by 
disease, with scarred, hairless faces and screwed up eyes, slipped past 
us quickly and cautiously, not looking at us. Their skimp, white robes, 
shaven polls with little skull-caps, red cotton shoulder shawls, and bare 
feet were so same as to be almost a uniform. T. E. LAWRENCE: Seven 
Pillars of Wisdom, Chap. 9. 20 

The same method can be used in description to give an impres- 
sion of the character of a person. The following portrait of Eustacia 
Vye, the heroine of Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native, 
deals ostensibly with appearance of the young woman, but all the 
details of her appearance are really chosen, as Hardy himself indi- 
cates rather explicitly now and then, to give us an impression of her 
inner nature. 

She was in person full-limbed and somewhat heavy; without ruddiness, 
as without pallor; and soft to the touch as a cloud. To see her hair was 
to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form 
its shadow: it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the 
western glow. 

Her nerves extended into those tresses, and her temper could always 
be softened by stroking them down. When her hair was brushed she 
would instantly sink into stillness and look like the Sphinx. If, in passing 
under one of the Egdon banks, any of its thick skeins were caught, as they 
sometimes were, by a prickly tuft of the large Ulex Europaens which 
will act as a sort of hairbrush she would go back a few steps, and 
pass against it a second time. 

She had Pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries, and their light, as it 
came and went, and came again, was partially hampered by their op- 
pressive lids and lashes; and of these the under lid was much fuller than 
it usually is with English women. This enabled her to indulge in reverie 
without seeming to do so: she might have been believed capable of 
sleeping without closing them up. Assuming that the souls of men and 
women were visible essences, you could fancy the color of Eustacia's soul 
to be flame-like. The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils gave 
the same impression. . . . 

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, 
and tropical midnights; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march 

20 From: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. W. Lawrence. Copyright 1926, 1935 
by Doubleday & Company, Inc. 


in "Athalie"; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the 
viola. In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her 
general figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female 
deities. The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem 
of accidental dew-drops round her brow, would have been adjuncts 
sufficient to strike the note of Artemis, Athene, or Hera respectively, 
with as close an approximation to the antique as that which passes 
muster on many respected canvases. THOMAS HARDY: Return of the 
Native, Chap. 7. 

In the following description of a Mexican revolutionist who is 
both sentimental and cruel, energetic and self-indulgent, lazy and 
sinister, the explicit definition of the character does not appear, but 
is suggested by the details selected: 

Braggioni catches her glance solidly as if he had been waiting for it, 
leans forward, balancing his paunch between his spread knees, and sings 
with tremendous emphasis, weighing his words. He had, the song relates, 
no father and no mother, nor even a friend to console him; lonely as a 
wave of the sea he comes and goes, lonely as a wave. His mouth opens 
round and yearns sideways, his balloon cheeks grow oily with the labor 
of song. He bulges marvellously in his expensive garments. Over his 
lavender collar, crushed upon a purple necktie, held by a diamond hoop; 
over his ammunition belt of tooled leather worked in silver, buckled 
cruelly around his gaping middle: over the tops of his glossy yellow 
shoes Braggioni swells with ominous ripeness, his mauve silk hose 
stretched taut, his ankles bound with the stout leather thongs of his 

When he stretches his eyelids at Laura she notes again that his eyes 
are the true tawny yellow cat's eyes. KATHERINE ANNE PORTER: "Flower- 
ing Judas." 21 

As the details of description may be used to suggest the character 
of a person described, so they may be used to indicate the attitude 
the writer wishes the reader to take toward a scene or event. The 
following passage gives a battle scene, but the writer uses certain 
descriptive touches to play down ironically the violence or the 
event. We know that horror and excitement and suffering are in- 
volved here, and the writer knows it too. But he takes a certain 

21 From Flowering Judas and Other Stones by Katharine Anne Porter, copy- 
right, 1935, by Katherine Anne Porter. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt, 
Brace and Company, Inc. 


actual and emotional distance from the scene the flags "laugh/' the 
cannon merely "denounce," the "jaunty" brigade marches "airily," 
there is a calm white house beyond. The impression of distance, of 
unreality, and of triviality actually works to suggest to us, by con- 
tract, the real violence. 

In another direction he saw a magnificent brigade going with the 
evident intention of driving the enemy from a wood. They passed in out 
of sight, and presently there was a most awe-inspiring racket in the 
wood. The noise was unspeakable. Having stirred this prodigious up- 
roar and, apparently, finding it too prodigious, the brigade, after a 
little time, came marching airily out again with its fine formation in 
nowise disturbed. There were no traces of speed in its movements. The 
brigade was jaunty and seemed to point a proud thumb at the yelling 

On a slope to the left there was a long row of guns, gruff and mad- 
dened, denouncing the enemy, who, down through the woods, were 
forming for another attack in the pitiless monotony of conflicts. The 
round red discharges from the guns made a crimson flare and a high, 
thick smoke. Occasionally glimpses could be caught of groups of the 
toiling artillerymen. In the rear of this row of guns stood a house, calm 
and white, amid bursting shells. A congregation of horses, tied to a long 
railing, were tugging frenziedly at their bridles. Men were running 
hither and thither. 

The detached battle between the four regiments lasted for some time. 
There chanced to be no interference, and they settled their dispute by 
themselves. They struck savagely and powerfully at each other for a 
period of minutes, and then the lighter-hued regiments faltered and 
drew back, leaving the dark-blue lines shouting. The youth could see 
the two flags shaking with laughter amid the smoke remnants .STEPHEN 
CRANE: The Red Badge of Courage, Chap. 22. 22 


In each of the above passages the author has, as we say, created 
a certain atmosphere. By atmosphere we mean the mood, the gen- 
eral feeling associated in the description with the scene, person, or 
event described. We have commented, for instance, on the atmos- 
phere of gloom and dampness and decay in the descriptions by Poe 
and Dickens, or that of furtiveness and stealth and exhaustion in 
the description of Jidda by T. E. Lawrence, or that of ironical 

22 From The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, copyright, 1925, by 
D. Appleton and Company. Reprinted by permission of Appleton-Century- 
Crofts, Inc. 


jauntiness and impersonal distance in the description by Stephen 

We know, however, even as we use these words to define the 
atmosphere of this or that piece of description, that the labels we 
put on the passages are too vague and loose to define really the 
effect given. Our defining words do not really define the atmos- 
phere; they merely give a kind of crude indication, a not very de- 
pendable clue, to the effect we find in the actual description. 

Our inability to define the atmosphere in general terms indicates 
the importance of the way the author himself goes about present- 
ing it to us. The atmosphere is the general feeling he wants his 
work to convey, the prevailing attitude of mind which he wishes 
us to adopt toward his subject, but he knows that he cannot create 
it simply by using the loose, general words which we have used 
above in trying to define the effect of the passages. Therefore, he 
undertakes to give us such concrete details, such aspects of his 
object, as will stir our imaginations not only to grasp the appear- 
ance of the object (or the sound, the color, and so forth, if he is 
appealing to other senses than that of sight), but to adopt a certain 
feeling and attitude toward the object and toward the general con- 
text of the object in his work. 23 

We have said earlier that suggestive description aims not to tell 
us about its object but to give us the object; but it also can be said 
that it aims not to tell us what feelings to have about the object 
and what attitudes to take toward it, but to create those feelings 
and attitudes within us. Vividness and immediacy, not only in re- 
gard to the physical qualities of the object, but in regard to the 
feelings and attitudes involved, are what the writer desire,?. 

23 Perhaps this should be explained a little more fully. By the context of 
the object we mean what is around it in the piece of writing. For instance, in 
a story the context of a piece of description would be the events narrated, the 
analyses of character, and so forth, before and after the piece of description. 
A good author, no matter what he is writing, a story, an essay, a letter, intends 
some connection between the effect of a piece of description and the rest of 
his composition. The atmosphere of the description implies, as it were, the 
attitudes the author wishes the reader to take toward the whole piece of work. 
If we read the description of Egdon Heath at the beginning of Thomas Hardy's 
Return of the Native, the somber, brooding atmosphere of the scene implies 
the attitude the author wished the reader to take toward the violent, tragic 
human story, just as the atmosphere of the description of Eustacia Vye, the 
heroine of the novel, which is quoted above, implies the qualities of character 
and action we are to find in her. 



In our previous discussion we have seen how a description may 
evoke in the reader a certain mood or attitude which the writer 
wishes to communicate. There is some relation, then, between the 
physical details of the object described and human feelings. This 
leads us to another kind of description, not of objects or persons, 
but of feelings or states of mind. How can such an intangible, 
without physical existence and with no possible appeal to our senses, 
be described? 

Strictly speaking, the literal feeling or state of mind cannot be 
described because it cannot be perceived through the senses. But 
we have seen how a character, which is also intangible, can be 
indicated through description. For instance, Hardy's description of 
Eustacia Vye's physical appearance indicates her inner nature. By 
a kind of parallel process we can indicate a state of mind, that of 
the writer himself or of some person about whom he is writing. 

Our common speech recognizes the principle behind this process. 
For instance, if a man has an evil nature, we may say that he has a 
"black heart," or if a man is cheerful and optimistic we may say 
that he has a "sunny disposition/* The abstract, general words evil 
and cheerful are replaced by the concrete words black and sunny, 
which properly belong to the physical world. Hardy is simply apply- 
ing this principle in a more elaborate form when he writes of 

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, 
and tropical midnights; her moods recalled the lotus-eaters and the march 
in "Athalie"; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the 

This is a way of saying that Eustacia has a brooding, passionate, 
willful nature; but Hardy's words say much more than we can 
convey by our generalizing words. If we begin to try to elaborate 
in our own way, we find ourselves using such words as sumptuous, 
rich, deep, stormy, the adjectives implied in Hardy's description; 
and then we realize that these words, too, are carrying us toward 
physical description, for words like stormy and deep have come to 
apply to such a thing as a personality by a kind of transference 
from their basic meanings (see Chapter 11). 


Here is an example of the description, not of a personality, but 
of a state of feeling, the feeling at the moment of passing from 
sleep to waking: 

"I was not asleep," I answered as I awoke. 

I said this in good faith. The great modification which the act of 
awakening effects in us is not so much that of introducing us to .the 
clear life of consciousness, as that of making us lose all memory of that 
other, rather more diffused light in which our mind has been resting, as 
in the opaline depths of the sea. The tide of thought, half veiled from our 
perception, over which we were drifting still a moment ago, kept us in 
a state of motion perfectly sufficient to enable us to refer to it by the 
name of wakefulness. But then our actual awakenings produce an inter- 
ruption of memory. A little later we describe these states as sleep be- 
cause we no longer remember them. And when shines that bright star 
which at the moment of waking illuminates behind the sleeper the whole 
expense of his sleep, it makes him imagine for a few moments that this 
was not a sleeping but a waking state; a shooting star, it must be added, 
which blots out with the fading of its light not only the false existence 
but the very appearance of our dream, and merely enables him who has 
awoken to say to himself: "I was asleep." MARCEL PROUST: The Guer- 
mantes Way, Part II, Chap. I. 24 

The same use of physical description to indicate a mental state 
appears in the following passage: 

Sterne's discovery was made. It was repugnant to his imagination, 
shocking to his ideas of honesty, shocking to his conception of mankind. 
This enormity affected one's outlook on wliat was possible in this world: 
it was as if for instance the sun had turned blue, throwing a new and 
sinister light on men and nature. Really in the first moment he had felt 
sickish, as though he had got a blow below the belt: for a second the 
veiy color of the sea seemed changed appeared queer to his wandering 
eye; and he had a passing, unsteady sensation in all his limbs as though 
the earth had started turning the other way. JOSEPH CONRAD: "The End 
of the Tether." 25 

We notice in the above quotation how the author begins by mak- 
ing a general statement: the discovery is repugnant, is shocking, 
changes Sterne's outlook. But we notice how quickly these gener- 
alities shade over into concrete presentations which are intended 

24 From The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust, tr. by C. K. Scott Moncrieff. 
Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. 

25 From Youth: A Narrative by Joseph Conrad. Reprinted by permission of 
J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., through the courtesy of the Conrad estate. 


to evoke in us a direct sense of Sterne's sensation: the blue sun, a 
blow below the belt, the sudden reversal of the earth's motion. 

In the following passage we find a slightly different application 
of the same principle. Above we have been dealing with the descrip- 
tion of a momentary feeling; here we shall be dealing with the 
description of a protracted situation, a state of being. A wife has 
discovered that her husband's conception of life, his "mansion," is 
oppressive and deadening for her: 

But when, as the months had elapsed, she had followed him further 
and he had led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then 
she had seen where she really was. 

She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she 
had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she 
had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. 
It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffo- 
cation. Osmond's beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond's 
beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window 
and mock at her. Of course it had not been physical suffering; for 
physical suffering there might have been a remedy. She could come and 
go; she had her liberty; her husband was perfectly polite. He took himself 
so seriously; it was perfectly appalling, Under all his culture, his clever- 
ness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of 
life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers. HENRY 
JAMES: The Portrait of a Lady, Chap. 42. 

The descriptions of states of feeling just considered are direct in 
treatment. That is, we are introduced as fully as may be into the 
consciousness of the person who has the feeling or experiences the 
state of mind, the seaman Sterne or the disappointed wife. But 
there is an indirect way of using description to portray feeling or 
state of mind, a way which presents the symptoms but does not 
endeavor to describe the feeling or the state of mind itself. This 
way is analogous, of course, to the use of description of a person's 
physical appearance to indicate his character, without giving any 
general statements about the character. 

If we describe a person as having shifty eyes and a flabby mouth, 
the reader is very apt to draw certain conclusions about that per- 
son's character. And by the same token, if we describe a person at 
the moments when his lips whiten, the blood flushes his cheeks, 
his eyes flash, and his respiration is rapid, the reader is apt to con- 
clude that the person is laboring under great rage or other excite- 


ment. Such descriptions of the symptoms, as it were, of a state of 
feeling can, when well done, be very effective in giving the reader 
a sense of the reality of the situation being presented. We shall 
draw another example from the work of Marcel Proust, who is a 
master in the art of presenting states of feeling by either direct or 
indirect methods. 

I made the invalid sit at the foot of the staircase in the hall, and went 
up to warn my mother. I told her that my grandmother had come home 
feeling slightly unwell, after an attack of giddiness. As soon as I began to 
speak, my mother's face was convulsed by the paroxysm of a despair 
which was yet already so resigned that I realized that for many years she 
had been holding herself quietly in readiness for an uncalendared but 
final day. She asked me no question; it seemed that, just as malevolence 
likes to exaggerate the sufferings of other people, so in her devotion she 
would not admit that her mother was seriously ill, especially with a 
disease which might affect the brain. Mamma shuddered, her eyes wept 
without tears, she ran to give orders for the doctor to be fetched at once; 
but when Frangoise asked who was ill she could not reply, her voice stuck 
in her throat. She came running downstairs with me, struggling to banish 
from her face the sob that contracted it MARCEL PROUST: The Guer- 
mantes Way, Part II, Chap. I. 26 


It should be obvious from the examples given above that when 
a writer comes to describe a feeling or a state of mind he is often 
forced to use figurative language. For instance, when Henry James 
(p. 222) wishes to describe the feeling of the wife who discovers 
that her husband is unsympathetic and egotistical, he resorts to 
figurative language: the wife feels she has been imprisoned in the 
"house of dumbness," the "house of suffocation," and most of the 
passage is an elaboration of this comparison of her condition to an 
imprisonment. The whole question of figurative language will be 
discussed at some length elsewhere in this book (p. 361), but the 
question is of so much importance for description that we must at 
least touch upon it here. 

We may say, for the sake of convenience, that such comparisons 

26 From The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust, tr. by C. K. Scott Moncrieff. 
Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. 


have two functions in description, in enriching the texture. First, 
they may make for vividness and immediacy. Second, they may 
serve to interpret the object described or an attitude toward it. 

If we write of a girl's hair that it is very black and glossy, we do 
little to stir the imagination of the reader to a full sense of the qual- 
ity of the hair. But if we write that her hair is like a raven's wing, 
then we have done something to set the imagination of the reader 
to work. The comparison just used is, unfortunately, a rather trite 
one; it has been used so often that its power to stir the imagination 
is almost gone. But when Hardy writes of Eustacia Vye's hair that 
"a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its 
shadow," or that it "closed over her forehead like nightfall," the 
imagination is stirred, and the image of Eustacia is evoked. But 
more than mere vividness has been gained by Hardy's comparisons. 
These particular comparisons also contribute to our impression 
of Eustacia's character the brooding, the mystery, the sense of 
violence the "nocturnal" quality, to use the word which Hardy 
himself uses of her later on. That is, the comparisons not only 
increase the vividness, but interpret the object of the comparison. 

But we do often find that the function of a comparison is merely 
to increase vividness, to help the reader to grasp the object, or that 
the interpretative value of the comparison is very slight. For in- 
stance, when Ruskin describes the street leading up to the cathedral 
(p. 202), he writes that the house had "small porches to their doors 
in the shape of cockleshells." The chief function here, no doubt, is 
to make the impression more vivid, though we are aware of some 
interpretative force in cockleshell an implication of quaintness, of 
cuteness, of childlike diminutiveness. Or when Faulkner describes 
Miss Emily (p. 208) : "Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, 
looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough," 
the chief effect is to startle us, by this caricature of a face, to visu- 
alize Miss Emily. But if we are acquainted with the story in which 
the sentence appears we realize that some interpretation may also 
be involved the pallor, the pasty quality of the flesh, the unhuman 
quality of the comparison, are appropriate for this house of decay 
and death. 

When we come, however, to Stevenson's comparison of the atoll 
to a basin almost submerged in water (p. 210), we have almost as 
pure an example as it would be possible to find of a comparison 
which works to aid in vividness without any interpretative force. 


On the other hand, we can find many passages in which the 
interpretative value of the comparisons is more important than the 
value of vividness. For instance, when Poe refers to the "eye-like 
windows" of the House of Usher (p. 52) there is undoubtedly some 
value of vividness that is, the comparison does help the imagina- 
tion to create the house; but at the same time the chief importance 
of the comparison is to create an atmosphere, to interpret the scene. 
Or when Melville compares the vast volcanic islands to "split Syrian 
gourds" (p. 46), the function is primarily interpretative. By that 
time in the passage we already have a very strong visual impres- 
sion of the islands, and in any case, split, withering gourds do not 
strongly suggest the picture of islands. But the gourds do strongly 
suggest the idea of waste and desolation the interpretative aspect. 
In the last sentence of the passage from E. M. Forster (p. 205) we 
have an excellent case of the interpretative emphasis in a compari- 
son: the Indian city is like "some low but indestructible form of 

It must always be remembered, however, that the comparison 
which is primarily interpretative in intent must involve some basic 
connection between the things compared. The split gourds do bear 
some resemblance to the desolate islands: the cracked, parched 
islands, and the cracked, parched gourds. 

A good comparison cannot be purely arbitrary. When T. E. 
Lawrence writes of the arrival at an Arabian port, "the heat of 
Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless" 
(p. 212), we have nothing which corresponds as far as shape is 
concerned with the sword, but we do have the metallic glitter of 
sea and sand, the suddenness and violence of the heat after days 
at sea; and then, at the level of interpretation, we have the notion 
of ferocity and deadliness the pitiless heat and the drawn blade. 
Or when Proust uses the comparison of various depths of the sea 
and of various kinds of light to describe the process of waking, 
there is no object which corresponds to those things; but the vague 
shadings and confusions of dawning consciousness provide the basis 
for the comparison. 

It does not matter on what basis the comparison is established 
by what senses or feelings but there must be some primary con- 
nection if interpretation is to be established. A comparison, even if 
it does carry an appropriate interpretation, must not be so far- 
fetched that the reader cannot accept it. At the same time the com- 


parison which is too trite or too obvious does not stir the imagina- 
tion. There is no rule for establishing these limits. The writer must 
simply depend on observation of the practice of others and on his 
own experience. 


As the selection of details and the use of figurative language helps 
to determine the texture of a description, so does the choice of 
words. The problem of diction, the choice of words, is naturally 
important for all writing and is discussed elsewhere in this book, 
but it must be touched on here in connection with description. 

Inexperienced writers tend to make adjectives bear the burden 
in description. They do this because the adjective is the part of 
speech which refers to the qualities of things, and description is the 
kind of discourse which is chiefly concerned with the appearance 
of things. An inexperienced writer, therefore, tends to overload his 
description with adjectives, with the idea of specifying all the quali- 
ties of the thing being presented. Such a writer forgets that sug- 
gestion is often better than enumeration, and that the mere listing 
of qualities is not the best way to evoke an image in the reader's 

Let us look at the following portrait: 

The woman's face was fat and shapeless, so fat that it looked soft, 
unresilient, grayish, and unhealthy. The features were blurred because 
her face was fat. But her small, black glistening eyes had a quick inquisi- 
tive motion as they moved from one face to another while the visitors 
stated their errand. 

In that description the writer has piled up the adjectives, trying 
to specify each of the qualities of the woman's face and eyes. The 
result is a rather confused impression. Let us now take the passage 
as William Faulkner originally wrote it (p. 208) before we tampered 
with it: 

Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small 
pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one 
face to another while the visitors stated their errand. 

Here the writer has managed to dispense with most of the adjec- 
tives, for the dough implies soft, unresilient, grayish, shapeless, 


blurred, and (when associated with flesh) unhealthy, and the coal 
implies black and glistening. The use of a comparison of this kind 
will frequently enable the writer to dispense with adjectives. But 
if the writer must use adjectives he should be sure that each ad- 
jective really adds something essential to the description. Rather 
than give the list of adjectives above, one could simply say that 
the face was "fat and doughy." 

The discussion above really returns us to the question of selec- 
tion. But it does not touch on the use of parts of speech other than 
adjectives. One can frequently get greater vividness by using nouns, 
adverbs, and verbs. For instance, notice the descriptive force of the 
italicized nouns in the following examples: 

The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. 
Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that 
uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys. KATHERINE MANSFIELD: "The 
Garden Party." 

They crept up the hill in the twilight and entered the cottage. It was 
built of mud-walls, the surface of which had been washed by many rains 
into channels and depressions that left none of the original flat face 
visible; while here and there in the thatch above a rafter showed like a 
bone protruding through the skin. THOMAS HARDY: "The Withered Arm." 

And a wind blew there, tossing the withered tops of last year's grasses, 
and mists ran with the wind, and ragged shadows with the mists, and 
mare's-tails of clear moonlight among the shadows, so that now the 
boles of birches on the forest's edge beyond the fences were but opal 
blurs and now cut alabaster. WILBUR DANIEL STEELE: "How Beautiful 
with Shoes." 

We can see that in these passages, the nouns are of two kinds. 
First, there are those which simply point to some items in the thing 
described, such as channels, depressions, mists, shadows, moonlight. 
Second, there are those which involve comparisons, such as rags, 
shreds, alabaster, bone, and skin. 

When we turn to the use of adverbs, we find that this part of 
speech sometimes enables a writer to get an effect with great econ- 
omy by fusing the quality of a thing with its action. When Dickens 
writes in describing Chadband that he "moves softly and cum- 
brously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright" 
(p. 214), the adverbs softly and cumbrously give a much more vivid 


and immediate effect than would be possible if we broke the de- 
scription up in the following fashion: Mr. Chadband is soft, heavy, 
and awkward-looking. When he walks his motion is not unlike that 
of a bear which has been taught to walk upright. 

Let us take two sentences from Stephen Crane's description of 
a battle (p. 218) and see how the italicized adverbs used focus 
the main effect in each sentence: 

Having stirred this prodigious uproar and, apparently, finding it too 
prodigious, the brigade, after a little time, came marching airily out again 
with its fine formation in nowise disturbed. ... A congregation of 
horses, tied to a long railing, were tugging frenziedly at their bridles. 

In both of these sentences the adverb is the key word. In the 
first, airily, with its implications of lightness, casualness, slight dis- 
dainfulness, and girlishness, is the key to the irony of the passage. 
In the second, frenziedly focuses the attention on the quality of the 
action the important thing about the scene by the railing. 

Or look at the effect of the italicized adverbs in the following 
passage from Katharine Anne Porter 's description of Braggioni 
(p. 217): 

His mouth opens round and yearns sideways, his balloon cheeks grow 
oily with the labor of song. He bulges marvellously in his expensive 

In the use of verbs, the same concentration of effect is possible, 
for frequently the right verb can imply something about the nature 
of the thing or person performing an action as well as about the 
nature of the action. In the sentence by Katherine Anne Porter 
just quoted, the verbs yearns and bulges are extremely important. 
Yearns implies the sentimental expression on the fat revolutionist's 
face, and bulges implies the brute heft of the man, in contrast to 
the sentimental song he sings. So the two verbs here really indicate 
the contrast in his nature, as well as in his appearance. 

In the following passage, which describes a herd of wild horses 
corraled in a barn-lot, notice how the variety and accuracy of the 
italicized forms 27 give the impression of furious, aimless motion, 
and define the atmosphere of violence of the scene: 

27 Some of the verbs, we notice, appear in the form of participles. 


"Come on, grab a holt," the Texan said. Eck grasped the wire also. 
The horses laid back against it, the pink faces tossing above the back- 
surging mass. "Pull him up, pull him up," the Texan said sharply. "They 
couldn't get up here in the wagon even if they wanted to." The wagon 
moved gradually backward until the head of the first horse was snubbed 
up to the tail-gate. The Texan took a turn of wire quickly about one of 
the wagon stakes. "Keep the slack out of it," he said. He vanished and 
reappeared, almost in the same second, with a pair of heavy wire-cutters. 
"Hold them like that," he said, and leaped. He vanished, broad hat, 
flapping vest, wire-cutters and all, into a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of long 
teeth and wild eyes and slashing feet, from which presently the horses 
began to burst, one by one like partridges flushing, each wearing a neck- 
lace of barbed wire. The first one crossed the lot at top speed, on a 
straight line. It galloped into the fence without any diminution whatever. 
The wire gave, recovered, and slammed the horse to earth where it lay 
for a moment, glaring, its legs still galloping in air. It scrambled up 
without having ceased to gallop and crossed the lot and galloped into 
the opposite fence and was slammed again to earth. The others were 
now freed. They whipped and whirled about the lot like dizzy fish in a 
bowl. It had seemed like a big lot until now, but now the very idea that 
all that fury and motion should be transpiring inside any one fence was 
something to be repudiated with contempt, like a mirror trick. WILLIAM 
FAULKNER: The Hamlet, Book IV, Chap. I. 28 

Verbs like tossing, vanished, reappeared, leaped, slashing, 
slammed, whipped, whirled, give a constant sense of seething, vio- 
lent motion, and as the passage continues in the part not quoted 
here we find such additional verbs as feinting, dodging, weaving, 
ripped, shook, and streaked. 

A good writer can make adjectives, nouns, adverbs, and verbs 
all serve his purpose. He can blend them to give his effect. 


Description is the kind of discourse that tells what something is 
like, what qualities it has, what impression it makes. It deals pri- 
marily with the appearance of the world. 

We can distinguish two kinds of description, TECHNICAL and 


28 From The Hamlet by William Faulkner. Reprinted by permission of 
Random House, Inc. 


Technical description may really be considered as one type of 
exposition, the kind of discourse concerned with explanation, with 
analysis and classification. But suggestive description also is re- 
lated to the other forms of discourse. It frequently appears in 
connection with narrative of all types, and sometimes with exposi- 
tion and argument. 

Description, and especially suggestive description, has to do with 
the appearance of the world, and hence with the way the world 
presents itself to our senses. Any one of the senses, and the percep- 
tions of heat and cold, of pressure and strain, may be involved in 
description, or any combination of them. Hence, a capacity for 
close observation is important for good description. 

In suggestive description the writer should be concerned to give 
a DOMINANT IMPRESSION, the unified effect to which the details con- 
tribute, the basic mood or idea of the description. 

Even if a writer knows what dominant impression he wishes to 
give, he must still solve certain problems of method. These may 
be considered under two heads, PATTERN and TEXTURE. Pattern has 
to do with general organization, and texture with the nature of the 
details and their relation to each other. 

In description with an objective emphasis any one of three types 
of POINT OF VIEW may dictate the organization: 

1. Order in the object as observed from a fixed position 

2. Order in the object as observed from a shifting position 

3. Order in an imaginary FRAME IMAGE 

In description with a subjective emphasis either of two methods 
may be used to organize the details: 

4. In reference to the mood or attitude 

5. In reference to an interest 

In addition to these types of pattern, three others may be distin- 

6. By a listing of details with relation to a dominant mood or 
interest but without formal organization IMPRESSIONISTIC PATTERN 

7. In reference to a frame of narrative, argument, or exposition 
in which the descriptive material is absorbed ABSORBED DESCRIPTION 

8. By mixed patterns 

As pattern is concerned with the organization of details, so texture 
is concerned with the nature of the details presented. This problem 
is, first, a problem of SELECTION. Selection may be considered in 


two aspects, VIVIDNESS and SIGNIFICANCE, but it must be remembered 
that the same detail may be both vivid and significant. 

A detail may be vivid because it is obvious and striking, or be- 
cause, though not obvious, it stimulates the reader's imagination to 
re-create the object described. A detail may be significant if it con- 
tributes to the dominant impression, that is, the mood, the attitude, 
or the idea the writer wishes to communicate. 

The dominant impression may be not only of some physical 
object, say a scene or a person, but of the character of a person. 
The physical details may indicate the inner nature of the person 
described. By the same process, that of indicating the intangible 
by the tangible, feelings and states of mind may be described. This 
may involve the use of the physical symptoms of the feeling or 
state of mind and the use of figurative language. But figurative 
language is often important in description to indicate or to heighten 
the dominant impression. 

The choice of words is also important in determining the texture 
of description. Inexperienced writers tend to rely on adjectives, but 
other parts of speech, nouns, adverbs, and verbs, can be used with 
effect. A good writer tries to use the full resources of his language 
and to combine its elements into a unified whole. 


Following are a number of examples of description. These have already 
been discussed in this chapter with regard to the study of special topics. 

A. A knot of country boys, gabbling at one another like starlings, 
shrilled a cheer as we came rattling over a stone bridge beneath which 
a stream shallowly washed its bank of osiers. WALTER DE LA MARE: 
Memoirs of a Midget, Chap. 2. 

B. Charmian is a hatchet faced, terra cotta colored little goblin, swift 
in her movements, and neatly finished at the hands and feet. GEORGE 
BERNARD SHAW : Caesar and Cleopatra, Act IV. 

C. Without being robust, her health was perfect, her needlework 
exquisite, her temper equable and calm; she loved and was loved by 
her girl-friends; she read romantic verses and select novels; above all, 
she danced. That was the greatest pleasure in life for her; not for the 
sake of her partners those were surely only round dances, and the 


partners didn't count; what counted was the joy of motion, the sense of 
treading lightly, in perfect time, a sylph in spotless muslin, enriched 
with a ribbon or a flower, playing discreetly with her fan, and sailing 
through the air with feet that seemed scarcely to touch the ground. 
GEORGE SANTAYANA: Persons and Places, Chap. I. 29 

D. Leaning over the parapet he enjoyed, once more, the strangely 
intimate companionship of the sea. He glanced down into the water 
whose uneven floor was diapered with long weedy patches, fragments 
of fallen rock, and brighter patches of sand; he inhaled the pungent odor 
of sea- wrack and listened to the breathings of the waves. They lapped 
softly against the rounded boulders which strewed the shore like a flock 
of nodding Behemoths. He remembered his visits at daybreak to the 
beach those unspoken confidences with the sunlit element to whose 
friendly caresses he had abandoned his body. How calm it was, too, in 
this evening light. Near at hand, somewhere, lay a sounding cave; it sang 
a melody of moist content. Shadows lengthened; fishing boats, moving 
outward for the night-work, steered darkly across the luminous river 
at his feet. Those jewel-like morning tints of blue and green had faded 
from the water; the southern cliff-scenery, projections of it, caught a 
fiery glare. Bastions of flame. . . . 

The air seemed to have become unusually cool and bracing. NORMAN 
DOUGLAS: South Wind, Chap. 49. 30 

E. So the day has taken place, all the visionary business of the day. 
The young cattle stand in the straw of the stack yard, the sun gleams 
on their white fleece, the eyes of lo, and the man with the side-whiskers 
carries more yellow straw into the compound. The sun comes in all 
down one side, and above, in the sky, all the gables and grey stone 
chimney-stacks are floating in pure dreams. 

There is threshed wheat smouldering in the great barn, the fire of life: 
and the sound of the threshing machine, running, drumming. 

The threshing machine, running, drumming, waving its steam in a 
corner of a great field, the rapid nucleus of darkness beside the yellow 
ricks: and the rich plough-land comes up, ripples up in endless grape- 
colored ripples, like a tide of procreant desire: the machine sighs and 
drums, wind blows the chaff in little eddies, blows the clothes of the men 
on the ricks close against their limbs: the men on the stacks in the wind 

29 From Persons and Places by George Santayana, copyright, 1944, 1945, by 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

80 From South Wind by Norman Douglas. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, 
Mead & Company, Inc. 


against a bare blue heaven, their limbs blown clean in contour naked 
shapely animated fragments of earth active in heaven. 

Coming home, by the purple and crimson hedges, red with berries, 
up hill over the heavy ground to the stone, old three-pointed house with 
its raised chimney-stacks, the old manor lifting its fair, pure stone amid 
trees and foliage, rising from the lawn, we pass the pond where white 
ducks hastily launch upon the lustrous dark grey waters. 

So up the steps to the porch, through the doorway, and into the 
interior, fragrant with all the memories of old age, and of bygone, 
remembered lustiness. D. H. LAWRENCE: Letters. 31 

F. When I say they [the gondoliers of Venice] are associated with its 
[the city's] silence, I should immediately add that they are associated 
also with its sound. Among themselves they are extraordinarily talkative 
company. They chatter at the traghetti [landings], where they always 
have some sharp point under discussion; they bawl across the canals; they 
bespeak your commands as you approach; they defy each other from afar. 
If you happen to have a traghetto under your window, you are well aware 
that they are a vocal race. I should go even farther than I went just 
now, and say that the voice of the gondolier is, in fact, the voice of 
Venice. There is scarcely any other, and that, indeed, is part of the 
interest of the place. There is no noise there save distinctly human noise; 
no rumbling, no vague uproar, no rattle of wheels and hoofs. It is all 
articulate, personal sound. One may say, indeed, that Venice is, em- 
phatically, the city of conversation; people talk all over the place, be- 
cause there is nothing to interfere with their being heard. Among the 
populace it is a kind of family party. The still water carries the voice, 
and good Venetians exchange confidences at a distance of a half a mile. 
It saves a world of trouble, and they don't like trouble. Their delightful 
garrulous language helps them to make Venetian life a long conver- 
sazione. This language, with its soft elisions, its odd transpositions, its 
kindly contempt for consonants and other disagreeables, has in it some- 
thing peculiarly human and accommodating. HENRY JAMES: "Venice," 
Portraits of Places. 

G. The dress of the rider and the accouterments of his horse, were 
peculiarly unfit for the traveller in such a country. A coat of linked mail, 
with long sleeves, plated gauntlets, and a steel breastplate, had not been 
esteemed sufficient weight of armor; there was also his triangular shield 
suspended round his neck, and his barred helmet of steel, over which 
he had a hood and collar of mail, which was drawn around the warrior's 

31 From The Letters of D. H. Lawrence by D. H. Lawrence, copyright, 1932 ? 
by The Viking Press, Inc. 


shoulders and throat, and filled up the vacancy between the hauberk 
and the head-piece. His lower limbs were sheathed, like his body, in 
flexible mail, securing the legs and thighs, while the feet rested in plated 
shoes, which corresponded with the gauntlets. A long, broad, straight- 
shaped, double-edged falchion, with a handle formed like a cross, cor- 
responded with a stout poniard on the other side. The Knight also bore, 
secured to his saddle, with one end resting on his stirrup, the long steel- 
headed lance, his own proper weapon, which, as he rode, projected 
backwards, and displayed its little pennoncelle, to dally with the faint 
breeze, or drop in the dead calm. WALTER SCOTT: The Talisman, Bk. I, 
Chap. 1. 

H. Say that I had walked and wandered by unknown roads, and 
suddenly, after climbing a gentle hill, had seen before me for the first 
time the valley of Usk, just above Newbridge. I think it was on one of 
those strange days in summer when the sky is at once so grey and 
luminous that I achieved this adventure. There are no clouds in the 
upper air, the sky is simply covered with a veil which is, as I say, both 
grey and luminous, and there is no breath of wind, and every leaf is 

But now and again as the day goes on the veil will brighten, and the 
sun almost appear; and then here and there in the woods it is as if white 
moons were descending. On such a day, then, I saw that wonderful and 
most lovely valley; the Usk, here purged of its muddy tidal waters, now 
like the sky, grey and silvery and luminous, winding in mystic esses, 
and the dense forest bending down to it, and the grey stone bridge cross- 
ing it. Down the valley in the distance was Caerleon-on-Usk; over the 
hill, somewhere in the lower slopes of the forest, Caerwent, also a Roman 
city, was buried in the earth, and gave up now and again strange relics- 
fragments of the temple of "Nodens, god of the depths/' I saw the lonely 
house between the dark forest and the silver river, and years after I 
wrote "The Great God Pan," an endeavor to pass on the vague, inde- 
finable sense of awe and mystery and terror that I had received. ARTHUR 
MACHEN: Far Off Things, Chap. I. 32 

I. Ratmiroff gazed gloomily after his wife even then he could not 
fail to observe the enchanting grace of her figure, or her movements 
and crushing his cigarette with a heavy blow against the marble slab 
of the chimney-piece, he flung it far from him. His cheeks suddenly 
paled, a convulsive quiver flitted across his chin, and his eyes wandered 
dully and fiercely over the floor, as though in search of something. . . . 

32 Reprinted from Far Off Things by Arthur Machen, by permission of 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 


Every trace of elegance had vanished from his face. That must have 
been the sort of expression it had assumed when he flogged the white 
Russian peasants. IVAN TURGENEV: Smoke, Chap. 15. 

J. He was a Mr. Cornelius Vanslyperken, a tall, meagre-looking per- 
sonage, with very narrow shoulders and very small head. Perfectly straight 
up and down, protruding in no part, he reminded you of some tall parish 
pump, with a great knob at its top. His face was gaunt, cheeks hollow, 
nose and chin showing an effection for each other, and evidently lament- 
ing the gulf between them which prevented their meeting. Both appear 
to have fretted themselves to the utmost degree of tenuity from disap- 
pointment in love; as for the nose, it had a pearly round tear hanging at 
its tip, as if it wept. FREDERICK MARRYAT: The Dog Fiend, Chap. 1. 

K. Her heart seemed so full, that it spilt its new gush of happiness, as 
it were, like rich and sunny wine out of an overbrimming goblet 
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE: The Marble Faun, Chap. 15. 

L But I eat. I gradually lose all knowledge of particulars as I eat. 
I am becoming weighed down with food. These delicious mouthfuls of 
roast duck, fitly piled with vegetables, following each other in exquisite 
rotation of warmth, weight, sweet and bitter, past my palate, down my 
gullet, into my stomach, have established my body. I feel quiet, gravity, 
control. All is solid now. Instinctively my palate now requires and 
anticipates sweetness and lightness, something sugared and evanescent; 
and cool wine, fitting glove-like over those finer nerves that seem to 
tremble from the roof of my mouth and make it spread (as I drink) into 
a domed cavern, green with vine leaves, musk-scented, purple with 
grapes. Now I can look steadily into the mill-race that foams beneath. 
By what particular name are we to call it? Let Rhoda speak, whose face 
I see reflected mistily in the looking-glass opposite; Rhoda whom I in- 
terrupted when she rocked her petals in a brown basin, asking for the 
pocket-knife that Bernard had stolen. Love is not a whirl-pool to her. 
She is not giddy when she looks down. She looks far away over our 
heads, beyond India. VIRGINIA WOOLF: The Waves, Section 4. 33 

M. Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts; the 
shoulder is at Buzzard's Bay; the elbow, or crazy-bone, at Cape Malle- 
barre; the wrist at Truro; and the sandy fist at Provincetown, behind 
which the state stands on her guard, with her back to the Green Moun- 
tains, and her feet planted on the floor of the ocean, like an athlete pro- 
tecting her Bay, boxing with northeast storms, and, ever and anon, 

83 From The Waves by Virginia Woolf, copyright, 1931, by Harcourt, Brace 
and Company, Inc. 


heaving up her Atlantic adversary from the lap of earth, ready to thrust 
forward her other fist, which keeps guard while upon her breast at 
Cape Ann. HENRY DAVID THOREAU: Cape Cod, Chap. 1. 

N. In search of a place proper for this, I found a little plain on the 
side of a rising hill, whose front towards this little plain was steep as a 
house-side, so that nothing could come down upon me from the top; 
on the side of this rock there was a hollow place, worn a little way in, 
like the entrance or door of a cave; but there was not really any cave, 
or way into the rock at all. 

On the flat of the green, just before this hollow place, I resolved to 
pitch my tent. This plain was not above an hundred yards broad, 
and about twice as long, and lay like a green before my door, and at 
the end of it descended irregularly every way down into the low grounds 
by the seaside. It was on the NNW. side of the hill, so that I was sheltered 
from the heat every day, till it came to a W. and by S. sun, or thereabouts, 
which in those countries is near the setting. DANIEL DEFOE: Robinson 



NARRATION is the kind of discourse concerned with action, with 
life in motion. It answers the question: "What happened?" It tells 
a story. 

We ordinarily think of story-telling as being the special province 
of the writer of fiction, of short stories and novels, but fiction is 
only one type of narration, and here we shall be concerned with 
narration as a kind of discourse with narration in general. Fiction 
involves many special problems which will not be touched on here. 

Let us examine what we mean by the word action as used in the 
statement that narration is the kind of discourse concerned with 
action. We may discuss action under three heads, movement, time, 
and meaning. 


Description gives us the picture of the world as fixed at a given 
moment, of its objects as existing at that moment. It is a portrait, a 
snapshot, a still life. Narration gives us a moving picture, its objects 
in operation, life in motion. Its emphasis is not on the thing in 
motion, but on the nature of the motion itself. It is concerned with 
a transformation from one stage to another stage. It not only an- 
swers the question, "What happened?" it also answers the question, 
"How did it happen?" that is, what was the process of passing from 
the first stage to the last stage? 

This special emphasis on movement itself means that narration 
does not explain a process (though it may do so) but presents a 


process. It places the event before our eyes. Narration does not 
tell about the story. It tells the story. Like description, narration 
gives the quality of immediacy. 


The movement of a process, an event, is through time, from one 
point to another. But narration does not give us a mere segment of 
time, but a unit of time, and a unit is a thing which is complete in 
itself. It may be part of a larger thing, and it may contain smaller 
parts, but in itself it is complete. The unit of time, therefore, is 
the time in which a process fulfills itself. We now emphasize, not 
the fact of movement, but the movement from a beginning to an 
end. We begin a story at the moment when something is ripe to 
happen, when one condition prevails but is unstable, and end it 
when the something has finished happening, when a new condition 
prevails and is stable. And in between those two moments are all 
the moments which mark the stages of change. 

But you may recall narratives which did not begin with that first 
moment when something was ripe to happen. For instance, a nar- 
rative may begin with a man in the very midst of his difficulties 
and problems, say on the battlefield or at the moment of a marital 
crisis or when he hears that he has lost his fortune, and then cut 
back to his previous experiences to explain how he came to be in 
such a situation. Such a narrative does not move in an orderly 
fashion from A to Z. It begins, instead, with G, f/, 7 and then cuts 
back to A, B, and C. But we must distinguish here between two 
things: how the narrator treated the sequence in time and how the 
sequence existed in time. The narrator may have given us G, H, 
and I first in order to catch our interest. He may have thought that 
A, B, and C, would not be interesting to us until we knew what they 
were to lead to. But when he does finally cut back to A, B, and C, 
we become aware of the full sequence in time and set it up in our 
imaginations A, B, C . . . G, H, 7. . . . In other words, we must 
distinguish between the way (G, H, I A, B, C . . .) the narrator 
tells us something and the thing (A, B, C, D, E, F, G . . .) which 
he tells. The thing told always represents a unit of time, no matter 
how much the narrator may violate its natural order. 



An action, as we are using the word, is not merely a series of 
events but is a meaningful series. We have already implied this in 
saying that narration gives us a unit of time, with a beginning and 
an end. In other words, the events must be stages in a process and 
not merely a random collection held together in time, They must 
have a unity of meaning. Suppose we should read: 

President Wilson presented his war message to Congress on April 6, 
1917. War was declared. Thus the United States embarked on its first 
great adventure in world affairs. On April 8, 1917, just two days later, 
Albert Mayfield was born in Marysville, Illinois. He was a healthy baby, 
and grew rapidly. By the time of the Armistice he weighed 25 pounds. 
On December 12, 1918, the troopship Mason., returning to New York 
from Cherbourg, struck a floating mine off Ireland and sank. Two hun- 
dred and sixteen men were lost. 

Several events are recounted in this passage, but as it is presented 
to us, nothing holds those events together. They have no significant 
relation to each other. They do not constitute an action, merely a 
sequence in time. But suppose we rewrite the passage: 

President Wilson presented his war message to Congress on April 6, 

1917. War was declared. Thus the United States embarked on its first 
great adventure in world affairs. On April 8, 1917, just two days later, 
Albert Mayfield was born in Marysville, Illinois. Scarcely before the ink 
had dried on the headlines of the extra of the Marysville Courier an- 
nouncing the declaration of war, Albert embarked on his own great 
adventure in world affairs. He was a healthy baby, and grew rapidly. 
By the time of the Armistice he weighed 25 pounds. On December 12, 

1918, the troopship Mason, returning to New York from Cherbourg, 
struck a floating mine off Ireland and sank. Two hundred and sixteen 
men were lost. Among those men was Sidney Mayfield, a captain of 
artillery, a quiet, unobtrusive, middle-aged insurance salesman., who left 
a widow and an infant son. That son was Albert Mayfield. So Albert grew 
up into a world which the war a war he could not remember had de- 
fined. It had defined the little world of his home, the silent, bitter 
woman who was his mother, the poverty and the cheerless discipline, 
and it had defined the big world outside. 

Now we are moving toward an action. The random events are 
given some relationship to each other. We have unity and meaning. 


We may want to go on and find out more about Albert and about 
the long-range effects of the war on his life, but what we have is, 
as far as it goes, an action in itself as well as the part of a bigger 
action, the story of Albert's life. 

We have said that an action must have unity of meaning. This 
implies that one thing leads to another, or if one thing does not 
lead to the other, that they both belong to a body of related events 
all bearing on the point of the action. For instance, in the paragraph 
about Albert Mayfield, the declaration of war by the United States 
did not directly cause the floating mine to be in a particular spot off 
Ireland, but both events belong in the body of events contributing 
to the formation of Albert's character. 

In seeking the unity of an action, we must often think of the 
persons involved. Events do not merely happen to people, but 
people also cause events. People have desires and impulses, and 
these desires and impulses are translated into deeds. Therefore, the 
human motives involved may contribute to the unity of an action. 
This human element, MOTIVATION, may provide the line which runs 
through the individual events and binds them together. And when 
motivation does not provide us with the line, we must think of the 
events as leading to some human response. For example, no motiva- 
tion in the sense just used binds the little story of Albert Mayfield 
together, but the effect of the events on Albert Mayfield, his re- 
sponse to them, provides the unity and the meaning. 

If we summarize what we mean by an action, we arrive at some- 
thing like this. It is a connected sequence of events. It involves a 
change from one condition to another. It must have a beginning 
and an end. It must have unity and meaning. It must stimulate and 
satisfy an interest. 


Before we leave this preliminary discussion of narration, it may 
be well, as a kind of caution, to make a distinction between narra- 
tion and narrative. Strictly considered,! narration is a certain way 
of speaking or writing, a kind of discourse, and a narrative is the 
thing produced by its application, a discourse, either spoken or 
written, which presents an actiori. We must remember, however, 


that the method of narration may be used without giving us a 
satisfactory narrative. Suppose a woman should say: 

Why, my dear, I had the pleasantest afternoon yesterday. I went down 
to lunch with Ethel at the Green Room of the Millet Hoteland we 
had delicious shrimp. You know, the kind they serve there. Then I went 
to get a facial. And guess who was there! Milly Seaver. I hadn't seen her 
in ages. Really, not for ages. She was looking awful well, even if she is 
beginning I oughtn't say this, but it's true to show her age just a little. 
You know how blondes are. She said she was getting a permanent and 
was in a hurry because her husband was taking her to Chicago that 
night on a business trip. Then I left the beauty shop and went to a movie. 
It wasn't very good, but I enjoyed being there in the cool, after such a 
hot day. But I had to come home early, before the show was over. You 
see, Mike, that's my biggest child, had to go to a Scout meeting. And 
besides, I like an early dinner for the children. Also, my new shoes 
weren't very comfortable, and I was glad to get home. But Milly Seaver 
you really ought to see her she's getting . . . 

This rattletrap of a woman has used the method of narration, but 
she has used it without the distinguishing interest of narration, the 
presentation of an action. She has given us a sequence of events 
in time, but that sequence of events does not constitute an action 
in the real sense. The unity is a unity in time she went down town 
early in the afternoon and came home late but there is no unity 
of meaning in the events themselves. One may say, of course, that 
we get some notion of her character from the way she spends her 
time, and that this constitutes a meaning. But ordinarily we insist 
on a little more than that when we say that a sequence of events 
constitutes an action. 

It is not profitable, however, to demand a single line of demarca- 
tion between what is narration and non-narration, between what 
is narrative and what is non-narrative. If we understand the ex- 
tremesthe random and unrelated accumulation events at the one 
extreme, and the fully realized action at the other we can use com- 
mon sense to discriminate among the examples of the shadowland in 
between. And in our ordinary speaking and writing we shall fre- 
quently have reason to move into that shadowland where definitions 
are not as clear as day. 



We have been discussing narration (and narrative) as a thing in 
itself. But it bears certain relations to the other kinds of discourse- 
description^ exposition, and argument. What are these relations? 

We can break this general question down into two other ques- 

1. How does narration use other kinds of discourse? 

2. How do other kinds of discourse use narration? 


Let us take up the first question. A narrative may have within it 
descriptive, argumentative, or expository elements. In fact, any 
rather full narrative will almost certainly have them, but they will 
be, if the prevailing motive of the piece of writing is narrative, 
absorbed into the narrative intention. 

A narrative presents us with an action. But an action implies 
things or persons which act and are acted upon. And the word 
presents implies that we are not told about those things or persons 
but are given some sense of their actual presence, their appearance, 
their nature. And this means that, in a greater or lesser degree, they 
are described. So description comes in to give us that impression 
of immediacy which is important for all narrative except the most 
bare and synoptic kind. 

The same line of reasoning leads us to an awareness of the impor- 
tance of exposition in narrative. A narrative involves an action, and 
we have defined an action as a sequence of events related to 
create a meaning. One thing leads to another. There is a con- 
nection of cause and effect, or at least the events are connected 
with each other by means of some idea. For instance, in the little 
example given above about Albert Mayfield and World War I, the 
war is the cause of the particular situation in which the boy grows 
up. We must understand this in order to get the point. 

Exposition is the kind of discourse concerned with explanation, 
with making us understand something, and in so far as a narrative 
employs explanation to bring us to an understanding of its point, 
it involves exposition. Some narratives, it is true, may simply arrange 


their materials so that the reader is aware of the point without 
having to depend on any explanation, but in any rather fully de- 
veloped narrative some element of exposition, even though a very 
slight one, is apt to appear. 

Let us turn to the writing of a little narrative. Suppose we start 
with the following passage: 

George Barton, a poor boy about twelve years old of nondescript ap- 
pearance, was forced to sell the mastiff, which he had reared from a 
puppy and which he loved very much, for two reasons. First, having lost 
his job, he could no longer buy proper food for a dog of such size. 
Second, after it had frightened a child in the neighborhood, he was 
afraid that someone would poison it. 

But this is not a narrative. It is concerned with an action, the fact 
that the boy sells his dog, but its primary concern is with the causes 
of the action and with what the action illustrates rather than with 
the immediate presentation of the action in time. Let us rewrite the 

George Barton owned a mastiff which he had reared from a puppy. He 
loved it very much. But he lost his job and could no longer buy proper 
food for it. Then the dog frightened a little child of the neighborhood who 
was eating a piece of bread. George was now afraid that someone would 
poison it. So he sold it. 

This is a narrative. The causes of the action are given here, as 
before, but now they are absorbed into the movement of the action 
itself and appear to us in their natural sequence. When we wrote in 
the first example that George sold the dog for two reasons, we vio- 
lated the whole nature of narrative the movement in time because 
we made, not the action itself, but the causes of the action, the 
thing of primary interest. The first piece of writing is expository: 
it explains why the boy sold the dog. The second piece of writing 
is narrative: it tells us what happened. 

This second piece of writing is, however, a very poor, dull, and 
incomplete piece of narrative. It can scarcely be said, for one thing, 
to present the event at all. It gives us little sense of the immediate 
quality of the event. It is so bare of detail that the imagination of 
the reader can find little to work on. We have the basic facts given 
in a bare synopsis. But if we fill in the synopsis a little we can make 
it satisfy us somewhat better. 


George Barton was a nondescript little boy, scarcely to be distinguished 
from the other boys living in Duck Alley. He had a pasty face, not remark- 
able in any way, eyes not blue and not brown but some nondescript hazel 
color, and a tangle of neutral colored hair. His clothes were the anony- 
mous, drab, cast-off items worn by all the children of Duck Alley, that 
grimy street, scarcely a street at all but a dirt track, which ran between 
the sluggish, algae-crusted bayou and a scattering of shanties. His life 
there was unremarkable and cheerless enough, with a feeble, querulous, 
stooped, defeated father, a mother who had long since resigned herself 
to her misery, and a sullen older brother, with a mean laugh and a hard 
set of knuckles, who tormented George for amusement when he was 
not off prowling with his cronies. But this home did not distinguish 
George from the other children of Duck Alley. It was like many of the 
others. What distinguished George was his dog. 

One day two years backbit was the summer when he was ten- 
George had found the dog. It was a puppy then, a scrawny, starving 
creature with absurd big paws, sniffling feebly in the garbage dump at 
the end of Duck Alley. No one could have guessed then that it would 
grow into a sleek, powerful animal, as big as a pony. 

George brought it home, and defended it against the protests and 
jeers and random kicks of the family. "I'll feed him," he asserted. "He 
won't never eat a bite I don't make the money to pay for." And he was 
as good as his word. There was no job too hard for him, for he could 
look forward to evening when he would squat by the old goods box 
which served as a kennel and watch Jibby gnaw at the hunk of meat 
he had bought. 

Suppose we begin the narrative in that way. We have added 
several elements to the bare synopsis given before. We know now 
why the dog is so important to the boy. There is no direct state- 
ment on this point, but we see that he lives an isolated and loveless 
life, and that the dog satisfies a craving of his nature for compan- 
ionship and affection. We also see that now he has a reason for his 
own efforts, a center for his life. In other words we can imagina- 
tively grasp his own state of mind. As we have just stated the 
matter, it is given as explanation, as exposition, but in the narrative 
itself this expository element is absorbed into situation and action. 
But in addition to this element, we have added little bits of descrip- 
tion which are woven into the narrative to help us visualize the 
scene and George himself. The description which is absorbed into 
the narrative helps put the whole thing before us, helps to present 
it rather than tell about it. 


The thing to emphasize here is that the narrative is concerned 
to make us sense the fullness of the process to make us see, hear, 
feel, and understand the event as a single thing. Description alone 
might make us see or hear some aspect of the event. Exposition 
might make us understand its meaning, its causes or results. But 
narrative, when it is fully effective, makes us aware directly of the 
event as happening. 

To return to our little narrative. Suppose we should carry on our 
suggested revision to the moment when George sells his dog. Would 
there be anything still lacking to make the narrative fully satisfying? 
Perhaps there would be. Perhaps the meaning of the action would 
not be very clear. Let us continue it at a point after George has lost 
his job and the dog has frightened the child. 

George sold the dog to John Simpson, a boy who lived in one of the 
big brick houses on the hill back of town. John Simpson's father was 
rich. John could feed Jibby. John could take care of him. Nobody would 
poison Jibby up at John Simpson's house, behind the high iron fence. 
George comforted himself with these thoughts. 

Sometimes, however, they did not comfort him enough, and he felt 
the old loneliness and emptiness which he had felt before Jibby came. 
But he was getting to be a big boy now, big and tough, and he put those 
feelings out of his mind as well as he could. He did not work regularly 
now, but hung around with the Duck Alley gang in the railroad yards. He 
almost forgot Jibby. 

One day on the main street of town he met John Simpson and the 
clog, such a big, powerful, sleek dog now that he scarcely recognized 
him. He went up to the dog. "Hi, Jibby, hi, boy!" he said, and began 
to pull the dog's ears and scratch his head as he had done three years 
before, in the evenings, back by the goods box, after Jibby had bolted 
his supper. The dog nuzzled him and licked his hands. George looked 
up at the other boy and exclaimed, "Jeez, lk at him. Look at him, will 
ya. Ain't he smart? He remembers me!" 

John Simpson stood there and for a moment did not utter a word. 
Then he said, "Take your hands off that dog. He belongs to me." 

George stepped back. 

"Come here, Blaze," John Simpson ordered, and the dog went to him. 
He fondled the dog's head, and the dog licked his hands. 

George turned around and walked off. 

This is somewhat more complete than the previous version. If we 
stop with the sale of the dog, we do have an example of narration, 


but the reader no doubt is somewhat confused about the exact 
meaning of the event presented. Perhaps the reader feels sorry for 
the boy. Perhaps he is aware that poverty is the cause of the boy's 
loss of the dog. Those things may be taken as meanings of the piece 
of narration given. But they are not brought to focus. The reader 
may not be sure exactly what is intended. He is certain to feel that 
the narrative is rather fragmentary. 

But with the addition of the next section dealing with the meet- 
ing of George and John Simpson, the reader is more certain of the 
direction of the narrative, of the significance. The contrast between 
John Simpson, who owns the dog, and George, who merely loves 
it, gives us a point which is clear even without any comment. And 
many narratives, even some examples of that highly elaborated 
form of narration called fiction, deliver their point without any 

In the new section, we may notice, however, that more is involved 
than the mere contrast between the two boys. The dog licks John 
Simpson's hands, too. How does this tie in with what we have just 
said? This is, as it were, a kind of betrayal of George's affection 
for the dog. Another question: What is George's attitude as he turns 
and walks off? Perhaps the reader senses the boy's resentment at 
the betrayal. But the writer might want more. He might want a 
more positive conclusion. For example, he might want to make this 
event a kind of turning point in George's growing up, a seemingly 
trivial event which had a far-reaching effect on his life. He might 

The next day George hunted a job. He found one at the lumberyard 
where he had worked before when Jibby was a puppy. He worked as 
steadily now as he had worked in the old days when he looked forward 
to getting home to feed the dog and squat by him in the dusk, or if it 
was winter, in the dark. But he did not love the dog now. He was 
through with that. 

But he worked because he had learned one thing. It was a thing which 
he was never to forget. He had learned that even love was one of the 
things you cannot get unless you have the money to pay for it. 

This would give us a conclusion. It would give the effect of the 
event on George, not merely the first reaction of resentment or hurt 
feelings, but the effect which would prevail over a long period of 
time. Neither the reader nor the writer may agree that what George 


learns is the truththat money is the basis of everything, even of 
those things like love and loyalty and kindnessbut what George 
learns is the "truth" for him, the thing by which he will conduct 
his life for a time to come. 

The important thing to understand here is, however, that a point 
is made, whether or not the reader accepts the point as true. The 
narrative is complete. It is not complete merely because a sum- 
marizing statement has been made by the writer. Certainly, the 
summarizing statement would not make the narrative complete if 
the thing it says were not something which could grow reasonably 
out of the event for a person in George's situation. And many narra- 
tives imply rather than state their meaning. But a full narrative 
does involve significance, a meaning, a point, as something which 
grows out of the sequence of events. 

We have just said that the narrative is complete. This does not 
necessarily mean that George will never change his mind about 
what is the meaning of the experience he has had. The narrative 
might well be part of a long story or a novel which showed how 
for thirty years to come George conducted his life by the hard, 
materialistic "truth" he had learned and then found, even in the 
moment of his practical success, when he had grown rich and 
powerful, that his "truth" was really a profound mistake and that 
he had to learn a new truth. 

This revision might not make a good story. The event concern- 
ing the dog might be too trivial or sentimental to serve as the basis 
for a good piece of fiction. But it will illustrate our own statement 
that the significance of a narrative stems from what the narrative 
immediately involves. George's later experiences, including elements 
not involved in the little narrative given here, might make him (or 
the reader) revise the notion of the truth of its point. But the point, 
in so far as it is already implicit in the particular narrative, would 
be there, and the narrative would be complete, in terms of George's 
interpretation of it. 

The idea of completeness as applied to narrative always involves 
the idea of an interpretation, stated or implied, of the events nar- 
rated. The interpretation may be made by a character in the nar- 
rative, as by George in this case, or it may be made by the reader 
on the basis of the presentation of the material, or it may be stated 
by the writer. But in all cases of fully developed narrative, an inter- 


pretation is involved. And this means that our understanding is 
appealed to. And a narrative may use exposition to make this appeal 
to our understanding, as the last paragraph of our narrative about 
George does. 


Strictly speaking, description can scarcely be said to use narration 
as an aid. It is, of course, possible to find cases in which descrip- 
tion involves movement a man's habitual acts, for instance, in a 
description of a character. But we must keep in mind the distinction 
between an act and an action in the sense in which we have been 
using the word action. A character description might even involve 
an action, but our interest in action is so much more vital than our 
interest in mere appearance that we should probably feel that the 
description was incidental to the narration rather than the narration 
incidental to the description. An object in motion catches the eye. 

The situation, however, is different in regard to exposition and 
argument. Frequently in extended discourses which are primarily 
intended to explain something to us or to convince us of something 
we find bits of narrative used to dramatize an attitude, to illustrate 
a point, to bring an idea home to us. Sermons and speeches are 
often full of anecdotes. The preacher tells his congregation the 
story of a deathbed confession. The politician tells his audience 
how such and such a law, which he is pledged to help repeal if 
elected, has ruined the life of John Doe over in Murray County. 
The after-dinner speaker tells the club members a joke. But the 
story of the deathbed confession or of the ruin of John Doe over in 
Murray County or the story about the two Irishmen must have a 
point related to the main business in hand. If it does not have such 
a relation, the listeners feel that the speaker has dragged it in by 
the tail, merely to catch their attention, that somehow he has not 
played fair. 

What is true of the sermon or political address or after-dinner 
speech is true of informal essays, informational articles, character 
sketches, travel books, philosophical essays, essays of opinion, 
memoirs, historical studies, and many other types of writing. And 
here, too, the narrative may be used to bring directly home to the 
reader what argument or exposition can only give in general terms. 


For instance, observe how the general statement with which the 
following paragraph begins takes on significance in narrative: 

Undergraduate life at Cambridge [Massachusetts] has not lacked for 
bitter passages, which compel notice from any anatomist of society. On 
the one hand there has long been a snobbery moulded of New England 
pride and juvenile cruelty which is probably more savage than any 
known to Fifth Avenue and Newport. Its favorite illustration is the time- 
worn tale of the lonely lad who to feign that he had one friend used to 
go out as dusk fell over the yard and call beneath his own windows, 
"Oh, Reinhardt!" And on the other it has moments of mad, terrible loyalty 
exampled by the episode which is still recalled, awesomely without 
names, over the coffee and liqueurs when Harvard men meet in Beacon 
Street or the South Seas. It is the true story of a Harvard senior at a 
party in Brookline, who suddenly enraged by a jocular remark made 
concerning the girl whom he later married, publicly slapped the face of 
his best friend and then in an access of remorse walked to an open fire 
and held his offending hand in the flame until it shrivelled away to the 
wrist. DIXON WECTER: The Saga of American Society, Chap. 7. 1 

Or let us take the following passage, which has the same basic 
pattern, the movement from a general proposition to an illustration 
in narrative: 

There are men of all nations who feel the fascination of a life unequally 
divided between months of hardship and short days of riot and spend- 
ing; but in the end it is the hardship that holds them. The Chinese, 
taking them as they come, are not like this. They frankly detest hard 
work. A large belly among them is an honorable thing, because it means 
that the owner of it does not swink for his living. I never met a Chinese 
outside of the caravans who was what we should call sentimental about 
his work. Camel pullers alone have a different spirit, a queer spirit. 
Time and again when the men were talking around the fire and cursing 
the weather, the bad taste of the water, or the dust blown into their 
food, I have heard one ask, rhetorically, "What is a camel puller?" . . . 

Then another would say, "Yes, but this is the good life do we not 
all come back to it?" and be approved in a chorus of grunts and oaths. 
Once a veteran said the last word: "I put all my money into land in 
the newly opened country Behind the Hills, and my nephew farms it for 
me. My old woman is there, so two years ago when they had the troubles 
on the Great Road and my legs hurt I thought I would finish with it 

1 From The Saga of American Society by Dixon Wecter, copyright, 
by Charles Scribner's Sons. 


all defile its mother! I thought I would sleep on a warm k'ang and 
gossip with the neighbors and maybe smoke a little opium, and not work 
hard any more. But I am not far from the road, in my place, and after a 
while in the day and the night when I hear the bells of the lien-tze go 
by, ting-lang, ting-lang, there was a pain in my heart hsin-li nan-kuo. 
So I said, "Dogs defile it! I will go back on the Gobi one more time and 
pull camels/' OWEN LATTIMORE: The Desert Road to Turkestan, Chap. 
8. 2 


In the examples just given we have seen how a narrative may 
be used to illustrate an idea. But in addition to this ordinary use 
of narration in exposition or argument, there is a special type called 
EXPOSITORY NARRATION. This is the type found, for instance, in the 
account of a laboratory experiment or in the directions for making 
or doing something. The method of narration is used here stage 
by stage a process is outlined but the intention is not the intention 
of true narration. The intention here is not to present an action so 
that it can be grasped imaginatively but merely to explain a proc- 
ess. The appeal is strictly to the understanding, and therefore this 
type is best considered as a form of exposition. A discussion of it 
has already appeared in the chapter on exposition (pp. 57-58). 


In the course of time one hears and reads many different narra- 
tivesjokes, novels, short stories, anecdotes, newspaper reports 
and they seem to have many different kinds of organization. But is 
there some fundamental principle of pattern which underlies all 
the particular kinds of pattern we find in narratives? If we can find 
such a principle, then we have taken an important step toward 
being able to write good narrative. 

We must return at this point to a distinction we have already 
made in discussing time as an aspect of an action (p. 238), the dis- 
tinction between events existing in time in their natural order, and 
the events as a narrator may re-order them by means of cutbacks 
and shifts when he composes his narrative. That is, the natural 

reader* ^ e Desert Road to Turkestan by Owen Lattimore. Reprinted by 
" T **tle, Brown and Company and the Atlantic Monthly Press. 


order A-Z may be shifted, to heighten interest or for other reasons, 
into an artificial order such as G, H , I A, B, C /, K, L, and so forth. 

We should remember in making this distinction that it applies 
as well to narratives using imaginary events as to narratives using 
actual material. Imaginary events, as well as real events, have a 
natural order, their order in time. In discussing here the pattern 
of an action we shall be referring to the natural order and not to 
an artificial order which a narrator might adopt for special purposes. 

We have defined an action as a meaningful sequence of events. 
Such a sequence may be real, that is, observed, but observed events 
constitute an action only in so far as we detect their meaning. Or 
such a sequence of events may be imaginary, made up to embody 
a meaning. The principle of pattern'will apply equally well to either 
kind of action, and in seeking examples to illustrate our principle 
we shall sometimes draw on factual material and sometimes on 
imaginary material. In both kinds of examples we shall be asking 
what is the shape events must take in order to constitute an action. 

We can begin to answer our question by saying that an action 
has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let us try to analyze what 
is really at stake in this answer. 


(An action does not spring from nothing. It arises from a situation. 
The situation, however, must be an unstable one, ready to lead to 
change, and containing in it the seeds of the future developments. 

[A situation may be very simple or very complicated.)^ the joke 
we begin, "Two Irishmen met on a bridge at midnight in a strange 
city. The first Irishman said . . ." We have a minimum of informa- 
tion here, but all we may need for the joke. The situation could not 
be simpler. But the principle is the same as in an enormously com- 
plicated situation, for instance, the situation from which German 
Nazism developed. That situation contains more elements than we 
can hope to enumerate. There is the conflict between capital and 
labor, the insecurity of the lower middle class, the fear of Bolshe- 
vism, the economic collapse and the inflation of currency, the tradi- 
tion of German militarism, the demand for revenge after the defeat 
in World War I, the example of Italian Fascism, the personality 
of Hitler, his bitterness and frustration. An interaction of all these 


factors and many more gives us the unstable situation in which are 
latent the subsequent developments.} 

Given this material, the writer of an account of Nazism must first 
present the situation clearly enough for the reader to see how the 
rest will followj In dealing with matters of fact, as such a writer 
of history woulcl be doing, his first task would be to analyze the 
body of material to be sure he knew what was really significant 
for future developments, and his second task would be to present 
the material so that the reader would see the relation among the 
various elements. It is true that the reader may not understand the 
significance of the situation when it is first presented to him, but 
he must be given enough to go on, to rouse and sustain his interest, 
to show that there is a line of possible development. And he must 
be given enough for him to feel, when he looks back over the whole 
narrative, that the action is really a logical development from the 

The~|5roblem is essentially the same for a writer who is dealing 
with imaginary events. The only difference is that he does not have 
to analyze factual materials already given him but has to create 
or adapt his materials.^If we glance at Act I of Shakespeare's 
Romeo and ftiliet, we find a good example of a beginning. We learn 
that there is a feud between the houses of Capulet and Montague, 
that bloodshed and violence are imminent, that Romeo is an ideal- 
istic young man anxious to fall in love. Very early we have enough 
to account for the future events^ Or if we go back to our own 
improvised narrative of George and the dog, the situation present- 
ing the misery and lovelessness of the boy's life gives us enough 
to^account for the later importance of the dog to the boy. 

(The beginning, the presentation of the situation, enables us to 
understand the narrative. Therefore, that part of the narrative is 
often given the name of EXPOSITION. But we must keep the word in 
this special sense distinct from the more general sense in which it 
signifies one of the kinds of discourse.) 

It is not to be understood, however, that the exposition of a 
narrative is merely a kind of necessary evil, a body of dull informa- 
tion which the reader must absorb before he can settle down to 
the real story. It need not be explanatory or descriptive material 
in isolation, or a colorless summary of the situation from which the 
action stems. Instead, the exposition may appear as an episode, a 


fragment of action, interesting in itself. If we think back on the 
opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, we remember that we see a 
street fight. We are not told about the feud between the rival 
houses of Capulet and Montague, but actually see it in operation. 
Not all kinds of exposition can take a direct form, but in gen- 
eral it can be said that all exposition which can be directly pre- 
sented should have the direct form. 


'The middle is the main body of the action. It is a series of stages 
in the process. It involves the points of mounting tension, or in- 
creasing complication, developing from the original situation. This 
mounting tension, this suspense, leads us to the point of greatest 
intensity or greatest suspense, called technically the CLIMAX. The 
climax is the focal point, the turning point of the narrative) 

To return to our historical example of the rise of Nazism, we 
would find such points of mounting tension as the beer hall putsch 
in Munich, Hitler's imprisonment and the writing of Mein Kampf, 
the street fights against the German communists, the election of 
Hitler as chancellor, the Reichstag fire, the purge of the party, the 
claims on Sudetenland. Looking back on the events of the past 
twenty-five years, we can see the points of crisis, the stages at which 
new tensions emerged. If a historian were writing an account of 
those years, he might center his attention on those stages. They 
might provide him with natural chapter divisions. 

The same principle applies in any narrative, the simple joke or 
the elaborate novel/ If one is telling or writing about real events, 
one tries to focus attention on those which mark real stages of 
development. And if one is making up a narrative, he arranges his 
imaginary material in the same way. He wants to create suspense, 
to hold the interest of his audience. If his narrative seems to be a 
mere drift of events, he cannot hold their interest. He can do so 
only in so far as the narrative emerges in well-defined stages of 
increasing complication^ 

(We can see this very clearly in the main body of Romeo and 
Juliet: Romeo meets Juliet; the marriage takes place; Romeo kills 
Juliet's kinsman Tybalt while trying to stop a duel; Romeo is ban- 
ished, and so on) Or we can see it in the little account of the boy 
and the dog: George gets a job to feed the dog; the dog becomes 


the center of his life; he loses the job; the dog frightens the child; 
George sells the dog, and so on. 

(jlist as we have a technical name for the beginning of a narrative 
(exposition), so we have one for the middle: COMPLICATION^ 


(As for the end of an action, it is not simply the point where the 
action stops. It is, rather, the point at which the forces implicit in 
the situation have worked themselves out) Whether it is the gag 
line of the joke or Berlin shattered under British ^nd American 
bombs and Russian shells, the principle is the same^The end of an 
action, however, is not necessarily the physical victory of one set 
of forces over another. It may be in the reconciliation of forces, or 
it may be in the fusion of previously opposing forces to create a 
new force.) Take, for instance, the conclusion of the Constitutional 
Convention that defined the United States: we may regard this end 
as a fusion of conflicting forces. (As a matter of fact, the end of an 
action may simply be a new awareness on the part of a person 
involved, directly or indirectly, in the action. We know how we can 
look back on an experience of our own and recognize the point at 
which some attitude of our own had been changed by it) 

(\Yhen we come to writing a narrative, we regard the end as the 
point where the action achieves its full meaning. It is the point 
where ^he reader is willing to say, "Oh, yes, I see what it is all 
about/'^If we look back on our narrative of the boy and the dog 
we see that if we had stopped with the sale of the dog, the mean- 
ing would have been very blurred. (A reader would not have been 
quite sure what was at stakes) He might have felt sorry for the boy 
in a vague sort of way. But the meeting with John Simpson and 
the dog gives us in direct terms, as a contrast, a much more sharply 
defined meaning. This could be an end. We, as readers, see that 
there is an issue, a question, raised by the narrative the question of 
legal ownership of the dog opposed to the demands of affection. The 
narrative now has a point. If we go on to write the last paragraph 
we simply indicate the fact of George's awareness and the effect 
on him. By means of George's awareness we have made the point 
more explicit, but it was implicit at the moment when the two boys 
had their little encounterrThe technical term for the end of a narra- 
tive is DENOUEMENT^ 



Let us look at a few examples of narrative with the idea of indi- 
cating the structure, or pattern, of each. The first is the account of 
how Robinson Crusoe, who fancied himself absolutely alone on his 
desert island, found a footprint: 

It happened one day about noon, going towards my boat, I was ex- 
ceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, 
which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder- 
struck, or as if I had seen an apparition: I listened, I looked round me, 
but I could hear nothing, nor see anything. I went up to a rising ground, 
to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all 
one; I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to 
see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; 
but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the print of a foot, 
toes, heel, and every part of a foot: how it came thither I knew not, 
nor could I in the least imagine; but, after innumerable fluttering 
thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home 
to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but 
terrified to the last degree; looking behind me at every two or three 
steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a 
distance to be a man. Nor is it possible to describe how many various 
shapes my affrighted imagination represented things to me in, how many 
wild ideas were found every moment in my fancy, and what strange 
unaccountable whimsies came into my thoughts by the way. DANIEL 
DEFOE: Robinson Crusoe. 

A piece of narrative could scarcely be simpler than this, but we 
see that it follows the basic pattern. The situation is given, the time 
and place. The complication follows on the discovery of the print 
the first reaction, the looking about and listening, the going to higher 
ground for a wider view, the return to verify the existence of the 
print. Then follows the flight and the terror consequent upon the 
discovery. And it is this terror, changing the whole aspect of the 
familiar landscape, which constitutes the denouement. Crusoe's life 
cannot be the same again. This fact is not specified, but it is 
strongly implied. 

Our next example makes its point more explicitly: 

And also Mohammet loved well a good Hermit that dwelled in the 
Deserts a Mile from Mount Sinai, in the Way that Men go from Arabia 


toward Chaldea and toward Ind, one Day's journey from the Sea, where 
the Merchants of Venice come often for Merchandise. And so often went 
Mohammet to this Hermit, that all his Men were wroth; for he would 
gladly hear this Hermit preach and make his Men wake all Night. And 
therefore his Men thought to put the Hermit to Death. And so it befell 
upon a Night, that Mohammet was drunken of good Wine, and he fell 
asleep. And his Men took Mohammet's Sword out of his Sheath, whiles 
he slept, and therewith they slew this Hermit, and put his Sword all 
bloody in his Sheath again. And at the Morrow, when he found the 
Hermit dead, he was fully sorry and wroth, and would have done his 
Men to Death. But they all, with one accord, said that he himself had 
slain him, when he was drunk, and showed him his Sword all bloody. And 
he trowed that they had said Truth. And then he cursed the Wine and 
them that drink it. And therefore Saracens that be devout drink never 
any Wine. SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE: Travels, Chap. 16. 

This, too, falls into the pattern. The exposition is a little less 
simple here than in our earlier example, for now we are concerned 
not only with the physical facts but with human motives leading 
up to the action Mohammet's love of the hermit, his custom of 
listening to the sermons, the irritation of the men. The complication 
falls into three divisions the killing of the hermit, the discovery 
of the deed and Mohammet's anger, the lie and the bloody sword 
in his own scabbard. The denouement has two divisions Moham- 
met's curse on wine and the result among devout followers in later 

Our next example is an anecdote told about an argument between 
the Duke of Windsor and Winston Churchill. We have here merely 
a clash of opinion: 

The Windsors' dinner was very grand, and the guests consisted of 
assorted notables from up and down the coast, mostly English people of 
high rank who were holidaying in the South. My Lords Rothermere and 
Beaverbrook had been prevented from attending by colds. (Lord Beaver- 
brook's cold did not prevent his attendance at the Casino, where we saw 
Mm afterward.) When some of the more overpowering guests had de- 
parted, after the long and stately meal in the white-and-gold dining 
room, the Duke of Windsor and Mr. Churchill settled down to a pro- 
longed argument with the rest of the party listening in silence. The Duke 
had read with amazement Mr. Churchill's recent articles on Spain and 
his newest one (out that day, I believe) in which he appealed for an 
alliance with Soviet Russia. "You of all people, Winston," was the gist of 


his argument, "y u cannot wish to make friends of these murderers and 
thieves." At one point Mr. Churchill, who was defending his point of 
view stubbornly and with undiplomatic vigor, said: "Sir, I would make 
a friend of the devil himself, if it would save England." It resulted plainly 
from the statements on the two sides that the self-willed, pleasure-loving 
little Prince, filled to the fingertips with royal prejudice, had no concep- 
tion of the deadly danger to England involved in his dalliance with 
Hitler, while Mr. Churchill, disliking the Bolshevik theory and practice 
as much as ever, was so thoroughly aware of England's peril that he 
would seek the alliance of Stalin at once. We sat by the fireplace, Mr. 
Churchill frowning with intentness at the floor in front of him, mincing 
no words, reminding H.R.H. of the British constitution, on occasion 
"when our Icings are in conflict with our constitution we change our 
kings," he said and declaring flatly that the nation stood in the gravest 
danger of its long history. The kilted Duke in his Stuart tartan sat on 
the edge of the sofa, eagerly interrupting whenever he could, contesting 
every point, but receiving in terms of the utmost politeness so far as 
the words went an object lesson in political wisdom and public spirit. 
The rest of us sat fixed in silence; there was something dramatically 
final, irrevocable about this dispute. VINCENT SHEEAN: Between the 
Thunder and the Sun, Chap. I. 3 

This is scarcely a narrative at all, simply a little incident almost 
buried in the comment with which the author has surrounded the 
event. But the author has hinted at the action, and has given enough 
for us to grasp its natural structure and order (as contrasted with 
the way the author has told it, for the author has not stuck to the 
chronological order of event). 


Dinner with Windsors. Nature of gathering. World of pleasure and 
privilege. Churchill and his articles on Spain. 


Prolonged argument. The Duke's amazement at Churchill's articles, 
especially his demand for an alliance with Russia. The Duke's stubborn- 
ness. He eagerly leans forward from sofa, contesting every point. 
Churchill's remarks on relation of kingship to English constitution, the 
danger to England, and so forth. The Duke's statement: "You of all 

8 From Between the Thunder and the Sun by Vincent Sheean. Reprinted by 
permission of Random House, Inc. 


people, Winston, cannot wish to make friends of these murderers and 


Churchill's reply: "Sir, I would make a friend of the devil himself, if 
it would save England." 

We do not know all that occurred at that conversation. We do 
not need to know it to have a notion of the action, in our sense 
of the word. For, in this connection, action is the word we apply 
to a meaningful event, and the things which merely happened 
and have no bearing on the meaning of the event are not, prop- 
erly speaking, a part of the action. The writer has omitted them 
from his account. 

Here is a more fully developed narrative, the story of Andrew 
Jackson's most famous duel, the duel with Charles Dickinson, who 
had made some remarks reflecting on the character of Rachel Jack- 
son, Andrew Jackson's wife. 


On Thursday, May 29, 1806, Andrew Jackson rose at five o'clock, and 
after breakfast told Rachel that he would be gone for a couple of days 
and meanwhile he might have some trouble with Mr. Dickinson. Rachel 
probably knew what the trouble would be and she did not ask. Rachel 
had had her private channels of information concerning the Sevier affray. 
At six-thirty Jackson joined Overton at Nashville. Overton had the 
pistols. With three others they departed for the Kentucky line. 

Mr. Dickinson and eight companions were already on the road. 
"Goodby, darling," he told his young wife. "I shall be sure to be home 
tomorrow evening." This confidence was not altogether assumed. He was 
a snap shot. At the word of command and firing apparently without aim, 
he could put four balls in a mark twenty-four feet away, each ball touch- 
ing another. The persistent tradition on the countryside, that to worry 
Jackson he left several such examples of his marksmanship along the 
road, is unconfirmed by any member of the Dickinson or Jackson parties. 
But the story that he had offered on the streets of Nashville to wager 
he could kill Jackson at the first fire was vouchsafed by John Overton, 
the brother of Jackson's second, a few days after the duel. 

Jackson said he was glad that "the other side" had started so early. 
It was a guarantee against further delay. Jackson had chafed over the 
seven days that had elapsed since the acceptance of the challenge. At 


their first interview, Overton and Dr. Hanson Catlett, Mr. Dickinson's 
second, had agreed that the meeting should be on Friday, May thirtieth, 
near Harrison's Mills on Red River just beyond the Kentucky boundary. 
Jackson protested at once. He did not wish to ride forty miles to preserve 
the fiction of a delicate regard for Tennessee's unenforceable statute 
against dueling. He did not wish to wait a week for something that could 
be done in a few hours. Dickinson's excuse was that he desired to borrow 
a pair of pistols. Overton offered the choice of Jackson's pistols, pledging 
Jackson to the use of the other. These were the weapons that had been 
employed by Coffee and McNairy. 

As they rode Jackson talked a great deal, scrupulously avoiding the 
subject that burdened every mind. Really, however, there was nothing 
more to be profitably said on that head. General Overton was a Revolu- 
tionary soldier of long acquaintance with the Code. With his principal 
he had canvassed every possible aspect of the issue forthcoming. "Dis- 
tance . . . twenty-four feet; the parties to stand facing each other, with 
their pistols down perpendicularly. When they are READY, the single 
word FIRE! to be given; at which they are to fire as soon as they please. 
Should either fire before the word is given we [the seconds] pledge our- 
selves to shoot him down instantly." Jackson was neither a quick shot, 
nor an especially good one for the western country. He had decided not 
to compete with Dickinson for the first fire. He expected to be hit, perhaps 
badly. But he counted on the resources of his will to sustain him until 
he could aim deliberately and shoot to kill, if it were the last act of his 


On the first leg of the ride they traversed the old Kentucky road, the 
route by which, fifteen years before, Andrew Jackson had carried Rachel 
Robards from her husband's home, the present journey being a part of 
the long sequel to the other. Jackson rambled on in a shrill voice. Thomas 
Jefferson was "the best Republican in theory and the worst in practice" 
he had ever seen. And he lacked courage. How long were we to support 
the affronts of England impressment of seamen, cuffing about of our 
ocean commerce? Perhaps as long as Mr. Jefferson stayed in office. Well, 
that would be two years, and certainly his successor should be a stouter 
man. "We must fight England again. In the last war I was not old enough 
to be any account." He prayed that the next might come "before I get 
too old to fight." 

General Overton asked how old Jackson reckoned he would have to 
be for that. In England's case about a hundred, Jackson said. 

He spoke of Burr. A year ago, this day, Jackson had borne him from 


the banquet in Nashville to the Hermitage. He recalled their first meeting 
in 1797 when both were in Congress. Jackson also met General Hamilton 
that winter. "Personally, no gentleman could help liking Hamilton. But 
his political views were all English." At heart a monarchist. "Why, did 
he not urge Washington to take a crown!'* 

Burr also had his failings. He had made a mistake, observed Jackson, 
with admirable detachment, a political mistake, when he fought Hamilton. 
And about his Western projects the General was none too sanguine. 
Burr relied overmuch on what others told him. Besides, there was Jeffer- 
son to be reckoned with. "Burr is as far from a fool as I ever saw, and 
yet he is as easily fooled as any man I ever knew." 

The day was warm, and a little after ten o'clock the party stopped 
for refreshment. Jackson took a mint julep, ate lightly and rested until 
mid-afternoon. The party reached Miller's Tavern in Kentucky about 
eight o'clock. After a supper of fried chicken, waffles, sweet potatoes and 
coffee, Jackson repaired to the porch to chat with the inn's company. 
No one guessed his errand. At ten o'clock he knocked the ashes from 
his pipe and went to bed. Asleep in ten minutes, he had to be roused at 
five in the morning. 

The parties met on the bank of the Red River at a break in a poplar 
woods. Doctor Catlett won the toss for choice of position, but as the 
sun had not come through the trees this signified nothing. The giving of 
the word fell to Overton. Jackson's pistols were to be used after all, 
Dickinson taking his pick. The nine-inch barrels were charged with ounce 
balls of seventy caliber. The ground was paced off, the principals took 
their places. Jackson wore a dark-blue frock coat and trousers of the 
same material; Mr. Dickinson a shorter coat of blue, and gray trousers. 

"Gentlemen, are you ready?" called General Overton. 

"Ready," said Dickinson quickly. 

"Yes, sir," said Jackson. 

"Fere!" cried Overton in the Old-Country accent. 


Dickinson fired almost instantly. A fleck of dust rose from Jackson's 
coat and his left hand clutched his chest. For an instant he thought him- 
self dying, but, fighting for self-command, slowly he raised his pistol. 

Dickinson recoiled a step horror-stricken. "My God! Have I missed 

Overton presented his pistol. "Back to the mark, sir!" 

Dickinson folded his arms. Jackson's spare form straightened. He 
aimed. There was a hollow "clock" as the hammer stopped at half-cock. 
He drew it back, sighted again and fired. Dickinson swayed to the ground. 


As they reached the horses Overton noticed that his friend's left boot 
was filled with blood. "Oh, I believe that he pinked me," said Jackson 
quickly, "but I don't want those people to know," indicating the group 
that bent over Dickinson. Jackson's surgeon found that Dickinson's aim 
had been perfectly true, but he had judged the position of Jackson's 
heart by the set of his coat, and Jackson wore his coats loosely on 
account of the excessive slenderness of his figure. "But I should have 
hit him/' he exclaimed, "if he had shot me through the brain." MARQUIS 
JAMES: The Life of Andrew Jackson, Chap. 8. 4 

The event narrated above is historically true. It had causes run- 
ning back before the episode of the duel (Dickinson had insulted 
Jackson's wife), and was to have consequences long after the duel. 
But the writer is not immediately concerned with causes or effects. 
He is concerned with rendering the episode itself, the duel. We can 
see that in doing so he naturally gives his account in three sections, 
the exposition, the complication, and the denouement, as we have 

The exposition describes the attitudes of the two duelists as they 
make ready and gives the terms of the duel. The complication seems 
to have a good deal of material off the point Jackson's long con- 
versation about politicsbut we shall see that even this apparent 
digression is related to the point the author wishes to make in his 
narrative. Then the complication gives the details as the opponents 
face each other and Dickinson fires. The denouement falls into two 
related parts, Jackson's self-command when hit and his shooting of 
Dickinson, and his remark after the event. 

Both Vincent Sheean and Marquis James are using narrative to 
make a point, a point more important than the event narrated. 
Sheean is interested in illustrating one aspect of the political back- 
ground of World War II; and James, in exhibiting an aspect of 
Jackson's character, his iron will. But the essential narrative struc- 
ture underlies both accounts. It underlies them because the action 
to be narrated had that natural structure, and not because the writer 
imposed it. The thing to remember is that events, real or imaginary, 
in so far as they constitute an action in our sense of the word, fall 
into that pattern. The writer may make shifts of order in his presen- 

* From The Life of Andrew Jackson. By Marquis James, copyright 1938. 
Used by special permission of the Publishers, the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc 


tation, may add digressions, and may make his own comments, but 
the essential structure of the action remains. 


The relation of the parts of a narrative to each other raises the 
question of PROPORTION. In one way this term is misleading, for it 
implies a mere mechanical ratio in the size of the parts. Actually 
we cannot look at the question in that way. We cannot say, for 
instance, that the complication should be three times longer than 
the expositionor five times longer than the denouement. 

We must, rather, regard the question of proportion in this way: 
Are the parts adequate to the needs of the special narrative? What 
would be a satisfactory proportion for one narrative might be quite 
unsatisfactory for another. In other words, we have to think along 
these lines: Does the exposition give all the information necessary 
to establish the situation for the reader? Is it burdened with infor- 
mation which is really unnecessary and distracting? Does the com- 
plication give the reader the essential stages of the development 
of the action? Does it confuse the reader by presenting material 
which does not bear on the development of the action? Does the 
denouement give the reader enough to make the point of the narra- 
tive clear? Does it blur the point by putting in irrelevant material 
or by so extending relevant material that a clear focus is lost? But 
these questions cannot be answered unless we are sure of the inten- 
tion of the particular narrative. 

Let us, with these questions in mind, look back at the story of 
Jackson's duel. To answer these questions we must remember the 
author's basic intention. He is not writing a tract against dueling. 
He is not concerned with the sad death of a promising young man. 
He is not trying to evoke our sympathy for the young Mrs. Dickin- 
son. All of these considerations may be present in his mind (and a 
little after the point at which our excerpt concludes he tells how 
Mrs. Jackson exclaimed, "Oh, God have pity on the poor wife pity 
on the babe in her womb"), but none of them is the main intention 
of the narrative. That is to show an aspect of Jackson's character 
his iron will. 

The exposition, therefore, tells merely what we need to know to 
establish this point, how Jackson took a natural, casual farewell 


from his wife; how Dickinson was confident in his mere skill, in 
contrast to Jackson's deadly inner certainty. The exposition also tells 
us, of course, something about the procedure agreed on for the duel, 
but this is primarily a mechanical matter. The complication builds 
the suspense by details of Jackson's journey to the Kentucky line, 
how he discussed political questions, enjoyed his meals and his 
julep, talked with the guests at the inn, and slept well. These things 
do not bear directly on the business of the duel, and might be 
considered by some critics not properly part of the complication 
but an aside, a digression from the main line of action. But they 
do help to build the suspense and do indicate the quality of self- 
control and certainty in Jackson. 

Then the details of the actual duel lead us to the climax, the 
moment when Dickinson's bullet strikes and Jackson reels but re- 
covers and, with deadly deliberation, lifts his weapon. 

The denouement falls into two parts, the first presenting the 
actual shooting of Dickinson, the second presenting Jackson's be- 
havior after the act, his indifference to his own wound, and his 
final remark when it is discovered why Dickinson had missed the 
heart. All the way through, of course, we notice that there is a 
building up of suspense about the outcome of the physical event, 
but along with this goes the unfolding of Jackson's character, which 
is summarized by the grim, last remark. 

The narrative of Jackson's duel is part of a full-length biography, 
and it might be said that we have arbitrarily chosen to limit the 
exposition, for instance, to the part quoted here. It is true, of course, 
that in the full biography there is a great deal of explanation of 
the quarrel leading up to the duel. But is that really a part of the 
exposition of the narrative when the episode is considered solely 
as an episode? No, for what we are concerned with here is not the 
causes of the duel, the character of Rachel Jackson, or her husband's 
attitude toward her. In the episode itself we are concerned with the 
single, significant flash which exhibits Jackson's will. What preceded 
or followed the duel is not relevant to that consideration, taken in 
itself. Even though this little narrative is part of a much larger 
narrative, the account of Jackson's entire life, we are justified in 
interpreting it as a unit in so far as it is dominated by one basic 

One word of caution should be given before we leave the topic 


of proportion. In many cases of narrative, one cannot draw a single 
hard and fast line between, say, the exposition and the complica- 
tion. Instead, there may be some overlapping or an intermingling 
of the two elements. A certain amount of exposition is always nec- 
essary early in a narrative, but we can recall instances, especially 
of extended narratives, in which the complication is interrupted by 
the insertion of bits of exposition. A biographer, for instance, may 
interrupt his narrative to explain a political situation, or a novelist 
may give what is called a CUTBACK to an earlier scene or situation 
needed to explain a present action (p. 238). 


When we turn from questions of organization to questions of 
detail we turn from pattern to texture. SELECTION is as important 
for narration as it is for description. Skillful selection permits a 
large action to be narrated in a relatively brief space without seem- 
ing to be stinted, as in the following account of the voyage of St. 
Paul to Rome: 

Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, 
because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them, 

And said unto them, Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with 
hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of 
our lives. 

Nevertheless the centurion believed the master and the owner of the 
ship, more than those things which were spoken by Paul. 

And because the haven was not commodious to winter in, the more 
part advised to depart thence also, if by any means they might attain 
to Phenice, and there to winter; which is an haven of Crete, and lieth 
toward the southwest and northwest. 

And when the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had ob- 
tained their purpose, loosing thence, they sailed close by Crete. 

But not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind called 

And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, 
we let her drive. 

And running under a certain island which is called Clauda, we had 
much work to come by the boat: 

Which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the 


ship; and, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, struck sail, 
and so were driven. 

And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they 
lightened the ship; 

And the third day we cast out with our own hands the tackling of the 

And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small 
tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away. 

But after long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and 
said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed 
from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss. 

And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss 
of any man's life among you, but of the ship. 

For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and 
whom I serve, 

Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, 
God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. 

Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be 
even as it was told me. 

Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island. 

But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and 
down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew 
near to some country; 

And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms; and when they had gone 
a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms. 

Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four 
anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day. 

And as the shipmen were about to flee out of the ship, when they had 
let down the boat into the sea, under color as though they would have 
cast anchors out of the foreship, 

Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in 
the ship, ye cannot be saved. 

Then the soldiers cut off the ropes of the boat, and let her fall off. 

And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, 
saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and con- 
tinued fasting, having taken nothing. 

Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: 
for there shall not be an hair fallen from the head of any of you. 

And when he had thus spoken, he took bread, and gave thanks to God 
in the presence of them all: and when he had broken it, he began to eat. 

Then were they all of good cheer, and they also took some meat. 


And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen 

And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, and cast 
out the wheat into the sea. 

And when it was day, they knew not the land: but they discovered a 
certain creek with a shore, into the which they were minded, if it were 
possible, to thrust in the ship. 

And when they had taken up the anchors, they committed themselves 
unto the sea, and loosed the rudder bands, and hoisted up the mainsail 
to the wind, and made toward shore. 

And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; 
and the forepart stuck fast, and remained unmoveable, but the hinder 
part was broken with the violence of the waves. 

And the soldiers' counsel was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them 
should swim out, and escape. 

But the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; 
and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first 
into the sea, and get to land: 

And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. 
And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safely to land. Acts 27:9-44. 

A writer does not want to present all the details of an event, 
either real or imaginary. He wants to present those which clarify 
the line of action and contribute to his point. No stage of the action 
should be omitted, yet no details should be included which distract 
from the real concern of the narrative. There is no arbitrary rule 
in such a matter. A writer must keep firmly in mind what his real 
concern is and judge for himself. For example, in the episode of 
Jackson's duel, it might seem at first glance that the section about 
Jackson's conversation on the road is unnecessary and distracts from 
the real concern of the narrative. But this would be so only if the 
duel itself were taken to be the real concern. Actually, the real 
intent of the author is the revelation of Jackson's character, and, 
therefore, the conversation on the way, illustrating his calmness 
and confidence, is relevant to the effect intended. 

Even in a narrative dealing with fact the author may heighten 
the interest by leaving out merely casual material. In treating the 
episode of Jackson's duel Marquis James may know that, after his 
opponent was hit, Jackson actually said more than is given here. 
The author, however, presents just those remarks which contribute 
to our awareness of Jackson's character. In dealing with matters 


of fact, a writer does not want to distort the truth by omissions, but 
the mere fact can scarcely justify itself. The narrator should be 
concerned with the significant fact. When he is dealing with imag- 
inary events, the writer has a freer hand and a greater responsibil- 
ity; for now he cannot rely on the interest which mere fact as fact 
can sometimes evoke in the reader. With the imaginary narrative 
a detail can never pay its way because it is interesting in itself. It 
must contribute to the main business or to the vividness of the 

A narrative is a more or less immediate presentation of events. 
Therefore vividness is important, the detail which can stir the imag- 
ination. The small gesture, the trivial word, may be important here. 
And here the details which, strictly speaking, are descriptive may 
be absorbed into the narrative effect. For instance, the cut and 
color of Jackson's and Dickinson's clothes, the kind of woods by 
which the meeting took place, and the Irish accent of General 
Overton when he gave the command to fire contribute to the im- 
pression of reality. Marquis James is much concerned to give an 
immediate presentation, but if we turn back to Vincent Sheean's 
anecdote of the Duke of Windsor and Churchill, we find that 
immediacy is not very important to the author. He is chiefly con- 
cerned to present a clash of opinions. Even here, however, we get 
the details of the Stuart tartan which the kilted Duke wears, his 
posture on the sofa, and Churchill's position staring at the floor. 


The term POINT OF VIEW implies some of the most important con- 
siderations of narration. In ordinary speech this phrase has a mean- 
ing different from the meaning of the technical term to be discussed 
here. In ordinary speech we say, "From my point of view, I think 
James was perfectly right," or, "I understand Sarah's point of view, 
but I don't agree with it." What we understand by point of view 
in these two statements is an attitude, a set of values, a body of 
ideas, or something of that order. We could rewrite the sentences 
above in these terms and not change the meaning: "According to 
my set of values (or my ideas, or my attitude), I think James was 
perfectly right." Or: "I understand Sarah's ideas (or set of values, 
or attitude), but I don't agree with them." But in discussing narra- 


tion we shall use the term to mean the point from which the 
action of a narrative is viewed./ 

In discussing point of view in description we mean a physical 
point from which the specified or implied observer looks at the 
thing described ( pp. 201-03 ) . In discussing narration we do not mean 
a physical point; we mean, rather, a person who bears some relation 
to the action, either as observer or participant, and whose intelli- 
gence serves as the index of the action for the reader. Point of view, 
then, involves two questions: Who tells the story? What is his rela- 
tion to the action? 

In broad terms, there are two possible points of view, the first 
person and the third person. When we read, "That summer when 
we were staying at Bayport, I had the most astonishing experience 
of my life," we know that we are dealing with the first-person point 
of view. When we read, "When Jake Millen, at the age of sixty, 
surveyed the wreck of his career, he knew that only one course 
was left open to him," we know that we are dealing with a third- 
person point of view. That is, in the first example, an "I," real or 
fictitious, is telling us about an experience in which he himself was 
involved; in the second example, an author, writing impersonally, 
is telling us about an experience in which another person was 

There are, however, certain shadings and variations possible 
within these two broad general divisions of point of view. 

What are the variations possible within the first person? The 
distinctions here are to be made on the basis of the relation of the 
first-person narrator to the action which he narrates. There are two 
extreme positions possible here. First, the narrator may tell of an 
action in which he is the main, or at least an important, participant. 
That is, he tells his "own story." We are all familiar with this type 
of treatment. Most autobiographies, for example, are of this kind; 
for example, the life of Lincoln Steffens. Occasionally we encounter 
a piece of informal history using this method, for example, T. E. 
Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Many short stories and novels 
create an imaginary "I" who is the main character of the story and 
who tells the story. For instance, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, or 
Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. 

At the other extreme, the narrator, either real or imaginary, 
recounts an action of which he is merely an observer. This, also, 


is a familiar type of treatment. Memoirs tend to take this form, for 
frequently the writer of memoirs has not himself played a conspicu- 
ous role in affairs but has been in a position to observe important 
events. The account of General Eisenhower by his aide, Captain 
Butcher, is a good example of this type. The same type of treat- 
ment appears, of course, in fiction. Poe's "The Fall of the House 
of Usher" is a notable instance, and Ring Lardner's story "Haircut" 
is another. 

Thus we may have the two types of the first-person point of view: 
narrator main character, and narrator mere observer. But in be- 
tween these two extremes many variations are possible, cases in 
which the narrator participates directly in the action and has some- 
thing at stake in its outcome but in which he is not the main 

But what of the variations possible within the third-person point 
of view? 

In this point of view the narrative is given by an author writing 
impersonally, that is, as a kind of disembodied intelligence before 
whom the events are played out. What is the relation of this imper- 
sonal author, this disembodied intelligence, to the action? In the 
first place, he does not participate in the action; he is merely an 
observer. The question then becomes this: How much of the action 
does the author observe? And here, as in dealing with the first- 
person point of view, we can define the two extreme positions. 

One extreme we may call the PANORAMIC point of view. In this 
method the author may report any aspect or all aspects of an action, 
and may go into the head of any or all of the characters involved 
in the action. His eye, as it were, sweeps the entire field and he 
reports whatever is interesting or relevant. In an imaginary narra- 
tive there is no limit to what may be seen or reported according 
to this method, the most private acts and the most secret thoughts 
or sensations of any or all of the characters may be reported, for 
the author is the creator of the whole thing. But when a writer 
is using this method in presenting a nonimaginative narrative, say 
a piece of history, he is, of course, limited by what facts or plausible 
deductions are available to him. He cannot be as thoroughgoing in 
applying the method as the writer of an imaginary narrative, though 
within the limits of the facts available to him he may do so. Many 
pieces of historical and biographical writing use this method, and, 


of course, it is not uncommon in fiction. For instance, it appears 
in the following scene from Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair, present- 
ing the city of Brussels when the false news comes that Napoleon 
has won the Battle of Quatre Bras, an engagement just before 

We of peaceful London city have never beheld and please God shall 
never witness such a scene of hurry and alarm as that which Brussels 
presented. Crowds rushed to the Namur gate, from which direction the 
noise proceeded, and many rode along the level chaussee, to be in ad- 
vance of any intelligence from the army. Each man asked his neighbor 
for news; and even great English lords and ladies condescended to speak 
to persons whom they did not know. The friends of the French went 
abroad, wild with excitement, and prophesying the triumph of their 
Emperor. The merchants closed their shops, and came out to swell the 
general chorus of alarm and clamor. Women rushed to the churches, and 
crowded the chapels, and knelt and prayed on the flags and steps. The 
dull sound of cannon went on rolling, rolling. Presently carriages with 
travellers began to leave the town, galloping away by the Ghent barrier. 
The prophecies of the French partisans began to pass for facts. "He has 
cut the army in two," it was said. "He is marching straight on Brussels. 
He will overpower the English, and be here tonight." "He will over- 
power the English," shrieked Isidor to his master, "and will be here 
tonight." The man bounded in and out from the lodgings to the street, 
always returning with some fresh particulars of disaster. Jos's face grew 
paler and paler. Alarm began to take entire possession of the stout 
civilian. All the champagne he drank brought no courage to him. Be- 
fore sunset he was worked up to such a pitch of nervousness as gratified 
his friend Isidor to behold, who now counted upon the spoils of the 
owner of the laced coat. 

The women were away all this time. After hearing the firing for a 
moment, the stout Major's wife bethought her of her friend in the next 
chamber, and ran in to watch, and if possible to console, Amelia. The 
idea that she had that helpless and gentle creature to protect, gave 
additional strength to the natural courage of the honest Irishwoman. 
She passed five hours by her friend's side, sometimes in remonstrance, 
sometimes talking cheerfully, oftener in silence, and terrified mental 
supplication. WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY: Vanity Fair, Chap. 32. 

At the other extreme from the panoramic point of view we find 
what we may call the point of view of SHARP FOCUS. The author 
does not sweep the entire field of the action, but keeps his, and 


his reader's, attention focused on one character and on that char- 
acter's relation to the action. Accordingly, the parts of the action 
not directly participated in by the selected character are not re- 
ported by the author. To use a figure of speech, the character may 
be regarded as a kind of prism through which the action is re- 
fracted. Here is an example of the method: 

He was hungry, for, except some biscuits which he had asked two 
grudging curates to bring him, he had eaten nothing since breakfast- 
time. He sat down at an uncovered wooden table opposite two work-girls 
and a mechanic. A slatternly girl waited on him. 

"How much is a plate of peas?" he asked. 

"Three halfpence, sir," said the girl. 

"Bring me a plate of peas," he said, "and a bottle of ginger beer." 

He spoke roughly in order to belie his air of gentility for his entiy 
had been followed by a pause of talk. His face was heated. To appear 
natural he pushed his cap back on his head and planted his elbows on 
the table. The mechanic and the two work-girls examined him point by 
point before resuming their conversation in a subdued voice. The girl 
brought him a plate of grocer's hot peas, seasoned with pepper and 
vinegar, a fork and his ginger beer. He ate his food greedily and found 
it so good that he made a note of the shop mentally. When he had eaten 
all the peas he sipped his ginger beer and sat for some time thinking of 
Corley's adventure. In his imagination he beheld the pair of lovers walk- 
ing along some dark road; he heard Corley's voice in deep energetic 
gallantries, and saw again the leer of the young woman's mouth. This 
vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit. He was 
tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by the tail, of shifts and 
intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a 
good job? Would he never have a home of his own? He thought how 
pleasant it would be to have a warm fire to sit by and a good dinner to 
sit down to. He had walked the streets long enough with friends and 
with girls. He knew what those friends were worth: he knew the girls 
too. Experience had embittered his heart against the world. But all 
hope had not left him. He felt better after having eaten than he had 
felt before, less weary of his life, less vanquished in spirit. He might yet 
be able to settle down in some snug corner and live happily if he could 
only come across some good simple-minded girl with a little of the 
ready .JAMES JOYCE: "Two Gallants," Dubliners. 5 

5 From Dubliners by James Joyce, copyright, 1925, by The Viking Press, 
Inc., and now included in The Portable James Joyce, published by The Viking 
Press, Inc., New York. 


In between the extremes of the panoramic point of view and the 
point of view of sharp focus there are, of course, all sorts of grada- 
tions and mixtures of the two methods. The choice of one of the 
methods or the mixing of the two is not a matter to be settled 
arbitrarily, for the method should reflect a special interest in- 
volved in the narrative. For instance, the panoramic point of view 
is well suited to the rendering of some large and complicated action, 
a battle, a mob scene, the burning of a city, where the interest lies 
in the sweep of events, Or the point of view of sharp focus is suited 
to a narrative in which the interest is primarily in the psychological 
analysis of the experience of some single character. A narrative may 
well involve both such interests, and then the writer may mix his 
methods according to the need of the particular moment. 

But use of the panoramic point of view is not restricted to action 
which covers a physically broad field, like a battle. Take, for in- 
stance, this example: 

One night toward the end of March Gertrude did not appear for 
dinner. She had never been absent at the evening meal before, though 
it was a common enough occurrence in the house. 

"One of our sheep has strayed," the red-haired woman said. Now that 
spring was coming she had returned to the brown silk dress she had worn 
in the fall. A smile of calculated indifference was on her face. "Perhaps 
she is wandering by the docks and sighing for her homeland." 

"What do you mean?" Marian said. 

The woman pulled her salad plate closer to the edge of the table and 
poised her fork over it thoughtfully. "Nothing is so good as Europe, you 
know," she said, looking up from her plate and glancing at the entire 
table with the easy innocence and half-surprise of the guilty. 

"You know that isn't true," Marian said sharply. "For Gertrude America 
appears more beautiful than any country can be in reality." 

"They are very tricky," the woman said flatly. 

The others at the table were listening, alternately seeming to agree 
with both Marian and the woman, and then suddenly and cautiously 
retreating into themselves, admitting to nothing except the existence of 
all possibilities. Florence was sitting at the end of the table and had not 
heard the first part of the conversation. "Where is Gertrude?" she said 

"Flown the coop," a timid young girl said. 

"Have you seen her all day?" Marian asked. "I haven't/' 

Florence said that she had not. The meal went on. 


A woman, close to seventy, with hair dyed jet black, brushed past the 
table and hobbled over to her own group. One of her feet was slightly 
malformed and it made her walk strangely, as if she were constantly 
trotting. She seldom ever spoke to anyone and seemed deeply engrossed 
in work of enormous importance. ELIZABETH HARDWICK: The Ghostly 
Lover, Chap. 25. 6 

Here we find the event rendered as it would appear to the mere 
observer, in its externals only. The scene is restricted but the use 
of the panoramic method gives a kind of psychological distance, 
an impersonality, which corresponds in effect to the physical dis- 
tance and impersonality one finds in the panoramic rendering of a 
scene which is physically large. 


The foregoing discussion leads us logically into a consideration 
of what may be called SCALE in narrative. As the dominant interest 
in a narrative or a part of a narrative may define the point of view, 
so it may define the scale on which it is treated. Here, too, we can 
think in terms of extremes of method, SUMMARY RENDERING and 
FULL RENDERING. The tendency in narration is to reduce the scale 
to that of summary in parts which are necessary only for conti- 
nuity or, as it were, scaffolding, and to expand the scale in those 
parts which present the more significant moments. The following 
selection, which concludes Guy de Maupassant's story "The Dia- 
mond Necklace" illustrates the principle clearly. The main character, 
Mathilde Loisel, has been a vain, frivolous woman, who lived in 
day dreams of rich and fashionable life. When she is finally invited 
to a ball she borrows what she understands to be a diamond neck- 
lace from a friend, Madame Forestier. The necklace is lost at the 
ball, and Mathilde and her husband buy one to replace it, getting 
the money from usurers. At this point the selection picks up the 

She learned the heavy cares of a household, the odious work of a 
kitchen. She washed the dishes, using her rosy nails upon the greasy 

6 From The Ghostly Lover by Elizabeth Hardwick, copyright, 1945, by 
Elizabeth Hardwick. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Com- 
pany, Inc. 


pots and the bottoms of the stewpans. She washed the soiled linen, the 
chemises and dishcloths, which she hung on the line to dry; she took 
down the refuse to the street each morning and brought up the water, 
stopping at each landing to breathe. And, clothed like a woman of the 
people, she went to the grocer's, the butcher's, and the fruiterer's, with 
her basket on her arm, shopping, haggling to the last sou her miserable 

Every month it was necessary to renew some notes, thus obtaining 
time, and to pay others. 

The husband worked evenings, putting the accounts of some merchant 
in order, and at night he often copied manuscript at five sou a page. 

And this life lasted ten years. 

At the end of ten years, they had restored all, all, with interest of the 
usurers, and the compound interest besides. 

Mme. Loisel looked old now. She had become a strong, hard woman, 
the rough woman of the poor household. Her hair tangled, her skirts 
awry, her hands red, she talked in loud tones, and washed the floors with 
a great swishing of water. But sometimes, when her husband was at the 
office, she would sit by the window and remember that evening of the 
ball, where she had been so beautiful and so happy. 

What would have happened if she had not lost the necklace? Who 
knows? Who knows? How life is strange and changeful! How little is 
needed to ruin one or to save one! 

One Sunday, as she was walking in the Champs Elys6es, to restore 
herself after the work of the week, she suddenly saw a woman with a 
child. It was Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still charming. 
Madame Loisel was moved. Should she speak to her? Yes, certainly. 
Now that she had paid, she would tell her all. Why not? 

She approached her. "Good morning, Jeanne." 

Her friend did not recognize her, and was surprised to be addressed 
by this woman of the people. She stammered: "But, Madame I do not 
know you must be mistaken" 

"No, I am Mathilde Loisel." 

Her friend uttered a cry of surprise: "Oh, my poor Mathilde! How 
you are changed" 

"Yes, I have seen some hard days since I saw you some miserable ones 
and all because of you" 

"Because of me? How?" 

"You remember the diamond necklace you loaned me to wear to the 
Minister's ball?" 

"Yes, very well." 

"Well, I lost it." 

SCALE 275 

"How is that, since you returned it to me?" 

"I returned one like it. And it has taken us ten years to pay for it. 
You can understand that it was not easy for us who have nothing. But 
it is finished, and I am very glad." 

Madame Forestier stopped. She said: "You say that you bought a 
diamond necklace to replace mine?" 

"Yes. You did not know it then? They were very like." 

And she smiled with a joy that was proud and naive. 

Madame Forestier was touched, and seized both her hands as she 
said: "Oh, my poor Mathilde! My necklace was false. It was not worth 
over five hundred francs!" GUY DE MAUPASSANT: "The Diamond Neck- 

We notice here that the first half of the passage covers a time of 
ten years, the second half a time of three or four minutes. The ten 
years are summarized. The meeting in the park is rendered fully, 
word for word, instant by instant. We can readily see the reason 
why the writer summarized the ten years: they are all alike, a 
dreary grind of misery, and what is important is their result, 
Mathilde's new energy and fortitude, not the single events within 
them. As for the last scene, we can see that it is important in itself: 
it is dramatic, it is the moment when Mathilde realizes her situation, 
it is the result of all her past experience. 

In the half of the selection rendered by summary we observe, 
however, that certain details do give us the impression of the qual- 
ity and movement of life Mathilde's bargaining, her voice now 
coarse and rough, the way she scrubs the floor with great swishing 
sweeps of the wet mop. Narrative summary differs from the mere 
summary of ideas; when successful it still gives some hint of the 
quality and movement of life. 


Narration often involves the use of dialogue not only fiction but 
historical writing, biography, and other types. Dialogue sometimes 
seems to be an easy way to get a story told. The writer especially 
an inexperienced writer thinks that he knows how people talk and 
that to set down talk will be easier than to present material in the 
straight narrative form which he himself win 1 have to compose. But 
the problem is not so simple as that. First, to compose effective 


dialogue is not easy, and second, the continual use of dialogue tends 
to give an impression of monotony. 

On the first point it can be said that dialogue which is effective 
on the page is rarely a direct transcript of what people would say 
in conversation. Conversation is often stumbling, wandering, dif- 
fuse. The real point at issue in an actual conversation frequently 
becomes lost in mere wordiness or in the distractions of side issues 
and matters of incidental interest. The writer of dialogue cannot 
afford to duplicate such a conversation; if he does so, the reader 
will not be readily able to follow the line of significance. So the 
writer must organize the material to permit the reader to follow 
the development of the issue at stake. There must be an impression 
of give-and-take and a forward thrust of idea. 

Let us examine a piece of unsatisfactory dialogue: 

Gertrude collapsed into her chair, helpless with amusement; giving 
herself up to her laughter, she made him feel suddenly ashamed of that 
remembered delight. 

"Oh oh oh oh!" she cried. "That is the most ridiculous thing I ever 
heard of. You call that girl a shy arbutus. And at your age, too. You 
certainly are silly." 

"Well! I don't think it is so funny. You don't know the girl the way 
I do, and furthermore she is very modest and appealing. All sorts of 
people think so. For example, I have heard Mrs. Buckley say" 

"The shy arbutus! As I said, it is perfectly ridiculous. I don't want to 
be impolite, but she isn't exactly an arbutus, and as for Mrs. Buckley's 
opinion, you know what a sentimental old biddy she is, and how she 
gushes over everything. A shy arbutus. Forgive me, Harry, but that's 
too funny. How old are you?" 

He flung his cigarette at the back-log and grinned. 

"I knew it was no use," he grumbled amiably. "I can't make you see 
her, and it's no use trying. I know Mrs. Buckley is sentimental and does 
gush, but I don't think I am gushy, and I have also heard Tom Barker 
comment on the girl. Very favorably, too. And he is a hard-headed sort of 
fellow. Why, you remember, don't you, how he always brings a con- 
versation right down to common sense. There was that time we were 
talking about performance of that pianist you know, the one who played 
at the Murdocks' house last November and everybody said how good 
she was, but Tom just said, 'Nuts, all she's got is ten quite ordinary 
fingers and a very extraordinary figure but it is the fingers that have to 
play the piano!' That's just like old Tom. But to come back to the sub- 


ject, Tom may understand the girl, but I can't make you see her, and 
it's no use trying." 

"I heard that pianist, and she was rather good, I thought. Whatever 
Tom Barker thought. But the trouble with you is, you're in love with 
this girl. It is a well known fact that a man in love is not able to exercise 
his best judgment. But it's precisely when you're in love that you need 
to keep your wits about you. Or the wits of your friends. Now I've come 
to the conclusion that you mustn't marry her, Harry. There are very 
good reasons." 

"Well I don't know. I don't think that being in love has done anything 
to my judgment." 

"No! It is certainly my considered opinion that to marry that girl 
would be ruinous for you. You must think about your career. And more 
important, about your happiness. Won't she bore you to death in three 
years. She is quite dull. Now the kind of girl you want is somebody 
with some spirit and mischief. A girl who has got some smartness, and 
who could amuse your friends. Think of the dull parties with this girl 
in the saddle." 

The trouble here is that the dialogue is loaded with irrelevant 
material. People do load their conversations with irrelevant mate- 
rial, but dialogue in narrative cannot afford that weight. It kills 
the forward thrust. 

Let us now look at the same piece of dialogue as it actually 
occurs in a story, stripped to the essentials: 

"Oh oh oh oh!" she cried. 


"The shy arbutus! . . . Forgive me, Harry, but that's too funny. 
How old are you?" 

He flung his cigarette at the"back-log and grinned. 

"I knew it was no use," he grunted amiably. "I can't make you see 
her, and it's no use trying." 

"Well I can see this much. You are in love with her. Or you couldn't 
possibly be such a fool. But it's precisely when you're in love that you 
need to keep your wits about you. Or the wits of your friends. . . . 
You mustn't marry her, Harry." 

"Well I don't know." 

"No! ... It would be ruinous." CONRAD AIKEN: "Spider, Spider." 7 

7 From "Spider, Spider" in Costumes hy Eros, published by Charles Scrib- 
ner's Sons. Copyright, 1928, by Conrad Aiken. 


In the passage above the line of interest is clear, and the collision 
between Gertrude and Harry is quite definite. In the expanded 
version there is a blurring of the effect. This blurred effect may 
actually be given by the conversation of a Gertrude and Harry in 
real life, but that has no final bearing on the case here. The problem 
of the writer of dialogue is a problem of selection and logical 

There is also, however, the problem of giving the dialogue a 
realistic surface. There must be, in addition to the logical organiza- 
tion, an impression of real life, a sense of the pauses, the changes, 
the waverings of conversation. But this must be an impression and 
not a word-for-word recording. There is no rule for giving this 
impression, but there are certain considerations which may help 
a writer to give it. 

First, we can notice, as in the example above, that the breaks 
and the italicized words are of some use in this respect. We get the 
impression of the sudden shift of idea or the hesitancy of a speaker. 
And from the italicized words we get the impression of Gertrude's 
voice, with the slight satirical emphasis. But these are devices that 
would not always apply, and in any case should be used sparingly. 

Second, and more important, the writer can try to indicate the fact 
that each speaker has his own way of phrasing things and his own 
rhythm of voice. Expertness in giving such an impression can only 
come from close observationan awareness of the little catch 
phrases a person tends to repeat, of the type of sentence structure 
he tends to use, of the mannerisms of speech. 

Third, in addition to the individual qualities of speech, there are 
the qualities dependent on cultural background, race, geographical 
origin, and so forth, qualities which are shared by members of a 
group. The commonest way to indicate such qualities is by mere 
dialectal peculiarities, when that will apply at all. But mere peculi- 
arity of spelling is a crude device, and in the end usually becomes 
monotonous. It is better for the writer to use such a device spar- 
ingly, and to focus his attention on the vocabulary, idiom, and 
rhythm of the class to which his speaking character belongs. 

Here are some examples in which the language used by a speaker 
gives some impression of his social group and of his individuality: 

A boy who is the son of a jockey: 


I guess looking at it, now, my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one 
of those regular little roly fat guys you see around, but he sure never 
got that way, except a little toward the last, and then it wasn't his fault, 
he was riding over the jumps only and he could afford to carry plenty 
of weight then. I remember the way he'd pull on a rubber shirt over a 
couple of jerseys and a big sweat shirt over that, and got me to run 
with him in the forenoon in the hot sun. ERNEST HEMINGWAY: "My 
Old Man." 8 

A Southern Negro: 

"What makes you want to talk like that before these chillen?" Nancy 
said. "Whyn't you go on to work. You done et. You want Mr. Jason to 
catch you hanging around his kitchen, talking that way before these 

"Talking what way?" Caddy said. 

"I cant hang around white man's kitchen," Jesus said, "But white man 
can hang around mine. White man can come in my house, but I cant 
slop him. When white man wants to come in my house, I aint got no 
house. I cant stop him, but he cant kick me outen it. He cant do that." 
WILLIAM FAULKNER: "That Evening Sun." 9 

A pretentious, servile woman: 

"Well now, that is so like you," returned Miss Knag. "Ha! ha! ha! 
Of club feet! Oh very good. As I often remark to the young ladies, 'Well 
I must say, and I do not care who knows it, of all the ready humor 
hemI ever heard anywhere' and I have heard a good deal; for when 
my dear brother was alive (I kept house for him, Miss Nickleby), we 
had to supper once a week two or three young men, highly celebrated 
in those days for their humor, Madame Mantalini 'Of all the ready 
humor,' I say to the young ladies, 7 ever heard, Madame Mantalini's is 
the most remarkable hem. It is so gentle, so sarcastic, and yet so good- 
natured (as I was observing to Miss Simmonds only this morning), that 
how, or when, or by what means she acquired it, is to me a mystery 
indeed/ " 

Here Miss Knag paused to take breath, and while she pauses it may 
be observed not that she was marvellously loquacious and marvellously 
deferential to Madame Mantalini, since these are facts which require no 
comment; but that every now and then, she was accustomed, in the 

8 From Three Stories and Ten Poems by Ernest Hemingway, copyright, 1923, 
by Charles Scribner's Sons. 

9 From "That Evening Sun," These Thirteen by William Faulkner, copyright, 
1931, by Random House, Inc. 


torrent of her discourse, to introduce a loud, shrill, clear, "hem!" the 
import and meaning of which was variously interpreted by her ac- 
quaintance . . .CHARLES DICKENS: Nicholas Nickleby, Chap. 17. 

A fatherly professor: 

"You may be right, and then you may have a one-sided view. When I 
say that your prejudice is literary, I mean that you have read what 
universities are like and applied that reading here. You have condemned 
without participating. You know, there may be good things, even in this 
town. Why, I sometimes think you even like me a bit." Dr. Whitlock 
smiled. "You see, there is indifference, intellectual servility, a vague 
attempt at education. But to know these things is not enough. You have 
to go deeper, you must understand; your conviction must be intellectual 
as well as emotional. There are more than economic reasons at stake, 
and there may be greater social injustice in this small university town 
than in the smashing of a miner's strike by hired bullies." MICHAEL DE 
CAPITE: No Bright Banner, Chap. 7. 10 

We have said earlier that logical organization, the development 
of the point at issue in a dialogue, is extremely important. But occa- 
sionally there is little or no point at issue, and then the intended 
significance of a passage may be the exhibition of the speaker's 
character, as in the speech by Miss Knag from Nicholas Nickleby, 
quoted above. There the wandering sentences, the interpolations, 
and the characteristic "hem!" indicate the quality of her mind, just 
as some of the remarks themselves indicate her mixture of vanity, 
pretentiousness, and servility. 

In some instances, of course, a piece of dialogue may develop a 
point and at the same time contain elements which are irrelevant 
to that point but indicate the character of the speaker. Here is the 
famous passage between Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, who is try- 
ing to remind Falstaff that he had promised to marry her. Her 
talkativeness and fuzzy-mindedness appear here in the very way she 
presents the argument, the point, to Falstaff: 

Marry, if thou wert an honest man, thyself and the money too. Thou 
didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin- 
chamber, at the round table, by a seacoal fire, upon Wednesday in 
Wheeson-week, when the prince broke thy head for liking his father to 

10 Reprinted from No Bright Banner by Michael de Capite, by permission of 
The John Day Company, Inc. 


a singing-man of Windsor, thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing 
thy wound, to marry me and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou 
deny it? Did not goodwife Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then and 
call me gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar; telling 
us she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou didst desire to eat 
some, whereby I told thee they were ill for a green wound? And didst 
thou not, when she was gone down stairs, desire me to be no more so 
familiarity with such poor people; saying that ere long they would call 
me madam? And didst thou not kiss me and bid me fetch thee thirty 
shillings? WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Henry IV, Part II, Act II. 


Early in this discussion we pointed out the relation between per- 
sons and action. Most narratives, from news stories to novels, are 
about people. Things happen to people and people make things 
happen. To understand an action we must understand the people 
involved, their natures, their motives, their responses, and to pre- 
sent an action so that it is satisfying we must present the people. 
This process is called CHARACTERIZATION. 

A news story gives a minimum of characterization. It merely 
identifies the persons involved "Adam Perkins, age thirty-three, 
of 1217 Sunset Drive" and then proceeds to give the bare facts 
of the event. If it deals with motive it does so in the barest possible 
way. If Adam Perkins has committed suicide, the news story may 
report that he had been in ill health and had, according to his 
wife, been worrying about financial reverses, but it will give no 
detail. On the other hand, a novel or biography usually gives very 
full characterization. It seeks to make us understand very fully the 
relation between the character and the events and the effect of 
events on character. In between the news story and the novel or 
biography, there are all sorts at narratives which present more or 
less fully the relationship between character and event and which 
try to answer the fundamental questions: Why does the character 
do what he does to cause the event? Why does he respond as he 
does to the event? 

To answer these questions, the writer of a narrative must charac- 
terize the person. This is as important for narratives dealing with 
matters of fact, such as biography or history, as it is for narratives 


dealing with imaginary persons, such as novels or short stories. The 
difference between the two types is simply this: The biographer 
must interpret the facts in order to understand the character and 
present him, and the writer of fiction must create the details in 
order to present the character. 

Whether the details of a character are drawn from fact or from 
imagination, it is important to remember that a character cannot 
be effectively presented as a mere accumulation of details. The 
details must be related to each other to build up a unified impres- 
sion, the sense of an individual personality. As this impression of 
an individual personality relates to an action, we are concerned 
with motive or response. What is the main motive of a character, 
or what is his main response? We must be sure that we have an 
answer to this question before we can give an effective character- 
ization. Then we must be sure that we have given a clear indication 
of this main fact of the character. 

Once the main fact of the character is established in the writer's 
mind, he must relate other details of the character to it. That is, 
the character must be consistent. We know that real people are 
often very complicated and do things which seem inconsistent. 
The same person does good things and bad things, generous things 
and selfish things, wise things and stupid things, but even so, we 
usually feel that there is an explanation for such inconsistency, 
that the very inconsistencies can be understood in relation to a 
deeper consistency of character. And the object of the writer 
should be to contribute to this deeper understanding of character. 
He may present the inconsistent details, but at the same time he 
wants to present them as part of a comprehensible whole. There 
is no formula for accomplishing this, and the only way we can learn 
to do it is by studying human nature as we can observe it in life 
and in books. 

Once the conception of a character is clear, we can, however, 
think systematically about methods of presenting it. Generally 
speaking, there are five methods: by appearance and mannerisms, 
by analysis, by speech, by reaction of other persons, by action. 

Appearance and mannerisms really involve description, consid- 
ered independently or as absorbed into narration, but description 
as an indication of the inner nature of persons. We have already 
seen how in Dickens's description of Chadband (p. 214) the physical 


oiliness of the man is taken as a lead to his "oily" personality, and 
how his mannerism of lifting a hand before speaking gives the sug- 
gestion of false piety and vanity, of a hypocritical preacher. 

As the method of description suggests the character, that of anal- 
ysis states it and explains it. This is really a kind of exposition drawn 
into the service of narration. It may be very obvious and systematic, 
as when we write: 

Jack Staple's character is marked by what seems, at first inspection, 
to be a fundamental inconsistency: on some occasions he is kind and 
generous even to a fault, and at the same time he is capable of extreme 
cruelty. But the inconsistency disappears into a frightening consistency 
once we realize that the spring of his every action is a profound egotism, 
an egotism which can express itself as well through good as through 
evil. Both gratitude and fear can flatter his ego. 

But in the following example, the analysis is absorbed into the 
account of a meeting between T. E. Lawrence, the British agent 
sent to Arabia in World War I to stir a revolt against Turkey, and a 
chieftain whom he was considering as a possible leader of the revolt: 

Abdulla, on a white mare, came to us softly with a bevy of richly 
armed slaves on foot about him, through the silent respectful salutes 
of the town. He was flushed with his success at Taif, and happy. I was 
seeing him for the first time, while Storrs was an old friend, and on the 
best of terms; yet, before long, as they spoke together, I began to sus- 
pect him of a constant cheerfulness. His eyes had a confirmed twinkle; 
and though only thirty-five, he was putting on flesh. It might be due to 
too much laughter. Life seemed very rnerry for Abdulla. He was short, 
strong, fair-skinned, with a carefully trimmed brown beard, masking 
his round smooth face and short lips. In manner he was open, or affected 
openness, and was charming on acquaintance. He stood not on cere- 
mony, but jested with all comers in most easy fashion; yet, when we 
fell into serious talk, the veil of humour seemed to fade away. He then 
chose his words, and argued shrewdly. Of course, he was in discussion 
with Storrs, who demanded a high standard from his opponent. 

The Arabs thought Abdulla a far-seeing statesman and an astute 
politician. Astute he certainly was, but not greatly enough to convince 
us always of his sincerity. His ambition was patent. Rumour made him 
the brain of his father and o the Arab revolt; but he seemed too easy 
for that. His object was, of course, the winning of Arab independence and 
the building up of Arab nations, but he meant to keep the direction of 


the new states in the family. So he watched us, and played through us 
to the British gallery. 

On our part, I was playing for effect, watching, criticizing him. The 
Sherif s rebellion had been unsatisfactory for the last few months (stand- 
ing still, which, with an irregular war, was the prelude to disaster): and 
my suspicion was that its lack was leadership: not intellect, nor judg- 
ment, nor political wisdom, but the flame of enthusiasm, that would set 
the desert on fire. My visit was mainly to find the yet unknown master- 
spirit of the affair, and measure his capacity to carry the revolt to the 
goal I had conceived for it. As our conversation continued, I became 
more and more sure that Abdulla was too balanced, too cool, too humor- 
ous to be a prophet: especially the armed prophet who, if history be 
true, succeeded in revolutions. His value would come perhaps in the 
peace after success. During the physical struggle, when singleness of eye 
and magnetism, devotion and self-sacrifice were needed, Abdulla would 
be a tool too complex for a simple purpose, though he could not be 
ignored, even now. T. E. LAWRENCE: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chap. 
8. 11 

Under the topic of dialogue we have already discussed some of 
the ways by which speech indicates character: Miss Knag's habit of 
saying "hem," or the professor's special, somewhat stilted vocabulary 
and turn of phrase. But further, we must distinguish between what 
is said and the way of saying it. The ideas or attitudes expressed 
should spring from the character and exhibit it, and the vocabulary, 
rhythm, and mannerisms (if there are mannerisms) should be signifi- 

It is difficult to find a brief example of the method of indicating 
character by the reactions of other people, for usually a fully devel- 
oped scene is required to make such a point. But the principle is 
simple and we can observe it constantly in real life: the feelings 
and behavior of those around a person act as a mirror of that per- 
son's character. And we often encounter it in narratives, sometimes 
with some such obvious signal as, "When I first met Mr. Dobbs, I 
felt an uneasiness which I was at a loss to explain, for he was so 
civil, so fatherly . . ."; but the method may be used without the 
signal. The reactions may form part of the narrative itself. 

The method which most concerns the writer of narrative is, of 
course, the exhibiting of character through action. Again it is diffi- 

11 From: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Copyright 1926, 1935 
by Doubleday & Company, Inc. 


cult to illustrate this method by a brief extract, for we can be sure 
that a single act is properly expressive of character only if we test 
that act against the other acts in the narrative. Any good short story 
or novel or biography will illustrate the matter. But in general terms, 
we must ask if the particular incident is vivid, significant in itself, 
and consistent with other incidents. Our final test here is human 
nature, and thorough observation is the best teacher. 


Narration is the kind of discourse concerned with action, with 
life in motion. It tells a story. An action, as we use the word here, 
may be discussed with reference to movement, time, and meaning. 

The essence of narration is to give a sense of movement the pass- 
ing from one stage to another stage. Narration does not explain a 
process but places the events before our eyes to give a quality of 
immediacy. The movement of an action is through time, but narra- 
tion gives not a mere segment of time, but rather a unit of time, and 
this unity is determined by the fact that the process presented in 
narration extends from the moment when one condition prevails but 
is unstable, to the moment when the process is completed by the 
establishment of another and stable condition. As for meaning, 
action does not merely involve change, but significant change. The 
stages of the process are related to each other in such a way that 
they are comprehensible and make a point. In so far as the action 
presented concerns human beings the comprehensibility involves 
MOTIVATION of events and human reaction to events. 

Narration is a kind of discourse, and a NARRATIVE is the particu- 
lar thing produced by the application of the method of narration. 
But the method of narration may be used without producing a satis- 
factory narrative. Events may be narrated which do not constitute 
an action which are held together simply by the fact that they 
form a sequence in time. 

The relation of narration to the other kinds of discourse may be 
discussed under two heads: 

1. How does narration use the other kinds of discourse? 

2. How do the other kinds of discourse use narration? 

A narrative may, and usually does, employ the other kinds: ex- 


position of issues involved or argument concerning them, descrip- 
tion of characters or setting. 

As for the second question, description rarely appears by itself 
in an extended form, and though it may use the acts, say, of a per- 
son described, it can scarcely be thought to present fully rendered 
actions. But both exposition and argument frequently use narration 
more or less fully rendered actions for illustrative purposes. 

Is there a basic PATTERN which a narrative tends to take? This 
question may be approached by considering, not methods of narra- 
tion, but the way in which an action appears in fact. An action arises 
in a situation. It moves through stages of tension to some sort of 
breaking point. At the breaking point a change definitely takes 
place to create a new situation different in meaning from the orig- 
inal situation in that the old tensions are relieved and a point of rest 
is reached. | The stages of narration correspond to these divisions in 
an action. The beginning, the original situation, is technically called 
EXPOSITION. The middle, comprising the stages of mounting tension, 
is called COMPLICATION. The end, the definition of the new situation, 
is called the DENOUEMENT. The breaking point, the crisis of the 
action, is called the CLIMAX. These aspects of an action, even when 
they are not always fully presented in a narrative, as, for example, 
in a brief anecdote, are nevertheless always implied^ 

The relation of the stages of a narrative to each other raises the 
question of PROPORTION. But there is no mathematical ratio which 
can be depended upon to settle the question of proportion. Each 
case must be considered in terms of the material involved and the 
intention of the writer. The writer may, however, ask himself these 
guiding questions: 

1. Does the exposition give all the information really necessary 
to establish the situation for the reader? 

2. Is it burdened with information which is really unnecessary 
and distracting? 

3. Does the complication clearly define for the reader the essen- 
tial stages of the development of the action? 

4. Does it confuse the reader by presenting material which does 
not bear on the development of the action? 

5. Does the denouement give the reader enough to make the 
point of the narrative clear? 


6. Does it blur the point by putting in irrelevant material or by 
so extending relevant material that a sharp focus is lost? 

As the ordering of the parts of a narrative is a problem of pat- 
tern, so the rendering of the surface details is a problem of TEXTURE. 
Even in a narrative which deals with matters of fact, the writer 
cannot hope to render all details, and if he could he would simply 
blur the effect. He must use a principle of SELECTION. He should try 
to sharpen the interest of the reader by presenting only those de- 
tails which have some bearing on the central concern, or which 
suggest the immediate quality of the event. 

POINT OF VIEW, in reference to narration, means a person who 
bears some relation to the action, either as observer or participant, 
and whose intelligence serves as the index of the action for the 
reader. Point of view, then, involves two questions: 

1. Who tells the story? 

2. What is his relation to the action? 

Broadly speaking, there are two possible points of view, the first 
person and the third person. In the first, for instance, an "I," real or 
fictitious, relates an event in which he himself is involved. In the 
second, an author, writing impersonally, relates an event in which 
another person is involved. 

There are, however, certain shadings and variations possible 
within these two broad general divisions. 

In the first-person point of view, two extreme positions may be 

1. The narrator may tell of an action in which he is the main, 
or a main, participant. 

2. The narrator may tell of an action in which he has not par- 
ticipated, and which he has merely observed. 

These two extreme positions may be called (1) NARRATOR MAIN 
are many possible variations, corresponding to the degree in which 
the narrator is involved in the action. 

In the third-person point of view, two extreme positions may 
likewise be distinguished. 

1. In the PANORAMIC point of view, the writer may report any or 
all the aspects of an action, and may go into the head of any or all 
the characters involved. (In nonimaginative writing, history, for in- 


stance, the writer who employs this method is limited, of course, 
by what facts or plausible references are available to him.) 

2. In the point of view of SHARP FOCUS, the writer keeps his 
attention focused on one character and on that character's relation 
to the action. The parts of the action not directly participated in by 
the selected character are not reported by the writer. 

Between these two extreme positions there are all sorts of grada- 
tions and mixtures possible. 

In all cases the dominant interest defines the point of view.^ 

As the dominant interest defines the point of view, so it defines 
the SCALE in a piece of narration. There are two extremes of scale: 

1. SUMMARY RENDERING, which is used primarily in those parts 
necessary for continuity or scaffolding. 

2. FULL RENDERING, which is used primarily in those parts of 
greatest interest and importance the main scenes of a narrative. 

Narration often involves the use of DIALOGUE. Dialogue sometimes 
appears to be an easy method of presenting an event, but in fact 
it is one of the most difficult. It is difficult because it is not a mere 
transcript of what people say; it must be carefully planned and 
organized to develop a point or issue. Therefore it presents a prob- 
lem in selection and logical ordering. At the same time good dia- 
logue must give an impression of naturalness, of the pauses and 
waverings of conversation. 

Another problem in dialogue is that of giving the impression of 
the speech of the individual. People have different mannerisms, 
different idioms, different vocabularies, different rhythms, depend- 
ing on personal peculiarities, educational background, geographical 
origin, social class, and so forth. Close observation of people and 
of methods used by competent writers is the only guide here. 

Most narratives involve people, and to understand such a narra- 
tive we must understand the people involved, their natures, their 
motives, and their responses. The process of presenting this in- 
formation is called CHARACTERIZATION. 

Characterization does not mean the mere accumulation of de- 
tails about the persons being characterized. The details must be 
related to each other to build up a unified impression. To do this 
the writer should concern himself with the main motive of a char- 
acter in relation to the events, or by the main effect of the events 


n him. Generally speaking, there are five methods for presenting 
haracter: by description of appearance or mannerisms, by analysis 
f character, by speech, by reaction of other persons, and by action, 
'he last is the most important method, for it is most closely con- 
ected with the main concern of narrative, the rendering of action* 



The Paragraph 


A PARAGRAPH, mechanically considered, is a division of the com- 
position, a division set off by an indentation of its first sentence. 
(It may be marked in manuscript by the sign f.) Paragraph divi- 
sions signal to the reader that the division so set off constitutes a 
unit of thought. 

For the reader this marking off of the whole composition into 
segments is a convenience, though not a strict necessity. A truly 
well-organized, well-written piece of prose would presumably be 
no worse as a piece of prose if we decided to print it with no para- 
graph divisions whatsoever. Printed thus, it would say precisely 
what it said before. The reader, however, would probably be irri- 
tated at failing to find these pointers to its organization. His reading 
might be made more difficult. Yet, with perhaps a little more 
studied attention, he could doubtless find the organization, if it were 
actually there. There is good reason, however, for the convention 
of paragraphing. Since communication of one's thoughts is at best 
a difficult business, it is the part of common sense, not to mention 
good manners, to mark for the reader the divisions of our thought, 
and thus make the thought structure visible upon the page. 

Where should these divisions occur? How long should a para- 
graph be? In answering these questions, let us again begin by 
adopting the position of the reader. For him, a composition com- 
posed of paragraphs no longer than one or two sentences each 


might as well be printed without paragraph divisions at all. Seg- 
mentation on this scale would tell the reader little more about 
organization than the segmentation already given by the division 
into sentences. The opposite extreme would, of course, be quite as 
bad. For paragraphs of six or seven hundred words each would tell 
the reader little or nothing about the thought structure. 

Common sense dictates that the length of the normal paragraph 
will lie between these extremes. But this is not to say that an occa- 
sional very short paragraph even a paragraph of only one sen- 
tencemay not tell the reader a great deal. By its very shortness 
the importance of the paragraph would be emphasized. Similarly, 
an occasional long paragraph would do no damage and might serve 
to emphasize the unity of a long passage always provided, of 
course, that the long passage actually constitutes a unit. We may 
sum up, then, by saying that there is no formula for ascertaining 
the length of paragraphs. Only common sense and the requirements 
of the particular occasion can determine how long any paragraph 
ought to be. 


Thus far we have looked at the paragraph from the perspective 
of the reader's convenience. We have said that paragraphing can 
make visible to him the divisions of the writer's thought. But para- 
graphing, obviously, can be of help to the reader only if the indi- 
cated paragraphs are genuine units of thought not faked units 
not mere random bits of writing arbitrarily marked off as units. 
For a paragraph undertakes to discuss one topic or one aspect of a 

The preceding sentence defines the paragraph but defines it in 
such fashion that the reader may well question the usefulness of 
the definition. What, after all, is a topic? It is not easy to define; and 
we have probably made matters more difficult by adding "or one 
aspect of a topic." A discussion of "one aspect of a topic" might be 
thought to cover almost anything. 

It ought to be admitted immediately that paragraphing is to 
some extent a matter of taste, not a matter of logic. Accordingly, 
any realistic definition must be rather loose and general. Fortu- 
nately, we do not construct paragraphs by applying definitions. In 


the practical problem of composition the writer will find his best 
approach is to remind himself that the paragraph is a part of the 
composition. Earlier in this text (p. 100) we discussed the difference 
between a part and a mere lump or fragment. We saw that a true 
part has its characteristic organization which is related to the larger 
organization of the whole. A paragraph thus has its "part" to play 
its own particular job to do in the larger structure of meaning. 


The paragraph, however, has its own structure, and there are 
various ways of indicating that structure. One of these ways is to 
build the paragraph around one sentence (the TOPIC SENTENCE) 
which states the central thought of the whole paragraph. We may 
think of the topic sentence as a kind of backbone, or spine, which 
supports the body of the paragraph and around which the rest of 
the structure is formed?) Here is an example. 

The reader of a novel by which I mean the critical reader is him- 
self a novelist; he is the maker of a book which may or may not please 
his taste when it is finished, but of a book for which he must take his 
own share of the responsibility. The author does his part, but he cannot 
transfer his book like a bubble into the brain of the critic; he cannot 
make sure that the critic will possess his work. The reader must there- 
fore become, for his part, a novelist, never permitting himself to suppose 
that the creation of the book is solely the affair of the author. The dif- 
ference between them is immense, of course, and so much so that a 
critic is always inclined to extend and intensify it. The opposition that 
he conceives between the creative and the critical task is a very real 
one; but in modestly belittling his own side of the business he is apt to 
forget an essential portion of it. The writer of the novel works in a 
manner that would be utterly impossible to the critic, no doubt, and 
with a liberty and with a range that would disconcert him entirely. But 
in one quarter their work coincides; both of them make the novel. 
PERCY LUBBOCK: The Craft of Fiction, Chap. 2. 1 

In this paragraph the first sentence is (the topic sentence) It 
States the thesis which the paragraph as a whole develops. It is 
frequently said that every paragraph contains a topic sentence, 

1 From The Craft of Fiction, by Percy Lubbock, through the permission of 
Peter Smith. 


stated or implied. It might be more sensible, however, to say that 
some paragraphs have topic sentences and that others do not; for an 
implied topic sentence is one which the reader is able to construct 
for himself as a way of summarizing the paragraph in question. 
It is obvious that any composition possessing the very minimum 
of unity may always be summed up in some kind of sentence. The 
"implied" topic sentence, therefore, is an abstraction a not very 
useful kind of ghost sentence\ In this book, therefore, (we shall 
mean by "topic sentence" only ' an actual sentence; and though in- 
sisting that every paragraph have unity, we shall admit the exist- 
ence of paragraphs that do not embody a topic sentence. 

The topic sentence may begin the paragraph (see the paragraph 
quoted above). But a topic sentence may occur elsewhere^ Here, 
for example, is a paragraph in which the topic sentence brings 
the paragraph to a close. 

The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a dis- 
ease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression 
to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthful 
to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane 
man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of a large and 
wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or 
perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, 
and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. 
Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men men like Shake- 
speare or Browning. There are many real tragedies of the artistic tem- 
perament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy 
of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art. G. K. 
CHESTERTON: "On the Wit of Whistler/' Heretics.' 2 

The last sentence of this paragraph makes a generalized state- 
ment of the point developed in the preceding sentences. The topic 
sentence serves, in this instance, as a kind of summary. The begin- 
ning and the end of a paragraph constitute emphatic positions for 
the topic sentence. But topic sentences may occur at any place in 
the paragraph. 

2 Reprinted by permission of Dodd, Mead & Company from Heretics by 
G. K. Chesterton. Copyright, 1905,^1932, by G. K. Chesterton. 



We do not undertake in this chapter to give an exhaustive classi- 
fication of the principles of organization that govern paragraph 
structure. There is value, however, in mentioning and illustrating 
some of the typical principles. In this connection the reader will 
find it useful to turn back to the earlier chapters of this book which 
treat exposition, argument, description, and narration. A paragraph, 
as we have seen, is a part of the whole composition. Since this is 
true, one would expect to find that the principles which govern the 
whole organization ought to apply, in some measure, to the organ- 
ization of the parts (that is, to the paragraphs). 

What are some of the methods by which we organize a piece 
of exposition? The chapter on Exposition mentions such methods 
as classification and division, comparison and contrast, illustration, 
definition, chronological analysis, causal analysis, and many more. 
But if we attempt to apply these principles of organization to the 
paragraph even to the paragraphs of an expository essay we find 
that they have varying degrees of applicability. 

Illustration, for example, applies rather directly to paragraph 
construction. (See the paragraphs quoted from Melville on JL 54, 
or the sixth paragraph quoted from Delia Lutes on p. 60 f . jjfCom- 
parison and contrast are also methods quite applicable to paragraph 
structure. Consider, for example, G. Lowes Dickinson's "Red-bloods 
and Mollycoddles" (several paragraphs of which are quoted on 
pp. 65 ff.). The essay as a whole makes a classification, but it is 
organized in terms of comparison and contrast. The individual 
paragraphs of this essay are developed on the same principle. 
The first paragraph begins with a suggested definition and proceeds 
to elaborate and particularize that definition by comparison and 
contrast. The next paragraph emphasizes the traits of the Molly- 
coddle (as opposed to the Red-blood), but in illustrating the nature 
of the Mollycoddle it further emphasizes his traits by means of a 
series of contrasts with his opposite. The third paragraph extends 
the classification from individuals to nations. Its first sentence, 
which we may take as the topic sentence, reads: "Nations, like men, 
may be classified roughly as Red-blood and Mollycoddle." The rest 


of the paragraph illustrates this generalization through a series of 
contrasts of national characteristics. ) 

There are other expository methods, however, which have less 
direct applicability to paragraph construction. Take, for example, 
the method of definition (discussed at length on pp. 83-98). As 
one illustration of definition (p. 96) we offered an excerpt from 
Newman's essay "What Is a University?" It so happens that the 
illustration consists of exactly one paragraph, the first paragraph 
of the essay. 

If I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what 
a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation 
of a Studium Generale, or "School of Universal Learning/* This descrip- 
tion implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot; from 
all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every depart- 
ment of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school 
at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of 
knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from evc5ry 
quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea 
embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be 
in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, 
by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country. 

It is not this paragraph, however, but Newman's whole essay 
that gives us his full definition of the term university: his first para- 
graph is a rather special case. What is the structure of the other 
paragraphs of his essay? They play their part in developing the 
definition of a university which the whole essay undertakes to make. 
But they are not themselves organized as definitions. Some provide 
illustrations, others make comparisons and furnish contrasts, and 
all take the structure of their specialized functions. Even the struc- 
ture of the first paragraph might be more practically described thus : 
the paragraph begins by defining a university as a Studium Gen- 
erale, and then proceeds to develop two or three basic implications 
of this term; that is, the structure is a generalization plus several 

We can say in general that the more complex methods of exposi- 
tion and argument, such as functional analysis, chronological anal- 
ysis, causal analysis, and syllogistic reasoning, rarely determine the 
structure of a single paragraph. Their very complexity prevents 
their doing so. For the paragraph as one of the smaller parts in 


extended composition usually has a simpler structure. It states a 
point and elaborates it, or it contrasts two points, or it illustrates 
an argument, or it makes a particular application. 

Some paragraphs, however, do have a rather explicit logical struc- 
ture in which the topic sentence states a conclusion which follows 
from premises stated in the body of the paragraph. Here is a para- 
graph so constructed. 

A really great pitcher must have control. Charles Ramsey had wonder- 
ful speed and a curve that broke as sharply as any that I have ever 
seen. He dazzled opposing batters with his fireball or made them break 
their backs reaching for pitches that broke sharply away from the plate. 
Charles had nearly everything he even fielded his position brilliantly 
but he lacked control. Even on his best days his control was less than 
certain. Shrewd batters learned this, and waited him out, frequently 
successfully, for a base on balls. On his worst days he simply couldn't 
find the plate. A pitcher without control cannot win close games. This 
iswhy I have to scratch Ramsey from my list of great pitchers. 

This is a rather simple paragraph, and on a simple enough sub- 
ject; yet it is characterized by a logical structure. We can see this 
plainly by putting this argument in the form of a syllogism. 

A great pitcher must not be lacking in control, (major premise) 
Charles Ramsey is lacking in control, (minor premise) 
.". Charles Ramsey is not a great pitcher, (conclusion) 

Few paragraphs, however, are shaped to conform so neatly to 
the logical skeleton of a syllogism. We might remember that few 
arguments are expressed in fully developed syllogisms. They are 
rather a series of enthymemes, or, as we put it on page 171, a "chain 
of implied syllogisms, the conclusion of one becoming a premise of 
the next." Such a chain of reasoning is often exhibited in the charac- 
teristic paragraph organization in essays which present an argu- 

The writer attempting to present a chain of reasoning will find 
that preliminary outlines are very helpful indeed may be indis- 
pensable. He should turn back to Chapter 1 (pp. 26-28) and reread 
what has been said about outlines. (Outlining is also discussed and 
summarized in the Appendix on the Outline, p. 486.) A brief (p. 
172) is of special utility in fashioning a close-knit fabric of argu- 
ment. Such a brief as that given on page 174 states a point as a 


main heading, and proceeds to marshal the supporting proofs in 
proper degrees of subordination. 

I. because 

A. because 

1. because 

a. and 


This sort of brief goes far toward suggesting paragraph structure. 
The divisions and the more important subdivisions become para- 
graphs: and the sentences that constitute the headings become topic 

But outlining unless we have made specifically a paragraph out- 
line (see Appendix on the Outline, p. 486) does not determine 
paragraph structure. Outlining will not settle, for example, the 
problem of scale. (Are topics a and b to constitute one paragraph 
or four? Should A be developed as a short paragraph, and 1, a, and 
b made to constitute a long paragraph which follows it?) It will be 
interesting in this connection to see the comments on the partial 
outline of Gauss's "The Threat of Science" (Appendix on the Out- 
line, p. 486). 

Thus far we have examined paragraph structure primarily in the 
light of the methods of organization discussed in the chapters on 
Exposition and Argument. But the chapters on Description and 
Narration and the section on Expository Description (pp. 42-53) 
will suggest other ways in which paragraphs may be organized, 
and, on the whole, some of the simpler kinds of organization: simple 
time sequence, for example, or simple sequence of objects arranged 
in space. 

Consider first a paragraph from Conrad's "The Secret Sharer/' 3 

On my right hand there were lines of fishing-stakes resembling a 
mysterious system of half -submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible 
in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if 
abandoned for ever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the 
other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as 
far as the eye could reach. To the left a group of barren islets, suggest- 
ing ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set 

3 From 'Twixt Land and Sea by Joseph Conrad. Reprinted by permission of 
J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., through the courtesy of the Conrad estate. 


in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below 
my feet; even the track of light from the westering sun shone smoothly, 
without that animated glitter which tells of an imperceptible ripple. 
And when I turned my head to take a parting glance at the tug which 
had just left us anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the 
flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with a perfect and un- 
usual closeness, in one levelled floor half brown, half blue under the 
enormous dome of the sky. 

Here we have a fixed observer. He tells us what he sees on his 
right hand, then on his left, and finally, turning his head, what he 
sees behind him. (There is even an implied look upward: "the . . . 
dome of the sky/') The order of composition is simple and even 
mechanical, though the writing itself is not mechanical. Notice, for 
example, the sense of finality and completeness given by the last 
sentence. The observer's survey comes to rest in "the straight line" 
of shore and sea "under the enormous dome of the sky/' The para- 
graph thus rounds out and completes its chosen topic. It is thor- 
oughly unified, though it does not contain a topic sentence. 

But we may also have a scene described through the eyes of an 
observer who is shifting bis position. The paragraph from Law- 
rence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (p. 203) furnishes an illustration. 
Moreover, a scene may be described in terms of an image which 
provides a frame of reference for it. Thomas Hardy describes the 
continent of Europe under the figure of a human being (see p. 203). 

The various ways in which description (and descriptive para- 
graphs) may be organized have been summarized on page 229 
(which the writer should reread). Now these methods of descrip- 
tion all apply to descriptive paragraphs as well as to description as 
a kind of discourse. In fact, the examples printed in Chapter 5 to 
illustrate these methods are, almost without exception, distinct para- 
graphs. The writer can learn from them, therefore, a great deal 
about paragraph development. 

Some of the more subjective modes of paragraph development, 
however, call for a bit of further discussion. It is in these that the 
principle of organization is least clear; the structure of the para- 
graph will seem most nearly subjective a mere matter of caprice. 
It will be these paragraphs, then, which will seem to the reader 
to stretch the very concept of the paragraph to a dangerous limit. 
Consider, for example, the paragraph quoted from E. M. Forster's 


A Passage to India on page 205. Why did not Forster begin a new 
paragraph with sentence five, "Chandrapore was never . . ."? Or 
consider the passage quoted from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (p. 
207). The passage is printed as four paragraphs. Two are composed 
of one sentence; one, of two sentences. Only the third paragraph 
has more than two sentences. Would anything be lost if all four 
paragraphs were lumped together in one medium-length paragraph? 
A defense can be offered in both instances. Forster presumably 
felt his description of Chandrapore was a unit that for him at 
least it had a "felt unity." Lewis presumably used the ultrashort 
paragraphs for a special effect: to suggest someone walking down 
"Main Street," observing the buildings as he walks. We get a para- 
graph for each store. But much more is at stake than the defense of 
these two examples. The defense may or may not be adequate, and 
if the reader feels it to be inadequate, he is quite possibly right. At 
any rate, he is right to raise the question. For the question goes to 
the heart of the problem of paragraph structure. To repeat: there is 
no precise formula by which the length or structure of a paragraph 
may be determined. As we have said earlier (p. 291), the writer 
must use his best judgment: he must use his common sense and 
his taste. Unless he is very sure of his ground, he will tend to 
employ paragraphs of medium length. He will tend to use the more 
conventional paragraph structures. But in following these common- 
sense rules he must not conceive of paragraphs as mechanical units 
of even length and of homogeneous make-up. He will feel free, on 
occasion, to formulate paragraphs of "felt unity," relying upon his 
own impression of the "rightness" of the structure. For the writer 
must never forget that the paragraph is a part a meaningful part 
of a larger structure, and therefore cannot be formulated mechani- 
cally any more than can the larger structure of which it is a part. 


Since paragraphs are parts of a whole work, elements in an 
ordered sequence, it is important that they be properly linked 
together. Even if the chain of development embodied in the series 
of paragraphs has been thought out carefully, the reader will still 
be grateful for signposts placed to direct him. The judicious use 
of transitional words and phrases such as therefore, consequently, 


hence, thus, accordingly, on the contrary, however, nevertheless, 
furthermore, finally, in the same way, and moreover constitutes one 
way of helping the reader. The writer may also make use of the 
co-ordinate conjunctions for, and, but, or, and nor as explicit signs 
of the connection between paragraph and paragraph. Since, how- 
ever, we ordinarily use these conjunctions to join the parts of a 
sentence, or to join sentence with sentence, we employ them less 
frequently to tie a paragraph to a preceding paragraph. But they 
can be used, though the use is more appropriate to an informal 
than to a formal style. 

If we do provide the reader with transitional words as explicit 
signposts, obviously we must use them accurately. We must not 
begin a paragraph by writing "In the same way . . ." unless what 
follows is "in the same way"; we must not write "Consequently" 
unless what follows is a consequence of the preceding paragraph. 

An obvious device for linking paragraphs is the repetition of a 
key word or phrase. It is a useful device, particularly if we wish 
to avoid the formality of style suggested by the employment of 
transitional words, but wish also to avoid the abruptness occasioned 
by the use of and, but, and or. To illustrate: Christian Gauss, in his 
"The Threat of Science," effects the transition between his third 
and fourth paragraphs in this way. (We have italicized the key 
words here, and in the examples that follow.) 

To the biologist the lion who kills many antelopes has "survival value." 
He is, this scientist will even tell us, a good lion. 

When the scientist uses this word good we must be on our guard. 
He does not mean what the theologian . . . 

The exact word or phrase, of course, need not be repeated. It may 
be varied. Here is Gauss's transition from paragraph six to seven. 

[The] truths [of experimental science] are riot really truths of a higher 
sort; they are not above ordinary truths, as the angels (if there still are 
angels) are over the earth; they are only the truths of science in what 
might be called their state of innocence. 

For this reason experimental science should not be regarded as wicked; 
it is only unmoral No harm will come so long . . . 

Here is a series of three paragraphs from a story in Time maga- 

A buzzard coasting high in the air over Central America last week, 
would have seen nothing unusual. The mountainous, forest-matted 


isthmus lay quietly in the greasy November sun. Among the many 
human realities invisible to the buzzard were the boundary linesthe 
imaginary but very actual barriers that said: "This is Costa Rica; this is 
Guatemala; this is Nicaragua." 

Far below the coasting buzzard, in the grey-green jungles of northern 
Nicaragua, more was stirring than his great bird's-eye view could catch. 
Snaking through the scrub, guerrilla riflemen made short, sharp little 
raids against government outposts. In and out of the piny mountain 
country on Nicaragua's northern flank, armed, machete-toting men 
filtered mysteriously. In Guatemala and Costa Rica dusty little companies, 
in faded denim and khaki, marked time in the tropic heat. 

All this scattered activity added up to one gathering purpose. That 
purpose called itself the Caribbean Legion. 4 

Here is a series of three paragraphs from Dorothy Sayers's The 
Mind of the Maker: 

It is for this reason that I have prefixed to Wiis brief study of the 
creative mind an introductory chapter in which I have tried to make 
clear the difference between fact and opinion, and between the so-called 
"laws" based on fact and opinion respectively. 

In the creeds of Christendom, we are confronted with a set of docu- 
ments which purport to be, not expressions of opinion but statements of 
fact. Some of these statements are historical, and with these the present 
book is not concerned. Others are theological which means that they 
claim to be statements of fact about the nature of God and the universe; 
and with a limited number of these I propose to deal. 

The selected statements are those which aim at defining the nature 
of God, conceived in His capacity as Creator. They were originally . . . 5 

Another obvious device for linking paragraphs is the use of this 
(these) and that (those); but these words must be used with care. 
We are frequently tempted to use them vaguely, hoping that the 
idea or object to which they refer will be clear from the context. 
Frequently it is not clear, and instead of a tight and neat coupling 
of the two paragraphs, we have only the vague and clumsy sug- 
gestion of a tie. For example, a paragraph of "The Colors That Ani- 
mals Can See" 6 ends thus: 

4 Courtesy of TIME, Copyright Time, Inc. 1948. 

5 From The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers, copyright, 1942, by 
Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. 

"The Colors That Animals Can See," from The Personality of Animals by 
H. Munro Fox. 


After we have arranged these new cards, we have not long to wait. 
Very soon bees arrive again, and it can be seen that they fly straight on 
to the blue card; none goes to the red card. 

Now we might be tempted to begin the next paragraph with: 
"This seems to indicate two things. The first is . . ." But what the 
author wrote was: "This behavior of the bees seems to indicate two 
things. ..." A little reflection will indicate that his judgment was 
sound. The author intends to state clearly a process of proof. He has 
been wise therefore to make very precise what "this" refers to. The 
mistake of vague and indefinite reference can be quite serious. It 
is so common an error that the writer had better make sure that 
"this" or "that" standing at the beginning of a paragraph refer 
unmistakably to some specific noun. 


There is one further and special use of the paragraph. This use 
is conventional, though the convention is an important and inflexi- 
ble one. In writing dialogue, we begin a new paragraph with each 
change of speaker. (A long speech by one speaker may, of course, 
need to be divided into two or more paragraphs: that is, the con- 
vention does not require the converse, that each new speaker be 
allowed only one paragraph.) The utility of the convention is obvi- 
ous: by beginning a new paragraph each time the speaker changes, 
we make it much easier for the reader to keep straight who is 
speaking. For an illustration, see page 276. 


A PARAGRAPH is a unit of thought. We mark off these units of 
thought by indenting the first line. No precise rules govern para- 
graph length, but common sense dictates that very short and very 
long paragraphs be used rarely. A succession of very short para- 
graphs (or of very long paragraphs) would be of little use in indi- 
cating to the reader the divisions of the writer's thought. 

Since a paragraph is a unit of thought, it has an ordered structure. 
The three great interrelated principles of order (unity, coherence, 


and emphasis) obviously apply to the paragraph. Now, in this text, 
these principles have received their fullest discussion in connection 
with the whole theme in the chapters treating description, narra- 
tion, exposition, and argument. But paragraphs, as meaningful parts 
of the whole, involve the principle of order. Paragraphs exemplify 
these principles in a double sense. As an individual structure the 
paragraph has its own unity, coherence, and emphasis. As a part 
of the larger structure, the paragraph contributes to the unity, 
coherence, and emphasis of the total composition. 

The interplay between these relationships is intimate. That is 
why we have been able to draw from the earlier chapters, which 
deal with the whole theme, principles that apply to the structure 
of the paragraph as such. That is why these same earlier chapters 
furnish so many illustrations of paragraph construction. In other 
words, the reader should realize that when he comes to this chap- 
ter on the paragraph, he already knows a great deal about the 
paragraph. He has actually been studying the structural principles 
of the paragraph all along. 

As for the part-to-whole relationship (the paragraph as related 
to the whole composition), a further word may be said. As parts 
of a larger structure, paragraphs often have specialized functions. 
The opening paragraph (or paragraphs), for example, must intro- 
duce the whole essay; the final paragraph (or paragraphs) must 
bring it to a suitable conclusion. Within the essay itself, there may 
be many paragraphs of specialized function: one paragraph states 
a particular argument; another provides an illustration; still another 
effects a transition between two sections of the essay. 

These part-to-whole relationships, least of all, however, can be 
studied by considering the paragraph in isolation. Here too the 
reader will learn most by studying the paragraph in relation to the 
whole. (The reader might look, for example, at the opening para- 
graphs of the various essays in the selections printed at the end of 
this text. From such an examination he would probably learn much 
more about how to construct introductory paragraphs than from 
any general discussion.) Study of the paragraph, therefore, leads us 
back to the general problems of composition. The reader will pro- 
vide his own best conclusion to this summary by going back to 
Chapter 1 and rereading pages 13-23. 



The Sentence 

OUR DISCUSSION in earlier chapters has dealt with rhetorical 
problems; that is, we have been concerned with making our expres- 
sion clear and convincing to the reader. Our discussion of the whole 
theme and of its subdivisions, of the process of composition con- 
sidered generally and considered in its various kinds (description, 
exposition, and so on), has been conducted from the point of view 
of rhetoric. We have asked: How can we select, arrange, and dis- 
pose our materials so as to make them register with maximum 
impact on the reader? Thus, we have applied the principles of 
rhetorical organization to the composition as a whole, to its parts 
(the paragraphs), and now are to apply them to its smallest part, 



But with the sentence, this smallest rhetorical unit, we encounter 
another problem. It is the problem of grammar. In earlier chapters 
we could take the problem of grammar for granted, for, since the 
larger units of a composition are made up of sentences, we could 
assume that the demands of GRAMMAR had been met. In this chap- 
ter, although we shall still be primarily concerned with how to 
make our sentences effective (the rhetorical problem), we shall have 
to touch upon specifically grammatical problems. These have to do 
with the rules and conventions that govern English sentence struc- 
ture. We might illustrate the relation between grammar and rhetoric 
in this way: The grammar of a game of chess, say, would be the 


rules of the game what moves are possible if one is to play the 
game fairly and correctly. The rhetoric of chess, on the other hand, 
would be the principles which govern the playing of a winning 
game what moves we ought to make and in what sequence, if we 
hope to play effectively and well. If we are to write English effec- 
tively, we must have a knowledge of rhetoric; but if we are to write 
English at all, we must have a knowledge of English grammar. 

In this book the reader's knowledge of English grammar is 
assumed. The book is specifically a rhetoric, not a grammar. Yet, 
in the sentence, the two problems of grammar and rhetoric inter- 
penetrate so thoroughly that it would be impractical, even if it were 
possible, to leave the grammatical aspect out of account. 

A sentence is usually defined as a complete thought expressed 
through a subject and a predicate. Unfortunately, the definition is 
of little value to anyone who does not already know what "com- 
plete" means in this context, or who does not already know what 
predication is. The reader using this book presumably does know; 
and yet it may be of some value to review the definition, particu- 
larly since we shall attempt to relate the sentence to the basic 
principles of rhetorical structure: unity, coherence, and emphasis. 
A sentence has unity (is a complete thought) and its parts cohere 
(that is, are related to each other in a special way so as to produce 
that unity). But does emphasis also figure importantly in making 
a sentence a sentence? It does, for every complete sentence, as we 
shall see, must have a special focus of interest a specific centering 
of emphasis, which constitutes the nucleus around which the parts 

We shall need some concrete illustrations, however, if we are 
to make this point clear. We have said that a sentence is a complete 
thought; it says something about something. If one simply says, for 
example, "the box/' we have the "something" but we do not have 
the "aboutness." If one should say "the large burning box in the 
back yard," the "aboutness" is still lacking. The box has been named, 
and there is even some fullness of description, but the thought is 
still incomplete: we feel that nothing has been "said about" this 
rather fully described object. If, on the other hand, one should say 
"the large box burns," the "aboutness" is provided. We have a 
sentence. The reader, however, might very well put this objection: 


that there is no real difference between "the large burning box" 
and "the large box burns," for both connect "large box" with the 
idea of "burning." Why does one group of words "say" something 
about the box, whereas the other group does not? How is the formal 
difference between the two groups of words significant? By way 
of an answer we can say that the very form of "The large box burns" 
indicates that the matter of interest is in the fact of burning, whereas 
the form of "the large burning box" reduces the fact of burning to 
the naming of the box, and leaves our expectancy unsatisfied. 

A sentence makes a PREDICATION. Predication means that some- 
thing is said "about" the thing named that the speaker has done 
more than merely point to it or name it, or characterize it. A sen- 
tence requires a SUBJECT (something named) and a predicate (a 
FINITE verb). But predication, as we have just seen, may be de- 
scribed as a way of focusing our interest. The finite verb is required 
in predication, for it is the function of the finite verb to supply that 
focus to define what is of special importance in the speaker's 
statement. 1 Consider, for example, "the burning box is large" and 
"the large box is burning." In both sentences, "largeness" and "burn- 
ing" are associated with the box, and in both there is predication. 
But the first sentence emphasizes the largeness as the important 
thing about the box; the second, the burning. On the other hand, 
"the large burning box," as we have noted, is not a sentence at all. 
"Burning," it is true, is a form of a verb. "Burning" names an action 
or a state of being, and it associates that action or state of being 
with "box." But it makes no predication, for it is not enough that 
we connect the thing named with some word which names an 
action. The verb must be "finite." In English, as well as in most 
other languages, the finite verb is the signal of predication. "The 
large burning box," therefore, remains unfocused. No point of 
emphasis is supplied, no focal point around which the other parts 

1 The reader is to be reminded here that a "finite" verb means literally a 
limited verb limited with reference to person, number, tense, rnood, and 
aspect. Thus goes may be used only with a singular subject in the third person, 
and refers only to present time, whereas the "infinite" forms like the gerund 
going and the infinitive to go, refer to the general idea of going. These infinite 
forms of the verb (gerunds, infinitives, and participles) may, of course, be 
limited as to tense: broken is a past participle; to have gone is a past infinitive; 
even so, the general distinction holds. The finite forms are limited and specific, 
and because specific, can be used to provide a focus for the sentence. 


of the sentence may be made to cohere so as to give us that special 
kind of unity which characterizes the complete thought that is a 
sentence. If we hear the words "the large burning box" read aloud, 
we wait for the sentence to be finished for something to be "said" 
about the box. 

In this brief discussion of predication we have gone over ground 
with which the reader is expected to be familiar. Presumably 
he knows what a sentence is, and can distinguish between the finite 
verb forms and the infinite forms (infinitives, gerunds, and parti- 
ciples). Yet the special sense in which the sentence is related to 
unity, coherence and emphasis, is worth stressing. In this smallest 
rhetorical unit, the sentence, these fundamental principles of rhet- 
oric coalesce with principles of grammatical construction. We or- 
ganize our sentences around finite verbs. They are not only rhetori- 
cally our most vigorous and emphatic words. They constitute the 
core, even grammatically considered, of the sentence. 

It may not be amiss at this point to say a further word about a 
topic mentioned earlier, the way in which we "hear" sentences. A 
complete sentence (i.e., "The box is burning") is always accom- 
panied in speech by one of those changes in the pitch of the voice 
and one of the distinct final pauses that, together, signal to the 
hearer "end of utterance." This pitch-pause combination does not 
accompany "The burning box" or "That the box is burning," and 
so on. The reader might test this for himself by reading these 
sequences aloud. When we hear them read aloud, we wait for 
something else to follow. The way in which we "hear" sentences 
constitutes for most native speakers of English a practical means 
of testing any alleged sentence for completeness. 


The parts of a normal English sentence are arranged in a special 
way. We have first the subject, then the finite verb, then the indirect 
object (if any), and last the direct object or any other complement 
of the verb (if any). 

2 For much of the material in this and the following sections of this chapter, 
the authors are indebted to Professor Harold Whitehall of Indiana Univer- 






was telling \ 





was telling 


That James was ill 







Subject Verb * Indirect object Direct object f 


that he was ill. 
to stop. 

* Finite verb, or finite verb plus verbals. 

f Or other complement of the verb. 

| was ( finite verb ) -f telling ( verbal in this instance, a present participle ) . 

The reader will notice that in these examples we have left out 
all modifiers, either adjectival or adverbial. The position of modi- 
fiers will be discussed later; here we are concerned with the order 
of the basic components of the sentence. What the reader needs 
to see is that the order is a fixed order. We cannot say, for example, 
"John told stories Roger," though of course we can say, "Jrm told 
stories to Roger." 

The reader should also observe that we have talked about the 
word position in the normal English sentence, not the average 
English sentence. For something more important than an average 
is at stake. We are concerned here with a norm, a standard 
pattern which is so deep-rooted in our sense of the language that 
most of us are quite unconscious of the fact that we observe it 
instinctively all the time. It is important, however, that we here 
see it quite consciously and explicitly, for a realization of the fact 
that English has a characteristic pattern of fixed word order can 
illuminate the deviations from this order. To sum up, in calling 
attention to the fixed word order we are not attempting to give 
the reader any new information, but rather to make him notice 
the pattern which he has been unconsciously observing since child- 


Now, deviation from a norm is always a means of emphasis. li 
a man wears a red hat, he emphasizes the hat and himself. The 
wearing of spats on an American street, just because it deviates 
from the norm, calls attention to the wearer's feet, though, con- 
versely, the lack of spats in a large group of people wearing spats 


would likewise call attention to the feet. Deviation from the fixed 
word positions of the sentence are emphatic as all variations from 
a norm tend to be emphatic. For example, compare "I do not believe 
that" and "That, I do not believe." The second sentence, by invert- 
ing the normal order, throws heavy emphasis on "that." 

Constant emphasis, however, defeats its own end, and becomes 
banal and trite. Presumably the first pulp writer who wrote "Came 
the dawn," instead of the normal "The dawn came," was trying to 
secure emphasis, an emphasis which would give a certain rhetorical 
effect. But the writers of Hollywood in the days of silent pictures, 
by using "Came the dawn" over and over again, wore the caption 
to rags. All of which is by way of saying that we have every right 
to change the fixed word positions in order to emphasize some word, 
but that we vary from the normal order at our peril, and that mean- 
ingless departures from the norm make our writing empty and 
pretentious. Assuming, however, that we have good reason to em- 
phasize some part of the sentence, how are the emphases secured? 
We have already illustrated one means, that of inversion: 

That, I do not believe. 
Books, he had read in plenty. 

In interrogative sentences, of course, we want to emphasize the 
interrogative word or the verb. We regularly invert the order in 
English for a question. 

What does he want? 
When did you see him last? 
Didn't you know? 
Knew you not? (archaic) 

What are some of the other means for securing emphasis? 


Our simplest way of emphasizing the subject is to begin the sen- 
tence with "It is," "It was," and so on, or "There is," "There was," 
and so on. For example, compare "James told me stories" with "It 
was James who (that) told me stories." Or compare "A man knew 
seventeen languages" with "There was a man who knew seventeen 
languages." In each of these instances, the effect of the reformula- 
tion is to emphasize "James" and "the man" by throwing everything 


that follows into a subordinate clause. But it ought to be apparent 
that a constant and thoughtless use of "It is" and "There is" not 
only fails to secure emphasis but makes the sentences needlessly 


If we wish to emphasize the indirect object, we put it in the posi- 
tion of the normal subject and make the verb passive. Thus we get, 
not "James told me stories" but "I was told stories by James." By a 
similar process, we can throw emphasis upon the direct object: 
"Stories were told to me by James." 

Now this process of converting the object of the verb (either 
direct or indirect) into the subject, is so familiar that the reader 
may well wonder that it is worth mentioning here at all, particu- 
larly in a text that is concerned with problems of rhetoric and 
touches upon grammatical relationships only incidentally. Yet the 
point involved is a very important one. If we can see that these 
passive constructions violate the normal English sentence pattern, 
it may be easier for us to see that, like all emphatic variations, they 
are to be used sparingly and only when we want a special emphasis 
on what would be, in normal order, the object of the verb. Indeed, 
the warning frequently given in composition books against "weak 
passive" constructions becomes clearer when we see that the weak 
passive becomes weak because it is essentially an overused, and 
therefore misused, device for emphasis. 

Here are some examples of weak passives: 

1. The book was picked up by me. 

2. The problem of maintaining friendly relations and at the same 
time a proper firmness was seen. 

3. The matter has been taken up for consideration, and as soon 
as a solution can be arrived at, settlement will be made. 

Now it is apparent that in the first sentence no emphasis on book 
is intended or required. The writer has thoughtlessly drifted into 
the passive construction. He needs to restore the normal sentence 
order from which there was no good reason to depart. He should 
simply write "I picked up the book." (There are, of course, contexts 
in which book might deserve emphasis. One can easily imagine a 


story in which a character said: "But the book not the paperweight 
was picked up by me!') 

Something more than carelessness probably accounts for the sec- 
ond and third examples. The real subject (what would be the sub- 
ject in normal sentence order) is either vague or unknown. The 
writer has not troubled to define it, or else he timidly refuses tc 
define it. Let us say that in the third sentence the true subject ii 
"the assistant manager in charge of claims/' The assistant manage] 
shrinks from taking responsibility, or his stenographer hesitates tc 
put him down as responsible, or feels, quite foolishly, that "we" ii 
somehow inelegant. Thus we get the sentence as it stands, rathei 
than "Mr. Johnson has taken the matter up and hopes to make 
settlement soon," or "We are considering the matter and hope tc 
make settlement soon." 

Such weak and awkward constructions have come to dominate 
a great deal of modern prose especially "official" writing writing 
that comes from government bureaus, business offices, and com 
mittees. The writer ought to be on his guard against its influence 

We can sum up by saying that the normal word order of the 
English sentence is (1) subject, (2) verb, (3) indirect object (if any) 
and (4) direct object or other verbal complement (if any). There 
is nothing inelegant about this arrangement. It constitutes the basi; 
of a sound English style. The writer should keep to this norma 
pattern unless he has a good reason for departing from it. In check 
ing the first draft of a piece of writing it is good practice to justify 
every deviation from the normal sentence pattern. 


We now need to consider the position in the sentence occupiec 
by the various modifiers by the adjectives and adverbs, and b) 
the phrases and clauses which function either as adjectives O] 
adverbs. The position of some of these modifiers is rather rigidl) 
fixed; that of others is optional, and since there is no prescribec 
position for them, the ordering of these "movable" modifiers is i 
matter of taste, emphasis, and expressiveness. We can say that the 
fixed modifiers are placed largely in accordance with grammatica 
rules; the position of the movable modifiers is assigned largely ir 
terms of rhetorical considerations. 



Let us consider first the fixed modifiers. These include most ad- 
jectives, and phrases and clauses which have the function of adjec- 
tives. Relative clauses, adjectival phrases, and adjectival infinitives 
follow the substantive which they modify. We must write, for ex- 

The man to see is Jim. 

The man 7 knew was Jim. 

The man whom I mentioned was Jim. 

The house in the country was for sale. 

We cannot write: 

The to see man is Jim. 

The I knew man was Jim. 

Single adjectives, on the contrary, just reverse this rule. The 
normal position of a single adjective is before the substantive that 
it modifies. For example, we would normally write: 

A bright day dawned. 

A long black automobile rounded the corner. 

He gave an extended, involved, and tortuous argument. 

Predicate adjectives, of course, do not come under this rule. We 
say that they modify the substantive "through the verb/' and they 
normally come after the verb. Consider these illustrations. 

The rose was red. 

The third night seemed long. 

The house was for sale. 

On occasion, however, we do reverse the normal positions. Exam- 
ples will readily occur to the reader. Here are a few: 

Comrades all! 

Chapter ten. 

John the Baptist. 

A car, long and black, rounded the corner. 

A small face, dirty, appeared at the window. 

Black is my true love's hair. 


As we have seen earlier, variation from the norm is emphatic, and 
in all these illustrations the reversal of normal position has the 
effect of emphasizing the adjectives used. 

One qualification of this principle, however, must be made. Some 
of the examples given seem to represent, not an emphatic variation, 
but the normal pattern: e.g., chapter ten and John the Baptist. But 
in expressions of this sort, as a little reflection will show, the adjec- 
tive is important and normally requires stress. Furthermore, there 
are other expressions in which we normally encounter the adjective 
following the noun: first, certain fossilized expressions derived from 
French law, such as "body politic" and "heir apparent"; and second, 
expressions such as "the day following," "the funds available," which 
actually represent elliptical expressions which we would have to 
fill out as follows: "the day following (this day)," "the funds avail- 
able (to us)." 

These classes of exceptions, however, do not affect the general 
rule, that an adjective normally precedes its substantive, and that 
the reversal of this position throws emphasis upon the adjective. 

We observed earlier that thoughtless use of emphatic position 
or overuse of emphatic position defeats its own ends. The principle 
applies to modifiers. John Bunyan, in his Pilgrims Progress, used 
the phrase "the house beautiful." In the context provided by Bunyan 
the expression is well used. But, with it as model, the advertisers 
nowadays produce such absurdities as "the memorial park beauti- 
ful," "the body beautiful," and "the hair-do glamorous." Variation 
from the normal position of the adjective, like other emphatic de- 
vices, ought to be used sparingly and cautiously. 

To sum up, the position of adjectives and adjectival phrases and 
clauses allows very little variation. The position of most adjectival 
modifiers is definitely fixed. The reader's real problem here is to 
avoid clumsiness and absurdity through a careless placing of such 

In this connection, relative clauses (which we must remember 
are adjectival modifiers) call for a further word. Relative clauses 
may be unlinked as in the sentence "The man I knew was Jim" or 
linked as in "The man whom I knew was Jim." The link words are 
the pronouns who (whom), restricted to human beings; which, re- 
stricted to animals and inanimate objects; and that, unrestricted. 
A relative clause which immediately follows the substantive modi- 


fied requires no link word; otherwise it does, and the choice of the 
proper link word may be necessary for clarity. Compare: 

1. The man in the automobile that I recognized was Jim. 

2. The man in the automobile whom I recognized was Jim. 

Note that sentence 1 is ambiguous as sentence 2 is not. 

Relative clauses occasion difficulty in still other ways. We may 
make a clumsy reduplication of clauses: 

The man who had just come in whom I had never met was a 
Mr. Rogers. 

Better to write: 

The new arrival, whom I had never met, was a Mr. Rogers, 

A Mr. Rogers, whom I had never met, had just come in. 

Sometimes we carelessly make a relative clause modify a general 
idea which is implied but not expressed. Thus: 

She had been hurt and bitterly disappointed, which accounted 
for her strange conduct. 

Better to write: 

Her hurt and bitter disappointment accounted for her strange 


She had been hurt and bitterly disappointed, a fact which ac- 
counted for her strange conduct. 


The attentive reader will have noticed that there is one kind 
of adjectival modifier, the participial phrase, that is not fixed, but 
is rather freely movable. Consider, for example: 

Smoking a cigarette, James sauntered down the street. 
James, smoking a cigarette, sauntered down the street. 
James sauntered down the street, smoking a cigarette. 


All three sentences are perfectly good English. There is no one 
correct position for this participial phrase. In choosing where to 
place it, we are governed by considerations of taste and emphasis. 
Nearly all the adverbs and adverbial modifiers, moreover, are 
movable in this way. Here are sentences which will illustrate some 
of the various positions which adverbial modifiers may occupy. 

1. Because I respect him, I gave him candid advice. 

2. I gave him, because I respect him, candid advice. 

3. I gave him candid advice because 1 respect him. 

4. James, with a low mumble, took the letter. 

5. I was presumably breaking the law. 

6. I made, with all the grace I could summon, my amends. 

7. There, at ten o clock, I arrived as 1 had been told. 

8. At ten o'clock, I arrived there, as I had been told. 

9. There, as I had been told, I arrived at ten o clock. 

In these examples, the various arrangements of the movable modi- 
fiers make little difference to the general sense of the sentence; but 
they may make considerable difference in emphasis. Sentences 7, 8, 
and 9, for example, say much the same thing. But sentence 7 tends 
to stress the place; sentence 8, the time of arrival. Sentence 9 also 
emphasizes the place and suggests that the instructions had been 
primarily concerned with designating the place. Control of emphasis 
and of shadings of meaning is the mark of a skillful writer. He will 
place his movable modifiers carefully, not thoughtlessly. 

The proper arrangement of the movable modifiers is necessary 
for nuance of meaning and exact emphasis, but in some instances 
proper arrangement may be necessary to prevent downright con- 
fusion. For example, consider this sentence: 

The boy who sold the most tickets today will receive the prize. 
Does the sentence mean that the prize will be given today? Or that 
the prize will be given to the boy who sold most tickets today? 
If we mean the former, we should write: 

The boy who sold the most tickets will be given the prize today, 

The prize will be given today to the boy who sold the most tickets. 
If we mean the latter, we should write: 

The prize will be given to the boy who sold the most tickets today. 


Our illustrative sentences suggest that adverbial modifiers may 
occur at almost any position in the sentence: at the beginning of 
the sentence (1, 7, 8, and 9), at the end of the sentence (3, 7, 8, 
and 9), between the subject and the verb (4), between the finite 
verb and verbal (5), between the verb and its object (6), and 
between the indirect object and the direct object (2). But the last 
two positions are somewhat special. One would hardly write: 

He sang pleasantly the song, 
though he might write: 

He sang pleasantly the song that I had taught him. 
One would hardly write: 

I gave him quickly candid advice, 
though, as we have seen, one might write: 

I gave him, because I respect him, candid advice. 

The principle would seem to be this: that if the modifier or the 
direct object is sufficiently weighted with words, the modifier may 
precede the direct object. But the whole problem of placing the 
movable modifier calls for taste and tact. Even an experienced 
writer may need to experiment with possible positions before he 
feels that he has placed his movable modifiers most effectively. 

One further principle emerges from a consideration of our exam- 
ples. Placed before or after a sentence, movable modifiers modify 
the sentence as a whole; placed internally, they modify the relation 
between the words that precede and the words that follow them. 
Consider the different shadings of meaning in the following sen- 

Presumably, the thief had gained entrance through a window. 
The thief, presumably, had gained entrance through a window. 

In the first sentence, it is the total statement that we are to presume. 
In the second, the presumption is limited: what we presume is that 
the entrant was the thief. 

There is one class of adverbial modifiers, however, which is not 
freely movable. These are adverbs which state a direction, adverbs 
like in, back, to, up, and down. These adverbs (which we may call 


directives) cannot precede a verb or verbal. For example, we can 

James gave it back. 
but not: 

James back gave it. 
We can write: 

The water had leaked out. 
but not: 

The water had out leaked, 

The water out had leaked. 

Moreover, these directives, if used in a series of adverbial modi- 
fiers, must precede the other adverbial modifiers. Thus: 

I put the cat out last night, 
I put the cat last night out. 

But these directive adverbs can precede the subject of the sentence 
when the verb expresses explicit motion. Thus: 

Back ran Jim to third base when the outfielder made his throw 
to the catcher. 


Home the little fellow darted as fast as he could run. 

These last instances reveal once more our pattern of emphatic 
variation: back and home which, as we have seen, normally follow 
the verb, are emphasized when they are placed at the beginning of 
the sentence. 

The reader already knows how to use directives, of course. Na- 
tive speakers have unconsciously been using them correctly all 
their lives. The intention here, and elsewhere in this discussion of 
fixed and movable modifiers, is not to cram the reader's head with 
sets of rules and categories of exceptions to the rules. Most native 
speakers observe the rules (and their exceptions) quite automati- 


But having noted the exceptions, we are allowed to sum up the 
general pattern in two simple statements: 

1. Adjectival modifiers are relatively fixed: variation from the 
normal position constitutes a means for emphasizing the modifier. 

2. Adverbial modifiers are rather freely movable: careful placing 
of the modifiers constitutes a means of controlling the finer shadings 
of meaning. 

Moreover, the foregoing discussion sheds real illumination on 
the problem of the "dangling participle." 


Participles are verbal adjectives. Since they are adjectives, they 
must modify some substantive in the sentence. Yet, as we have seen, 
like adverbs, they are movable modifiers. This fact explains why we 
so easily forget that they are adjectives, and treat them as if they 
were truly adverbs. Here is an example: 

Walking along the road, a cloud of dust obscured the neighbor- 
ing fields. 

Such absurdities are, as we have seen, produced by the writer's 
changing the construction in the course of writing the sentence. 
He begins with an adjectival modification and then forgets to pro- 
vide a substantive for the participle to modify. The remedy, of 
course, is to make the construction consistent to write: 

As we walked along the road, a cloud of dust obscured the neigh- 
boring fields. 


Walking along the road, we encountered a cloud of dust which 
obscured the neighboring fields. 



Thus far we have considered the structure of the sentence from 
one point of view: that of the arrangement of the basic constituents 
of the sentence, and the arrangement of the various kinds of modi- 


fiers. But( there are other principles which may determine the struc- 
ture of a sentence. One of these is PARALLELISM: the adjustment of 
grammatical pattern to rhetorical pattern. In its simplest terms, 
parallelism means no more than that like meanings should be put 
in like constructions. 

The very richness of English tempts us to violate parallelism. 
For example, we have two noun forms of the verb. We can use the 
infinitive "to swim" or the gerund "swimming/* Consequently, the 
careless writer may blunder into a sentence like this: 

To swim and hunting are my favorite sports. 

But the distinction between infinitive and gerund awkwardly dis- 
tracts the reader from what is a co-ordinate relation. We ought to 

Swimming and hunting are my favorite sports, 

To swim and to hunt are my favorite sports. 

It is, however, our great variety of movable modifiers that most 
often leads us into this kind of blundering. We write, for example: 

Being lazy by nature and because I am clumsy, I have never 
liked tennis. 

Such violations of parallelism easily creep into first draftseven into 
the first drafts of a good writer. Careful rewriting is the answer. 

We must not forget, however, that the principle of parallelism 
may be used positively. So used, it becomes a powerful rhetorical 
device. By stressing parallel constructions we emphasize the ideas 
expressed, and we can thus play one sort of meaning off against the 
other. Sentences constructed on this principle are sometimes called 
"balanced sentences." Here are some examples: 

1. As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul 
after Thee, O God. 

2. He was sick of life, but he was afraid of death; and he shuddered 
at every sight or sound which reminded him of the inevitable 


3. To examine such compositions singly, cannot be required; they 
have doubtless brighter and darker parts; but when they are 
once found to be generally dull, all further labour may be spared; 
for to what use can the work be criticized that will not be read? 

The parallel elements may be represented in the following scheme: 

1. as so 
hart soul 

panteth panteth (repetition) 

water brooks Thee 

2. sick afraid 
life death 

3. singly generally 
required spared 
once found all further 
be criticized be read / 


I Co-ordination may be regarded as an aspect of parallelism^ We 
have seen that like meanings should be put in like constructions. 
By the same token, only sentence elements of like importance may 
be linked together as equals. Conversely,^ a less important element 
must be made subordinate to the more important.). Consider the 
following sentence: 

I stayed at home; I was ill. 


What is the relation between the two statements? (The writer has 
merely associated them. He has not defined the relation of one 
to the other. He might define the relationship in various ways: 

Because I was ill, I stayed at home. 
While I was staying at home, I was ill. 
Although I stayed at home, I was ill. 
Feeling ill, I stayed at home. 
I stayed at home, quite ill. 

Simple uncritical writing (that of a child, say) tends to present a 
succession of co-ordinate units: "Then the bear got hungry. He 
came out of his den. He remembered the honey tree. And he started 


walking toward the honey tree." The mature and discriminating 
writer indicates the relation of his statements, one to another, 
subordinating the less important to the more important^, thus: 

Having done this, she thought it prudent to drop a few words 
before the bishop, letting him know that she had acquainted 
the Puddingdale family with their good fortune so that he might 
perceive that he stood committed to the appointment. 

f'The writer who points up relationships, instead of leaving them 
to be inferred by the reader, obviously makes the reader's task 
easier. He gives not only facts, but an integration of facts: the 
very pattern of subordination suggests an interpretation. If, how- 
ever, the writer, by using subordination, assumes this burden of 
interpretation, he must not falsify his interpretation by careless 
and thoughtless subordination. He must think through the reJa- 
tion of part to part. Unless he thinks it through, he may write sen- 
tences like this: 

My head was feeling heavy when I took an aspirin. 

In this sentence the motive for the act is treated as if it were the 
matter of importance; the act itself has been relegated to the subor- 
dinate position. Rather than confuse the reader with a subordination 
which inverts the real relationship, the writer would have done 
better simply to have written: 

My head was feeling heavy; I took an aspirin. 
It is easy, of course, to see what the proper subordination would be: 

Because my head was feeling heavy, I took an aspirin, 

When my head began to feel heavy, I took an aspirin. 
Here are two further examples of improper subordination: 
1. The workman snored loudly and he had a red face. 
Alter to: 

The workman, who had a red face, snored loudly, 
or to: 

The red-faced workman snored loudly. 


2. Mr. Jones is our neighbor and he drove by in a large automobile. 
Alter to: 

Mr. Jones, who is our neighbor, drove by in a large automobile, 
or to: 

Mr. Jones, our neighbor, drove by in a large automobile. 

Yet, though subordination is important as a means for tightening 
up a naive and oversimple style, the writer ought not to be brow- 
beaten into constant subordination. In certain contexts a good 
writer might prefer: 

The workman snored loudly. He had a red face. 

This form of the statement does bring into sharp focus the detail 
of the red face. It might even suggest a leisurely observer, looking 
on with some amusement.)For discussion of some other effects se- 
cured by a simple and uncomplicated style, the reader might look 
at page 400. 

We may sum up this topic as follows ^'Grammatical subordination 
must conform to the rhetorical sense; it must not mislead by in- 
verting it. Positively, it is an important means for securing con- 
densation. Careful subordination tends to give the sense of a 
thoughtful observer who has sifted his ideas and arranged them 
with precision. ' 


We can view sentence structure in still another way. We can 
distinguish between those sentences in which the sense of the sen- 
tence is held up until almost the end (PERIODIC SENTENCES), and 
those in which it is not held up (LOOSE SENTENCES). Holding up the 
sense creates suspense: we do not know how the sentence is "com- 
ing out" until we have reached, or nearly reached, the end of it. 
Here are some examples: 

1. "It was partly at such junctures as these and partly at quite 
different ones that, with the turn my matters had now taken, 
my predicament, as I have called it, grew most sensible." HENRY 


If we convert the sentence to loose structure, we get something 
like this: 

With the turn my matters had now taken, my predicament, as I 
have called it, grew most sensible, partly at such junctures as 
these and partly at quite different ones. 

2. "But of all those Highlanders who looked on the recent turn of 
fortune with painful apprehension the fiercest and the most 
powerful were the Macdonalds." LORD MACAULAY 

Converted to loose structure, the sentence reads: 

But the Macdonalds were the fiercest and the most powerful of 
all those Highlanders who looked on the recent turn of fortune 
with painful apprehension. 

The loose sentence is the "normal" sentence in English; the 
structure of the periodic sentence, the "abnormal." As we have seen 
in this chapter, deviation from the norm always tends to be em- 
phatic. The periodic sentence, in skillful hands, is powerfully 
emphatic. By inversion, by use of the "It was" construction, or by 
interposition of movable modifiers between subject and predicate, 
the sentence and its primary statement are made to end together. 
But like all deviations from the norm, the periodic sentence and 
the balanced sentenceare somewhat artificial. Overused, such 
sentences would soon weary. 


How long should a sentence be? It may be as short as one word. 
"Go!" is a perfectly good sentence: it has a predicate with subject 
implied. On the other hand, a sentence may be forty or fifty words 
long; and by tacking on further elements with and's and but's, we 
could construct sentences of indefinite length. These are the pos- 
sible extremes. But with the sentence, as with the paragraph, com- 
mon sense and taste set reasonable limits. A succession of very 
short sentences tends to be monotonous. Extremely long sentences 
tend to bog the reader down in a quagmire of words. 

This is not, of course, to say that the writer should not feel free 
to use a one-word sentence whenever he needs it, or even a long 


succession of short sentences to gain special effects (see p. 399 for 
an example). By the same token, he ought to feel free to use very 
long sentences to gain special effects. The following sentence from 
Lytton Strachey 's Queen Victoria will illustrate. 

Perhaps her fading mind called up once more the shadows of the past 
to float before it, and retraced, for the last time, the vanished visions 
of that long history passing back and back, through the cloud of years, 
to older and ever older memories to the spring woods at Osborne, so 
full of primroses for Lord Beaconsfield to Lord Palmerston's queer 
clothes and high demeanour, and Albert's face under the green lamp, 
and Albert's first stag at Balmoral, and Albert in his blue and silver 
uniform, and the Baron coming in through a doorway, and Lord M. 
dreaming at Windsor with the rooks cawing in the elm-trees, and the 
Archbishop of Canterbury on his knees in the dawn, and the old King's 
turkey-cock ejaculations, and Uncle Leopold's soft voice at Claremont, 
and Lehzen with the globes, and her mother's feathers sweeping down 
towards her, and a great old repeater-watch of her father's in its tortoise- 
shell case, and a yellow rug, and some friendly flounces of sprigged 
muslin, and the trees and the grass at Kensington. LYTTON STRACHEY: 
Queen Victoria, Chap. 10. 8 

Strachey is imagining what may have passed through the old 
Queen's dying mind as she slipped from consciousness. Moreover, 
he imagines the succession of memories as going backward in time, 
through those of adult life, to those of youth, and on back to the 
memories of childhood. The loosely linked series is justified on 
two counts: the memories are presented as those of a dying mind, 
and, as the memories go backward in time, they become those of 
a child. Thus dramatically considered, the jumping from scene to 
scene (as suggested by the dashes) and the loose tacking on of 
additional scenes (by and's) are justified. This sentence, which 
closes Strachey's book with what amounts to a recapitulation of 
Victoria's life, is thus used to gain a special effect. 

Unless, however, the writer is striving for some special effect, he 
ought to look with some suspicion on very short and especially on 
very long sentences. Two considerations demand that he be sus- 
picious of the extremes: the normal requirements and limitations 
of the human mind which dictate (1) how much we can take in 

8 From Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey, copyright, 1921, by Harcourt, 
Brace and Company, Inc. 


satisfactorily, and with satisfaction, "at one bite"; and (2) a need 
for variety. 

Let us consider a particular case. Look back at the paragraph 
from Virginia Woolf quoted on page 235. These thirteen sentences 
range in length from three words to fifty-two. The fourth sentence 
is quite long; the seventh sentence, very long. But three short sen- 
tences lead up to the fourth sentence, and two short sentences sepa- 
rate the fourth and seventh sentences. 

Santayana's essay on Dickens 4 will repay close study for the skill 
in which sentence variety is maintained. Santayana's sentences tend 
to be long. They are carefully constructed and are frequently quite 
complex. But he is careful not to tire the reader. The following 
passage will illustrate. 

Having humility, that most liberating of sentiments, having a true 
vision of human existence and joy in that vision, Dickens had in a super- 
lative degree the gift of humour, of mimicry, of unrestrained farce. 

But after this sentence, we are given the simple statement: 
He was the perfect comedian. 

And having thus had time to catch our breaths, we are ready to go 
on with "When people say Dickens . . ." 

Alternation of long and short sentences is but one means, how- 
ever, by which to secure variety. Another, and a most important 
means, consists in varying the structure of the sentence. The ex- 
amples from Santayana will illustrate: the sentence "He was the 
perfect comedian" is not only shorter than the sentence that pre- 
cedes it; it represents a return to the simplest type of structure 
(subject + predicate + predicate complement) after the quite com- 
plex structure of the preceding sentence. 

Sentences that repeat a pattern become monotonous. Here is an 

I was twenty that April and I made the glen my book. I idled over it. 
I watched the rhododendron snow its petals on the dark pools that spun 
them round in a swirl of brown foam and beached them on a tiny coast 
glittering with mica and fool's gold. I got it by heart, however, the drip- 
ping rocks, the ferny grottos, the eternal freshness, the sense of loam, of 

4 "Dickens," from Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies by George 


deep sweet decay, of a chain of life continuous and rich with the ages. 
I gathered there the walking fern that walks across its little forest world 
by striking root with its long tips, tip to root and root to tip walking away 
from the localities that knew it once. I was aware that the walking fern 
has its oriental counterpart. I knew also that Shortia, the flower that was 
lost for a century after Michaux found it "dans les hautes montagnes de 
Carolinie" has its next of kin upon the mountains of Japan. I sometimes 
met mountain people hunting for ginseng for the Chinese market; long 
ago the Chinese all but exterminated that herbalistic panacea of theirs, 
and now they turn for it to the only other source, the Appalachians. 

The "I wasI idled I gathered" formula is relieved somewhat by 
the long descriptive phrases and relative clauses. Even so, it is 
irritatingly monotonous. Here is the way in which Donald Culross 
Peattie actually wrote the passage: 

The glen was my book, that April I was twenty. I idled over it, watch- 
ing the rhododendron snow its petals on the dark pools that spun them 
round in a swirl of brown foam and beached them on a tiny coast glit- 
tering with mica and fool's gold. But I got it by heart, the dripping rocks, 
the ferny grottos, the eternal freshness, the sense of loam, of deep sweet 
decay, of a chain of life continuous and rich with the ages. The walking 
fern I gathered there, that walks across its little forest world by striking 
root with its long tips, tip to root and root to tip walking away from 
the localities that knew it once, has its oriental counterpart; of that I was 
aware. And I knew that Shortia, the flower that was lost for a century 
after Michaux found it, "dans les hautes montagnes de Carolinie*' has its 
next of kin upon the mountains of Japan. Sometimes I met mountain 
people hunting for ginseng for the Chinese market; long ago the Chinese 
all but exterminated that herbalistic panacea of theirs, and now they 
turn for it to the only other source, the Appalachians. DONALD CULROSS 
PEATTIE: Flowering Earth, Chap. 12. 5 

There are many ways in which to vary sentence structure. Nearly 
everything said earlier in this chapter can be brought to bear on 
this problem. We can invert the normal pattern, or rearrange the 
pattern to throw emphasis on what is normally the subject or com- 
plement; we can subordinate severely or rather lightly. Most of 
all, we can dispose the modifiers, particularly the movable modi- 
fiers, so as to vary the pattern almost infinitely. Variety is, of 

5 From Flowering Earth by Donald Culross Peattie. Copyright, 1939, by 
Donald Culross Peattie. Courtesy of G. P. Putnam's Sons. 


course, never to be the overriding consideration. A sentence ought 
to take its characteristic shape primarily in its own right: the 
structure best adapted to its particular job. The writer will usually 
find that he is thoroughly occupied in discharging this obligation. 
Yet it is well to remind ourselves here again of the claims of the 
whole composition. We never write a "collection of sentences" we 
write an essay, a theme, a total composition. The good sentence 
honors the claims exerted upon it by the total composition. And in 
our writing, and especially in our rewriting, we need to see that 
we have avoided irritating monotony of sentence length or of sen- 
tence structure. 


A SENTENCE is a complete thought expressed through a PREDICATE. 
In this chapter we are primarily concerned with the sentence as a 
rhetorical unit: that is, with the effectiveness of various kinds of 
sentences. Yet the terms UNITY, COHERENCE, and EMPHASIS, though 
primarily rhetorical terms, have their grammatical equivalents. A 
sentence is more than a vague cluster of ideas: its grammatical com- 
pleteness (unity) requires a certain kind of coherence of parts (sub- 
ject, predicate, complements, modifiers) organized around a point of 
emphasis, a focus of interest, which is indicated by the finite verb. 

In the normal sentence the basic constituents of the sentence are 
arranged in a fixed order: 

1. Subject + verb + indirect object (if any) + direct object or 
other verb complements (if any) 

2a. Adjectives precede the substantive they modify. (Predicate 
adjectives are governed by rule 1.) 

2b. Adjectival phrases and clauses follow the substantive they 

3a. Adverbs and adverbial modifiers (plus participial phrases) 
are not fixed as to position, but movable. 

3b. Movable modifiers placed at the beginning or end of a sen- 
tence modify the whole sentence; placed internally, they modify 
the relation between the words preceding and the words following 

Deviations from the normal pattern show EMPHASIS, and like other 
emphatic devices are to be used sparingly and with caution. 


Sentence structure also may be viewed in terms of PARALLELISM 

Parallelism: like ideas demand like grammatical constructions. 

Co-ordination: only elements of like importance are to be linked 
as equals; the less important element is to be subordinated to the 
more important. 

Violation of these principles results in sentences that are not only 
ineffective and awkward but grammatically incorrect. But we can 
stress these principles, if we like, for positive rhetorical effect. The 
consequent variation from the normal sentence is, like all de- 
partures from the norm, emphatic. The PERIODIC SENTENCE (in which 
the sense of the sentence is held up until the end) is emphatic in the 
same way and for the same reason. These more consciously rhetori- 
cal types of sentence structure quickly lose their power when 

The writer will do well to master the normal pattern of sentence 
structure. There is nothing to be ashamed of in its sturdy simplicity. 
It will constitute, as it ought to constitute, the staple of his prose. 
But, just in proportion as the writer grasps the normal pattern 
plainly as a norm, he is enabled to use effectively departures from 
the norm both for the expressiveness of the particular sentence and 
for general sentence variety. He can, first of all, try to place his 
movable modifiers with more care. He can occasionally vary the 
basic pattern itself in order to emphasize a particular sentence 
element the more safely if he knows that his variation is for the 
sake of emphasis. He can occasionally experiment with the more 
elaborate departures from the norm such as the balanced and peri- 
odic sentences. 





WE USE the general term STYLE to indicate the manner in which 
something is said or done. We talk, for instance, of a pole vaulter's 
style; or we speak of an old style of handwriting; we talk about a 
coat or a dress of a certain style; and accordingly we speak of a 
writer's style his manner of saying a thing his special way of 
expressing an idea. But it is plain that we use the term loosely and 
generally. Style evidently can mean a great many different things. 

A discussion of style had better begin, therefore, by making per- 
fectly clear how the term is to be used. We have already suggested 
that style is used to indicate "how" a thing is said as distinguished 
from "what" is said. Suppose we want someone to shut the door. We 
can speak in a courteous or in an abrupt manner; we can make a 
request or a demand: we might say, "I expect you would like to 
close that door," or "Would you mind shutting that door," or "Shut 
that door now!" All three sentences have the same "content"; 
"what" they say is much the same; but the style, the manner, varies 
a great deal. 

The way in which a thing is said evidently qualifies what is said: 
that is, style helps define and determine content. For the practicing 
writer, it is on this level that the problem of style becomes impor- 
tant. He cannot say accurately what he wants to say unless he also 
masters the "how" of saying it. This is the problem that will largely 
concern us in the chapters that follow. Yet we ought to mention 
two other senses in which we use the word style, if only to isolate 
and emphasize the basic sense. 

330 STYLE 


First, style can be used to designate a manner of writing char- 
acteristic of a whole age. A writer of the sixteenth century uses a 
different style from that of a twentieth-century writer, or, for that 
matter, from a writer of the late seventeenth century. The King 
James Version of the Bible (1611) has "the sower went forth to sow." 
A modern writer would normally write "the sower went out to 
sow." Addison, in one of his Spectator papers (1711), writes: 
". . . several of those Gentlemen who value themselves upon their 
Families, and overlook such as are bred to Trade, bear the Tools 
of their Forefathers in their Coats of Arms/' Today we would write: 
". . . gentlemen who are proud of their families and look down 
upon people who are in business" or perhaps "upon businessmen"; 
and we would have to say "on," not "in their coats of arms." Some 
of the writing of the past, therefore, seems as quaint to us as the 
fashion of dress that obtained centuries ago. This aspect of style, 
however, need not concern us very much. We can assume that all 
of us who write in the twentieth century will share certain period 
likenesses which will set off our writing, good and bad, from the 
writing of earlier periods. 

Second, style can be used to designate a personal and individual 
manner. Two tennis players, for example, though trained under the 
same coach, may each have his own individual style. We may 
mean by style, therefore, the special way in which each writer 
expresses himself. We can frequently recognize something written 
by a friend, even though it is merely read aloud to us, because we 
feel that the way in which it is written reflects the friend's per- 
sonality: Bill Jones would put it in just this way, whereas Jim Smith 
would put it in that way. 

Thus far we have mentioned three levels on which one encoun- 
ters the problem of style. A neat summary of the three levels is 
provided if we consider, in each instance, what it is that shapes 
the style. First, and most important, there is style as shaped by the 
writer's specific purposethe choice and arrangement of words as 
determined by the audience addressed and the purpose at hand. 
Second, we have style as shaped by the writer's general environ- 
ment. Third, we have style as shaped by the writer's own person- 


ality. The second of these, we have said, need not concern us very 
much in this book. The third is a highly pervasive thing: we shall 
probably do well to postpone consideration of it to Chapter 13. It 
is with the first the choice and arrangement of words as an adapta- 
tion to the writer's specific purpose that the rest of this chapter 
will be concerned. But at this point we ought to have a concrete 
illustration showing how these three levels of style are related to 
each other. Let us return for a moment to Bill Jones. 

Our friend Bill Jones may have his own personal way of saying 
a thing (style as expression of personality), in spite of the fact that 
his way of saying it will, in some respects, resemble the way in 
which his contemporaries say it (style as expression of a period): 
but Bill Jones, nevertheless, will probably write in several different 
styles, as he takes into account the audience he addresses and the 
particular occasion on which he writes. For example, he will some- 
times use a colloquial style, in conversation with his fellows; at 
other times, when the occasion demands a certain dignity, he may 
prefer to use a much more formal style. We constantly make such 
distinctions: a letter of application for a job demands one style; a 
note to an intimate friend, quite another. 


In an essay entitled "Learned Words and Popular Words," Green- 
ough and Kittredge write: "Every educated person has at least two 
ways of speaking his mother tongue. The first is that which he 
employs in his family, among his familiar friends, and on ordinary 
occasions. The second is that which he uses in discoursing on 
more complicated subjects and in addressing persons with whom 
he is less intimately acquainted. It is, in short, the language which 
he employs when he is 'on his dignity/ as he puts on evening dress 
when he is going to dine. The difference between these two forms 
of language consists, in great measure, in a difference of vocabulary." 

It should be noted that Greenough and Kittredge are careful to 
specify "at least two ways of speaking his mother tongue," for if we 
are to be accurate, there are many more than two ways of speaking 
it, and an even larger number of ways of writing it. Indeed, we can 
say that between the extremes of a highly ceremonious formality, 

332 STYLE 

on the one hand, and utterly intimate informality, on the other, 
there are hundreds of intermediate shadings. In the chapters that 
follow we shall want to talk about some of these shadings, and how 
they are produced. Greenough and Kittredge are also perfectly 
right in saying that it is a "difference of vocabulary" which largely 
determines levels of style. But, important as the choice of vocabu- 
lary is, it is only one of the many elements which go to make up a 

The real difficulty in discussing style comes just here. Style, as 
was pointed out in the Introduction (p. 6), is an over-all effect. 
It is an effect determined by the interplay of sentence structure, 
vocabulary, figures of speech, rhythm, and many other elements. 
It is not always easy for a reader to pick out the element which is 
most important, or even largely important, in giving the style of 
the writer its special quality. It is quite impossible for a writer 
to produce a given quality of style by mechanically measuring out 
so much of this element and so much of that. A modern author 
has put the matter in this way: "Style is not an isolable quality of 
writing; it is writing itself." But if style is simply writing itself, how 
will it be possible to give the writer any practical pointers for 
developing a proper style of his own? The very complexity of the 
interaction of form and content, element and element, may seem 
to render the problem hopeless. 


The problem of style is certainly difficult, but it is not hopeless. 
Granted that the separate devices cannot finally be isolated, still 
nothing forbids our singling out the various elements for purposes 
of study. In the four chapters which follow, we shall discuss some 
of the more important aspects of style: DICTION (the choice of 
words), METAPHOR (the use of comparisons and figures of speech), 
TONE (the manifestation of the writer's attitude toward his material 
and toward his audience), and RHYTHM (the pattern of stresses and 
pauses); we shall also, in passing, touch on various other aspects 
of style. Yet, even though we must, in order to treat the subject 
at all, try to isolate the various means by which the writer secures 
his effect, we must keep reminding ourselves that they are not really 


"isolable." Style is an over-all quality; consequently the discussion 
of one aspect of style necessarily overlaps other aspects. 

A concrete example will serve to illustrate this necessary over- 
lapping. Take the indignant expression "He is a dirty rat." This 
sentence is certainly a humble example of style, but it will serve. 
For it has a certain quality which differs, say, from "The man is 
treacherous/' or "The man has evil intentions/' and that quality is 
the result of a complex of elements. Diction is certainly involved, 
but so is metaphor: the "he" in question is not literally a small, 
gray-furred mammal. Attitude is plainly involved, for the sentence 
is not so much a proposition as an expression of feeling. One could 
argue that even rhythm may be involved. If we compare "He is a 
dirty rat" with "He is a contemptible little verminous animal," we 
sense the difference in effect: the second expression is less violent, 
more considered and calculated, more grandly contemptuous than 
the first. It is just possible that the more elaborate and formal 
rhythm of the second sentence has something to do with this effect. 

To sum up, all four chapters that follow have to do with style. 
They constitute the divisions of a general discussion of this topic; 
but these chapters are not offered as a logical division of the topic. 
They are not that. They do not constitute an exhaustive classifica- 
tion, nor are they mutually exclusive. They overlap at points. Still, 
it can be claimed that they represent a practical classification. 

The obvious point at which to begin any discussion of style is 
with DICTION. The choice of vocabulary is primary. Moreover, the 
chapter on diction necessarily lays the groundwork of the chapters 
that follow. The chapter on METAPHOR grows naturally out of it. 
For metaphor, and figures of speech generally, can be regarded as 
extensions of words a stretching of words beyond their literal 
meanings, in order to gain further expressiveness. Through meta- 
phor the writer transcends "dictionary" meanings, bending and 
shaping language to his particular purpose. 

The chapter of TONE, like that on metaphor, grows out of the 
discussion of diction. For the chapter on tone extends the discus- 
sion of the ways in which a coloring of meaning, a shading of 
emphasis, a hint as to attitude, may be given, not merely by a par- 
ticular word (a matter discussed under diction) but also by a whole 
phrase, or sentence, or the total composition. 

The fourth chapter in this series, "The Final Integration," is, 

334 STYLE 

as its title suggests, something of a summary of the problems of 
style. It deals with general matters of over-all effect such as RHYTHM, 
but more especially with the way in which a successful style is made 
to bear the stamp of the writer's whole personality. 

We have already said that these divisions of the general topic of 
style do not constitute a logical classification of the various aspects 
of style. The reader ought at the very beginning to recognize this 
and to expect some necessary overlapping. But the writer has it 
in his power to make of this necessity a virtue if he will allow the 
overlapping to serve as a constant reminder that "style is not an 
isolable quality of writing; it is writing itself." 




GOOD diction is the choice of the right words. Accurate, effective 
expression obviously requires the right words the words which 
will represent, not nearly, not approximately, but precisely and 
exactly what we want to say. This is a simple rule and it covers the 
whole problem of writing; but in application the rule is far from 
simple. The good writer must choose the right words, yes; but 
which are the right words? The criterion for judging "rightness" 
is not simple but highly complex. 

Now diction would be no problem if there existed for each object 
and each idea just one word which denoted specifically that object 
or idea, one name and only one name for each separate thing. Un- 
fortunately, language is not like that. Words are not strictly denota- 
tive. Some words in English, it is true, do represent the only name 
we have for a particular object or substance. Lemming, for example, 
is the only specific name for a certain small mouse-like rodent; 
purine is the only specific name of a compound whose chemical 
formula is C r) H 4 N4. The ideal scientific language would be a lan- 
guage of pure denotation. But the language of pure science (that 
of mathematics, say) constitutes a very special case. 


.Actually the writer faces quite another kind of situation: in- 
stead of one word and only one word for each thing, he ordinarily 
finds competing for his attention a number of words all of which 
denote exactly or approximately the same thing. Moreover, even 


those words which have exactly the same DENOTATION (that is, those 
which explicitly refer to the same thing) may have different CONNO- 
TATIONS: they may imply different shadings of meaning. (Every 
word has one denotation, but probably more than one connotation.) 
For example, brightness, radiance, effulgence, brilliance may be 
said to have the same denotation, but there is a considerable dif- 
ference among them in what they connote. Radiance, for example, 
implies beams radiating from a source, as the words brilliance or 
brightness do not. Brilliance, on the other hand, suggests an in- 
tensity of light which effulgence and brightness do not. Again, 
brightness is a more homely, everyday word than are radiance, 
brilliance, and effulgence. These are only a few suggested contrasts 
among the connotations of these words, all of which describe a 
quality of light. Varying connotations in words with the same deno- 
tation may also be illustrated from words which refer to concrete 
objects. Compare the simple words bucket and pail. The denota- 
tions are much the same. We might apply either word to name 
one and the same vessel. But in present-day America, at least, 
bucket is more likely to be the ordinary word, with associations of 
everyday activity, whereas pail will seem a little more old-fashioned 
and endowed with more "poetic" suggestions. It will connote for 
some readers a bygone era of pretty milkmaids in an idyllic setting. 
But not necessarily, someone will exclaim, remembering the senti- 
mental song entitled, "The Old Oaken Bucket." For words change 
from period to period and their connotations change, as a rule, much 
more rapidly than do their denotations. 

Words, then, are not static, changeless counters, but are affected 
intimately, especially on the level of connotation, by the changing, 
developing, restless life of the men themselves who use them. Some 
words wear out and lose their force. Some words go downhill and 
lose respectability. Other words rise in the scale, and, like mob, 
which was no better than slang in the eighteenth century, acquire 
respectability. } 

In 1710 Jonathan Swift concocted the following letter to illustrate 
some of the faults in the English of his day: 


I coutJ" 9 * get the things you sent for all about Town. I thot to ha' 
come down nyself, and then I'd ha' lor out 'urn; but I han't don't, and I 


cant doty that's pozz. Tom begins to g'imself airs because he's going 
with the plenipo's. Tis said, the French King will bamboozf us agen, 
which causes many speculations. The Jacks, and others of that kidney, 
are very uppish, and alert upont, as you may see by their phizzs. Will 
Hazzard has got the hipps, having lost to the tune of five hundred pound, 
tho he understands play very well, nobody better. He has promis't me 
upon rep, to leave off play; but you know 'tis a weakness he's too apt to, 
give into, tho he has as much wit as any man, nobody more. He has 
lain incog ever since. The mobb's very quiet with us now. I believe 
you thot I banter d you in my last like a country put. I sha'nt leave 
Town this month, 6-c. 

Swift proceeds to comment on this letter, among other things on 
its diction: 

The third refinement observable in the letter I send you, consists in 
the choice of certain words invented by some pretty fellows; such as 
banter, bamboozle, country put, and kidney, as it is there applied; some 
of which are now struggling for the vogue, and others are in possession, 
of it. I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of 
mobb and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and 
betrayed by those who promised to assist me. 

The process of growth and decay in language is so strong that 
many words in the course of generations have shifted, not only 
their connotations, but their denotations as well; and some have 
even reversed their original meanings.) Later in this chapter we 
shall have occasion to return to the history of words when we dis- 
cuss the use of the dictionary. At this point, suffic^ it to say that the 
writer must take into account the connotations of a word as well as 
its precise denotation. He has the task of controlling words in two 
dimensions. Thus, in a romantic tale one might appropriately use 
the word steed rather than horse. But in ordinary contexts one cer- 
tainly would not say or write, "Saddle my steedsunless he were 
being deliberately playful or ironic. On the other hand there are 
still other contexts in which, instead of the rather neutral word, 
horse, it might be appropriate to use words like plug or nag terms 
which are as derisive or humorous in tone as steed is poe.tic and 



' There are, of course, words whose connotations are not impor- 
tant. Obviously this will be true of the so-called empty words like 
and> if, the, however. But even among the "full" words, some will 
be much richer in connotations than others. As one would expect, 
the richest and most colorful words will tend to be those that are 
CONCRETE and SPECIFIC; the most nearly neutral and colorless, those 
that are ABSTRACT and GENERAL. For example, peach, pear, quince, 
apple, apricot are concrete and specific. Why do we call these 
words both concrete and specific? Let us take the easier distinc- 
tion first. Peach, pear, quince, apple, and apricot name specific 
members of a class of objects, the general name of which is fruit. 
Peach, therefore, is specific; fruit, general?) Again: ship is a general 
word, but brig, schooner, lugger, yawl, and brigantine are specific: 
they are members of a class of which ship is the class name. 

(J3ut why do we call peach, pear . . . apricot concrete? The dis- 
tinction between concrete and abstract has to do with the treat- 
ment of qualities. Concrete- comes from a Latin word that means 
"grown together"; abstract, from another Latin word that means 
"taken away." The word peach certainly implies qualities: a certain 
shape, a certain color, a certain sweetness. But peach implies these 
qualities as "grown together" as we actually find them embodied 
in a peach. We can, however, abstract (take away) these various 
qualities from the actual peach, and refer to them in isolation: 
sweetness, fuzziness, softness. If we do so, we get a set of abstract 
words. Sweetness, for instance, isolates a quality common to peaches 
(and to many other things): the quality is thought of as an idea in 
itself. To give other examples: heat is an abstract word, but furnace 
is concrete; force is abstract, but dynamo is concrete; insanity 
is abstract, but madman is concrete. 

Words that refer to ideas, qualities, and characteristics as such 
are usually abstract. Words that name classes of objects and 
actions are usually general. Words that refer to particular objects 
and actions are usually concrete and specific. (In this connection, 
the writer might reread the discussion of the process of abstrac- 
tion on page 33.) 

It ought to be plain that the two classifications just discussed 


are not mutually exclusive, and that consequently the same word 
may occupy two categories. Peach and pear, as we have seen, are 
concrete and specific.^ Ship, since it signifies an object but also 
names a class of objects, is both concrete and general, fin the same 
way, abstract words may be either general or specific. Courtesy, 
kindness, and bravery are abstract words: they denote qualities 
of conduct. But in relation to gentlemanliness, another abstract 
word, they are specific; for courtesy, kindness, and bravery are spe- 
cific elements of the more general virtue gentlemanliness. Courtesy, 
therefore, is abstract and specific; gentlemanliness, abstract and 

This last example suggests a further point :i general and abstract 
are not to be applied absolutely but in relation to other words. 
Some words are more general, or more abstract, than others. Coat, 
for example, is more specific than garment, for a coat is a kind of 
garment; but coat is, on the other hand, more general than hunting 
jacket, for a hunting jacket is a kind of coat. 


Much writing that is woolly and clouded, difficult to read, clogged 
and ineffective, is writing that is filled with general and abstract 
words. For example: "Quite significantly, the emphasis is being 
placed upon vocational intelligence, which is based upon adequate 
occupational information for all pupils in secondary schools. . . . 
This emphasis upon vocational guidance for the purpose of making 
young people intelligent concerning the world of occupations and 
the requirements for entering occupations need not conflict seri- 
ously with other views of guidance that take into account everything 
pertaining to the education of the pupil/' 

There are a number of things wrong with this flabby statement, 
but, among other things, there is the large number of abstract 
words. The author might have written: "High schools today insist 
that the student learn enough about jobs to choose his own job 
wisely. Tommy and Mary Anne need to learn what various jobs 
pay, what training they require, and what kinds of people find them 
interesting. Tommy and Mary Anne can learn these things while 
they are learning the other things that schools are supposed to 
teach. Both kinds of learning are preparations for life, and one need 
not interfere with the other." The rewritten version still makes use 


of general and abstract words (training, preparation, and so on), 
but some of the cloudiest of the abstractions (vocational intelli- 
gence, occupational information) have been removed, and the re- 
written version is not only simpler, but has more force. 
I We are not to assume, however, that concrete and specific words 
are somehow in themselves "better" than abstract and general 
words. They are better for some purposes; for others, not. Many 
subjects require general and abstract words. 

For example, compare these two ways of saying the same thing. 
(1) "A child needs sympathy." (2) "A child does not like frowns. 
Cold looks cow him. He is fearful when he hears harsh words/' 
The second account is long-winded; even so, the concrete words do 
not manage to give fully the meaning of the one abstract word 

Or, compare (1) "He lived in a house of medium size." (2) "His 
home did not have the suburban air of a bungalow, and it certainly 
had nothing of the rustic style of a lodge. It was much smaller than 
a mansion, but somewhat larger than a cottage." Mansion, cottage, 
bungalow, and lodge (not to mention cabin, hut, villa, and chdteau) 
are overspecific for the writer's purpose here: he needs the simple, 
general term house. Our pronouns provide another illustration. The 
English personal pronouns sometimes prove to be overspecific. In 
some contexts, it would be most convenient if we had a pronoun 
which could mean either "he" or "she" ("his" or "her," "him" or 
"her"), without forcing us either to specify, or to use the masculine 
form with the understanding that it applied to either sex: "Someone 
has left his or her pen" (or "his pen"). 

The writer cannot, and need not try to, avoid abstract and 
general words. But he ought not to fall into the slovenly habit of 
using them without thought. In any case, he should remember that 
a sprinkling of concrete and specific words can be used to lighten 
the numbing weight of cumulative abstractions. To illustrate, com- 
pare (1) "A child needs sympathy. Tolerance of his mistakes and 
the sense of understanding and comradeship provide the proper 
stimulus for his developing personality. Conversely, an environment 
defective in sympathy and understanding can be positively thwart- 
ing; it can lead to repressions and thus lay the foundation for ruin- 
ous personality problems." (2) "A child needs sympathy. He didn't 
intend to smash the vase or to hurt the cat when he pulled its tail. 


Tolerance of mistakes and some sense of understanding is neces- 
sary if he is to feel that he is a comrade. Acceptance as a comrade 
stimulates him to become a better comrade. He grows and develops 
toward responsibility. But he finds it hard to grow normally in a 
cold and repressive atmosphere. The meaningless spanking mean- 
ingless to him, since he had no intention of breaking the vase drives 
him in on himself. He becomes confused and repressed. Some of 
these confusions and repressions may linger into adult life/' 

In choosing our words, the overriding consideration, of course, 
will always be the particular effect which the writer wishes to 
secure. Description and narration, for example, thrive on the con- 
crete and the specific/) Notice the number of concrete and specific 
terms in the following passage: 

He knew the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young 
Spring grass at noon; the smell of cellars, cobwebs, and built-on secret 
earth; in July, of watermelons bedded in sweet hay, inside a farmer's 
covered wagon; of cantaloupe and crated peaches; and the scent of 
orange rind, bitter-sweet, before a fire of coals. THOMAS WOLFE: Look 
Homeward, Angel, Chap. 8. 

( Exposition and argument, on the other hand, by their very nature, 
call for a diction in which general and abstract words are important^ 

Marx's interpretation of the past is explicit and realistic; his forecast of 
the future seems to me vague and idealistic. I have called it utopian v 
but you object to that word. I do not insist on it. I will even surrender 
the word "idealistic." But the point is this. Marx finds that in the past 
the effective force that has determined social change is the economic 
class conflict. He points out that this economic class conflict is working 
to undermine our capitalistic society. Very well. If then I project this 
explanation of social changes into the future, what does it tell me? It 
seems to tell me that there will be in the future what there has been in 
the past an endless economic class conflict, and endless replacement 
of one dominant class by another, an endless transformation of institu- 
tions and ideas in accordance with the changes effected by the class 
conflict. CARL BECKER: "The Marxian View of History." x 

Scientific statements, for the reasons given on pages 33-36, may 
require a diction that is still more abstract and general. To cite 

1 From Every Man His Own Historian: Essays on History and Politics by 
Carl L. Becker. Copyright, 1935, by F. S. Crofts & Company, Inc. Permission 
granted by Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. 


an extreme example, "The square of the hypotenuse of a right 
triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides." 
For its purpose, the diction here is admirable. The statement con- 
cerns itself, not with a triangular field or a triangular box or a tri- 
angular ptece of metal. It deals with triangularity itself. The right 
triangle of this statement is an abstraction: so also are square, 
hypotenuse, and even sides, for the "sides of a right triangle" are 
abstractions too. They are not sides of wood or metal or plastic, 
but pure distances between defined points. We have here a general 
proposition that must hold true for all right triangles. The diction 
used is therefore properly abstract and general. 

With terms of this extreme degree of abstraction, connotations 
disappear altogether/ Exact science needs no colorful words. Scien- 
tific terms aspire to become pure denotations: terms that are in- 
flexibly fixed, terms completely devoid of all blurring overtones. 
Science strictly conceived not only does not need connotative words; 
the connotations would constitute a positive nuisance. . 


We have said that a word not o^y has a specific meaning (deno- 
tation) but also implied meanings (connotations). The connotations 
are obviously less definite than the denotation, and therefore less 
stable and more amenable to change. In scientific language, as we 
have seen, the denotations are rigidly stabilized and the hazy and 
shifting connotations are, in so far as possible, eliminated. In a 
colorful and racy use of language, just the reverse is the case. The 
connotations are rich and important. We are tempted to use a word, 
not LITERALLY (that is, adhering strictly to the denotation), but 
FIGURATIVELY, stressing some connotation of the word. It is through 
such a process that words have shifted their meanings in the past; 
but this process of extension of meaning is constantly at work in 
our own time. Let us consider an illustration of the process. 


The casual and unthinking view of language sees each word as 
fastened neatly and tightly to a certain specific object: "cat" means 
a certain kind of small, furry mammal that purrs, likes cream, and 


is the natural enemy of mice; "ladder" means a contraption con- 
sisting of parallel strips to which are fastened crossbars on which 
we rest our feet as we climb the ladder; "spade" means an instru- 
ment for digging in the earth. But words are not actually so neatly 
fastened to the objects for which they stand. Even when we are 
determined to speak forthrightly, and "call a spade a spade," we 
rarely do so. It is against the nature of language that we should 
be able to do so. 

For example, Anna, who is determined to call a spade a spade, 
says: "111 tell you frankly why I don't like Mary. Yesterday she saw 
a ladder in my stocking and a few minutes later I overheard her 
telling Jane that I was always slovenly. That's typical of Mary. She 
is a perfect cat." But obviously one is not calling a spade a spade 
when one calls a female human being a cat, or a special kind of 
unraveling in a stocking a ladder. 

Cat and ladder are not being used literally here: their meanings 
have been extended on the basis of analogy. In the case of ladder, 
the extension of meaning is very easy to grasp: a "run," with the 
horizontal threads crossing the gap between the sides of the run, 
does resemble a ladder. Cat represents a slightly further extension: 
a cat, furry and soft, yet armed with sharp claws which it conceals 
but can bare in an instant, may be thought to resemble a woman 
who is outwardly friendly but is capable of inflicting wounding 

The situation we have just considered is thoroughly typical. Many 
common words have been extended from their original meanings 
in just this fashion. We speak of the "eye" of a needle, the "mouth" 
of a river, the "legs" of a chair, the "foot" of a bed. The hole in 
the end of a needle might have been given a special name; but 
instead, men called it an "eye" because of its fancied likeness to 
the human eye. So too with examples such as these: a keen mind, 
a bright disposition, a sunny smile, a black look. Someone saw an 
analogy between the way in which a keen blade cut through wood 
and the way in which a good mind penetrated the problem with 
which it was concerned. The smile obviously does not really shed 
sunlight, but it may seem to affect one as sunlight does, and in a 
way quite the opposite of the black look. 

But the point to be made here does not concern the basis for the 
analogy, whether of physical resemblance (the jaws of a vice), simi- 


larity of function (key to a puzzle), similarity of effect (a shining 
example), or what not. The point to be made is rather that people 
normally use words in this way, extending, stretching, twisting their 
meanings so that they apply to other objects or actions or situations 
than those to which they originally applied. This is the METAPHORI- 
CAL process. The essence of metaphor inheres in this transfer of 
meaning in the application of a word that literally means one 
thing to something else. 

Thus far we have taken our illustrations from common words. 
But less common words and learned words will illustrate the same 
process of extension of meaning. Indeed, most of our words that 
express complex ideas and relationships have been built up out of 
simpler words. For example, we say "His generosity caused him 
to overlook my fault." Overlook here means to "disregard or ignore 
indulgently/' But overlook is obviously made up of the simple 
words look and over. To look over an object may imply that one 
does not let his gaze rest upon that object: his eyes pass over it 
without noticing it. Overlook, then, in the senge of "disregard," is 
an extension and specialization of one of the implied meanings of 
look over. We have said "one of the meanings," for look over obvi- 
ously implies other possible meanings. (Compare the archaic sense 
of overlook in the passage quoted from Addison, p. 330. ) Consider 
the nearly parallel expression "to see over." From it we get the word 
oversee. This word normally means today to direct, to supervise- 
something quite different from "overlook." Supervise is built out of 
the same concepts as oversee, for super in Latin means over, and 
-vise comes from the Latin verb videre (past participle visus) which 
means to see. A bishop, by the way, is literally an overseer. For 
bishop comes originally from two Greek words: epi, which means 
over, and skopein which means to look. Thus, such diverse words as 
overlook, oversee, overseer, supervise, and bishop represent particu- 
lar extensions of much the same primitive literal meaning. 


The etymology (that is, the derivation and history) of a word is 
often highly interesting in itself, but knowledge of word origins 
is also of great practical usefulness. The full mastery of a particular 
word frequently entails knowing its root meaning. Possessing that 
meaning, we acquire a firm grasp on its various later meanings, for 


we can see them as extended and specialized meanings that have 
grown out of the original meaning. 

Here, for example, is what The American College Dictionary 
gives for the word litter : 2 

lit'ter (lft/or), n. 1. things scattered about; scattered 
rubbish. 2. a condition of disorder or untidiness. 3. a 
number of young brought forth at one birth. 4. a 
framework of canvas stretched between two parallel 
bars, for the transportation of the sick and the wounded. 
6. a vehicle carried by men or animals, consisting of a 
bed or couch, often covered and curtained, suspended 
between shafts. 6. straw, hay, etc., used as bedding for 
animals, or as a protection for plants. 7. the rubbish of 
dead leaves and twigs scattered upon the floor of the 
forest. - v.t. 8. to strew (a place) with scattered ob- 
jects. 0. to scatter (objects) in disorder. 10. to be 
strewed about (a place) in disorder (fol. by up). 11. to 
give birth to (young)- said chiefly of animals. 12. to 
supply (an animal) with litter for a bed. 13. to use 
(straw, hay, etc.) for litter. 14. to cover (a floor, etc.) 
with litter, or straw, hay, etc. v.i. 15. to give birth to 
a litter. [ME htere, t. AF, der. lit bed, g. L lectus'] Syn. 
3. See brood. 

The word is a noun (n.). Seven meanings for the noun are given. 
But the word is also a transitive verb (v.t.). Seven meanings are 
given for litter as a transitive verb. But litter is also an intransitive 
verb (v.i.), for which one meaning is given. 3 The word occurs in 
Middle English (ME literc), was taken from Anglo-French (t. AF), 
was derived from a word meaning bed (der. lit bed) and goes back 
finally to Latin bed, lectus (g. L lectus). Synonyms (words of nearly 
the same meaning) for the third meaning of litter will be found 
under brood (Syn. 3. See brood). 

Let us consider the various meanings given for Utter. At first 
glance there seems little to connect meaning 2, "a condition of 
disorder or untidiness" with 3, "a number of young brought forth 
at a birth," and even less with meaning 4, "a framework of canvas 

2 From The American College Dictionary, ed. by Clarence L. Barnhart, copy- 
right, 1947, by Random House, Inc. 

3 We have said earlier ( p. 336 ) that every word has one denotation, but 
probably more than one connotation. Are we to regard the fifteen meanings 
given here for Utter as fifteen denotations, with the further consequence that 
we are to think of the dictionary's account as an account of fifteen different 
words? Probably so, particularly in view of the fact that some of the meanings 
are so far apart: i.e., ( 1 ) scattered rubbish and (3) a number of young brought 
forth at a birth. But if we think of the original meaning ( bed) as the denotation 
(p. 342), then we can understand how the fifteen meanings specified are 
related to this root meaning, as implied meanings (connotations) of a word 
are related to its denotation. 


... for the transportation of the sick and the wounded." But once 
we grasp the fact that litter comes originally from a Latin word 
meaning bed, it is fairly easy to see how the various apparently 
unconnected meanings of litter developed. Meanings 4 4 and 5 obvi- 
ously refer to special sorts of portable beds; and the term bedding 
in definition 6 provides a link to meanings 12, 13, and 14. For if 
beds originally consisted of straw or rushes heaped together, it is 
easy to see how any scattering of straw or hay might come to be 
called a litter, and the process of strewing it a process of littering. 
Meanings 1, 2, 8, and 9 are obvious further extensions, for in these 
meanings the emphasis has been shifted from the purpose of mak- 
ing a kind of bed to an aimless and untidy strewing about. 

Meanings 3, 11, and 15 derive from the original meaning, bed, 
by another chain of development. The mother animal frequently 
makes a sort of rude bed in which she lies to give birth, and by 
association the rude bed (litter) comes to be used for what is found 
in the bed, the young animals themselves. 

Let us consider one further example, this time from Webster's 
Collegiate Dictionary. Here is what the dictionary gives for the 
common word sad: 

sad (sSd), adj. ; SAD'DEH (-?r) ; SAD'DEST. CAS. tacd satis- 
fied, sated ] 1. Archaic. Firmly established. 2. Af- 
fected with or expressive of grief; downcast; gloomy. 3. 
Characterized by or associated with sorrow; melancholy; 
as, the sad light of the moon. 4 Afflictive; grievous. 5. 
Dull; somber; of colors. 6. a Shocking; wicked; 
often playfully. D Slang. Inferior. Syn. Solemn, sober; 
sorrowful, dejected, depressed. Ant. Joyous; gay. 

By permission. From Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 

Fifth Edition 
Copyright, 1936, 1941, by G. & C. Merriam Co. 

The word is an adjective (adj.). The forms of the comparative and 
superlative degrees are given; then its derivation (from Anglo-Saxon 
saed). Next, the dictionary lists five meanings, one of which it desig- 
nates as archaic (1) and another as slang (6b). There follows a list 
of synonyms (words of approximately the same meaning) and of 
antonyms (words of opposed meaning). 

Even so brief an account as this suggests a history of shifting 
meanings. Inspection of a larger dictionary such as Webster's New 
International Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary (A New 

4 The meanings are not numbered in the order of probable development. 


English Dictionary), with its fuller information as to the derivation 
of the word and its finer discrimination of meanings (including the 
various earlier meanings), enables us to make out a detailed history 
of the meanings of the word. 

Sad is closely related to the German word satt (full to repletion) 
and to the Latin word satis (enough) from which we get such mod- 
ern English words as satiate and satisfied. But a man who has had 
a big dinner is torpid and heavy, not lively or restless, and so sad 
came to carry the suggestion of calm, stable, earnest. Shakespeare 
frequently uses it to mean the opposite of "trifling" or "frivolous." 
But a person who seems thus sober and serious may be so because 
he is grieved or melancholy, and the word gradually took on its 
modern meaning, "mournful" or "grieved." But we must not end 
this account without mentioning other lines of development. The 
sense of torpid or heavy was extended from animate beings, which 
can eat to repletion, to inanimate things which cannotto bread, 
for example, that fails to rise, or to a heavy laundry iron. (The 
reader should look up, in this connection, the word sadiron. ) 

Meaning 5 (dull; somber; of colors) represents still another such 
extension. It means the kind of color which a sobersides (as opposed 
to a gay and sprightly person) would wear dull, sober colors. 

Has the process of extension now ceased? Hardly, Meaning 6a 
represents a fairly late instance of it. In mock deprecation, a young 
fellow might be called "a sad young dog" as if his conduct caused 
horror and grief. Meaning 6b is a later extension still, one that has 
not yet been approved by the dictionary as "good English." In such 
a phrase as "sad sack" this meaning of sad has temporarily gained 
wide currency (though in America we tend to prefer the word 
sorry: a sorry team, a sorry outfit, a sorry job). If meaning 6b ever 
establishes itself, the dictionary will presumably remove the char- 
acterization "slang." (Some terms which began as slang have found 
their way into the language and into good usage; but a vastly 
greater number have enjoyed a brief popularity, have been dis- 
carded, and are now forgotten.) 

The definition of a word is, then, a somewhat more complex 
business than one might suppose. There is frequently not just "the" 
meaning, but interrelated sets of meanings, some of which are 
current and some of which are not; some of which are established 


and some of which are not; some of which have been accepted into 
good society and some of which are merely clinging to the fringes 
of society. A word which is appropriate in one context obviously 
might be grossly out of place in another. 


Earlier, in discussing the connotations of words, we touched 
briefly upon the way in which connotations may determine the 
appropriateness of a word for a particular context ( p. 337 ) . ^The word 
steed, we saw, would be proper for some contexts, nag for others, 
and horse for still others. But the problem of appropriateness is 
important and deserves fuller treatment.,) 

In the first place, there is what may be called the dignity and 
social standing of the word. (Like human beings, a word tends to 
be known by the company it keepsYWords like caboodle and gump- 
tion are good colloquial words and perfectly appropriate to the 
informal give-and-take of conversatiori^(But they would be out of 
place in a dignified and formal utterance. For example, a speech 
welcoming a great public figure in which he was complimented 
on his "statesman-like gumption" would be absurd. To take another 
example, many of us use the slang term guy, and though, like much 
slang, it has lost what pungency it may once have had, its rather 
flippant breeziness is not inappropriate in some contexts. But it 
would be foolish to welcome our elder statesman by complimenting 
him on being a "wise and venerable guy/' The shoe, it is only 
fair to say, can pinch the other foot. Certain literary and rather 
highfalutin terms, in a colloquial context, sound just as absurd. 
We do not praise a friend for his "dexterity" or for his "erudition" 
not at least when we meet him on the street, or chat with him 
across the table. 

The fact that words are known by the company they keep does 
not, however, justify snobbishness in diction. Pomposity is, in the 
end, probably in even worse taste than the blurting out of a 
slang term on a formal occasion. Tact and common sense have 
to be used) But the comments made above do point to certain levels 
of usage 'of which most of us are already more or less aware. The 


various levels of diction (and their necessary overlappings) are 
conveniently represented in the following diagram: 6 

The three circles X, Y, Z, represent the three sets of 
language habits indicated above. 

X formal literary English, the words, the expressions, 

and the structures one finds in serious books. 
Y colloquial English, the words, expressions, and the 

structures of the informal but polite conversation 

of cultivated people. 
Z illiterate English, the words, the expressions, and 

the structures of the language of the uneducated. 
b, c, and e represent the overlappings of the three types 

of English. 
c that which is common to all three: formal literary 

English, colloquial English, and illiterate English. 
b that which is common to both formal literary 

English and colloquial English, 
e that which is common to both colloquial English 

and illiterate English. 
a, d, and f represent those portions of each type of 

English that are peculiar to that particular set of 

language habits. 

In this matter of levels of diction, the dictionary can be of real 
help. It marks as such, colloquial words, slang, technical words, and 
so on. Yet even recourse to the dictionary is not a substitute for the 
writer's developing a feeling for language. In this matter the dic- 
tionary can help, but wide reading can help even more. 


Thus far we have seen how connotations determine what may 
be called the social tone of a word. But we must go on to consider 
the very important way in which the connotations actually deter- 
mine, though sometimes subtly, the effect of the word that is, the 
way in which the connotations actually determine meaning. In our 

5 From The American College Dictionary, ed. by Clarence L. Barnhart, copy- 
right, 1947, by Random House, Inc. 


time especially, propaganda and advertising have made this whole 
matter very important. 

A group of words having more or less the same denotation may 
range in their connotations from highly favorable to highly unfavor- 
able. For example, we may call an agriculturist a "farmer," a 
"planter," a "tiller of the soil," or, in more exalted fashion, "the 
partner of Mother Nature"; but we can also refer to him as a "rube," 
a "hayseed," or a "hick." Few of our words merely name something. 
They imply a judgment about its value as well. They make a favor- 
able or an unfavorable evaluation. Consider, for example, the fol- 
lowing table of rough synonyms: 

Favorable Neutral Unfavorable 

highest military leader- general staff army brass 

motor sedan, cabriolet, automobile jallopy 


special agent informer stool pigeon 

expert advisers technical advisers brain trust 

cherub child brat 

Democratic (or Repub- party leader political boss 

lican) statesman 
self-control discipline regimentation 

By choosing terms with the right connotations, one can easily 
color his whole account of a man or a happening or an idea. Much 
of the effectiveness of this method depends upon the fact that the 
writer ostensibly is only pointing to certain things, only naming 
them: the damaging (or ennobling) connotations are, as it were, 
smuggled in surreptitiously. This is the method frequently used by 
a writer like Westbrook Pegler or H. L. Mencken. Notice how 
heavily the following passage from one of Mencken's essays leans 
upon this device. (The italics are supplied by the present authors.) 

"The ride of the Valkyrie" has a certain intrinsic value as pure music; 
played by a competent orchestra it may give civilized pleasure. But as 
it is commonly performed in an opera house, with a posse of fat beldames 
throwing themselves about the stage, it can produce the effect of a dose 
of ipecacua. The sort of person who actually delights in such spectacles 
is the sort of person who delights in plush furniture. Such half-wits are 
in a majority in every opera house west of the Rhine. They go to the 
opera, not to hear music, not even to hear bad music, but merely to see 


a more or less obscene circus. H. L. MENCKEN: "Opera," Prejudices: 
Second Series. 6 

The power of connotations is also illustrated by our recourse to 
EUPHEMISMS. Certain words, even necessary words, which refer to 
unpleasant things, are avoided in favor of softening expressions or 
indirect references. "Bastard," in many contexts, is felt to be too 
brutal, and so "illegitimate" is substituted for it. Even a word like 
"died" may be avoided in favor of "deceased," or "passed away," 
or "went to his reward." Undertakers have taken to calling them- 
selves "morticians," and butchers in some parts of the country pre- 
fer to be known as "meat-cutters." Whatever one may think of the 
substitutions, they at least testify to the strength of connotations, 
and the desire of men to avoid words with unpleasant or disparag- 
ing associations. 

Another obvious means of influencing the reader's attitude is the 
use of what I. A. Richards calls "projectile" adjectives: that is, 
adjectives which function, not so much to give an objective descrip- 
tion, as to express the writer's or speaker's feelings. For example, a 
child will say "a mean old teacher," whether the teacher is old or 
young. "Beautiful," "fine," "nice," "miserable," "great," "grand" are 
typical projectile adjectives. The "miserable wretch" may actually 
be smiling happily. The woman who has just been called "a great 
little wife" may be large or small. Great and little here do not meas- 
ure size they are projectile adjectives. 

How some of these adjectives (and the adverbs derived from 
them) came to acquire their expressive force involves a study of 
the history of the word. In nearly every case the process has been 
that of extension. ( See p. 347, above. ) The original meaning of fine 
is "finished," "brought to perfection." But the favorable associations 
with which we regard carefully done workmanship came to be 
extended to things which were not polished or intricately made. 
Conversely, the favorable associations aroused by great as it signi- 
fies the magnitude of certain objects (a great tree, a great pile of 
wheat) came to be extended to objects that lack magnitude. And 
so we can have "a great little wife" or "a fine country of mountains 
and forests." 

6 Reprinted from Prejudices: Second Series by H. L. Mencken, by permis- 
sion of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1920 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copy- 
right 1948 by H. L. Mencken. 


Mention of the origin of projectile adjectives points to a third 
obvious device for influencing attitudes: the association of the thing 
in question with something pleasant or unpleasant, noble or ignoble. 
We express contempt by calling a man a "rat" or a "louse" or a 
"worm"; a certain admiration for his cleverness, by calling him a 
"fox"; hatred (and perhaps fear), by calling him a "snake." In gen- 
eral, the animal creation is a rich source of expressions of attitude 
toward other human beings, particularly of hostile or contemptuous 
attitudes. But we may use associations drawn from all sorts of 
areas: "He is a tower of strength," "He is as hard as flint," She is 
as neat as a pin." 

Here follows the account of an incident as it might be reported 
by a relatively impartial writer: 

Democratic [or Republican] Senator Briggs expressed surprise at being 
met by reporters. He told them that he had no comment to make on 
the "Whitlow deal." He said that he had not known that Whitlow was 
in the employ of General Aircraft, and observed that the suggestion 
that he had received favors from Whitlow was an attempt to discredit 



How might a hostile reporter describe the incident? He would per- 
haps give an account something like this: 

Senator Briggs, Democratic [or Republican] wheel-horse, was ob- 
viously startled to find himself confronted by newspapermen. He stub- 
bornly refused to comment on what he called the "Whitlow deal," and 
professed not to have known that Whitlow was a lobbyist. The Senator 
complained that he was being smeared. 

The second account seems to be substantially the same as the 
first The "facts" are not appreciably altered. But the emotional 
coloring, and with it, the intended effect on the reader, have been 
sharply altered. The senator is now a "wheel-horse," with its sugges- 
tions of a hardened and (probably) calloused political conscience. 
Whitlow is a "lobbyist," and again suggestions of political corrup- 
tion are insinuated. Moreover, the senator's actions and speech 
("obviously startled," "stubbornly refused," "professed not to have 
known/' and "complained") are made to suggest guilt. 

Now the point in this comparison of the two accounts is not to 
indicate that the dryer, more objective account is necessarily 


"truer" and therefore to be preferred. Our estimable fictitious sena- 
tor may in fact be quite guilty, and the writer of the second account 
may have given us the more accurate account of what actually 
happened in the interview. (It is even conceivable that the first 
account was written by a reporter who was pretty certain of the 
senator's guilty conduct but whose editor had ordered him to play 
down any suggestion of guilt. In that event, the first account would 
have to be regarded as the biased account.) The point to be made 
is this: that the coloring of attitudes in a piece of writing is ex- 
tremely important, and is indeed an integral part of its "meaning." 


We began this chapter by saying that the problem of diction is 
that of finding the right words the words which will say exactly 
what the writer wants to say. But we have seen that exactness in 
language cannot be secured simply and mechanically, that the ex- 
actness works on a number of levels. /Words are not static. They 
are not changeless, inflexible counters/They have a history; they 
have biographies; and even, one is tempted to say, personalities. 
Most of all, since they are not changeless and inflexible, but to 
some extent plastic, changing their shape a little under the pressure 
of the context in which they occur, they offer a continual stimulus 
and challenge to the imagination of the writer^ 

The perfectly normal human habit of extending meanings beyond 
the "fixed" meaning has been discussed briefly. But it is an impor- 
tant topic and will be treated much more fully in Chapter 11 
("Metaphor"). In discussing a related topic, the way in which words 
may be used to imply value and to color an argument, we have 
laid the ground work for another important topic which will be 
discussed at large in Chapter 12 ("Situation and Tone"). We ought 
not, however, to conclude this chapter without noticing what we 
may call the degenerative disease that attacks and weakens lan- 

For as we have seen earlier^language changes, develops, grows, 
and by the same token, language wears ou)(We are not thinking, 
however, of the normal sloughing off of words that have died nat- 
ural deaths, and now either do not occur in a modern dictionary 
at all, or if they do occur, are marked obsolete (shoon for shoes) or 


archaic (e'en for even). We are thinking rather of words that have 
been thoughtlessly used in particular contexts so often that they 
have lost nearly all their force. Whether we call these threadbare 
expressions "trite" or "hackneyed," or term them "stereotypes" and 
"cliches," is of little importance. Their common fault is this: they 
pretend to say more than the common expression says, and there- 
fore call attention to their shabbiness. 


, Jargon is produced by writers who do not think out what they 
want to say, but find a worn groove in the language down which 
they let their thoughts slide. (Books on rhetoric sometimes sup- 
ply lists of threadbare expressions against which the reader is 
warned: "the more the merrier," "last but not least," "to trip the 
light fantastic toe." But hackneyed phrases of this sort have prob- 
ably by now become too literary, too old-fashioned, to offer much 
temptation to a modern writer even to a lazy one. But stereotyp- 
ing continues, and much of the writing and conversation to which 
we are constantly exposed is a tissue of trite expressions) The sports 
page, for example, will yield stereotypes in abundance.^ Mr. Frank 
Sullivan amusingly exhibits some of these in the form of question 
and answer. 

Q. If [the teams] don't roll up a score what do they do? 

A. They battle to a scoreless tie. 

Q. What do they hang up? 

A. A victory. Or, they pull down a victory. 

Q. Which means that they do what to the opposing team? 

A. They take the measure of the opposing team, or take it into camp. 

Q. And the opposing team? 

A. Drops a game, or bows in defeat. 

Q. This dropping, or bowing, constitutes what kind of blow for the 
losing team? 

A. It is a crushing blow to its hopes of annexing the Eastern champion- 
ship. Visions of the Rose Bowl fade. 

Q. So what follows as a result of the defeat? 

A. A drastic shakeup follows as a result of the shellacking at the hands 
of Cornell last Saturday. 

Q. And what is developed? 

A. A new line of attack. 


Q. Mr. Smith, how is the first quarter of a football game commonly 

referred to? 
A. As the initial period. 

FRANK SULLIVAN: "Football Is King." 7 


Society page editors have their own brand of stereotypes: "social 
function," "society bud," "gala affair." To come closer home still, 
there is slang. (5Some slang expressions may once have been pungent 
and colorful.jThe sports writer who first described the strike-out 
of a slugging batter by saying "he made three dents in the atmos- 
phere" conveyed the scene sharply and humorously. When slang 
is thus "tailor-made" for the occasion, it may be bright and per- 
ceptive (though, if it is still fresh and vivic}, it is a question whether 
it ought to be viewed as "slang" at all)( But as most of us use it, 
slang is a worn and impoverished language, not sprightly and ir- 
reverently lively, but stale and dead: "the party was a washout"; 
"I am fed up"; "he crabbed a lot"; "he blew his top." The real sin 
committed here is not so much that of bringing slang's flippant asso- 
ciations into a serious context. We do not often commit this fault. 
The real sin in using slang consists in using a thin and impoverished 


We have to step up, however, to a somewhat more exalted plane 
to find the stereotypes which most damage modern prose and which 
are calculated to do the student most harm. (These are such expres- 
sions as "along the lines of," "in the last analysis," "socio-economic 
considerations," "the world of business affairs," "according to a 
usually reliable source." Such locutions puff out many an official 
document, many a political speech, and, it must be admitted, many 
a professor's lecture or article. \ 

This wordy, woolly style is sometimes called "officialese. yFormer 
Congressman Maury Maverick has recently damned it as "gobbledy- 
gook," submitting as a horrible sample the following extract: 

Whereas, national defense requirements have created a shortage of 
corundum (as hereafter defined) for the combined needs of defense and 
private account, and the supply of corundum now is and will be in- 

7 From "Football Is King," by Frank Sullivan, printed in The Atlantic 
Monthly, by permission of the author. 


sufficient for defense and essential civilian requirements, unless the 
supply of corundum is conserved and its use in certain products manu- 
factured for civilian use is curtailed; and it is necessary in the public 
interest and to promote the defense of the United States, to conserve 
the supply and direct the distribution and use thereof. Now, therefore, 
it is hereby ordered that . . . 

But whether we call it officialese when it emanates from some gov- 
ernment bureau, or gobbledygook, or simply jargon, its empty 
wordiness is characteristic. Here are two somewhat more respect- 
able samples culled from College English a. fact which should 
warn us that anyone can fall into jargon, even those who undertake 
to teach others how to write effective English. 

[1] If we start at one of the extremes of the continuum, we shall find a 
grouping around a point of great vitality and wide appeal. Keenly aware 
of the painstaking scholarship and of the high creative effort that over 
the centuries has accumulated the body of subject matter we call "Eng- 
lish," a group of our ablest teachers conceive their role to be to transmit 
this product of human endeavor, this hard-won store of learning and of 
art, this rich portion of man's heritage of culture, to the oncoming 
generations, and to imbue them with some perception of its worth. 

[2] But whether we are trained statisticians or not, we can improve the 
results of our examination speeches and themes. First of all, we can, 
without great difficulty, develop better controlled problems. There are 
various degrees of control possible in examination speeches and themes, 
and, within reasonable limits, it would seem as though the greater the 
control the more meaningful the test results. Complete freedom of choice 
of topic and material puts a premium upon accidental inspiration and 
upon glibness rather than thoughtfulness. A single assigned topic is 
palpably unfair since it may strike the interest and experience of some 
and yet leave others untouched. 

These two passages have been somewhat unfairly taken out of 
context. Moreover, the topics discussed are not precisely colorful 
and exciting. Is it fair, then, to condemn their authors for having 
written jargon? How else could either writer have said what he had 
to say? 

It is true that we have torn the passages out of context, and it 
is true that the subject matter is difficult. Yet even so, the symptoms 
of jargon are present. Consider the second excerpt: "puts a premium 
upon," "palpably unfair," are clearly stereotypes. Moreover, what 


does the author gain by specifying "without great difficulty," and 
"'within reasonable limits'? Are these specifications necessary? Could 
they not be assumed? Has not the writer put them in fot rhetorical 
purposes, that is, to "dress up" his statement, rather than to make 
necessary qualifications? 


(But jargon, of course, involves more than stereotypes, Jargon 
is nearly always compounded of clusters of general and abstract 
words, and though there is no certain prescription against jargon, 
it is easy to state one or two practical antidotes. 

1. The writer should try to use words that are as specific and 
concrete as possible; that is, he should never use a word more gen- 
eral and indefinite than he has to. Hazy and indefinite expressions 
represent the easy way out for a writer who is too timid to commit 
himself, or too lazy to think through what he wants to say. 

2. The writer should avoid stereotypes of all kinds prefabri- 
cated phrasings which come easily to mind but which may not 
represent precisely his own ideas and emotions. But note this care- 
fully: he should never avoid an individual word because it seems 
simple and common. If the sense calls for a simple, common word, 
it is generally best to repeat the word, if necessary, again and again. 
There is little to be said in favor of what is sometimes called ELE- 
GANT VARIATION, that is, the substitution of some synonym in order 
to avoid repetition. Here is an example: "Mr. Jones was a powerful 
financier. As a tycoon he had a deep suspicion of socialism. He 
shared the feelings of his associates who were also bankers!' The 
variations are irritating and can be confusing. Either recast the 
sentence or repeat financier. 

On the other hand, the writer should try to avoid words strung 
together phrasings which are common, and for that very reason, 
probably stereotyped. He cannot avoid all common expressions, nor 
should he try to avoid them, but he ought to learn to inspect them 
carefully before he decides to use them. If he really needs to say 
"along the lines of if something is really "in consideration of 
something else and an emphasis on consideration is relevant then 
let him use the expression by all means. But it is a good rule to 
remember that though he need never shy away from an individual 


word because it is common, he ought to be very shy of phrases 
that are common. 

3. The writer should try to use live words, remembering that 
finite verbs are the most powerful words that we have. We can find 
an instance of the failure to do so in the second sentence of the first 
excerpt quoted on page 356: "Keenly aware of the painstaking 
scholarship and of the high creative effort that over the centuries 
has accumulated the body of subject matter we call 'English/ a 
group of our ablest teachers conceive their role to be to transmit this 
product of human endeavor, this hard-won store of learning and 
of art, this rich portion of man's heritage of culture, to the oncom- 
ing generations. . . ." This sentence is packed with ideas, but the 
only finite verb in it (aside from has accumulated and call, in the 
two relative clauses) is the verb conceive. Aware, a participle, is 
made to carry the weight of the first twenty-six words; and the 
whole latter part of the sentence hangs from two successive infini- 
tives, "to be to transmit." The sentence has so little stamina that 
it sprawls. It sprawls because the writer has starved it of finite 
verbs. The author might better have written: "Our ablest teachers 
realize what effort has gone into the making of that body of subject 
matter we call 'English/ They know it is a precious thing, for it 
embodies the effort of painstaking scholars and of great poets and 
novelists. They want to transmit this heritage of culture to the 
oncoming generations." 

Finite verbs are more powerful than strings of participles, ger- 
unds, or infinitives. Moreover, a specific verb is usually stronger 
than a more general verb qualified by modifiers. Compare "He 
walked along slowly" with "He strolled/' "He sauntered/' "He 
dawdled/' "He lagged." Frequently, it is true, we need the qualifiers. 
But we ought not to forget the wealth of concreteness which the 
English language possesses in its great number of verbs which 
name specifically, and therefore powerfully, specific modes of action. 

4. Finally, the writer ought to remember that simple sentences 
in normal sentence order ( see p. 307 ) rarely degenerate into jargon. 
An essay so written may be childishly simple, and it can become 
monotonous; but it will seldom collapse into the spineless flabbiness 
of jargon. 

Jargon, however, is not to be dealt with summarily. It is our most 


pervasive kind of "bad" style, and, like style in general, it is the 
product of the interplay of many elements. We shall have to recur 
to this topic in some of the chapters that follow, particularly in the 
discussion of metaphor. 


The discussion of DICTION carried on in this chapter may be sum- 
marized rather concisely since the various aspects of diction are so 
closely interrelated, y^ords, as we have seen, are not pure DENOTA- 
TIONS, that is, words ^are not tied to one specific meaning and only 
one specific meaning. They have CONNOTATIONS as well implied 
meanings, shadings of meanings, qualities of feeling which are 
associated with them. These implied meanings are naturally more 
powerful in words that refer to some specific thing or action. Conno- 
tations are generally less vivid and less important in words which 
are more general in their reference or which refer to some general- 
ized quality or characteristic (abstract words). 

The good writer must choose his words not only for appropriate 
denotations but also for appropriate connotations. His problem, of 
course, will vary with his purpose and with the occasion on which 
he writes. At one extreme is technical and scientific writing in which 
exact denotations are all-important and in which the writer's prob- 
lem is to keep disturbing connotations out of his work. At the other 
extreme is that kind of writing which attempts to give the impact 
and quality of life itself. In such writing the connotations are of 
immense importance.) 

The dictionary is not merely a kind of logbook of precise mean- 
ings. As we have seen, words are really clusters of interrelated 
meanings. Some knowledge of how words grow, how meanings are 
extended, how language is constantly shifting and changing, will 
allow the writer to make a wiser use of the dictionary and of his 
own personal experience of language. 

From the general account of language just given, several impor- 
tant propositions follow. 

1. The writer must be careful to choose his words in terms of 
their appropriateness within a particular context: some words are 
dignified, some "literary/* some pleasantly informal, and so on. 


2. Few words are simple namings. They also interpret the thing 
in question. They may be used to beg the question or to color an 
argument, as the advertiser or the propagandist has learned. 

3. Everything else being equal, the writer will prefer live words 
to dead words or drugged words. He will avoid stereotyped phras- 
ings of all sorts. He will avoid words which have been worn 
smooth by overuse in certain contexts, but he may discover that 
even words which seem to have lost all their vigor, if put in fresh 
patternings, tailor-made to his specific purpose, come alive again. 

4. In general, the writer will avoid wordiness, carefully choos- 
ing the right words for his purpose, and then giving these words 
elbow room in which to do their work. 




IN METAPHOR there is a transfer of meaning. We apply an old 
word to a new situation) Thus, as we saw in Chapter 10, we speak 
of the "eye" of a needle, the "legs" of a chair, the "bed" of a river. 
As we saw also in that chapter, language normally grows by'lT 
process of metaphorical extension. We proceed from the known to 
the unknown. We extend old names to new objects. But most of 
the illustrations of this process considered in Chapter 10 are in- 
stances of "dead" metaphor. Compare, for example, "the bed of a 
river" with "the dance of life." The first phrase carries no suggestion 
that the bed is a place of repose or that the river is sleepy! We use 
"bed of the river" technically, as a pure denotation from which the 
connotations that apply to bed in its usual senses are quite absent. 
But it is very different with the phrase "the dance of life." This 
metaphor is still alive. (At least Havelock Ellis, who used it as the 
title of one of his books, hoped that it would seem alive.) Here the 
connotations the suggestions, the associations are thoroughly rele- 
vant to Ellis's purpose. The connotations (of something rhythmic, 
of patterned movement, even, perhaps, of gaiety and happiness) 
are meant to be associated with life. We have characterized "bed of 
a river" as a dead metaphor, but to say "dead metaphor" is, of 
course, to make use of a metaphor, one based on an analogy with 
the animal kingdom. Animals (and vegetation, for that matter) 
can literally die: a metaphor cannot. 

Our last metaphor, however, can illuminate the problem now be- 


ing considered and may be worth a little further extension. With 
"dead" metaphors, we can say, rigor mortis has set in: they have no 
flexibility, no force; they have stiffened into one meaning, connota- 
tion has yielded to denotation. Metaphors that are still very much 
alive prove that they are alive by possessing a certain flexibility; and 
because they are still alive, they can be used to give color and 
life to a piece of writing. They can still excite the imagination. 

In metaphors that are recognizably metaphors, there are, of 
course, varying degrees of life. The following are not very lively, 
but they do show that metaphor is a perfectly normal and important 
part of our normal speech: we say, for example, "John is a good 
egg," "J ane is a peach," "He ran out on the deal," "That remark 
threw him for a loss." Such expressions as these are rather worn and 
faded. But their original metaphorical character is plain enough, 
and we still think of them, and use them, as metaphors. The list of 
expressions that are badly shopworn but are still recognizably 
metaphors could be extended almost indefinitely: "hot as the devil," 
"cool as a cucumber," "independent as a hog on ice," "lazy as a 
dog," "crazy as a bat," and so on. 


Our preference for the concrete and the particular, as these ex- 
amples show, is not only normal; it is deeply and stubbornly rooted 
in the human mind. Consider the following situation: it is a hot 
day. We can say "It is hot" or "It is very hot" or, piling on the 
intensives, we can say "It is abominably and excruciatingly hot." 
But most of us, afflicted with the heat, will resort to metaphor of 
some kind: "It is hot as hell," or more elaborately, "It's hot as the 
hinges of hell." Evidently metaphor is felt to add forcefulness, and 
evidently the forcefulness has some relation to freshness of expres- 
sion. The "hinges of hell" are not necessarily any hotter than other 
parts of hell; the precise specification and additional concreteness 
is an attempt to freshen the worn and dulled comparison, "as hot 
as hell." 

That is one point, then:( in metaphor, force and freshness tend 
to go together/ Indeed, we are usually attracted to metaphor in the 
first place because ordinary language seems trite. A second point 


to be made is this: metaphor tends to accompany the expression of 
emotions and attitudes. A strictly scientific purpose would find 
entirely adequate expression in the statement that it is now 97.6 
degrees Fahrenheit and that the humidity is 88. 

Let us consider another simple case. Suppose one feels an espe- 
cial kind of happiness and tries to express his feelings. He can say, 
"I feel happy." Or he can try to find a word which more accurately 
hits off this special feeling: merry, gay, ecstatic, cheerful, glad, jolly, 
or joyous. There are many synonyms for happy, as the dictionary 
will quickly reveal, and they differ in their shades of meaning. 
For example, jolly suggests a kind of heartiness and good humor 
that goes with comfortable living; ecstatic suggests some kind of 
transcendent experience of rapture; gay suggests a kind of spright- 
liness, a nimble lightheartedness. We shall do well to consult the 
dictionary to learn (or remind ourselves of) the wealth of resources 
at our disposal. Even so, we rarely find an adjective which exactly 
expresses our feelings. We tend to resort to metaphor. We say "I'm 
happy as a June-bug" or "I feel like a million dollars" or "I'm 
walking on air this morning" or "I feel like a colt in springtime," 
or, as a poet put it once: 

My heart is like a singing bird 

Whose nest is in a water 'd shoot; 
My heart is like an apple-tree 

Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit. 

If the feeling is very special or complex, we are usually forced 
to resort to metaphor. Here are the ways in which three writers 
of fiction express the special kind of happiness which each of their 
characters experiences. 

The first is the happiness of a boy at the race track as he watches 
the horses work out. 

Well, out of the stables they come and the boys are on their backs 
and it's lovely to be there. You hunch down on top of the fence and itch 
inside you. Over in the sheds the niggers giggle and sing. Bacon is being 
fried and coffee made. Everything smells lovely. Nothing smells better 
than coffee and manure and horses and niggers and bacon frying and 
pipes being smoked out of doors on a morning like that. It just gets 
you, that's what it does. SHERWOOD ANDERSON: "I Want to Know Why/' 1 

1 From The Triumph of the Egg by Sherwood Anderson. Copyright 1921 
by Eleanor Anderson. 


What makes this passage effective is the re-creation of the scene in 
our imagination. This is done through the skillful use of descriptive 
detail: the author summons up for us the atmosphere of the race 
track. But he uses metaphor toometaphor which is charged by 
the atmosphere. The metaphor, it is true, is scarcely declared; but it 
is there under the surface. The itch "inside you" is not a real itch; 
and "It just gets you" is a metaphor, for all the fact that it is slang. 
A more explicit (and highfalutin) way of saying it the experience 
seizes you, or takes hold of you powerfully reveals the metaphor 

In the next example, the principal metaphor is perfectly explicit. 
The experience described is that of a boy in love for the first time. 

Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises 
which 1 myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears 
(I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to 
pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not 
know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, 
how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like 
a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the 
wires. JAMES JOYCE: "Araby." 2 

The author uses three comparisons here: that of worship, that 
of a flood, and that of a harp. The second is the easiest and most 
obvious: the tears that well up in the boy's eyes suggest the flood 
metaphor. The first is the least explicit but the most pervasive: the 
metaphor may seem only hinted at in the phrase "strange prayers 
and praises"; but it is picked up once more in the phrase "confused 
adoration," for adore means literally "to pray to." This metaphor 
prepares for the third, the summarizing comparison: "my body was 
like a harp . . ." The boy responds to the loved one as a harp 
responds to the harpist's touch. Note that the harp comparison 
illuminates even "praises which I myself did not understand," for 
the harp as instrument cannot understand the "praise," the "adora- 
tion" which is elicited from it. 

The third example describes the feelings of a shy man who has 
blundered into a darkened room and unexpectedly been kissed 

2 From Dubliners by James Joyce, copyright, 1925, by The Viking Press, 
Inc., and now included in The Portable James Joyce, published by The Viking 
Press, Inc., New York. 


before the young woman, keeping her tryst there, has realized that 
he is not her lover. 

At first he was tormented by shame and dread that the whole drawing- 
room knew that he had just been kissed and embraced by a woman. 
He shrank into himself and looked uneasily about him, but as he be- 
came convinced that people were dancing and talking as calmly as ever, 
he gave himself up entirely to the new sensation which he had never 
experienced before in his life. Something strange was happening to him. 
. . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been 
clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near 
his moustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint 
chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he 
rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over, 
from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew 
stronger and stronger. ANTON CHEKHOV: "The Kiss." 3 

The man's intense emotions are treated in their vividness almost 
as if they were physical sensations. Notice, for example, "faint chilly 
tingling sensation as from peppermint drops." The comparison com- 
bines the sense of touch (chill) and taste. The sensation is slightly 
queer, and, to the man, troubling, and quite delightful. 


In connection with metaphor it may be profitable to consider 
again two abuses of language, slang and jargon, which have already 
been touched upon in the preceding chapter (pp. 353-56 ).yThe im- 
pulse to use slang springs from our sound general preference for the 
concrete and the particular. Slang expressions are originally meta- 
phors, and the problem of the misuse of slang cannot properly be 
solved apart from the more general problem of the use and abuse 
of figurative language. That is why it does very little good to tell 
a writer or for the writer to tell himself not to use slang, for this 
advice is essentially negative. The writer is right in wanting to 
make his writing warm, colorful, and lively. What he needs to do, 
therefore, is not to discard figurative language in favor of abstract 
expressions; but rather to inspect all his figurative language, includ- 
ing slang, in order to improve it as metaphor. He will try to elimi- 
nate all metaphors which are worn and trite, or which seem preten- 

3 From Anton Chekhov: The Party and Other Stories. Tr. Constance Garnett. 
Copyright, 1917 by The Macmillan Company and used with their permission. 


tious, or which are discordant with the rest of the composition. The 
practical result, of course, will be that in this process most of the 
slang will be sloughed off, but sloughed off because it proves to be 
poor and ineffective metaphor, not because it is figurative. For the 
good writer tries to bring his metaphors to life, and to direct and 
control them in that life. How to do this, of course, is a matter of 
craftsmanship and experience.jBut it is an important thing to learn, 
and it is our justification for devoting so much space in this text 
to the subject of metaphor, (the writer Inust get firmly in mind that 
this discussion of figurative language has not been inserted on the 
supposition that the writer must learn to write a highfalutin and 
pretentious "literary" style. He jieeds, on the contrary) to master 
figurative language for the most practical of reasons. \ 


But why recur to the second general abuse of language, jargon, 
in this chapter on metaphor? What possible connection canf jargon 
have with(metaphor?"The first answer to this question can fee put 
simply: (there is an important negative relational t is the very lack 
of concrete words and of metaphorical vividness^ and particularity 
that makes jargon cloudy and ineffective. A primary way to avoid 
jargon, then, is to use concrete language including its extension 
into metaphor. The spinelessness of jargon is in part the result of 
the writer's timid avoidance of vigorous metaphor. Even the most 
timid writer, however, is not actually able to avoid all metaphor; 
and with this observation we can give a second answer to the 
question^ Jargon characteristically involves stereotypes of all kinds, 
including stereotyped and therefore lifeless metaphor/) This con- 
nection of jargon with secondhand metaphor is forcefully put by 
the British critic, George Orwell. 

Prose [nowadays] consists less and less of words chosen for the sake 
of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like 
the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. . . . There is a huge dump 
of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are 
merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases 
for themselves. . . . Modern writing at its worst . . . consists in gum- 
ming together long strips of words which have already been set in order 
by someone else. 


(The reader will notice that Orwell himself uses metaphor very 
effectively "sections of a prefabricated henhouse," "dump of worn- 
out metaphors," "gumming together long strips of words/' Orwell 
thus vividly suggests his two points of indictment: the lazy and 
careless craftsmanship of the writer of jargon, and the second- 
hand quality of the materials he uses.) 

Orwell goes on to illustrate his point by suggesting how a modern 
writer of hand-me-down phrases would express the following pas- 
sage from Ecclesiastes: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that 
the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet 
bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet 
favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." 

Such a writer, says Orwell, would probably turn it out like this: 
"Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the 
conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits 
no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a 
considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken 
into account." 


Orwell has hardly exaggerated, and the faults which he points 
out are found just as frequently in America as in Great Britain. 
Consider the following passages taken from recent magazines. 

In the sense that we have known it in the past, American agriculture is 
a dying industry. The nation's largest single business still remaining in 
the hands of private citizens is in the midst of a scientific revolution, and 
the farm as an individual production unit the final refuge from a 
mechanical and goose-stepped civilization is seeing its last days. For 
chemistry and technology are bringing agriculture under control. 

In broad terms, one may say that the farm is being wrecked by a 
series of three major frontal attacks, any one of which is deadly enough 
to have caused a serious crisis. . . . 

The authors call American agriculture a "dying industry" but in 
the next sentence they say that it is "in the midst of a scientific 
revolution" and finally, that it "is seeing its last days." They attempt 
to give liveliness to these statements by comparing American agri- 
culture to a dying animal; but any sense of vigor in the metaphor 
is pretty well lost when we have to consider agriculture first as an 


animal, next as a citizen living through a revolution, and finally 
as a "refuge from a mechanized and goose-stepped civilization." 
And if the reader is able to keep the metaphorical sense at all 
through these confusions, that sense is completely canceled out by 
the short statement that follows: ". . . chemistry and technology 
are bringing agriculture under control/' An animal or a man who is 
dying and has seen his last days is certainly under control, and the 
pyramid of metaphors thus topples to a rather absurd anticlimax. 

We can reconstruct the process of composition as follows: the 
authors were actually not sure whether they wanted the metaphors 
to come alive or remain decently dead. "Dying industry" they prob- 
ably used as a dying metaphorthat is, they hoped that the meta- 
phor would be lively in the first sentence, but decently dead and 
forgotten by the time that the reader got to the next sentence. But, 
in the floridly metaphorical atmosphere of the second sentence, 
the metaphor implicit in "dying" comes to life too to embarrass and 
distract the new metaphor. 

This confusion and irresponsibility in the use of metaphor is 
revealed in the last sentence where the authors, still anxious to 
maintain a kind of rhetorical liveliness, treat the farm under the 
figure of a war. "The farm," they say, "is being wrecked by a series 
of three major frontal attacks. . . ." But let us examine the figure 
for only a moment. There can be only one frontal attack on any one 
position. Frontal attacks must come, as the authors have themselves 
indicated, in "series," one after the other. It might make sense to 
say that the farm is being wrecked by a frontal attack which is 
being carried on simultaneously with attacks on either flank. Or 
it might make metaphorical sense to say that the farm has already 
sustained two damaging frontal attacks and that the third such 
attack is now in progress. This last statement is perhaps what the 
authors intended (though actually, it is very difficult to be certain 
as to what they did intend); but if they did intend the latter, they 
have been betrayed into confusion by their desire to use the 
"strong" word "frontal" when actually they had in mind no concep- 
tion of a frontal attack as opposed to an attack from the side or 
from the rear. 

The first essential in providing background information would be to 
present a comparative view of the societies of the world, from the 


simple primitive tribes to the complex civilized communities. Until the 
student is able to place data upon his own society in a comparative 
framework, he cannot be said to have gained any perspective or ob- 
jectivity in that field. Such a cultivated emotional detachment is the 
first step toward understanding. 

The danger of having dead and inert metaphors come to life is 
well illustrated by the statement "to place data upon his own society 
in a comparative framework/' Obviously the author does not mean 
"to place data upon" though the temptation to take "place upon" 
as a unit is almost irresistible. He meant to say that the student 
must place, in a comparative framework, the data that concerns 
his own society. But after we have made the correction, it becomes 
apparent that "place" is still not the word the author wanted. He 
would better have said that the student must relate data to a com- 
parative scheme, or that the student must be able to order it in a 
comparative framework. Further confusion is promoted by the main 
clause of the sentence. How can placing data, or relating it, or 
ordering it "in a comparative framework" be said to give perspec- 
tive? One may place himself at a vantage point from which he can 
see objects in perspective that is, see them at a distance, from a 
point of view. But the metaphor of a framework, followed closely 
by a metaphor of getting perspective, results in a blurring and con- 
fusion of both metaphors. The "framework" has to be taken, not as 
a framework at all, but as an abstraction, for it behaves with em- 
barrassment when forced into the dance of metaphors. The last 
sentence of the paragraph indicates what the author meant to say; 
that the student must stand back from that is, detach himself from 
his material so that he can see it in perspective. 

Students and professors are sometimes accused of leading a cloistered 
existence comfortably removed from the dust and heat of everyday life. 
There may be some truth in that accusation, but let us remember that 
in the Dark Ages it was in the cloisters rather than in the market places 
that the flame of the spirit was kept alive. How is it faring today at 
Harvard and Yale, at Dartmouth and at Cornell? Are you determined to 
use your education merely to get a good job, marry and settle down, 
in ordinary times that would be the natural aspiration,--or are some of 
you chafing to defend the rights of the spirit in a rapidly materializing 
world? Unless you are, the shadow of Hitlerism is likely to darken the 
world for a long time to come. 


The first part of this passage echoes and quite properly Milton's 
famous remark that he could not "praise a fugitive and cloistered 
virtue . . . that never sallies out to seek her adversary, but slinks 
out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not 
without dust and heat." And the contrast between the cloisters and 
the market place again is used soundly. But the author gets into 
trouble when he speaks of "the rights of the spirit in a rapidly 
materializing world." Mediums make (or pretend to make) spirits 
"materialize." Does the author mean that the world too is a spirit 
which is being made to materialize? Or is he trying to say that the 
world is rapidly becoming unspiritualized that it is preoccupied 
with matter as opposed to the realm of spirit? The momentary 
confusion is not clarified by the sentence that follows in which 
"the shadow of Hitlerism" is made to threaten darkness to the 
world. One is tempted to see Hitlerism as a shadow which is "ma- 
terializing," that is, turning the world into solid murk and darkness. 
Actually in this case there is little difficulty in untangling the chance 
associations of spiritualist mediums from the rather straightforward 
distinction between the realm of the spirit and the realm of the 
material. But would not the sentence be more effective without this 

The writer of the passage which follows is attempting to describe 
the effect of the comic books: 

They defy the limits of accepted fact and convention, thus amortizing 
to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought. But by these very 
tokens the picture-book fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art 
and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and 
aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective 
coverings of indirection and disguise. 

But can one defy a limit? One can, of course, defy another per- 
son to set a limit. The comic books may break across boundaries, 
may exceed limits, and their authors may defy authorities to set any 
limits that they will respect. But here it is the comic books that are 
made to "defy limits," probably because the author was looking for 
a strong metaphor, and was willing to accept, without asking too 
many questions of it, the first strong metaphor that he found. The 
defiance hinted by the comic books has violent results. The comic 
books amortize the "ossified arteries of routine thought." To "amor- 


tize" is to cancel a mortgage. And "amortize" like "mortgage" is 
related etymologically to Latin mors, death. Even so, how can a 
defiance extinguish a mortgage on the arteries of thought to the 
point of apoplexy? People who suffer from a hardening of the 
arteries are subject to strokes of apoplexy. Perhaps the writer is 
trying to say that the outrageous breaking of the conventions drives 
certain readers to apoplexy. But he has his apoplectic stroke affect 
the creaky and antiquated thoughts themselves. The result is a 
rather amazing mixup. 

In the next sentence, the comic books, having by their defiance 
ruptured the arteries of conventional thought, proceed to cut loose 
the "debris of art and artifice." Or rather, it is the fantasy which 
cuts this debris loose. But "debris" means a scattered mass of mate- 
rials. Can one cut a person loose from debris? Or does one not 
rather dig a victim out of the debris which has fallen upon him. 
And how can such debris be worn, as is evidently the case here, as 
a "protective covering"? The cutting loose of wreckage, the pulling 
off of a disguise, and the removal of a protective shell are thor- 
oughly scrambled. And the confusion is not helped when we re- 
member that the debris in question is composed of "art and arti- 
fice" and that the agent which cuts it loose is fantasysomething 
which one usually regards as associated with both art and artifice. 

There is much to be said for a rich and concrete idiom. In return 
for it, we might be willing to disregard a few metaphorical loose 
ends. But there are limits, even though the comic books are said to 
defy limits. The writer here is evidently buried up to his ears in a 
debris which may be artifice but certainly is not art. 

The excerpts examined are, we repeat, taken from "quality maga- 
zines" the last and worst one, from the magazine published by 
Phi Beta Kappa. These are by no means the most absurd instances 
that could be collected. But they are absurd enough to indicate 
that "good" writers often manage their metaphors very poorly. 


Thus far we have given our attention to some of the abuses of 
figurative language. It is high time to give a more positive account 
of metaphor and to show some of the uses of figurative language. 
After all, why do we use metaphor? What purpose does it serve? 


We have already assumed in earlier pages that (it has its value in 
contributing color and liveliness,)but if we are to understand why 
it is one of the great resources or the writer, we shall need to define 
more clearly what its function is. This is all the more necessary 
since(the conventional account of the uses of metaphor is calculated 
to mislead. For example, we are in the habit of saying that the 
purpose of metaphor is (1) to illustrate or (2) to embellish; but 
these terms can easily suggest that figurative language is a kind 
of "extra" which may be usefully or gracefully "added on" to a 
statement, but which is never essential to the statementnever a 
direct part of what is being said. In accordance with this conven- 
tional view, the practical function of metaphor is to give a con- 
crete illustration of some point which has been put more abstractly. 
The artistic use is to provide a pleasing decoration like an attrac- 
tive wallpaper pasted onto the wall, or like a silk ribbon tied around 
a box of candy. But the trouble with this account is that, in either 
case, the figure of speech seems to be something which can be 
left off; and if we misconceive the purposes of metaphor by think- 
ing of it as something external and additional, we shall never come 
to understand why a mastery of metaphor is absolutely essential 
to good writing> 


Let us begin by disposing of a special kind of writing in which 
metaphor is indeed unnecessary or merely an addition. If I wish 
to say "2 + 2 = 4" or that "the square of the hypotenuse of a right 
triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides," 
I shall not require metaphor. Metaphor would be in the way. Such 
statements as these, however, are very special: the terms used in 
such statements are (or aspire to be) pure denotations. If such terms 
have connotations at all, the connotations are surely irrelevant (see 
p. 341 ) . Thus the "words" employed are not words in the usual sense. 
They are not capable of metaphorical extension. They are very 
special symbols, and the purest statements of this kind are able 
to dispense with words altogether: thus, 2 + 2 = 4, or H 2 SO 4 + 
Fe - FeSO 4 + H 2 t- 

But important as such statements are, they represent a strin- 
gently limited discourse. Most of the discourse which interests us 
as human beings and which we must use as writers, goes far beyond 


abstract relationships of this kind. Most of our discourse has to do 
with the "full" world of our human experience not the colorless, 
soundless, abstract world of modern physics, say, or of mathe- 
matics. 4 


It ought to be noted, however, that even the scientific writer very 
often needs to go beyond this stringently limited abstract dis- 
course, and even for him, metaphor, though frankly employed as 
illustration, may be highly necessary and useful. The following 
passage from Bertrand Russell's The Scientific Outlook will illus- 
trate. The book is addressed to a general audience and Bertrand 
Russell is attempting to convince his reader that "what is actually 
experienced is much less than one would naturally suppose." He 
proceeds to analyze a typical experience for us. Here follows his 
analysis of what happens scientifically when we "see" someone. 

You may say, for example, that you see your friend, Mr. Jones, walk- 
ing along the street: but this is to go far beyond what you have any 
right to say. You see a succession of coloured patches, traversing a 
stationary background. These patches, by means of a Pavlov conditioned 
reflex, bring into your mind the word "J ones >" an d so you say you 
see Jones; but other people, looking out of their windows from different 
angles, will see something different, owing to the laws of perspective: 
therefore, if they are all seeing Jones, there must be as many different 
Joneses as there are spectators, and if there is only one true Jones, the 
sight of him is not vouchsafed to anybody. If we assume for a moment 
the truth of the account which physics gives, we shall explain what you 
call "seeing Jones" in some such terms as the following. Little packets of 
light, called "light quanta," shoot out from the sun, and some of these 
reach a region where there are atoms of a certain kind, composing 
Jones's face, and hands, and clothes. These atoms do not themselves 
exist, but are merely a compendious way of alluding to possible occur- 
rences. Some of the light quanta, when they reach Jones's atoms, upset 
their internal economy. This causes him to become sunburnt, and to 
manufacture vitamin D. Others are reflected, and of those that are re- 

4 This is not, of course, to question the importance or the reality of such 
worlds. The scientist can deal with his material in this abstract way, and in 
no other way. His language is neither more nor less real than the language 
of the poet or novelist. It is merely different. In this general connection, the 
Deader might reread the discussion of abstract and concrete words (pp. 338-39 ) 


fleeted some enter your eye. They there cause a complicated disturbance 
of the rods and cones, which, in turn, sends a current along the optic 
nerve. When this current reaches the brain, it produces an event. The 
event which it produces is that which you call "seeing Jones." As is 
evident from this account, the connection of "seeing Jones" with Jones 
is a remote, roundabout causal connection. Jones himself, meanwhile, 
remains wrapped in mystery. He may be thinking about his dinner, or 
about how his investments have gone to pieces, or about that umbrella 
he lost; these thoughts are Jones, but these are not what you see. 
BERTRAND RUSSELL: The Scientific Outlook, Chap. 3. 5 

Notice that Russell completes his analysis with the last state- 
ment of the passage; yet apparently he felt that the account might 
prove too technical and that his reader might fail to understand. 
Therefore he adds the following statement: "To say that you see 
Jones is no more correct than it would be, if a ball bounced off a 
wall in your garden and hit you, to say that the wall had hit you. In- 
deed, the two cases are closely analogous." Most readers will be 
grateful for this illustration. Most minds find abstractions so alien 
to them that they need a concrete statement such as the analogy 
provides. This is a truth which the writers of all books of scientific 
popularization know, and, for that matter, it is one known by every 
writer of directions for setting up a patent can opener. Even if the 
writer is able, as Bertrand Russell is able here, to state his analysis 
directly, the extra illustration the concrete analogy drawn from 
daily experience is helpful. 


We may sum up then by saying that^in strict scientific state- 
ment metaphor has no place, and that in a less strict scientific dis- 
cussion metaphor is optional and additional. It provides an illustra- 
tion, and, as the example from Russell shows, this may be of great 
importance. But in most of the writing with which we are concerned 
political speeches, articles on international affairs, letters to friends, 
expressions of opinions, attempts to persuade or convince, essays 
which invite other people to share our own experiences and valua- 
tionsin nearly all the ordinary writing which we shall do, metaphor 

5 From The Scientific Outlook by Bertrand Russell, by permission of George 
Allen and Unwin, Ltd. 


is not subsidiary and external but a primary device by which we 
"say" what we want to say. Metaphor then is not to be thought 
of as a roundabout way an alternative way of communicating an 
experience. Often it constitutes the only possible way by which 
we can convey the special quality of an experience. As one author- 
ity on language puts it: we think by proceeding from the known 
to the unknown, by extending a familiar term to an unfamiliar fact 
or situation. As he defines them, metaphors are "essentially discov- 
eries of new meanings ... by means of old names." Seen in these 
terms, metaphor is not something external to thinking: it is central. 
By the same token, it is not vague and emotional; it has its own 
accuracy, for it frequently provides the only means by which a 
thing can be "said." Metaphor is, then, an indispensable instrument 
for interpreting experience. 

Let us illustrate. In the sentence that follows, Helen Keller de- 
scribes what tactile sensation means to a person who has always 
been blind and deaf: "The immovable rock, with its juts and warped 
surface, bends beneath my fingers into all manner of grooves and 
hollows." The rock, of course, does not literally bend: it is "immov- 
able." But under her sensitive fingers, which do duty for eyes, the 
rock itself seems to respond dynamically to her touch. For what 
is being described is not the fumbling of an ordinary person who 
is blindfolded. We are, rather, being let into Helen Keller's "world," 
a world of exciting qualities which most of us do not know at all. 
Metaphor here is the only means by which it may be made known 
to us. For since this world does not exist in our experience, it can- 
not be pointed to: it can only be created for us. (The reader should 
compare with Helen Keller's account of touch, Bertrand Russell's 
account of sight, page 374. We do not have to choose one and reject 
the other. Both are true, but we must not confuse them. The two 
accounts are radically different in purpose, and therefore in 

Helen Keller's world may seem a special case. The world which 
Miss Keller knows through her finger tips obviously can be known 
by most of us who lack her sensitive finger tips only through anal- 
ogy, suggestion, and imaginative insight. Yet the worlds of all of us 
are more special than we think, determined as they are by our 
values, moods, and emotional biases. 



Consider what metaphor does in the following two verses from 
Ecclesiastes. "It is better to bear the rebuke of the wise, than for 
a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under 
a pot, so is the laughter of a fool: this also is vanity." 

This comparison, as we see, uses the dry, crackling sound of burn- 
ing thorn branches to describe the laughter of a fool. Now, there 
is a certain realistic basis for the comparison. But the metaphor is 
far more than a phonetic description. It makes a value judgment 
too: the fool's laughter, it is implied, is brittle, hollow, meaningless: 
it is the noise that attends the going up in smoke of something 
quite worthless the rubbish of dried thorn branches. This is the 
justification for the last clause, "this [the fool's laughter] also is a 
vanity." But the metaphor does much more than to "illustrate" the 
vanity. It is the metaphor itself that defines vanity and realizes 
it for us its specious brightness, its explosive chatter, its essential 

Let us take one further example, this time from a novel. In her 
Delta Wedding Miss Eudora Welty describes the sunset as seen 
by a little girl through the window of a railway coach. 

In the Delta the sunsets were reddest light. The sun went down lop- 
sided and wide as a rose on a stem in the west, and the west was a 
milk white edge, like the foam of the sea. The sky, the field, the little 
track, and the bayou, over and overall that had been bright or dark 
was now one color. From the warm window sill the endless fields glowed 
like a hearth in firelight. EUDORA WELTY: Delta Wedding, Chap. l. e 

Since this is a passage from a novel it is tempting to say that 
here surely the figurative language is merely "decorative," an at- 
tempt at a prettification of the scene. Even here, however, the meta- 
phors have a much more important function. The sun, it is true, is 
compared to a conventionally pretty object, a rose. But it is here a 
"lopsided" rose. The "hearth" comparison is domestic rather than 
beautiful in its associations. Actually, the metaphors work here to 
create the scene and the mood. It is a particular sunset seen by a 
particular character at a particular time. The scene is modified by 

6 From Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty, copyright, 1945, 1946, by Eudora 
Welty. Reprinted by permission oHarcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. 


the mood which it has helped to generate; and the mood itself is 
the reflection of a special personality. And it is this complex of 
scene and mood and personality which the metaphors do so much 
to reveal. The special quality of redness, almost unreal the diffused 
rosiness of the light the sense of warmth the scene perceived as 
something framed and set apart and remote all of these qualities 
are suggested by the comparison of the sun to a lopsided rose, and 
of the flat and endless fields to a hearth glowing in firelight. In this 
total pattern of statement, "lopsided" is seen to be not merely whim- 
sical, but to contribute its own mite of precision (the apparent dis- 
tortion of the red globe of the sun as it touches the horizon) to a 
statement that is aiming at great precision. 

A few paragraphs above we admitted that the world of Helen 
Keller's experience is a special world which can be conveyed to us 
only through suggestion and analogy. Yet a little reflection will show 
that the world of experience of each of us is far more special than 
we think, for such a world is determined by our values, moods, 
and emotional biases. The world as seen by the little girl in Delta 
Wedding is thus special in this sense, and so too is that of the 
Hebrew preacher who speaks in Ecclesiastes. If we are to communi- 
cate our experience with any accuracy, figurative language is fre- 
quently the only way by which such experience can be conveyed 
at all. For by means of metaphor we grasp not only the object as an 
entity, but its "meaning," its value to us as well. The "thing" which 
Miss Welty wished to say was not that the sun was round or red 
or an immense globe of superhot elements some ninety-three mil- 
lion miles from the earth. What she wished to give us was the sun 
as it appeared to the child as she watched it from the window of 
the train. It is not the scientific sun the abstraction taken from 
some book on astronomy with which the author is concerned, but 
rather the sun as part of a total experience and of a very particular 
and special experience. 

One more example, just to make sure that the last illustration, 
since it is from fiction, does not give the impression that metaphor 
is somehow 'literary" and therefore unimportant. Here is the way 
in which "Bugs" Baer describes the collapse of a prize fighter: 
"Zale folded as gracefully as the Queen's fan and fell on his bat- 
tered face alongside the ropes. His seconds carried him to his corner 
like three window-dressers packing a melted dummy off during 


a heat wave on the sunny side of Broadway/' This description may 
be judged to be good writing or bad, but it is easy to see why Baer 
used figurative language. He was not trying to "tell" us about the 
scene: he was trying to make us see the scene, vividly, freshly, fully, 
as a somewhat cynical but highly interested observer might have 
seen it. 

The nature and uses of metaphor can be further illustrated from 
passages quoted in the earlier chapter on description. For example, 
let us look again at the metaphor which Faulkner uses in his de- 
scription of Miss Emily (p. 208): "She looked bloated, like a body 
long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue." There 
is an analogy, of course, between the appearance of the bloated and 
unnaturally pallid woman and that of a drowned body. But the 
author might have found other analogies, superficially quite as apt. 
What specific function does the comparison serve? It serves to 
interpret the woman for us. It describes the woman but it gives 
more than mere physical description: it suggests that she has long 
been immersed in a thick, unnatural medium like water. Moreover, 
the water in which she has drowned is "motionless." There has 
been a kind of stagnation. She has been removed from the whole 
course of human activity. 

Or consider Thoreau 's comparison of the state of Massachusetts 
to a human body (p. 235). There is, it is true, some kind of resem- 
blance between the shape of Cape Cod on the map and that of a 
bended arm. But the physical analogy is pretty well exhausted with 
this item; yet Thoreau goes on to give the state a "back" and "feet" 
and another "fist" with which the state "keeps guard the while upon 
her breast." Thoreau too is using his comparison to suggest that we 
are to conceive of the state as a human being and as an alert and 
vigilant human being. 


In this connection we ought to note that the physical similarity 
of the items coippared is easily overestimated in judging the value 
of a metaphor.j In many finely effective comparisons the degree of 
physical similarity is not very great. Some element of resemblance, 
there must be, of course. But a good comparison is not necessarily 
one in which there is close resemblance: for "illustration," as we 


have seen, is not the primary purpose of metaphor. Moreover, even 
a great deal of dissimilarity does not necessarily render the com- 
parison a strained or forced oner) 


To realize this last point, let us consider one of the tritest com- 
parisons of all: ("her eyes were like stars." Far from seeming strained 
or overingenious, the comparison will seem to most of us entirely 
too simple and easy. And yet, even in this well-worn analogy, the 
objects compared are really very dissimilar. Certainly the human 
eyeball and the flaming mass of elements which make up the stars 
have very little in common. But if this examination, which compares 
the two objects as scientifically considered, seems somewhat un- 
fair, one can go on to point out that the eyes, even those of a lovely 
woman, do not much resemble the glinting points of light which are 
the stars as we see them. The truth of the matter is that what 
supports this oldest and most hackneyed of comparisons is not the 
physical resemblances so much as the associations: the associations 
of stars with brilliance, with the high and celestial. It is these asso- 
ciations which have made the stars seem "like" the glances of the 
eyes of someone loved. 

Thus, every comparison has a very important subjective element 
in it: its proper task is to interpret, to evaluate not to point to 
physical analogies. Its proper function is, as we have said, to define 

Let us consider a few further illustrations: Samuel Butler, in his 
satire, "Hudibras," gives this description of the dawn. 

And like a lobster, boyl'd, the morn 
From black to red began to turn. 

We think of this as an absurd comparison, and so it is appro- 
priately so, for "Hudibras" is a humorous poem, and Butler is casting 
good-humored scorn upon his hero. Why does the comparison strike 
us as absurd? We are likely to say that it is absurd because the 
dawn doesn't in the least resemble a boiled lobster. But the colors 
to be seen in the shell of a boiled lobster may very closely resemble 
the exact shade of red to be seen on some mornings. The absurdity, 
then, does not come from the lack of physical resemblance: it comes 
rather from the absurd contrast of the associations of cooking and 


the associations of morningthe sense of fresh coolness and natural 
beauty. Butler has, for humorous effect, deliberately played the 
connotations of lobster-boiling against the connotations of morn- 
ing. It is the clash of connotations which creates the tone (see 
Chapter 11) of good-humored contempt, befitting a mock epic such 
as "Hudibras." (Objectively considered, the sun looks quite as much 
like the shell of a boiled lobster as it looks like Miss Welty's lop- 
sided rose a figure which we have seen is not used for ludicrous 

The principle of contrast, however, may be used for very differ- 
ent effects. Consider the use to which the element of contrast is put 
in the following passage from Aldous Huxley's After Many a Sum- 
mer Dies the Swan: 

In the green and shadowy translucence, two huge fish hung suspended, 
their snouts almost touching, motionless except for the occasional ripple 
of a fin and the rhythmic panting of their gills. A few inches from their 
staring eyes a rosary of bubbles streamed ceaselessly up toward the light. 

The chain of bubbles may be thought to look like a string of 
beads, and the rapt, motionless attitude of the staring fish may 
allow one fancifully to see them as participants in a religious rite, 
staring at the string of ascending bubbles as at a rosary. (The 
adjectives "suspended" and "staring" and especially the phrase 
"streamed ceaselessly up toward the light," tend to support the 
analogy.) But the effect is not absurd as Butler's is: the effect is 
rather that of sardonic irony. A reading of the novel would indicate 
how the irony fits the bitter commentary which Huxley makes on 
his hero's morbid grasping at life. 

Here is another example of a metaphor used for ironic effect, 
though for a still different kind of irony: 

In the rear of this row of guns stood a house, cairn and white, amid 
bursting shells. A congregation of horses tied to a long railing, were 
tugging frenziedly at their bridles. Men were running hither and thither. 
STEPHEN CRANE: Red Badge of Courage. 

Why "a congregation of horses" rather than "a line" or "a group" 
of horses? Congregation (from Latin congrex) means literally a 
"herding together," and (though it is a somewhat pedantic applica- 
tion) "congregation" is thus literally accurate here. But as we com- 
monly use the word, "congregation" implies a group of worshipers ; 


people who have come together of their own will, though this par- 
ticular "congregation" is frantically trying to get away. The con- 
trast is an ironic one, but the author has not left his choice of the 
word to be justified by this obvious and rather brittle contrast: the 
metaphor points to a richer and larger contrast. The "congregation 
of horses" tied to the railing suggests the scene at some rural church 
where the congregation within is implied by the "congregation" 
of hitched horses without. The line of tied animals thus ironically 
suggests a peaceful scene in contrast to the actual battle which is 
raging around them. 


We think of metaphors (and related figurative expressions) as 
"comparisons/* and yet it is plain that we might as accurately refer 
to them as "contrasts." For the elements of dissimilarity between 
the terms of a metaphor may be of just as much importance as the 
elements of likeness. One can go further still: in an effective meta- 
phor there must be a considerable degree of contrast. If we say 
"the river roared like a flood" or "the dog raged like a wild beast," 
we feel that the metaphor in each case is weak or nonexistent. A 
river is too much like a flood, and a dog, though a tame beast, too 
much resembles a wild beast. If, on the other hand, we say, "the 
fire roared like a flood" or "the fire raged like a wild beast," we feel 
that these are metaphors (even if actually rather poor metaphors). 
Fire and flood or fire and beast are sufficiently dissimilar for us to 
feel that some metaphorical transfer occurs: in these cases there 
are the "new namings" which constitute metaphor/ 

A famous English critic of the eighteenth century, Samuel John- 
son, saw this point clearly in discussing a famous poetic comparison 
of his time. In a poem on the battle of Blenheim, the poet had 
compared the English general, Marlborough, to an angel "who 
rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm." The general himself 
was not engaged in dealing blows. In a sense he was above the 
battle. But calm and aloof, like the angel, he directed the crushing 
power of his regiments. Johnson's objection to the comparison was 
not that the poet had not described properly Marlborough's func- 
tion, but rather that the functions of Marlborough and of the angel 
were too nearly the same for the comparison to have any imagina- 
tive quality. Whether or not Johnson was fair to the comparison 


in question, the student may decide for himself by looking up Addi- 
son's poem, "The Campaign." But there is no doubt at all that 
Johnson was entirely right about the principle involved. 

We are inclined to reject what we rather awkwardly call "far- 
fetched" comparisons. (The term is awkward because it suggests 
that the terms of a good comparison are close together, though we 
have seen that even "eyes" and "stars" are not really very close 
see p. 379. ) But if comparisons must not be too "far-fetched," neither 
must they be too "nearly-fetched." They have to be fetched some 
distance if we are to have a recognizable metaphor at all. 


In this connection, it is convenient to take up the problem of 
consistency in metaphor. How consistent with itself need a meta- 
phor be? The point is worth discussing because most of us have 
been made well aware of the absurdity of "mixed metaphors." 
Everyone is familiar with the Congressman's oratorical declaration: 
"I smell a rat. I see it floating in the air. But I shall nip it in the 
bud." Moreover, earlier in this chapter the absurdity of the mixed 
metaphors which occur in the passages on pages 367-69 has been 
commented upon. But it would be a mistake if the student con- 
cluded that any mixing of metaphors or any change from one meta- 
phor to another is in itself bad. 

(|t is perfectly true that an extended metaphor can sometimes 
be used for very powerful effect, and it is further true that a meta- 
phor which suddenly, or for no apparent reason, reverses our 
expectations, can give us a sense of absurd confusion. But a meta- 
phor need not be extended; and there are fine passages of prose 
and poetry in which the author moves rapidly from one metaphor 
to another.^ Is the following passage from Hamlet absurd because 
the metapnor is "mixed"? 

To be, or not to be that is the question. 
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles 
And by opposing end them. To die to sleep- 
No more; and by a sleep to say we end 
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to. 


The troubles are first conceived of as missiles "slings and arrows" 
of fortune, but then they are characterized as a "sea of troubles." 
One can "take arms" against a contingent of bowmen, but how can 
one take arms against a sea? It is possible to conceive of myriad 
troubles as a sea; and a great armed host, with its advancing ranks 
and with its seemingly infinite reserves, ready to come up to replace 
them, may be thought of as a sea. There is a sort of link, therefore, 
between "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and "sea of 
troubles." Yet do we not get into an absurdity when other elements 
of the two figures are brought together as Shakespeare brings them 
together here? How can a man take arms against the sea (as one 
might against an army)? Only a madman would try to fight the 
sea, as the Irish warrior Cuchulain was fabled to have done. Per- 
haps so; but if so, there may be method in Hamlet's madness here 
(and method in Shakespeare's arrangement of metaphors). The 
troubles that attack Hamlet are, like the sea, infinite. He can hardly 
hope to conquer them. But if he advances courageously into the 
waves, he may "end them" nonetheless; for in swallowing him up, 
his troubles end themselves: "by the sleep [of death] ... we 
end / The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh 
is heir to." The figure is daring and it is difficult, but it does not 
involve an absurdity. 

Consider another sequence of metaphors which may seem even 
more confusingly mixed. In the following passage Macbeth ex- 
presses his sense of the meaninglessness of life: 

... all our yesterdays have lighted fools 
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! 
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, 
And then is heard no more: it is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing. 

Here again the images may seem to have no connection with one 
another; but closer reading indicates that the images are knit to- 
gether rather tightly. 

Death is a sleep. Our bed is the dust from which we came. The 
sun itself is finally but a candle by which we are lighted to this bed. 
Macbeth, apathetic and wearied, feels ready for the bed of death, 


and he needs no candle to find it. He says, "Out, out, brief candle !" 
But the image of the candle (which one carries to light himself to 
bed) suggests another figure to signify the emptiness of life, the 
shadow. (Life has no substance; it is mere appearance.) And this 
figure suggests another: life is like an actor who plays a role. 
The actor gives us but a shadow, an appearance. Moreover, the 
appearance is brief: he "struts and frets" his little "hour upon the 
stage/' With the words "And then is heard no more/' we shift from 
a visual to an auditory figure. The actor's speech considered coldly 
and in detachment, as by a spectator who has just come into the 
theater in the middle of the play strikes the ear as a meaningless 
rant. It is like the speech of an idiot: words pour forth, there is 
sound and fury, but no meaning is conveyed. In this passage, then, 
the various metaphors are related to each other; they grow out of 
each other; and they enrich and develop a total meaning which is 
consistent with itself. 

These two examples can hardly do more than suggest some of 
the possible justifications for certain kinds of "mixed" metaphor. 
The subject, moreover, is too complex for one to lay down rules 
which will indicate when metaphor is improperly "mixed" and 
when it is not. But one common-sense principle is clear enough. 
Looking at the problem from the standpoint of the writer, we may 
say that he should not arouse expectations which he does not gratify. 
If he leads the reader to expect a consistent elaboration of a figure, 
he becomes inconsistent at his peril. 

In general, however, as writers, our best defense against absurdly 
mixed metaphors on the one hand, and against rigid theories of 
consistency on the other, is to be found in a sound conception of 
the function of metaphor. Let us repeat: /metaphor is not a mere 
decoration. It is not an illustration not a point-to-point analogical 
likeness. It is not an alternate naming of the thing which is chosen 
because it is "prettier" or "simpler." Rather it is our great instru- 
ment for interpreting the thing in question. Metaphors are new 
namings which seize upon the thing and interpret it lovingly, rev- 
erently, contemptuously, mockingly, coldly, or warmly as the skill- 
ful author may desire. The aptness of a comparison, therefore, 
cannot be determined in isolation. The author's larger purpose, and 
the whole context in which the comparison occurs, must be taken 
into account. 


Because of the delicacy and the importance of these relations 
between the terms of a metaphor and between the metaphor and 
its context, we have chosen not to present the reader with the 
classifications of figurative language that are frequently made in 
rhetoric books. For many of these classifications are of no funda- 
mental importance. We have not distinguished, for example, from 
metaphorical language in general, SIMILE (an explicit comparison, 
usually announced by like or as: "she glided into the room like a 
swan," "as brittle as ice") or METONYMY (the use of a part to desig- 
nate the whole: "he employed twenty hands on his farm"), and so 
on. Such classifications, in our considered opinion, are of little im- 
portance to the practicing writer. V 


There is, however, one further important relationship that ought 
to be specified: the relation of metaphor to SYMBOL. A symbol is a 
kind of sign. Thus, the flag is a symbol of the nation; the cross, of 
Christianity; the letter a, of a particular vowel sound (or actually 
in modern English, of a particular group of vowel sounds). Symbols 
of this sort are conventional and arbitrary signs. For example, it is 
conceivable that the United States of America might have adopted 
some other flag, and once we had agreed to think of it as our flag, 
that flag would have symbolized our nation just as much as Old 
Glory now does. The Greek letter, alpha, corresponds to our Roman 
letter a, though it has a somewhat different shape, thus a. Mathe- 
matical and scientific symbols likewise are conventional and arbi- 
trary signs. 

Now metaphor has nothing to do with this kind of conventional 
symbolism. In metaphor, as we have seen, words are not used liter- 
ally but are extended beyond their conventional meanings. Yet 
there is another kind of symbol which is not conventional and arbi- 
trary. Washing one's hands, for example, does not necessarily signify 
that one feels guilt. It usually means no more than that one wants 
to get his hands clean. But when Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth, 
in the sleep-walking scene in Macbeth, attempt to wash the imagi- 
nary blood from her hands, her action becomes a symbol of her 
feeling of guilt. The simple and ordinarily unimportant act turns 


into a revelation of characterbecomes endowed with symbolic 
force. Likewise, in De Maupassant's story, "The Diamond Neck- 
lace" ( p. 273 ) , the paste diamonds come to stand for the vanity and 
emptiness for which Madame Loisel has sacrificed her youth. With 
this kind of symbolism, metaphor does have something in common. 
In metaphor, a word is extended to a new meaning; in this kind 
of symbolism, an object or incident is made to take on a larger 
meaning. In the simplest terms, we may say that metaphor has to 
do with the word (or the idea) and symbolism with the thing (or 
the action). 


The distinction between such created symbols and merely arbi- 
trary symbols can throw much light on the problem of metaphor. 
In the first place, most of the effective symbols in literature, since 
they are not arbitrary signs, are instances of the metaphorical proc- 
essthat is, they represent the endowing of some concrete object 
or incident with further meaning. In "The Diamond Necklace/' for 
example, the revelation that the diamonds, for which so much has 
been sacrificed, are really paste becomes a kind of metaphor. A 
writer rarely finds a symbol ready-made for him: he creates his 
important symbols by the same process as that by which he creates 
his other metaphors. 

In the second place, a consideration of symbols throws light on 
the problems that have to do with the validity of metaphor. Some 
objects and incidents do seem to have a "natural" symbolic mean- 
ing. Thus, blood may seem to be a natural symbol for violence; 
darkness, for evil; or light, for truth. In a sense blood, darkness, 
and light are such natural symbols; yet we need to observe two 
things: (1) the "natural" symbolism is much more vague and gen- 
eral than at first sight might be supposed. Blood can be used 
and has been used to symbolize a wealth of very different things: 
courage or heredity or race. Moreover, darkness can be used to 
symbolize, not evil but goodness: at least one poet has used dark- 
ness in this way. Henry Vaughan's poem "The Night" celebrates 
darkness as the proper time for spiritual meditation and communion 


with God. Moreover, light can symbolize evil: i.e., the hard, hot 
light of the desert can be made to suggest the mocking falsity of 
the mirage. (2) Even the natural and obvious symbols are inef- 
fective unless they are presented to us freshly and dramatically. 
The writer cannot use them merely at the conventional level and 
still use them effectively. The moment that the word for the object 
in question has become frozen at a certain level of significance, it 
becomes a mere sign an alternate name and its emotional power 
has all but vanished. Thus, as we have seen, the "eye of a needle" 
no longer suggests any association with the human eye: "eye" has 
become merely the conventional name for the thread-hole. No 
metaphorical transfer is made: the original transfer of meaning 
has become fixed permanently. 

The ideal scientific language, it is sometimes said, would not use 
metaphor at all: there would be one precise term for every object, 
a term which would mean only one thing. For men who are irri- 
tated by the ambiguities and confusions of metaphor, such a pros- 
pect is tempting. A few years ago, Mr. Stuart Chase (in The 
Tyranny of Words) came close to recommending that we abandon 
metaphor altogether in favor of a strict, unambiguous use of words. 
(Centuries earlier, in 1667, Thomas Sprat, the historian of the Royal 
Society, complimented this group of new scientists on having "ex- 
acted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speak- 
ing; positive expressions; clear sense; a native easiness: bringing 
all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can/') 

But such a language, though admirable for exact scientific pur- 
posesmathematical formulae are better still (p. 342) would be an 
excessively limited instrument for other purposes. Now science 
properly strives toward pure notation: thus, the specific gravity of 
iron at 20 C. is 7.86; granite is an igneous rock; 2 + 2 = 4. But 
most that we have to say is not pure notation: we want to tell a joke 
or to describe a knockout or to say what it feels like to be in love. 
Our normal discourse is "impure" with our own interpretations, 
evaluations, and insights. And these interpretations are too inti- 
mately related to ourselves for us to have a precise, ready-made 
term for each thing that we have to say. It is better to have a lan- 
guage which possesses flexibility one which can be shaped and 
re-formed to the most special use. 



^METAPHOR is the use of a concrete term to signify a wider, more 
general relationship. Language began as metaphor. Men came to 
extend concrete terms by analogy to further relationships., Yet, basic 
as the metaphorical process is, we tend to misapprehend its real 
importance^ We tend to think of metaphor as a kind of external 
decoration which may be applied or not, as the writer chooses, to 
the essential statement, a statement which we think of as nakedly 

But, just as the development of language is from the concrete 
to the abstract, not from the abstract to the concrete, so the normal 
method of composition is from the concrete to the more abstract, 
not from abstract schematic outlines to metaphorical expression^ 
The compulsion to use slang, for example, is an indication of tKe 
normality of metaphor as opposed to abstract statement/ For slang, 
though it is usually shabby and worn-out metaphor, is, nonetheless 
metaphor; and the impulse to use it represents a basically sound 
human impulse. Consequently, the most fruitful attitude toward 
the misuse of slang will be that which acknowledges the natural 
tendency toward metaphor and attempts to replace worn and inac- 
curate metaphor with fresh and accurate metaphor. 

{The misuse of metaphor is a peculiarly significant ailment of con- 
temporary prose. It testifies, perhaps, to the fact that we have mis- 
conceived the real function of metaphor, and having misconceived 
it, blunder in our practice.* 

f Since the metaphorical process is central to language, the con- 
ventional emphases on metaphor as (1) illustrative or (2) decorative 
go astray by suggesting that metaphor merely adds something un- 
essential to expression. The primary function of metaphor is to 
interpret experience for us to mold and control attitudes. In all 
discourse (except that which aspires to strict scientific notation) 
this interpretative element is central. Metaphor, then, is not to be 
thought of as a colorful but inaccurate way of saying something. 
What we usually have to "say" includes this aspect of interpreta- 
tion, and good metaphor has therefore its own kind of accuracy^ 

, The fact that metaphor is used primarily to control attitudes has 
an important bearing on the problem of the validitv of metaphor. 


If we misunderstand metaphor, taking it to be simply a kind of 
loose analogy, then the best metaphors will be those in which the 
items compared are physically most nearly alike; and we shall be 
disposed to reject all comparisons in which there is no close physi 
cal resemblance between the items compared. If, on the contrary, 
we see that metaphor is one of our prime instruments of interpreta 
tion, we may be prepared to admit a large interpretative (subjec- 
tive) element in metaphor, and further, to understand that the ele- 
ment of contrast is necessary and important. 
(A metaphor is a kind of symbol: that is, the concrete particular 
comes to stand for something larger than itself. It is not, of course, 
an arbitrary symbol like the cross or the flag or the letter A. For 
when the metaphor no longer makes a transfer of meaning, it is a 
dead metaphor just as the arbitrary symbol is frozen to one mean- 
ing and means one, and only one, thing. But the great literary 
symbols (and many humbler ones in our daily experience) do not 
have their meaning assigned to them by an arbitrary convention. 
They derive their meanings from a special context they come to 
mean something special and untranslatable. In this sense, they are 
metaphors. We may use the term symbol when we think of the sign 
itself; the term metaphor when we think of the process of transfer 
of meaning. 

When men think of the neatness and logical accuracy given by 
scientific terms, they sometimes long for the elimination of all meta- 
phor. But reflection indicates that such a language of terms, each 
frozen to one denotation, is impossible: such a language could 
express only "public/* agreed-upon relationships. With the elimina- 
tion of the possibility of metaphor we should have eliminated con- 
notations, the whole realm of personal evaluations through lan- 
guage, and all those elements which make language flexible and 
alive. For metaphor is ultimately the power to take a given and 
known term and bend it to a fresher and richer use. 



Situation and Tone 


EVERY piece of discourse implies a particular situation. A man is 
attempting to convince a hostile audience; or a mother is attempting 
to coax a child into doing something which the child dislikes; or a 
legislator, who can assume agreement on ends, is trying to persuade 
his colleagues that certain procedures constitute the best means 
by which to secure these ends. Even technical treatises, which 
attempt no persuasion, imply a special situation: the writer assumes 
that he is writing for people whose interest in the truth is so absorb- 
ing that rhetorical persuasions would be unnecessary and even posi- 
tively irritating. 

But if every discourse implies a situation in which the writer is 
related to his audience, by the same token every piece of discourse 
implies a certain TONE. This term "tone" is based frankly on a meta- 
phor. We all know how important in actual speech the tone of voice 
may be in indicating the precise meaning of the words themselves. 
For instance, the words "very well," uttered in a certain tone of 
voice, may imply enthusiastic agreement, but spoken in another 
tone of voice they may indicate nothing more than surly compli- 
ance. The "tone" of a piece of writing, in the same way, may show 
the writer's attitude, and in so doing may heavily qualify the literal 
meanings of the words themselves. 

The importance of tone is easily illustrated by the misunder- 
standings which personal letters so often provoke. In conversation 
even a rather clumsy and inadequate knowledge of language can be 


so supplemented by the actual tone of the voice that little serious 
misunderstanding will occur. But when such a speaker writes a 
letter where, of course, the "tone of voice" has to be implied by 
the words themselves all sorts of misunderstandings can occur 5 
and frequently do occur. The practiced writer, on the other hand, 
is able, even in this medium, to control what we have called the 

Some of the more obvious devices for controlling tone have al- 
ready been discussed in Chapter 10 ( pp. 349-52 ) . There we saw that 
diction itself is a most important means of expressing our ATTITUDES. 
We can refer to a policeman as an "officer" or as a "cop"; we can 
say "farmer" or "rube." There are other obvious means by which 
we express our attitudes: by adjectives ("projectile adjectives" we 
called them) which make direct valuations (nice, good, fine, miser- 
able, and so on) and by simple comparisons which are also emo- 
tional and subjective, with little or no objective content ("He's a 
good egg," "She's a peach"). Such devices for indicating tone are 
so simple that they could be discussed, as they have been, in the 
chapter on diction. But tone is a pervasive thing which character- 
izes a whole composition, and diction, strictly considered, is only 
one of the many elements which the writer must manage in order 
to secure a proper tone. In the pages that follow we are to consider 
some of the larger problems. 


In most of our writing the management of tone is an important 
problem, for in most of our writing our attitudes are highly rele- 
vant. An important part of what we are trying to "communicate" 
is the attitude itself. This is true not only of poetry and fiction, it is 
true also of most essays, sermons, orations, and letters. It is even 
true of much of what we are inclined to regard as pure exposition. 
For even in expository writing the author is rarely content to give 
us mere facts, or mere propositions. He feels that to do this is to be 
painfully and technically "dry." 

A glance at the so-called articles of information in magazines 
like the Atlantic and Harper's will indicate that even here the 
establishment of the appropriate tone is of the highest importance. 
For example, a typical expository article in Harpers (Wolfgang 


Langewiesche's "Making the Airplane Behave," May 1942) makes 
very special use of tone, and is thus anything but a mechanically 
"dry" piece of exposition. The author assumes that the reader is a 
reasonably intelligent person who has a fairly wide acquaintance 
with the modern world; specifically, that he knows how to drive an 
automobile, that he does not have a technical equipment in physics, 
but that he does have enough common sense to follow a clear illus- 
tration. The exposition does not insist on technicalities any more 
than the writer stands on his own dignity. His attitude toward his 
reader is definitely informal. The tone of his article suggests that 
flying is interesting and important, but that the author's attitude 
toward it is sprightly. 

How do we know all this? Well, consider the following para- 

You try, for instance, steep turns in a strong wind. The ship will go 
in some crazy, wrong-looking attitude; but when you check your instru- 
ments you find that it is doing a correct job of flying and that the seat 
of your pants and your eyes would have tricked you had you been 
allowed to do the "co-ordinating/ 7 

The informal "you try" rather than the more formal "one tries"; 
the phrase "the seat of your pants" rather than the more formal 
"tactile pressure of the plane"; the informal "tricked" rather than 
the more formal "deceived" all of these point to the tone that is, 
they indicate the attitude which the author is taking toward his 
audience and toward his subject matter. 


If, however, we are to define tone as the reflection of the author's 
attitude, it is necessary to make a simple distinction. Tone is the 
reflection of the author's attitude toward what? Toward his reader? 
Or toward his material? For example, if one is writing about the 
New Deal, his attitude may be one of admiration or contempt, 
of approval or disapproval. That attitude will presumably color 
the writing and constitute one source of its tone. But there is an- 
other source to be considered: let us suppose that the writer does 
approve of the New Deal. When he writes to persuade a hostile 
audience he will probably adopt a tone quite different from that 


which he uses when he addresses himself to a friendly audience. 
Moreover, he may wish to take into account the fact that his reader 
is a child or an adult, a banker or a welder, a New Englander or a 
Midwesterner. The writer's attitude toward his reader, therefore, 
may be important in determining tone. 

As we shall see later, there are many kinds of writing in which 
the distinction between attitude toward material and attitude to- 
ward audience has little importance. But in many kinds of writing 
where there is a strong practical purpose political speeches, ser- 
mons, advertisements, propaganda the writer's attitude toward his 
audience is of immense importance. It may be the primary determi- 
nant of the tone, and indeed of the whole strategy of the rhetorical 


Let us consider some fairly obvious instances of tone determined 
by the nature of the audience. Here is an advertisement for a 
dandruff remover. Above a picture of two young women talking, 
there is the caption, "It's Listerine, for you chum , . . but quick! 
Those innocent-looking flakes and scales you see on scalp, hair or 
dress-shoulders, are a warning. . . . This is no time to fool around 
with smelly lotions or sticky salves that can't kill germs. You need 
antiseptic action . . . and you need it quick." 

The young women in the picture are clearly friends, and the 
opening caption is represented as the comment of one to the other. 
But the advice as given to a chum is meant to carry over to the 
reader. As the advertisement frankly goes on to address the reader, 
"This is no time to fool around with smelly lotions. . . . You need 
antiseptic action. . . ." 

What is the attitude toward the reader, then? The attitude of a 
sprightly, intimate friend whose advice can be frank and straight 
from the shoulder. 

Let us look at another advertisement. This one, printed in color, 
depicts a young woman seated on a luxurious bed looking dreamily 
at a handsome blanket. The caption begins "For you to whom 
beauty is a necessity. . . . Yours is a nature that thrives on beauty. 
. . . Seize it as a vital factor in your daily living. To you a blanket 
should be more than a source of warmth. Exquisite colors, luxuri- 


ously deep-nap, rich virgin-wool loveliness these awaken in you an 
emotional response far beyond the material." 

These statements, of course, are not addressed merely to the 
young woman pictured in the advertisement. They are addressed 
to the reader as well, and they make certain flattering assumptions 
about the reader: that she is a young woman of means who is at 
home with the luxurious and who has a soul which deserves and 
requires beauty as a necessity. Coarser natures may buy blankets 
simply for warmth, but you, dear and lovely reader, ought to have 
something more even in a blanket. 

The attitude toward the reader, of course, need not be flattering. 
Here follows an example of a very different tone, though like the 
advertisements just discussed, the tone here also is primarily con- 
ditioned by the writer's attitude toward his reader. The example is 
a letter written by Dr. Samuel Johnson to James Macpherson. In 
the 1760's Macpherson had published several volumes of poetry 
which he claimed to have translated from Gaelic l originals. Dr. 
Samuel Johnson refused to believe in the existence of any Gaelic 
originals of which the disputed poems were translations. He openly 
pronounced his opinion that they were Macpherson's own compo- 
sition. In reply to Macpherson's demands that he retract this charge 
Johnson wrote the following letter: 

Mr. James Macpherson: 

I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me 
I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law 
shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I 
think to be a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian. 

What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; 
I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons 
to the publick, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your 
abilities, since your Homer, 2 are not so formidable; and what I hear of 
your morals, inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but 
to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will. SAM. JOHNSON. 

A most important part of this letter is the attitude taken toward 
Macpherson. For Johnson might have stated the "facts" in a form 

1 The original Celtic language of the Scottish Highlands. 

2 Macpherson had published a translation of Homer. 


as simple as this: "I continue to hold the view that the Macpherson 
translations are fraudulent" or "I repeat that I shall not believe in 
any Gaelic originals until they are produced." And if we argue that 
Johnson's expression of fearlessness also is a "fact" with which the 
letter concerns itself, even this fact might have been expressed very 
differently: thus, "I have no intention of expressing a retraction" 
or "I mean to stand my ground on this matter" or "I am sorry that 
I can make no retraction since I feel that there is nothing to retract." 

The tone is of the utmost importance, then. How shall we char- 
acterize the tone of the letter as Johnson actually wrote it? No 
paraphrase of the letter will do justice to the tone; and an abstract 
description of the tone is clumsy as well as inadequate. For the full 
realization of the tone, we shall have to return to the letter itself. 
But one can point to some important elements of the tone: a manly 
contempt of threats, a confidence in truth and in his own integrity, 
perhaps even a trace of sardonic amusement at baffled and petty 

The following excerpt consists of the opening paragraphs of the 
first of The Drapiers Letters, letters which Jonathan Swift wrote 
to the Irish people, warning them against accepting any of the coins 
which one William Wood had been given a patent to mint. Swift 
felt that acceptance and circulation of the coins would injure the 
economy of Ireland. 

Brethren, friends, countrymen and fellow-subjects, what I intend now 
to say to you, is, next to your duty to God, and the care of your salva- 
tion, of the greatest concern to yourselves, and your children; your 
bread and clothing, and every common necessary of life entirely depend 
upon it. Therefore I do most earnestly exhort you as men, as Christians, 
as parents, and as lovers of your country, to read this paper with the 
utmost attention, or get it read to you by others; which that you may 
do at least expense, I have ordered the printer to sell it at the lowest 

It is a great fault among you, that when a person writes with no other 
intention than to do you good, you will not be at the pains to read his 
advices: One copy of this paper may serve a dozen of you, which will 
be less than a farthing apiece. It is your folly that you have no common 
or general interest in your view, not even the wisest among you, neither 
do you know or enquire, or care who are your friends, or who are your 


Swift assumes that his audience is not a learned one. He adopts 
the simplest language. His phrase "or get it read to you" indicates 
that he assumes, further, that many of the people whom he wishes 
to reach cannot read. But in addition to the almost painful effort 
to make himself completely clear, Swift implies that his readers are 
childishly thoughtless, taking too little care of their own interests, 
and confused as to their real friends. The tone is one of grave and 
patient admonition. Swift emphasizes the importance of what he 
is going to say; he appeals to his readers in terms of their deepest 
allegiances as "Christians, as parents, and as lovers of [their] coun- 
try," and patiently makes clear how little the paper will cost such 
readers. He does not hesitate to tax their "folly," folly which ren- 
ders them blind as to who their real friends are. The last point is, 
of course, of crucial importance for the effectiveness of Swift's tract. 
For unless his readers are willing to see that he is their real friend, 
he can hardly expect that they will follow his advice. 


It might seem appropriate, just at this point, to take up the mat- 
ter of formality and informality of tone, for it would seem that the 
degree of formality of the utterance is largely determined by the 
kind of audience that the author addresses. In any event, the degree 
of formality is ostensibly an adjustment of manner to the audience 
addressed. For example, the writer may choose to treat his reader 
as a friend with whom he converses intimately and even casually. 
Or the author may choose to address him with a good deal more 
ceremony, respectful of his dignity and careful to take no liberties. 
Even so, by writing "the author may choose," we have indicated 
that formality or informality of tone is not determined automatically 
by the nature of the audience addressed. The occasion may deter- 
mine the tone even more than the audience. A serious subject, for 
example, may call for a certain formality of tone, even though the 
writer is addressing friends with whom he moves on terms of inti- 
macy; and actually the writer most often addresses a general reader 
whom he does not know personally, whom he may never see, and 
whom he chooses to approach formally or informally because of 
the nature of his subject and of his strategy for handling the subject. 

With this matter of formality and informality, therefore, we have 
actually moved away from the audience as the determiner of tone 


into more general problems of tone, problems in which tone is 
shaped by other considerations. 

But though we now turn to these more general problems of tone, 
we have probably been wise to begin with the problem in its 
easiest form, where there is a definite and particular audience to be 
placated, defied, cajoled, mollified, or in general induced to act in a 
certain way. 

But what of the other kinds of writing in which the audience 
addressed is less special and in which the writer is less interested 
in an immediate result? What of fiction, poetry, formal essays, 
articles of information? Is tone of no importance in these? Quite 
the contrary, even though no matter of practical expedience is in- 
volved. The tone of such writing may be of immense importance, 
for the tone frequently suggests how we are to "take" what is said. 


A little reflection will show that full meaning is rarely conveyed 
by literal statements. We constantly find that we must "read be- 
tween the lines" in order to understand a letter, or to take into 
account the tone of voice and the facial expressions in our conver- 
sation with a friend. To take a simple example, John tells Ben: 
"You have done well"; but the simple statement can convey any- 
thing from hearty commendation to hesitant and reluctant ap- 
proval, depending upon the way in which John says these words. 
We can go further: "You have done well" can even mean, when 
spoken in a certain tone of voice, that Ben has not done well at all, 
for John may be speaking ironically. 


IRONY always involves a discrepancy between the literal meaning 
of a statement and the actual meaning. The ironical statement says 
one thing on the surface, in actuality something rather different 
In a lighthearted, laughingly ironical statement the literal meaning 
may be only partially qualified; in a bitter and obvious irony (such 
as we call SARCASM), the literal meaning may be entirely reversed. 
Between delicate ironical qualification of a statement and sarcastic 
reversal of a statement there are a thousand possible shadings, and 
it is perhaps a pity that we do not have specific terms for them. 


But on second thought, our lack of the terms may be no real handi- 
cap. What is important is that we be aware of the fact of ironical 
qualification. Such qualification is important, even in everyday 
practical writing; and if we are to learn to write, we must learn 
how to qualify our statements so as to convey precisely what we 
want to say, and only what we want to say. 

We can say, then, that even in writing in which there is no prac- 
tical problem of adjustment to a particular audience, even in writ- 
ing addressed to an ideal reader, the matter of tone is of great 
consequence. In fiction, for example, mastery of tone may become 
almost the whole consequence; for tone, we must remember, repre- 
sents the author's total attitude as it is reflected in the work; the 
tone conveys the final shadings of meaning and interpretation which 
he wishes to convey. 

Tone may of course be handled successfully or unsuccessfully, 
and a failure in tone can be thoroughly disastrous. Let us illus- 
trate with examples both of failure and of success. 


The following passage consists of the last two paragraphs of 
Bret Harte's story, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." In the story the 
gambler and the prostitute rise to heroism as they try to shelter and 
protect the innocent girl who has fallen into their company when 
the whole party is overtaken by a severe snow storm in the moun- 
tains. The paragraphs that follow describe the last days of the two 
women, the innocent girl and the prostitute. 

The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them. Feathery drifts of snow, 
shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged birds, and 
settled about them as they slept. The moon through the rifted clouds 
looked down upon what had been the camp. But all human stain, all 
trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle merci- 
fully flung from above. 

They slept all day that day and the next, nor did they waken when 
voices and footsteps broke the silence of the camp. And when pitying 
fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have 
told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that 
had sinned. 

Here the author, in his anxiety to stress the pathos of the scene 
and the redemption of the fallen woman, is not content to let the 


scene speak for itself. The wind "lulls'* the two women; the moon 
looks down upon them; "a spotless mantle" is "mercifully flung 
from above." The pseudopoetic language, the suggestion that nature 
mercifully hides "all human stain," the general absence of restraint 
and reserveall indicate that the tone here is one of SENTIMENTAL- 
ITY; that is, emotion in excess of the occasion. The author wants his 
reader to respond powerfully and sympathetically. We are to feel 
the pathos of the women's death. 

What was Bret Harte's own attitude? One has to conclude that 
either he himself was "soft" (that is, that Bret Harte was taken in by 
his own attempt to "work up" an effect); or else that he was cyni- 
cally trying to seduce his reader into an emotional response which 
is not itself justified by the dramatic occasion that he provided. 
In either case most sensitive readers will feel that the tone is senti- 
mental. Sentimentality usually betrays itself by a conscious strain 
to work up the reader's feelings. Of course, in a sense, any appeal 
to our emotions represents an attempt "to work up" the effect. But 
it is one thing to do this skillfully and legitimately by presenting a 
scene with imaginative power, and it is quite a different thing to 
cram the emotion down the reader's throat. Readers may disagree 
on whether the response has been evoked legitimately or illegiti- 
mately (that is, sentimentally), but the principle involved is cru- 
cial. Otherwise any writer, however tawdry or mawkish, could 
demand our response simply by making a direct assault on our 

Contrast with the passage from Bret Harte the following passage 
(from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms), which describes an inci- 
dent in the retreat from Caporetto in World War I. The Germans 
have broken through the Italian lines, and the speaker, an American 
serving with the ambulances attached to the Italian army, has 
just been picked up by the Italian battle police, who are question- 
ing all who are separated from their units. 

This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to 
make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the 
pad of paper, and they were questioning another when they shot him. 
They made a point of being intent on questioning the next man while the 
man who had been questioned before was being shot. In this way there 
was obviously nothing they could do about it. I did not know whether 
I should wait to be questioned or make a break now. I was obviously a 


German in Italian uniform. I saw how their minds worked; if they had 
minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were 
saving their country. The second army was being re-formed beyond the 
Tagliamento. They were executing officers of the rank of major and 
above who were separated from their troops. They were dealing sum- 
marily with German agitators in Italian uniform. They wore steel hel- 
mets. Only two of us had steel helmets. Some of the carabinieri had 
them. The other carabinieri wore the wide hat. Airplanes we called 
them. We stood in the rain and were taken out one at a time to be ques- 
tioned and shot. So far they had shot every one they had questioned. 
The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern 
justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it. They 
were questioning a full colonel of a line regiment. ERNEST HEMINGWAY: 
A Farewell to Arms, Chap. 30. 3 

This passage ably illustrates the effectiveness in some contexts 
of UNDERSTATEMENT. The speaker's comments on the actions of his 
captors are studiedly dry. He allows the actions to speak for them- 
selves, his own commentary upon them being implied by the very 
act of refraining from the expected comment. The short sentences, 
the summary style, the repetitions all point up the irony. (Under- 
statement is a form of irony: the ironical contrast inheres in the 
discrepancy between what one would be expected to say and his 
actual refusal to say it.) Understatement then is the staple rhetorical 
device here, but the irony is occasionally allowed to become overt 
in such a passage as "if they had minds and if they worked/' 

Why does the author (who has on the whole avoided detailed 
description) give us the detail about the steel helmets? Because 
it points farther the ironical contrast: the men who have been under 
fire have not had the protection of the helmets. The men who are 
questioning them with that "devotion to stern justice of men deal- 
ing in death without being in any danger of it" do not need the 
helmets which they wear. Indeed, the steel helmets become a kind 
of symbol of the men who wear them: their reasoning and their 
justice is "steel-headed" in a double sense. 

Repetition in this passage also becomes an important adjunct 
of the ironical understatement. The word "questioned" (or "ques- 
tioning") for example, occurs in this passage no less than seven 

3 From A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, copyright, 1929, by 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 


times. As first used, it is used innocently and normally: it merely 
means "interrogated," with the implication that answers are ex- 
pected and that the answers given are attended to. But by the end 
of the passage it has become "loaded" with other meanings: it has 
come to mean to the speaker, and to us, "sentenced to death." That 
is, the "questioning" is an empty form; the answers do not matter, 
No one will pay attention to them anyway. But the speaker, as the 
narration continues, does not change his term or qualify it. He is 
content to continue to use the word "questioned" or "questioning,"" 
and his continuing to repeat the original word becomes thus a form 
of understatement. 

If the tone of this excerpt from A Farewell to Arms can fairly be 
described as that of understatement, the tone of the excerpt from 
Bret Harte is that of OVERSTATEMENT. But we are not, of course, to 
conclude that understatement is always successful or that over- 
statement always fails. The point to be made, rather, is this: that, 
for the writer of fiction and poetry, tone is important, just as im- 
portant as it is for the writer who wishes to produce some prac- 
tical effect. True, the poet or the writer of fiction can assume a 
fixed audience an ideal reader but even so, his attitude toward his 
material is of the utmost importance even if he is writing con- 
sciously only for himself. It is easy to see that the political writer, 
say, uses rhetorical blandishments at his peril; if he seems to play 
fast and loose with the truth, he may defeat his purpose by con- 
vincing his reader that he is using a specious rhetoric trying to per- 
suade the reader to accept a lie by playing on his emotions. But the 
writer of poetry and fiction, we ought to observe, does not try to 
win acceptance of a lie either fiction, though not "true," is not a 
lie. And even though his fiction is designed to stir the reader's 
emotions, he is not thereby entitled to use any device calculated 
to stir the emotions. For him, too, there is a problem of integrity; 
the emotional response must seem to spring legitimately from the 
situation which he presents. 


The problem of tone, then, is most important. There are obvi- 
ously too many shadings of tone for us to be able to set up ar 


elaborate classification. But it is possible to set down a few "don'ts" 
which have a very general application. 

1. Writing down. One must not "write down" to his audience. 
The sense of oversimple statement and painfully careful explana- 
tion can disgust the reader as quickly as any offense of which the 
writer is capable. Prose which is properly suited to an audience of 
eight-year-olds would prove completely tiresome, or, on the other 
hand, unintentionally funny, to a mature audience. Swift, for ex- 
ample, would have adopted a very different tone, had The Drapiers 
Letters been addressed to a lettered audience. 

2. False enthusiasm. The reader is also likely to resent any hint 
of synthetic breeziness and false camaraderie. It is a fault into which 
modern advertising is tending to press the whole civilization. Bug- 
eyed young matrons oo-la-la-ing over the purchase of sheets or 
toothbrushes, and the all-too-infectious joviality of supersalesmen, 
more and more fill the advertisements. The writer obviously wishes 
to gain a kind of liveliness and warmth in his style, but an artificial 
concoction of informality and sprightliness can be more depressing 
than a rather painful dryness. 

3. Sentimentality. This third fault is hardly likely to appear in 
most simple expository writing, but as we have seen in earlier 
chapters there is very little writing which is "simple expository." 
Sentimentality may show itself as simply gushiness or as a kind of 
hair-trigger emotional sensitiveness. But whatever form it takes, 
sentimentality always involves an implied demand, on the part of 
the writer, for more emotional response than the situation war- 
rants; and it implies, on the part of the sentimental reader, a will- 
ingness to respond emotionally when the response is not actually 


It scarcely needs to be said that the rules given on page 401 must 
not be applied mechanically. The problem of attitude is intimately 
bound up with the particular occasion presented, and what would 
be "writing down" in one situation might possibly be overwriting 
in another situation. Perhaps our best mode of procedure is to con- 
sider a series of examples of tone as growing out of particular 



First let us consider an example of persuasive exposition. In 
the passage that follows, Thomas Huxley is writing for an audience 
of intelligent laymen about scientific method. It is a nontechnical 
audience, but it is an audience capable of following an argument. 
Huxley takes pains to make himself clear, but he is not "writing 
down." In this passage he is concluding his argument that parts of 
England were once covered by the sea, and going on to argue that 
the period during which they were covered by the sea must have 
been a very long one. 

I think you will now allow that I did not overstate my case when I 
asserted that we have as strong grounds for believing that all the vast 
area of dry land, at present occupied by the chalk, was once at the 
bottom of the sea, as we have for any matter of history whatever; while 
there is no justification for any other belief. 

No less certain it is that the time during which the countries we now 
call south-east England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Egypt, Arabia, 
Syria, were more or less completely covered by a deep sea, was of con- 
siderable duration. We have already seen that the chalk is, in places, more 
than a thousand feet thick. I think you will agree with me, that it must 
have taken some time for the skeletons of animalcules of a hundredth 
of an inch in diameter to heap up such a mass as that. I have said that 
throughout the thickness of the chalk the remains of other animals are 
scattered. These remains are often in the most exquisite state of preserva- 
tion. The valves of the shellfishes are commonly adherent; the long 
spines of some of the sea-urchins, which would be detached by the 
smallest jar, often remain in their places. In a word, it is certain that 
these animals have lived and died when the place which they now 
occupy was the surface of as much of the chalk as had then been de- 
posited; and that each has been covered up by the layer of Globigerina 
mud, upon which the creatures imbedded a little higher up have, in 
like manner, lived and died. But some of these remains prove the 
existence of reptiles of vast size in the chalk sea. These lived their time, 
and had their ancestors and descendants, which assuredly implies time, 
reptiles being of slow growth. THOMAS HUXLEY: "On a Piece of Chalk/* 

It will of course occur to the reader that Huxley might have 
shortened his discussion considerably by omitting such phrases as 
"I think that you will now allow," "I think you will agree with me," 


"we have already seen," "I have said that/' "it is certain that." Why 
did he include them? He included them because he wished to re- 
assure his audience, to indicate to them the validity and reason- 
ableness of the inferences he was making, and to make certain that 
all seemed perfectly coherent. Such phrases, indeed, tell us a great 
deal about the way in which Huxley envisaged his audience and 
about his attitude toward that audience. 

Huxley evidently respects his typical hearer, even though his 
hearer has no technical knowledge of geology. Huxley does not 
water down his conclusions for him. He refuses to overwhelm him 
with authority. As a matter of fact, Huxley does just the reverse 
of this: he presents him with the evidence, and attempts to show 
him why certain conclusions and only certain conclusions can be 
fairly inferred from the evidence. Huxley, it is obvious, has com- 
plete confidence in the case that he is making; but his confidence 
nowhere reflects itself as arrogance. 

To take up one further illustration: Why does Huxley go to the 
pains that he does to show that the easily detached spines of some 
of the sea-urchins often remain in place? It is another evidence 
of his respect for the intelligence of his audience. He does this 
obviously in order to forestall the possible objection that the re- 
mains of the sea-urchins were thrown up on the chalk at some later 
date. That the spines are still in place indicates that the creatures 
must "have lived and died when the place that they now occupy 
was the surface of as much of the chalk as had then been de- 

The next passage will illustrate persuasive argument. 

From 1937, when he made his "quarantine" speech in Chicago until 
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt struggled with 
the problem of making our bankrupt foreign position solvent. As early 
as 1937 it was clear that the American situation demanded an immediate, 
intensified expansion of our armed forces, the fortification of our strategic 
commitments in Alaska, Guam, the Philippines, and Panama, and the 
formation of arrangements for mutual aid with Great Britain, France, 
and China our obvious allies in an attack which was being prepared 
against them and against us alike. But this prudent course was held to 
be politically imprudent. This is another way of saying that the Ameri- 
can people would not agree to protect their vital interests because they 
had no foreign policy which disclosed their vital interests. 


Thus from 1937 to 1940 President Roosevelt moved anxiously and 
hesitantly between his knowledge of what ought to be done and his 
estimate of how much the people would understand what ought to be 
done. I shall not attempt to answer the question whether he could have 
made the people understand how great was their peril because their 
commitments were totally unbalanced. The illusions of a century stood 
in the way of their understanding, and it may be that no words, but 
only the awful experience of total war, could even partially dispel the 
illusion. WALTER LIPPMANN: 17. S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Repub- 
lic, Chap. 4. 4 

Lippmann's general thesis is that we have lacked a meaningful 
foreign policy for a very long time, and that our misunderstanding 
of the problem has been general not confined to one party or 
group. The purpose of his book is to persuade the American citizen 
to agree with him that the problem of foreign policy has been con- 
sistently misunderstood, and to accept now a different conception 
of it. But Lippmann's purpose is to win over to his thesis all Ameri- 
can citizens, not merely those that are Republicans or those that are 

In illustrating his thesis from an episode in Roosevelt's presi- 
dency, it is not to Lippmann's purpose either to attack or to defend 
Roosevelt. Presumably Lippmann is sympathetic with Roosevelt's 
dilemma. But whether he is sympathetic or whether he is not, his 
primary purpose in this book is to make his general point, if pos- 
sible, without alienating the reader who may be enthusiastically 
pro-Roosevelt or bitterly anti-Roosevelt. This purpose definitely 
determines the tone of this passage. 

How powerfully it determines the tone can easily be demon- 
strated by rewriting a few of the sentences. Suppose Lippmann's 
attitude toward Roosevelt were more sharply critical ( or that Lipp- 
mann did not mind alienating the fiercely pro-Roosevelt reader). 
Instead of "But this prudent course was held to be politically im- 
prudent," he might have written: "But Roosevelt held this prudent 
course to be politically imprudent," or more bitterly, "But Roose- 
velt allowed political expediency to overrule what was the prudent 
course for the nation." Again, in the first sentence of the second 
paragraph, he might have substituted for "moved anxiously and 

4 From Walter Lippmann, Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic by per- 
mission of Little, Brown and Company and the Atlantic Monthly Press. 


hesitantly" the one word "vacillated." In the next sentence, he 
might have written, not '1 shall not attempt to answer the ques- 
tion . . . ," but "I prefer not to try to answer the question," or 
"Perhaps we had better leave to Roosevelt's conscience the ques- 
tion/' Such changes as these, plus minor changes to bring the rest 
of the passage into line with them, would alter the tone drasti- 
cally, and with it, the total import of the whole passage. 


In the passage that follows, the author, William Makepeace 
Thackeray, makes his tone clearly evident, and indeed raucously 
evident. The passage quoted is taken from Vanity Fair, Chap. 48. 
The author has for a moment dropped his role as narrator of the 
novel and describes an occasion on which he saw King George IV. 

The King? There he was. Beefeaters were before the august box; the 
Marquis of Steyne (Lord of the Powder Closet) and other great officers 
of state were behind the chair on which he sate, He sate florid of 
face, portly of person, covered with orders, and in a rich curling head of 
hair. How we sang, God Save Him! How the house rocked and shouted 
with that magnificent music. . . . Ladies wept; mothers clasped their 
children; some fainted with emotion. . . . Yes, we saw him. Fate cannot 
deprive us of that. Others have seen Napoleon. Some few still exist who 
have beheld Frederick the Great, Doctor Johnson, Marie Antoinette, etc.: 
be it our reasonable boast to our children that we saw George the Good, 
the Magnificent, the Great. 

In this mock-ecstatic tribute to George IV, Thackeray makes use 
of an obvious sarcasm. The literal profession of his awe of the 
great person is completely reversed by the tone in which the pro- 
fession is given. Though pretending to praise, Thackeray indicates 
clearly enough what his real attitude is: by his exaggerated use of 
capitals and italics; by his hyperbolic laudation; by the qualities 
which he singles out for notice "florid of face, portly of person." 

Thackeray's sarcasm is almost too obvious. It verges on the bur- 
lesque. But irony can be used in much more subtle and much more 
effective fashion. Notice how John Dryden uses irony in his refer- 
ence to Jeremy Collier in the passage quoted below. Collier, a 
clergyman, had violently attacked the writers of plays, including 
Dryden, for their obscenity and immorality. Here follows Dryden's 


I shall say the less of Mr. Collier, because in many things he has taxed 
me justly; and I have pleaded guilty to all thoughts and expressions of 
mine, which can be truly argued of obscenity, profaneness, or immoral- 
ity, and retract them. If he be my enemy, let him triumph; if he be my 
friend, as I have given him no personal occasion to be otherwise, he 
will be glad of my repentance. It becomes me not to draw my pen in 
the defense of a bad cause, when I have so often drawn it for a good 
one. Yet it were not difficult to prove, that in many places he has per- 
verted my meaning by his glosses, and interpreted my words into blas- 
phemy and bawdry, of which they were not guilty. Besides that, he is 
too much given to horse-play in his raillery, and comes to battle like a 
dictator from the plough. I will not say, The Zeal of God's House has 
eaten him up; but I am sure it has devoured some part of his good 
manners and civility. It might also be doubted, whether it were alto- 
gether zeal which prompted him to this rough manner of proceeding; 
perhaps it became not one of his function to rake into the rubbish of 
ancient and modern plays; a divine might have employed his pains to 
better purpose, than in the nastiness of Plautus and Aristophanes, whose 
examples, as they excuse not me, so it might be possibly supposed, that 
he read them not without some pleasure. 

It is highly important, in view of Dryden's later sentences, that 
he should begin with a manly confession of his own guilt. Dryden 
makes his confession quietly but quite positively "I have pleaded 
guilty to all thoughts ... if he be my friend ... he will be glad 
of my repentance/' The next sentence "It becomes me not to draw 
my pen . . /'breathes a confidence in his own general integrity 
which accounts for the fact that he can afford to plead guilty, but 
it also looks forward to the treatment which he proposes to deal 
out to Collier because of the character of Collier's attack. Dryden's 
own counterattack is gradually developed as the paragraph goes 
on. It comes with deadly effect because it is made quietly and 
because it has been prepared for. More obvious irony would make 
his castigation of Collier seem heavy-handed and strained, As it is, 
Dryden has managed to suggest powerfully a sense of his own 
composure and self-confidence, and further to suggest Collier's 
own frenetic and bad-humored attitude. 


John Diyden's answer to Collier is, as we have just observed, 
a fine example of the subtlety of tone that may be achieved by a 


writer who can count upon cultivated readers. The public orator 
will usually aim at a different kind of effect and will make use of 
rhetorical devices appropriate to that effect. The passage which 
follows is the last paragraph of the now famous speech which 
Winston Churchill delivered before the House of Commons on 
June 4, 1940, just after the British Army had been successfully 
removed from Dunkirk. 

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is 
neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being 
made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island 
home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of 
tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessaiy alone. At any rate, that is 
what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty's 
Government every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the 
nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together 
in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native 
soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. 
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States 
have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious 
apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the 
end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we 
shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 
we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight 
on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in 
the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never 
surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island 
or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire 
beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry 
on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the new world, with all its 
power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old. 
WINSTON CHURCHILL: Blood, Sweat, and Tears. 5 

Churchill's purpose was to rally the British people in a firm deter- 
mination to continue their resistance in spite of the disastrous loss 
of North France and the Channel ports. But he was speaking, of 
course, also to a world audience, an audience which also had to be 
given confidence in British determination to carry on the war. 
Notice the amount of repetition in this closing paragraph. Is it 

5 From Blood, Sweat, and Tears by Winston Churchill, copyright, 1941, by 
G. P. Putnam's Sons. 


justified? Why does it not grow monotonous? Would it be par- 
ticularly effective in oral delivery? Notice too that the specification 
of the places where the British will continue to fight makes a kind 
of progression, moving from France, from which the British Army 
had just been evacuated, to "our island," and then on to "our 
Empire beyond the seas/' Does this progression prevent the repe- 
tition of "we shall fight" from becoming monotonous? Notice too 
that Churchill is willing to entertain the possibility that "this island" 
may be subjugated. Does the admission of the possibility under- 
mine the sense of resolution? Or does it strengthen it? 

The reader might also notice that the peroration of this speech 
is closely linked to the events which had just occurred at Dunkirk 
where the Navy had rendered splendid service. Does this linkage 
help give new strength to the otherwise rather worn metaphor 
"storm of war"? Does it help account for Churchill's putting his 
mention of the British Fleet in climactic position? 

This speech by Churchill represents the effect sought by the 
orator on a high occasion. It is political in the best sense of the 
term, for the speaker was not only speaking to an audience but 
speaking consciously as the mouthpiece of a whole people. Yet the 
rhetorical effect sought would be quite out of place in the passage 
which follows, a passage which is also political, but "private" and 
personal. It is an excerpt from one of Thomas Jefferson's letters 
to his friend and former political rival, John Adams. 

... I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The? 
grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly, bodily powers gave 
place among the aristoi. But, since the invention of gunpowder has armed 
the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like 
beauty, good humor, politeness, and other accomplishments, has become 
but an auxiliary ground for distinction. There is also an artificial aris- 
tocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; 
for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy 
I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the 
trusts, and government of society. And, indeed, it would have been in- 
consistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not 
to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of 
the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the 
best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these 
natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy 


is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made 
to prevent its ascendancy. On the question what is the best provision, 
you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise 
of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors. You think it best 
to put the pseudo aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation, where 
they may be hindered from doing mischief by their co-ordinate branches, 
and where, also, they may be a protection to wealth against the agrarian 
and plundering enterprises of the majority of the people. I think that 
to give them power in order to prevent them from doing mischief is 
arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil. For, if 
the co-ordinate branches can arrest their action, so may they that of 
the co-ordinates. Mischief may be done negatively as well as positively. 
Of this a cabal in the Senate of the United States has furnished many 
proofs. Nor do I believe them necessary to protect the wealthy, because 
enough of these will find their way into every branch of the legislation 
to protect themselves. From fifteen to twenty legislatures of our own, 
in action for thirty years past, have proved that no fears of an equaliza- 
tion of property are to be apprehended from them. I think the best 
remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the 
citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo 
aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really 
good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind 
them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger society. 

The tone of this passage is not formal and public, but informal 
and private, as befits a letter from a wise and seasoned statesman 
to a wise and seasoned friend. Jefferson disagrees with Adams, but 
.there is no rancor in the disagreement. (They differ "as rational 
friends/') Indeed, the paragraph in question represents Jefferson's 
attempt to put their fundamental disagreement in its clearest light. 
He can appeal to the political experience shared by both of them, 
and this means that he need not go into detail with some of his 
illustrations. He can also count upon Adams' own sense of language 
and even on his knowledge of Greek; and so Jefferson uses the term 
aristoi (which means "the best") naturally and gracefully. More- 
over, Jefferson does not need to identify "best." Adams will know 
that he means those "best fitted to hold office." 

Jefferson does not claim too much. He can make reasonable con- 
cessions (note the last sentence in the excerpt), for this is not a 
lawyer's brief in which he must put the best possible face on the 
position he maintains, nor is it a public speech which must offer 


no loopholes to his opponents. It is a letter, a letter to a "rational 
friend," and the tone has the candor and the reasonableness of such 
a letter. 


The so-called FAMILIAR ESSAY depends upon tone for its special 
character. Indeed, without employing the concept of tone, it is 
difficult to define the familiar essay at all. For the essence of the 
familiar essay does not reside in subject or theme or even style, if 
we use style in the most general sense of that term. The essence 
resides in a certain geniality of tone. There are familiar essays on all 
sorts of subjects and they make use of long sentences or short, vivid 
descriptions or no descriptions at all, quotations from the classic 
English authors or no quotations. The one matter which they have 
in common is a special attitude toward the audience, and varia- 
tions of tone which reflect this attitude. 


In this connection consider the opening paragraphs of a cele- 
brated familiar essay, Charles Lamb's "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on 

"A clear fire, a clean hearth, and the rigour of the game." This was the 
celebrated wish of old Sarah Battle (now with God) who, next to her 
devotions, loved a good game at whist. She was none of your lukewarm 
gamesters, your half-and-half players, who have no objection to take a 
hand, if you want one to make up a rubber; who affirm that they have 
no pleasure in winning; that they like to win one game and lose an- 
other; that they can while away an hour very agreeably at a cardtable, 
but are indifferent whether they play or no; and will desire an adversary, 
who has slipped a wrong card, to take it up and play another. These 
insufferable triflers are the curse of a table. One of these flies will spoil 
a whole pot. Of such it may be said that they do not play at cards, but 
only play at playing at them. 

Sarah Battle was none of that breed. She detested them, as I do, from 
her heart and soul; and would not, save upon a striking emergency, 
willingly seat herself at the same table with them. She loved a thorough- 
paced partner, a determined enemy. She took, and gave, no concessions. 
She hated favours. She never made a revoke, nor ever passed it over in 


her adversary without exacting the utmost forfeiture. She fought a good 
fight: cut and thrust. She held not her good sword (her cards) "like a 
dancer." She sate bolt upright; and neither showed you her cards, nor 
desired to see yours. All people have their blind side their superstitions; 
and I have heard her declare, under the rose, that Hearts was her 
favourite suit. 

What is Lamb's attitude toward his reader? Basically, the atti- 
tude assumes that the reader is a companion who is accepted on 
terms of friendly equality. The assumption, indeed, makes further 
claims still: it assumes that the reader is one of the initiate. He can 
be counted on to appreciate the writer's values, to respond to his 
jests, to understand his allusions, to take, without any urging, the 
writer's own attitude toward the materials with which he deals. 

Because this attitude is basic, the familiar essay frequently makes 
use of literary allusions, quotations and semi-quotations from the 
classics, the more subtle forms of irony, and, in general, all the 
devices of indirection. Such devices can be employed because it is 
assumed that the reader is able to follow them, and moreover, that 
he will relish them. But these devices do not in themselves give 
us a familiar essay. Stevenson's "Pulvis et Umbra" ( p. 415 ) is hardly 
an informal essay, though it contains many literary allusions; nor 
is Johnson's letter to Macpherson, though its tone is ironical. The 
informal essay requires a tone more special still. 

The passage quoted from Lamb will illustrate. Lamb's implied 
attitude toward his reader is very different from his attitude, say, 
toward Mrs. Battle herself. Though Lamb obviously admires Mrs. 
Battle, he is capable of smiling at her too; and we are expected to 
join him in smiling. Mrs. Battle is presented, mock-heroically, as a 
warrior. She is stern; she is even grim; she lives by a strict code, 
insisting that her opponent live by the same, and valuing a foeman 
worthy of her steel. (The whist-warfare analogy, by the way, runs 
through the whole essay.) 

In this passage she is said, in accordance with St. Paul's injunc- 
tion, to have "fought a good fight"; she has the contempt of Shake- 
speare's battle-scarred warrior Antony for one who held his sword 
"like a dancer." The information that Hearts was her favorite suit 
is given with the air of divulging an amiable foible in an otherwise 
grim old warrior who might be thought to have had none. 

But the irony generated in the cards-warfare contrast is directed 


at Sarah Battle with a difference. The speaker is careful to align 
himself on Sarah Battle's side. Ostensibly he agrees with her in the 
zest which he takes in mimicking the excuses of her adversaries 
("they can while away an hour very agreeably at a cardtable"), in 
joining in her detestation of those who "only play at playing at" 
cards ("She detested them, as I do"), in the mock-reverence with 
which he speaks of her ("now with God"). If, however, someone 
argues that the mock-reverence is not merely mock-reverence, but 
has an aspect of sincerity and affection, that is perfectly true. Sarah 
Battle is described in terms of an irony so gentle that it is finally 
affectionate. But this is just the point: the writer of the informal 
essay makes use of a complex tone: he can assume that his audience 
will be alive to nuance and inflection. 

Compare in this matter of tone a modern example of the familiar 
essayon quite another topic, and in quite another style. 

I see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to 
buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford, but I am not deceived. The great 
days have faded, the end is in sight. Only one page in the current 
catalogue is devoted to parts and accessories for the Model T; yet every- 
one remembers springtimes when the Ford gadget section was larger 
than men's clothing, almost as large as household furnishings. The last 
Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars 
call the American scene which is an understatement, because to a few 
million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the 
American scene. 

It was the miracle God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of 
thing that could only happen once. Mechanically uncanny, it was like 
nothing that had ever come to the world before. Flourishing industries 
rose and fell with it. As a vehicle, it was hard-working, commonplace, 
heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who 
rode in it. My own generation identifies it with Youth, with its gaudy, 
irretrievable excitements; before it fades into the mist, I would like to 
pay it the tribute of the sigh that is not a sob, and set down random 
entries in a shape somewhat less cumbersome than a Sears Roebuck 

The Model T was distinguished from all other makes of cars by the 
fact that its transmission was of a type known as planetary which was 
half metaphysics, half sheer friction. Engineers accepted the word 
"planetary" in its epicyclic sense, but I was always conscious that it also 
means "wandering," "erratic." Because of the peculiar nature of this 


planetary element, there was always, in Model T, a certain dull rapport 
between engine and wheels, and, even when the car was in a state 
known as neutral, it trembled with a deep imperative and tended to 
inch forward. There was never a moment when the bands were not 
faintly egging the machine on. In this respect it was like a horse, rolling 
the bit on its tongue, and country people brought to it the same tech- 
nique they used with draft animals. LEE STROUT WHITE: "Farewell, My 
Lovely." fl 

Here we feel that we are hardly asked to be on the alert for quo- 
tations from the Bible and Shakespeare. Rather it is assumed that 
we are familiar with the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. (Even so, the 
number of literary quotations is more important than might be 
thought: the clich "the American scene"; the first message sent 
over the telegraph wires, "What hath God wrought!"; "the tribute 
of a sigh" from Gray's "Elegy.") It is assumed then that the reader 
will be familiar with the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and with the 
Model T; but it is also assumed that, unlike the average Sears, 
Roebuck reader, he will also be conversant with epicycles and 
metaphysics. For unless he knows something of both, he will miss 
a good deal of the humor, and he may fail to realize that the "sigh 
that is not a sob" is a gentle noise, which for its full suspiration, 
requires that the tongue be held in the cheek. 

Certainly, to enjoy the essay the reader must be aware that the 
authors lament the passing of the Model T with mock seriousness. 
And, if the reader objects that, as with Lamb's essay, the serious- 
ness of the lament has its element of sincerity, one must emphati- 
cally agree. Of course it has; but to realize this is but to realize more 
fully the extent to which the author of the familiar essay takes his 
reader into his confidence. We can perhaps see the matter more 
clearly by discriminating the kinds of statement: direct, simple 
ironical, and complex ironical. In the first, the writer states his atti- 
tude directly and straightforwardly. In the second, he states it ironi- 
cally and indirectly: that is, he pretends to champion a position at 
variance with his real position. In the third, the method is still more 
indirect, for here his irony partially doubles back upon itself. His 
attitude of affirmation and admiration is given in an indirect and 

6 From "Farewell, My Lovely," by Lee Strout White. Copyright 1936 The 
New Yorker Magazine, Inc. (Formerly The F-R Publishing Corporation.) 


ironic form, which, though the reader has learned to associate that 
form with negation, here carries an element of positive compliment. 


A relative complexity of tone may, however, characterize essays 
which are not familiar at all. The familiar or informal essay always 
has as one of the ingredients of its tone an element of casualness 
and an acceptance of the reader on the same footing as the writer. 
Stevenson's "Pulvis et Umbra," an excerpt of which follows, will 
illustrate the point by contrast. For in this essay Stevenson's manner 
suggests a kind of formality, a mounting of the rostrum, a speaking 
of a set piece to an audience all of which makes his essay a formal 
declamation as Lamb's essay on Mrs. Battle, or the White essay on 
the Model T, is not. 

We look for some reward of our endeavours and are disappointed; 
not success, not happiness, not even peace of conscience, crowns our 
ineffectual efforts to do well. Our frailties are invincible, our virtues bar- 
ren; the battle goes sore against us to the going down of the sun. The 
canting moralist tells us of right and wrong; and we look abroad, even 
on the face of our small earth, and find them change with every climate, 
and no country where some action is not honoured for a virtue and 
none where it is not branded for a vice; and we look in our experience, 
and find no vital congruity in the wisest rules, but at the best a municipal 
fitness. It is not strange if we are tempted to despair of good. We ask 
too much. Our religions and moralities have been trimmed to flatter us, 
till they are all emasculate and sentimentalized, and only please and 
weaken. Truth is of a rougher strain. In the harsh face of life, faith can 
be read a bracing gospel. The human race is a thing more ancient than 
the ten commandments; and the bones and revolutions of the Kosmos, 
in whose joints we are but moss and fungus, more ancient still. 

There is one sense, of course, in which Stevenson takes his stand 
on the same level as the reader. He writes "We look for," "Our 
frailties are invincible," "The canting moralist tells us of right and 
wrong." Stevenson thus properly includes himself in his commen- 
tary on mankind. But his essay is a commentary on mankindnot 
a casual chat with Tom, Dick, or Harry, the writer's good friend. 

The tone of formal, meditated, "public" utterance reveals itself 
in half-a-dozen ways. To consider only a few: (1) the vocabulary 
is more "literary" than Stevenson would have used in an informal 


essay. Thus, he writes "the battle goes sore against us" rather than 
"the battle goes against us" or, more colloquially still, "we begin 
to lose out." (2) He gives us echoes of the King James Version of 
the Bible. Thus, "to the going down of the sun." (cf. Joshua 10:27, 
"And it came to pass at the time of the going down of the sun, that 
Joshua commanded . . .") (3) Stevenson formalizes the rhythms to 
give a sense of balanced antithesis, particularly in the closing sen- 
tence of the paragraph: "The human race is a thing more ancient 
than the ten commandments; and the bones and revolutions of the 
Kosmos, in whose joints we are but moss and fungus, more ancient 


Let us consider one more example of complexity of tone, taken 
this time, not from an essay either formal or informal, but from an 
autobiography. In the passage which follows, T. E. Lawrence de- 
scribes an incident that occurred in Arabia during World War I 
while he was serving with the Arabs in their revolt against Turkey. 
The incident occurred while Lawrence was leading a raiding party 
of Arab tribesmen. 

My followers had been quarrelling all day, and while I was lying 
near the rocks a shot was fired. I paid no attention; for there were hares 
and birds in the valley; but a little later Suleiman roused me and made 
me follow him across the valley to an opposite bay in the rocks, where 
one of the Ageyl, a Boreida man, was lying stone dead with a bullet 
through his temples. The shot must have been fired from close by; be- 
cause the skin was burnt about the wound. The remaining Ageyl were 
running frantically about; and when I asked what it was, Ali, their head 
man, said that Hamed the Moor had done the murder. I suspected 
Suleiman, because of the feud between the Atban and Ageyl . . . but 
Ali assured me that Suleiman had been with him three hundred yards 
further up the valley gathering sticks when the shot was fired. I sent all 
out to search for Hamed, and crawled back to the baggage, feeling that 
it need not have happened this day of all days when I was in pain. 

As I lay there I heard a rustle, and opened my eyes slowly upon 
Hamed's back as he stooped over his saddle-bags, which lay just be- 
yond my rock. I covered him with a pistol and then spoke. He had put 
down his rifle to lift the gear: and was at my mercy till the others came. 


We held a court at once; and after a while Hamed confessed that, he and 
Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly. Our 
inquiry ended. The Ageyl, as relatives of the dead man, demanded blood 
for blood. The others supported them; and I tried vainly to talk the 
gentle Ali round. My head was aching with fever and I could not think; 
but hardly even in health, with all eloquence, could I have begged 
Hamed off; for Salem had been a friendly fellow and his sudden murder 
a wanton crime. 

Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice 
like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. 
There were other Moroccans in our army; [Hamed the Moor was a 
Moroccan] and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which 
our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, 
and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, 
and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count 
me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my 
followers; for I was a stranger and kinless. 

I made him enter a narrow gully of the spur, a dank twilight place 
overgrown with weeds. Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of 
water down the cliffs in the late rain. At the end it shrank to a crack a 
few inches wide. The walls were vertical. I stood in the entrance and 
gave him a few moments' delay which he spent crying on the ground. 
Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on 
the weeds shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his 
clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was. I fired 
again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist. He went on calling 
out, less loudly, now lying on his back with his feet towards me, and I 
leant forward and shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck 
under the jaw. His body shivered a little, and I called the Ageyl; who 
buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night 
dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made 
them load, in my longing to be free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me 
into the saddle. T. E. LAWRENCE: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chap. 31. r 

What is Lawrence's attitude toward Hamed? Toward the Arabs 
and their blood feuds? Most of all, toward himself? Is he ashamed 
of himself? Proud of himself? Complacent and untroubled about 

One's first impression is that the incident is told with detachment 
and an almost studied dryness; and so, in a sense, it is. But it is 

1 From: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Copyright 1925, 1935 
by Doubleday & Company, Inc. 


evident that Lawrence is not glossing over the incident casually 
and briefly. He develops it, and he gives us even minute details: 
e.g., "bullet through his temples," "as he stooped over his saddle- 
bags," "shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck under the 
jaw." Even the scene of the execution, the gully, is described care- 
fully and precisely: "Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of 
water down the cliffs in the late rain." 

The narrator evidently remembers the whole incident vividly, 
and knows how to make the incident vivid to his reader. Why, then, 
is he not much more explicit about his own feelings and attitudes? 
Would anything have been gained if Lawrence had added a long 
paragraph describing the feelings that passed through his mind as 
he decided that he must act as executioner? Would anything have 
been lost? Notice that Lawrence is willing to use the word "horror," 
but he does not write, "As a civilized man I was overwhelmed with 
horror," but rather, "Then rose up the horror which would make 
civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to 
serve him as hangmen for wages." Why does Lawrence, in this 
most explicit account of his own feelings, prefer the generalized 

A little meditation on these questions is likely to result in some 
such conclusion as this: that Lawrence, far from remaining cool 
and detached, was indeed terribly shaken by the experience, but 
that, nevertheless, he preferred to make his account of the experi- 
ence as detached and objective as was possible. He chose to give 
a rather restrained account of his actions, leaving his reader to 
infer from the actions themselves what his feelings must have been. 
True, Lawrence once uses the word "desperately" and he refers to 
"the horror which would make civilized man shun justice," had 
he to execute justice in his own person. But these are almost the 
only explicit references to his feelings; and in the account of the 
actual execution, there are none at all. 

This restraint itself has an important effect on the tone: it implies 
a certain modesty (his own mental anguish is not allowed to domi- 
nate the story as if Lawrence thought his anguish the important 
thing in the episode ) ; it implies a certain confidence in the reader's 
maturity and sensitiveness the reader need not be "told" what 
Lawrence was feeling. But the restraint, here, is of still further 
importance: the restraint manifested in Lawrence's account of his 


action is a reflection of, and a type of, the disciplined control which 
he imposed on his followers and on himself in the desert. The man 
who relates the action is the man who acted, and his manner of 
writing about the event suggests his attitude toward the event itself. 

There is a more general conclusion about tone which may be 
drawn from this example, and it is a conclusion which is well worth 
pointing out to the reader. It is this: that subtlety of attitude and 
complexity of attitude frequently (one is tempted to say usually) 
can only be suggested, not stated directly. The writer has to trust 
to the effect of the whole passage, or even the whole book not to 
explicit statements of his feeling. This means that he has to place 
a good deal of reliance upon his audience. (A twelve-year-old reader 
might well decide, on reading the passage, that Lawrence was a 
callous man, or that he considered the Arabs to be bloodthirsty 
savages and therefore without the feelings of real human beings, 
or even that he got a positive satisfaction out of ridding the earth 
of Hamed, the wanton killer.) Finally, if the writer must trust to 
the maturity of his audience, he will do well to appeal to their 
imaginations to make every detail sharp and concrete, as Lawrence 
does herebut he will wisely avoid writing down to them or at- 
tempting to play upon their heartstrings. 

The examples of tone that we have considered in this chapter 
indicate how wide the range of tone is and how difficult it is to 
speak of tone abstractly and in general. For the tone of a piece 
of writing, as the various examples make plain, is intimately related 
to the occasion which calls forth the writing, and is as intimately 
related to the author's general purpose. In some instances the tone 
may be as elusive as the expression of personality itself; but it can 
be, as our examples have shown, of the utmost importance. It is 
not to be thought of as decoration as a mere grace of style; it is 
an integral sometimes the central part of the meaning. 

Our examples also indicate that the tone may be generated 
through all sorts of subtle devices; that, indeed, there is no set and 
specific way in which tone is indicated. Because of this fact it has 
been difficult to do full justice to the subject in this chapter, for it 
has been impossible to give examples of great length, and so, since 
tone is the quality of the whole context, the most important mani- 
festations of tone the tone of a whole novel or essay or history- 
could not be illustrated. 



Earlier in this chapter we spoke of tone as the reflection of the 
author's attitude toward his audience or toward his material, with- 
out making any elaborate distinction between the two levels of atti- 
tude. But the reader may well ask: When should attitude toward 
the audience dominate, and when attitude toward the material? 

Writing which demands that the author take into account his 
particular audience is, as we have seen, always "practical" writing 
writing designed to effect some definite thing. The advertiser is 
trying to persuade the housewife to buy something. The politician 
delivers a speech which he hopes will induce citizens to vote for 
him. Or, to take a more exalted case (for there need be no self- 
interest), a statesman urges a nation (through his writing and his 
speeches) to adopt a certain course of action. But these cases all 
have one thing in common: they are designed to secure a practical 
end. An audience is to be won to agreement or urged to action. 

If such writing is to be effective, the author must, of course, keep 
his audience constantly in mind. An approach that is calculated to 
win the suffrage of one audience may very well repel another. The 
age, the intelligence, the amount of education, the interest, the 
habits and prejudices must all be taken into account. The skillful 
management of such problems is an aspect of rhetoric, and for many 
people rhetoric has come to mean largely the art of persuasion. 
Rhetoric has therefore come to have something of a bad name, as if 
it consisted in cold-bloodedly fitting the statement to the emotional 
background and even to the prejudices of the audience. Certainly 
rhetoric is an instrument which can be used for bad ends, and a 
rhetorical appeal which, in its anxiety to produce an effect, ignores 
truth and relevance is vicious. But the fact that it may be misused 
does not render the instrument vicious. It may be properly used, 
and it is the part of common sense for a writer to take his special 
audience into account as he tries to gain their conviction. One may 
illustrate from Churchill's speech (p. 408), but one may also cite 
in this connection the passage from Huxley (p. 403). For Huxley, 
as contrasted with the ordinary mathematician or geologist, has a 
"practical" end in view; and by the same token, he has a special 
audience. The scientist acting strictly as scientist does not argue 
with his reader; he "just tells him." The facts speak for themselves, 


and in purely technical writing they are allowed to speak for them- 
selves. But they speak fully only to a specially trained audience. 
In the work from which we have quoted, Huxley is writing for an 
audience that is not so trained, and the tone which he adopts toward 
his readers quite properly takes that fact into account. 

The writer, however, when he finds that he must address him- 
self to a general reader rather than to some specific and quite special 
reader, may find that the problem of tone becomes difficult because 
he lacks a definite target at which to aim. Yet all good writing is 
addressed to a reader, even though that reader is an ideal reader, 
not a limited and special reader. One could argue, in fact, that 
because the ideal reader is ideal, his intelligence, his sensitivity, 
his general discrimination are to be honored and respected all the 
more. This is to say what has been said earlier, that we do not 
evade the problem of tone by addressing ourselves to the reader- 
in-general rather than to Tom, Dick, or Harry. In fact, the problem 
of tone here becomes more important, not less important. The 
writer, however, even though agreeing with what has just been 
argued, may find that the ideal reader remains too shadowy to 
furnish him something definite to shoot at. In that case it may be 
of practical help, as he writes, to think of some particular person, 
the most intelligent and discriminating person that he knows. If he 
can please that person and be convincing to that person, the prob- 
lem of tone will probably have been taken care of quite adequately. 

There is another way of solving the problem practically: we say 
that the author writes for a particular audience, but he also writes 
for himself. There is his own sense of fitness that must be satisfied. 
The writer himself becomes the audience at which he aims. The 
question which he asks himself is not, "Have I made this convinc- 
ing to Tom or to Dick or to Harry?" but rather, "Have I made this 
convincing to myself?"; or, to put the matter more succinctly still, 
"Have I made this convincing?" 

In writing for this "ideal" reader, then, the author can transpose 
all problems of tone into the problem of handling his material itself. 
The problem of tone alters only when the writing is addressed 
specifically to Tom or to Dick not to just any reader and in pro- 
portion as Tom or Dick differs from the ideal reader. 

Let us, however, give one further illustration of the relation 
between these two aspects of tone, tone as modified by the special 


audience, and tone as modified only by the nature of the material. 
Let us look back at the passage quoted from Seven Pillars of Wis- 
dom (p. 416). The passage, as we saw, tells us a good deal about 
Lawrence's character, and it makes a commentary on a number 
of things: to mention only a few, on the Arabs, on justice, and on 
capital punishment. But as we have already observed, such writing 
makes its points by implication, and it requires a mature reader. 
For the ideal reader, no alteration of tone is required, and Lawrence 
has managed his problem of tone in probably the most satisfactory 
way possible. 

But let us suppose that Lawrence were relating the episode to 
an audience which was complacent in its contempt for the "bar- 
barian" Arabs. Unless his attitude toward the Arabs were to be 
completely distorted, Lawrence would have to alter the tone to 
take the prejudices of his audience into account. In particular, he 
would have to make much more explicit the fact that the Arabs 
honestly faced up to their imposition of the death penalty as the 
more sentimental, but ultimately more callous, citizen of England 
or America refuses to face it. 

Or suppose that Lawrence were standing for a seat in Parliament, 
and a garbled account of the incident were being used against him. 
He might be content to rely upon the relation which he has given 
in Seven Pillars. Properly read, it shows him to be anything but 
calloused and insensitive. But the politician cannot afford to risk 
what the artist can. The objectivity of his account might have to 
be qualified. What his feelings and attitudes were could not safely 
be left to inference. Lawrence would have to state them explicitly. 
In general, the rewritten account would be focused not on the 
drama of the scene itself, but on Lawrence's personal feelings and 
his struggle with duty. 


Every piece of discourse implies a particular situation, a situation 
which involves a certain kind of reader and an occasion that ac- 
counts for that reader's being addressed. Even technical writing 
assumes a special situation, one which involves a reader who need 
not be coaxed and who has an interest that transcends any particu- 
lar occasion. 


Just as every piece of discourse implies a particular situation, 
it also implies a particular TONE. "Tone" may be defined as the 
reflection in the writing itself of the author's ATTITUDE toward his 
audience and toward his material. (The term is a metaphor derived 
from the tone of the voice in which an utterance is made. The writer 
cannot indicate his attitude, as the speaker can, by the tone of 
voice; but by his choice and arrangement of words, the skillful 
writer can convey that attitude very precisely.) 

But tone is not to be conceived of as a kind of surface refinement, 
a kind of external embellishment. On the contrary, it has to do with 
the central problem of meaning itself. Tone involves a qualification 
of the literal meaning, and in certain kinds of heavy irony it actually 
effects a complete reversal of the literal meaning. The management 
of tone, therefore, has everything to do with the meaning that the 
writer wishes to convey. Even in expository writing and in "practi- 
cal" writing of all kinds, the problem of tone is most important. 

Since the tone of a piece of writing is the result of the interplay 
of many elements choice of words, sentence structure, sentence 
rhythm, metaphors and since tone is always intimately related to 
a particular situation, it would be difficult to make a general classi- 
fication of possible "tones." But it is easy to point out some general 
faults in the management of tone: 

1. Writing down to one's reader. 

2. False enthusiasm and synthetic cheeriness. 

3. SENTIMENTALITY which may be defined as the attempt to evoke 
an emotional response in excess of that warranted by the situation. 

Moreover, though an elaborate classification of kinds of tone 
would be of little use, it will be profitable to mention several gen- 
eral methods of statement, important for their effect on tone. 

1. OVERSTATEMENT (which may express proper emphasis, but 
which may produce mere inflation; sentimentality, false enthusiasm, 
and boring pomposity are kinds of overstatement). 

2. UNDERSTATEMENT (in which less is said than might have been 
expected to be said). 

3. IRONY (to which understatement is closely related). The essence 
of irony resides in the contrast between the surface meaning and 
the actual full meaning. The gradations of irony are almost infinite, 
ranging from a harsh SARCASM (in which the surface meaning is 
completely reversed) to the various kinds of gentle irony (in which 


the literal meaning is only slightly qualified by the total context). 
It is unfortunate that we lack terms by which to point to some of 
the major gradations. As a result, the term "irony" is likely to be 
overworked as one attempts to describe the manifold, and impor- 
tant, ways in which the literal meaning of a statement is qualified 
by the context which surrounds it. Perhaps our best practical ex- 
pedient is to try to define as nearly as we can the kind of irony in 
each particular case: playful irony, whimsical irony, sardonic irony, 
quiet irony, and so on. 

Thus far we have approached the general problem in terms of 
overstatement or understatement, or in terms of literal meaning 
and literal meaning qualified by context. But other approaches, of 
course, are possible: for example, the degree of seriousness or play- 
fulness with which the writer makes his presentation to the reader, 
his gravity or his gaiety. Closely related to this distinction (though 
by no means to be equated with it) is the distinction between his 
formality or his informality. 

1. Formality of tone. A formal tone implies a formal relation 
between writer and reader and a certain regard for forms and 

2. Informality of tone. An informal tone implies a friendly and 
familiar relation between writer and reader no standing upon 
forms and ceremonies. (But the informal or "familiar" essay may, 
on occasion, embody a serious purpose; and informality of tone 
is certainly not in itself to be identified with lack of seriousness.) 

We have used the term "tone" rather loosely to indicate the reflec- 
tion of the author's attitude toward his reader and also toward his 
material. In the act of composition the two go together so closely 
that it is impossible to separate them, but a practical distinction 
is simple and obvious. In "practical writing" writing designed to 
persuade or convince a special audience the writer will find his 
attitude toward that special audience tends to come to the fore, and 
certainly it should be allowed to modify and control his method 
of presentation. But in imaginative writing the writer addresses 
himself to an ideal reader a universal reader and, though the 
general problem of tone becomes of even greater importance, the 
problem of convincing his ideal reader becomes simply a part of 
the problem of "convincing" convincing all readers convincing 


The Final 

IN THE last three chapters we have tried to deal specifically with 
some of the important elements of style: diction, metaphor, and 
tone. In this chapter our concern is rather different. We shall be 
primarily interested in the interplay of elements in the total har- 
mony which results from the blending of the various elements. 
Even in the preceding chapters this interplay has come in for a 
great deal of attention, particularly in the chapter on tone. But 
before we launch into a discussion of this final integration, we must 
take up one element of style which thus far has been merely men- 
tioned. It is RHYTHM, the disposition of pauses and accents. 

Now rhythm is a forbidding topic. A full discussion would be 
highly complex and would call for a separate chapter, and a long 
chapter at that. Our intention here, however, is much more modest. 
We shall treat rhythm briefly, and as merely a part of this final 
chapter on style. For this last procedure there is a good deal of 
warrant. By its very nature, rhythm can scarcely be profitably dis- 
cussed in isolation. Moreover, rhythm in itself involves a rather 
intricate interplay of elements. 


In discussing tone we pointed out that in actual conversation 
the tone of the voice, gesture, and facial expression supplement 
the words and do much to set the particular tone which the speaker 
intendsplayfulness, seriousness, irritability, and so on. If we use 
the written word, however, the "tone" has to be established by the 


choice of words and the patterning of those words. But it will have 
occurred to the reader that in moving from actual conversation 
to the written word the speaker relinquishes still another very im- 
portant element the matter of emphasis. Consider the following 
simple sentence: "Are you going to town?" If we stress the word 
are, the sentence becomes an emphatic question; and if we stress 
it heavily, it may even suggest surprise. But if we stress you, the 
question becomes centered upon whether it is you who are going 
rather than someone else. If we stress town, we get a third varia- 
tion; the question then emphasizes the destination. 

Thus the rhythmic inflection of a sentence, with its various 
stresses on particular words, is a very important way in which we 
express our meanings. When we put the sentence on paper, we 
can, of course, indicate something of this stress by underlining the 
words to be emphasized. But mere underlining is a relatively 
crude substitute for the living voice, and it is the mark of a clumsy 
writer to have to rely upon constant underlining. The skilled writer, 
by his control of the rhythm of his sentences, suggests where the 
proper emphases are to fall; for emphasis is an element of rhythm. 


Mastery of rhythm, then, is important for clarity of meaning. 
This is illustrated by the muddled and monotonous rhythms of tech- 
nological jargon. Look back at Maury Maverick's example of gob- 
bledygook (p. 353). Jargon of this sort is difficult to read for a 
variety of reasons: it is fuzzy, abstract, and dull. It lacks flavor. 
But it lacks clarity as well; for there are no natural emphases, no 
obvious points of primary stress. 

Compare with the passage quoted by Maverick, the following: 

Nor had Dickens any lively sense for fine art, classical tradition, science, 
or even the manners or feelings of the upper classes in his own time and 
country: in his novels we may almost say there is no army, no navy, no 
church, no sport, no distant travel, no daring adventure, no feeling for 
the watery wastes and the motley nations of the planet, and luckily, with 
his notion of them no lords and ladies. GEORGE SANTAYANA: Soliloquies 
in England. 1 

1 From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies by George Santayana 
copyright, 1922, by Charles Scribner's Sons. 


Santayana's sentence is long and relatively complex, but it is 
rhythmical. The heavy stresses come where they should, on words 
like "Dickens," "lively," "fine," "classical," "even." Moreover, phrase 
balances phrase: "no distant travel" balances "no daring adven- 
ture"; "watery wastes" sets off "motley nations." Even the paren- 
thetical phrase, "with his notion of them," is prepared for. (Notice 
that the rhythm is destroyed if we alter the ending to read "and 
with his notion of them luckily no lords and ladies.") 

We have observed that lack of rhythm is frequently a symptom 
of disordered discourse; an easily grasped rhythm, on the other 
hand, is often the sign of good order and proper disposition of 
words and phrases. But rhythmic quality is much more, of course, 
than a mere index of clarity. 

Emphatic rhythms tend to accompany emotional heightening. 
It is no accident that eloquent prose, prose that makes a strong 
appeal to the feelings, tends to use clearly patterned rhythms, or 
that poetry is commonly written in the systematized rhythm which 
we call "verse." The association of formal rhythm with emotional 
power is based on a perfectly sound psychological fact. Fervent 
expression of grief, rage, or joy tends to fall into rhythmic patterns 
whether it be the sobbings of a grief-stricken woman or the cursing 
of an irate cab driver. 


In verse there is a formalizing of the rhythm to a system or pat- 
tern, and we have various ways of indicating the verse pattern. A 
common method is to indicate unaccented syllables by this mark 
( ~ ); accented syllables, by this ( ' ). The stanza that follows may 
be marked ("scanned") thus: 

\^ f ^s ' <+S ' *~s f 

To skies/ that knit/ their heart/strings right, 
To fields/ that bred/ them brave, 

Y f <*** f x*' I *~s I 

The sav/iors come/ not home/ tonight: 

>/ i s./ t -^s " r 

Themselves/ they could/ not save. 

A pair of syllables, the first unaccented, the second accented, we 
call an iambic foot (e.g., To skies); and we would describe the 
verse pattern of this stanza as iambic tetrameter (that is, a line 


consisting of four iambs) alternating with iambic trimeter (a line 
consisting of three iambs). 

Now prose could be marked off (scanned) in such a fashion- 
even though prose is not, like verse, patterned to a certain kind 
of foot and divided off into lines containing a certain number of 
feet. For example, Mr. Gorham Munson scans a sentence of Emer- 

w / y <*s ' ** ^ ' *-/ <*s I 

son's as follows: "We know/ the authentic/ effects/ of the true 

I ^ f \S *^ ? >_/ S_/ 'W \^ I ^ 

fire/ through every one/ of its million/ disguises." The sort of 
metrical analysis Mr. Munson is making would involve our know- 
ing, not only the simpler kind of metrical feet such as the iamb 
("we know" is an iamb), but many very complex feet as well. "The 
authentic," for example, is called a paeon. In order to scan prose 
in this fashion, we should need many more technical terms than 
we usually need to scan verse. 

Such an analysis of prose rhythm may have considerable value. 
But the rhythms of prose are infinite in their kinds, and some of 
the rhythmic effects are so subtle that an exact description requires 
a very complicated scheme of representation. Such a study, how- 
ever, is completely beyond the range of this book; there is little 
practical gain in learning the definitions of such feet as the "amphi- 
brach" and the "cretic." The writer will probably feel that he has 
his hands full in trying to control diction, metaphor, and tone with- 
out adding another element, rhythm. Fortunately, there is a con- 
siderable kernel of truth in the statement made by the Duchess in 
Alice in Wonderland: "Take care of the sense and the sounds will 
take care of themselves." 


But "the sounds" can be used as a kind of test of the sense. As 
we have seen, limp, weak, confused rhythms are frequently a 
symptom of a more general confusion; and conversely, a well- 
defined rhythm often points to the writer's mastery of his instru- 
ment. This generalization is not to be interpreted to mean that all 
unemphatic rhythms are "bad" or that all elaborate and intricate 
rhythms are "good." The rhythm is only one of a number of devices 
which the writer uses. Its goodness or badness will depend upon 


a number of things: the writer's purpose and the adequacy of the 
rhythm to that purpose. 

Let us consider a passage which has been studied earlier for 
its tone. The fact that this passage has been analyzed in earlier 
pages may make clearer the specific contribution of the rhythm 
to the total effect. At least it should serve to warn the student not 
to attribute the final effect to the rhythmic pattern alone. 

They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were 
separated from their troops. They were dealing summarily with German 
agitators in Italian uniform. They wore steel helmets. Only two of us 
had steel helmets. Some of the carabinieri had them, The other carabinieri 
wore the wide hat. Airplanes we called them. We stood in the rain and 
were taken out one at a time to be questioned and shot. So far they 
had shot every one they had questioned. 

In this passage the sentences are short and simple, and the rhythm 
of the passage supports brilliantly the ironic tone of the description. 
The lack of variety in the rhythmic pattern makes it seem flat, 
almost "expressionless," and this flatness is part of the ironic under- 
statement. Momentous and terrible things are being described, but 
the description is kept studiedly dry. A more varied and complex 
rhythm (such as usually goes with excitement) would weaken Hem- 
ingway's effect. ( See p. 399 for fuller analysis of the passage. ) 

In contrast to this passage, compare a paragraph of description 
from Thackeray's Vanity Fair. ( See also p. 406. ) 

The King? There he was. Beefeaters were before the august box; the 
Marquis of Steyne (Lord of the Powder Closet) and other great officers 
of state were behind the chair on which he sate, He sate florid of face, 
portly of person, covered with orders, and in a rich curling head of hair. 
How we sang, God Save Him! How the house rocked and shouted with 
that magnificent music. . . . Ladies wept; mothers clasped their children; 
some fainted with emotion. . . . Yes, we saw him. Fate cannot deprive 
us of that. Others have seen Napoleon. Some few still exist who have 
beheld Frederick the Great, Doctor Johnson, Marie Antoinette, etc.: be 
it our reasonable boast to our children that we saw George the Good, the 
Magnificent, the Great. 

Thackeray's mockery is reflected first in the balanced phrasings 
as our eyes focus on the king: "He sateflorid of face, portly of 
person, covered with orders, and in a curling head of hair." Then 


the rhythms become staccato, expressing the sense of mock excite- 
ment: "How we sang, God Save Him! How the house rocked and 
shouted with that magnificent music. . . . Ladies wept; mothers 
grasped their children; some fainted with emotion. . . . Yes, we 
saw him/* The sarcasm comes to a climax in the highly formalized 
rhythms of the concluding sentences of the paragraph: "Be it our 
reasonable boast to our children that we saw George the Good, the 
Magnificent, the Great." 

One ought not claim that the rhythm alone creates the effect, or 
that the rhythm is even the principal device used to achieve the 
effect. But certainly rhythm, in conjunction with diction, metaphor, 
and other devices, may become powerfully expressive. In this pas- 
sage the very exaggeration of the rhythmic pattern makes its func- 
tion easier to discern. 

Rhythm is ordinarily used more subtly, though not for that rea- 
son less effectively. Let us look at the Texan's auctioneering speech 
from William Faulkner's The Hamlet. What part, if any, does the 
rhythm play in producing the effect? Does it support the tone? 

"Now, boys,*' the Texan said, "Who says that pony ain't worth fifteen 
dollars? You couldn't buy that much dynamite for just fifteen dollars. 
There ain't one of them can't do a mile in three minutes: turn them into 
pasture and they will board themselves; work them like hell all day and 
every time you think about it, lay them over the head with a single-tree 
and after a couple of days every jack rabbit one of them will be so tame 
you will have to put them out of the house at night like a cat." 

Suppose that we rewrite the last few lines to read as follows: 

"Work the hell out of them every day and ever so often bust a single- 
tree over their heads. In a little while you'll have them all tame as tame 
can be. You'll have to shove 'em out of the door at night just like they 
was a bunch of cats/' 

In this version the diction has not been altered from that which 
the Texan might be expected to use, and the rewritten version 
"says" just about what the original "says"; but the rhythm has been 
destroyed and with it much of the flavor and nearly all of the force 
of the Texan's auctioneering speech. 

One further passage may be quoted to indicate what complex 
effects can be wrought by the skillful handling of rhythm in con- 


junction with other devices. The passage forms the opening of 
W. B. Yeats's Reveries over Childhood and Yowtfi. 

My first memories are fragmentary and isolated and contemporaneous, 
as though one remembered some first moments of the Seven Days. It 
seems as if time had not yet been created, for all thoughts connected 
with emotion and place are without sequence. 

1 remember sitting upon somebody's knee, looking out of an Irish 
window at a wall covered with cracked and falling plaster, but what 
wall I do not remember, and being told that some relation once lived 
there. I am looking out of a window in London. It is at Fitzroy Road. 
Some boys are playing in the road and among them a boy in uniform, a 
telegraph boy perhaps. When I ask who the boy is, the servant tells me 
that he is going to blow the town up, and I go to sleep in terror. 2 

The author says that his memories of childhood are "fragmen- 
tary," "isolated," "contemporaneous," and "without sequence." So 
they appear in his account. There is a memory of looking out of an 
Irish window. Then, without any transition, Yeats presents a mem- 
ory of looking out a London window. Moreover, with this second 
instance, he drops the statement "I remember" and reverts to the 
present tense: "I am looking out of a window in London." The 
author's purpose, obviously, is to give us the sense of contemporane- 
ity. He tries to put himself into these memories as they rise up- 
chaotic, disordered, fragmentary. True, he is forced to use a man's 
words. "Isolated" and "contemporaneous" would not be used by a 
child; nor would the allusion to the Biblical Seven Days of creation 
occur to a child. But the author has tried to suggest the movement 
of the child's mind in its simple, uncritical succession of events. 
Most of all, he has depended upon the rhythmic pattern to suggest 
the slow, almost tranced movement of reverie. The reader might 
experiment with altering the rhythm of the passage. In an altered 
rhythm, the sense of reverie is at once lost, and the sense of living 
back into one's childhood memories collapses. 


To sum up, control of rhythm is an important resource of the 
skilled writer. It is a powerful means for shifting tone, for establish- 

2 From W. B. Yeats: Reveries. Copyright, 1916 by The Macmillan Company 
and used with their permission. 


ing a mood, for pointing a contrast, or for heightening the appeal 
to the emotions. The reader may feel, however, that rhythm is 
much too intricate an instrument for him to try to use consciously. 
It probably is. We are far from suggesting that the reader con- 
sciously try for rhythmic effects. Even so, a very practical use of 
rhythm can be made: the writer may learn to use rhythm in order 
to test his composition. As he rereads it aloud he should learn to 
listen for the break in the rhythm, the jangling discord, the lack 
of smoothness that signals to him that something in the sentence 
is awry. This comment applies particularly to the disposition of 
modifiers, prepositional phrases, and the like. The writer may find 
that reading his composition aloud and listening to its rhythms 
proves to be one of the best practical means for spotting sentence 
elements that are not in the best order. 
Consider the following sentence: 

Oriental luxury goods jade, silk, gold, spices, vermillion, jewels formerly 
had come by way of the Caspian Sea overland; and a few daring Greek 
sea captains, now that this route had been cut by the Huns, catching 
the trade winds were sailing from Red Sea ports and loading up at Ceylon. 

The sentence is passable, and is not perhaps noticeably unrhythmi- 
cal. Bu