This section is from the book "Hill's Manual Of Social And Business Forms: A Guide To Correct Writing", by Thos. E. Hill. Also available from Amazon: Hill's Manual Of Social And Business Forms: The How-To-Do-Everything Book Of Victorian America.
To be able to talk correctly, the student should first be able to write properly. Not only should penmanship be plain and easy, words rightly spelled, capitals correctly used, and sentences grammatically constructed and punctuated, but much depends, also, beyond that, upon the style of composition, mode of expression, and language used, whether it be acceptable to readers and hearers or not.
As a rule, with the great sea of literature about us, the writer of to-day who is original and condenses ideas into the smallest space, whether in the sermon, book, business-letter, or newspaper article, is much the most likely to have readers or hearers. The aim of the writer- should therefore be, first, to say something new, presenting a subject fraught with original ideas; and, second, to give those ideas in the fewest possible words consistent with agreeable expression.
"Why did you not make that article more brief?" said an editor to his correspondent.
"Because," said the writer, "I did not have time."
The idea sought to be conveyed, concerning brevity, is clearly shown in that answer of the correspondent. It is an easy matter to dress ideas in many words. It requires much more care, however, to clearly state the same idea in fewer words.
The chief merit of Shakespeare is the thought conveyed in few words; the meaning that we catch beyond the words expressed.
"Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face."
The idea expressed in these few lines brings up in long review the trials of a past life, and the recollection of sorrows and afflictions which we afterwards, not infrequently, discovered to be blessings in disguise, and in reality seemingly designed for our best good.
There is much food for reflection in the following stanza from Gray's "Elegy":
Full many a gem, of purest ray serene, The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear; Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air."
With this reading comes up the thought of those of our fellow-men whom we know to be good, noble, and worthy, but whose names will go down to the grave unhonored and unknown.
Very plainly we see the meaning beyond the words in the following, also from Gray:
Perhaps, in this neglected spot, is laid Some heart, once pregnant with celestial fire - Hand, that the rod of empire might have swayed, Or waked to ecstacy the living lyre."
A similar idea is expressed by Whittier, though in fewer words:
Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, ' It might have been.' "
Both stanzas are deeply freighted with thought beyond what is expressed.
Those extracts, whether in prose or poetry, that are destined to go down to coming generations, are so laden with ideas and suggestions that in listening, or reading, the scenes they suggest seem to move before us, and we forget words in contemplating that which the words describe.
Prose writings often contain gems of thought told very briefly, especially in the works of our best authors. In the following, from Irving's description of the grave, the reader becomes so absorbed in the picture portrayed that the words themselves are lost in the emotions they enkindle:
"O the grave! the grave! It buries every error, covers every defect, extinguishes every reeentment. From its peaceful bosom spring none but fond regrets and tender recollections. Who can look down upon the grave even of an enemy, and not feel a compunctious throb, that he should ever have warred with the poor handful of earth that lies mouldering before him.
" But the grave of those we loved - what a place for meditation! There it is that we call up in long review the whole history of virtue and gentleness, and the thousand endearments lavished upon us, almost unheeded, in the daily intercourse of intimacy; there it is that we dwell upon the tenderness, the solemn, awful tenderness of the parting scene - the bed of death, with all its stifled griefs, its noiseless attendants, its mute, watchful assiduities - the last testimonies of expiring love - the feeble, fluttering, thrilling - O how thrilling! - pressure of the hand - the last fond look of the glazing eye, turned upon us even from the threshold of existence - the faint, faltering accents struggling in death to give one more assurance of affection.
"Ay, go to the grave of buried love, and meditate) There settle the account with thy conscience for every past benefit unrequited, every past endearment unregarded, of that departed being who can never - never - never return to be soothed by thy contrition."
The Bible abounds in beautiful and expressive sayings, that reveal much in few words, as shown in the following:
"The wicked flee when no man pursueth." "Boast not thyself of to-morrow. Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth."
"Hope deferred maketh the heart sick." "Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days."
Care should be taken to prune out the unnecessary words with an unsparing hand. Thus, in the sentence, "I have got back, having returned yesterday," it is better to say, "I returned yesterday."
Two young men, upon going into the army during the late civil war, were requested by their friends to telegraph at the close of any battle they might take part in, concerning their condition. At the close of the battle of Perry-ville, one telegraphed the following:
Perryville, Ky., Oct. 9, 1862.
As requested, I take the first opportunity after the late severe battle, fought at this place, to inform you that I came from the engagement uninjured.