Friday, December 22, 2017

English As She Was Spoken*

Readers have it easy today. Modern writers tend to employ a direct method of communication, which they mostly embed in sentences of no great length. We, if I may include myself in the ranks of the writers, seem to have understood that the majesty of English is best presented in sentences and paragraphs that break down the ideas into bite sized pieces. In this way, utilizing the vast word treasure of English, it is possible to express great ideas in a manner that people can actually understand. It was not always thus.

Writers in the 19th Century tended to write sentences as though they were competing for some kind of Guinness World Record for verbosity. Take, for instance, this marathon gem from Edgar Allan Poe:

“Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases our of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.”**

Try diagraming that!

Attention English learners (and everybody else): Handle 19th Century literature with care! Read it with your academic bullshit-detector set on “high sensitivity.” Take lessons from the characters, the stories, and the plots, but do not allow elements of the grammar or the rhetoric to creep into your own writing. I complain about the 21st Century more than most people, and God knows that the 20th Century will go down in history as an awful one, but the general usage of English has improved since Edgar Poe unleashed this monster on the world.

*A take-off on “English as She Is Spoken,” a primer in the English language written by a Spanish priest in, I believe, the 17th Century, for use in teaching English to colonial Spaniards in the Americas.

**From “the Philosophy of Composition” by E.A. Poe. (The Kindle edition is available full length from Amazon for one dollar.) For the record, I really like Poe, and I still read him. He was a very innovative writer, and superbly talented in many areas of literary endeavor. He is famous for his eerie stories, but his vast catalog includes some very effective humor pieces. Read him, definitely, but when he gets carried away like this, smile and know that you are experiencing an English language that no longer exists in the world. 

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