A “Foolish” Principle of Composition
Books on rhetoric may tell you many principles of composition. But the principle that I am going to explain is one1 that I have not found in any book on rhetoric. I discovered it myself, and I acted up to2 it as soon as I discovered it, many years ago. I have found it so helpful that I believe you will do well to adopt it. The principle is that you should use no construction, no form of expression, and no combination of words, that you have not seen in your reading.
It seems to me that the average Chinese learner of English has a fair knowledge of grammar and a fairly large vocabulary, and that when he writes English, he makes sentences according to his knowledge of grammar and his understanding of the meaning of words. The result is that his English often seems to be correct enough but is not really correct. For correct English is a matter of usage, not merely a matter of grammar and vocabulary. In composition correction I have often been asked why I had changed a certain word or construction to another. Well, I cannot always say why. I have substituted that word or construction simply because that is the word or construction that an Englishman would have used there.
Suppose you are on the point of 3 writing “He was rich to live on luxury”. Is this sentence correct? “He was” is certainly correct; you have seen it many, many times. “He was rich” is also correct; you have seen it more than once. “He was rich to …”—well, you have never seen it, have you? No, you have never seen it, and therefore you should not let it pass.4 “On luxury”—well, you have never seen this expression, and so you should not use it. Now, the correct sentence is “He was rich enough to live in luxury”.
假定你将写“He was rich to live on luxury”这句话。这句句子对吗？“He was”肯定是对的，你见过许多次。“He was rich”也是对的，你见过不止一次。“He was rich to…”——你从来没见过，对吗？不，你从来没见过，所以你不该放它过去。“on luxury”——你从来没见过这个表达方式，所以你不该用它。正确的句子应该是：“He was rich enough to live in luxury.”
Do you think my principle very foolish? It does look so. But I regard it as very helpful, and I hope that you will try to put it into practice.
The question may naturally arise: Shall I not find it practically5 impossible to write anything because I do not always remember whether I have ever seen a certain construction or form of expression or combination of words? Well, you should remember. You should read carefully. You should learn the art of expression from your reading. I hope you have not forgotten my article entitled “Reading to Learn the Art of Expression”.
- one=a principle
- acted up to 实行
- are on the point of 将
- let it pass 任它过去
- practically 几乎