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Language divides itself into the very obvious parts, words, sentences, and discourse. These are the lan
should be parted off to deal with each separately. And so they are, to a certain extent ; for we have word
position, reading, rhetoric, and literature. But without naming all, we have several more studies than units ; and, what is worse, grammar and discourse studies deal with words and sentences. Any unit is not confined to one study, nor any study to one unit.
This appears strange ; for the language studies can do nothing but deal with the language units. Why do they seesaw in this way?
The trouble arises from catching up the wrong language unit ; or rather, from seizing the unity at the wrong point. We are accustomed to think of words as parts which added together make sentences; sentences as parts which added together make discourse ; and discourses as parts which added together make literature. This addition seems most proper; yet words may be added all day long without producing a sentence; and sentences, without producing discourse. If literature is not produced before discourses are added, there will be none after the addition ; and if there is not a discourse before sentences are added the addition will avail nothing
The difference between these language units is not primarily nor essentially that of length. If so we should be inclined to ask, How long must a language piece be made before it becomes a sentence or a discourse? If two sentences put together make a discourse, then, if addition of sentences be the test, one hundred sentences would make a superb oration, and one thousand an immortal poem. No; men have made great speeches in single sentences, long or short ; and good sentences, yea, speeches out of single words. You remember this : “We have met the enemy and they are ours"; and Caesar's famous effort, “Veni, vidi, vici”; and “ Peace, be still.” And either “ Peace” or “Vici” would have made a first-rate discourse by itself.
The point is that these language units are not such with reference to each other, but with reference to what each expresses. They are the true language units ; not because they refer back and forth to each other as whole and part, but because each expresses a unit of consciousness, -a mental act or state. Each faces its own content and not its neighbor. The true parts of language cannot be obtained by cross-sectioning, but by a division between form and content, between the letter and the spirit.
To show the point exactly, suppose you are now, in your first recitation in rhetoric, laughing outright at the idea of beginning so delightful a study ; and the teacher, to restore proper class dignity, exclaims, “Hush !” Is he using a word, a sentence, or a discourse? Look in the dictionary, and you will find it as a word ; grammar declares it to be a sentence ; while rhetoric maintains it to be a discourse, good or bad depending on whether you do what the word expresses. If the language-form “hush” is thought of simply in relation to its idea, its action, it is a word ; if in relation to its thought, its triple unity of subject, predicate, and thinking act, it is a sentence ; if viewed in relation to its effect on the mind, causing to hush, then it is a discourse — good if it accomplished the purpose ; bad if it further provoked the laughing. In each case it is the same material unit, but it becomes a different language unit as we turn it from an idea to a thought, or to an effect. The unity is not in the mere language form, but in the relation of the form and its spirit. If language were mere form, then the material juncture of parts would decide the question in any case ; but language is the relation of form and content, and the units are to be selected out of this relation.
Since the same language form exists in more than one relation at the same time the same form may be classed differently, as attention is fixed on this or that relation. A man may be a governor, a churchman, a father, a mason, a merchant, etc., at the same time and without violence to his unity ; and when our attention is fixed on one of these relations he is a governor, or a father, etc. A language form considered in relation to an idea is called a word, if the parts are fixed ; if movable, a phrase. The very same language form put in relation to the three elements of a thought, subject, predicate, and copula, is classed as a sentence ; and if studied in relation to the change it is to make in the mind addressed, it becomes a discourse. In discourse there is always an auditor, a recipient, in relation to whom the language is to be considered ; but in the study of language as words, phrases, and sentences, the relation
is within the language itself, between its outside and its inside. Discourse study does not separate between form and thought ; but holds both in unity to an end which lies beyond them.
The primary law of words and sentences is that of correctness; the form must be the established form for expressing a given idea or thought. But correct forms are not ends in themselves ; they are only means to effective utterance, in supplying the composer with all the possible ways of expression. Rhetoric selects out of the many forms the one which, under the circumstances, will be most effective. While there are many ways of expressing the same thing, there is but one of them best suited to a specific end under specific conditions. Shakespeare had Macbeth say, when his conscience was stinging him after the murder of Duncan, “ Duncan is in his grave; after life's fitful fever he sleeps well.” This can be said in forty ways to the satisfaction of the dictionary and grammar ; but only one is adequate to Shakespeare's purpose. He might have had Macbeth say, “Duncan died recently ; I still live ; but he is better off than I, for he does not suffer so much”; or “Duncan is dead and buried; having passed the tribulations of life, nothing now annoys him, but my conscience hurts me terribly"; and so on without limit. The rules of spelling and syntax may find no fault in all these, but rhetoric would enter its protest, and challenge the right of all but one. If, in the possibilities of language, an expression can be found better than Shakespeare's he must be tried in the court of rhetoric for flagrant violation of the law of his art.
We see at once how delicate and exacting is the art of rhetoric ; yet, in general estimation, one is held much more strictly accountable for violating rules of orthography, orthoëpy, or syntax; perhaps because such mistakes lie on the surface and are the more easily detected, and because it is comparatively easy to avoid the sins of formal language. Man may and should write correctly by habit and reflex action ; but none but the inspired artist can give the happy stroke; and to apply the rhetorical test requires insight and reflection. Can we not thus account for the excessive amount of time given to the study of formal language as compared with that of living discourse? We wish to be forewarned and forearmed against violations for which the merest schoolboy may arrest us. Yes, language ought to be correct, absolutely so; but correctness is not the last word, and perhaps not the best word, which can be said about language. After being searched and quickened by a poem of Tennyson or charmed and convinced by the music and logic of Phillips, how impertinent to suggest that some long and involved sentence slipped in its syntax! · Before closing up the boundary of our subject-matter, we must note that rhetoric is not the only discourse study, — that composition and reading fall within the same compass, using reading in the broad sense to include the study of literature. Composition is the art of constructing discourse; and reading the art of interpreting it. They are the reverse sides of the discourse process. Rhetoric investigates the principles which control in the process of constructing and interpreting