Qualification - Appropriate Subjects - Directions
Rules of grammar and rhetoric are good in their own place; their laws
must be observed in order to express thoughts and ideas in the right way
so that they shall convey a determinate sense and meaning in a pleasing
and acceptable manner. Hard and fast rules, however, can never make a
writer or author. That is the business of old Mother Nature and nothing
can take her place. If nature has not endowed a man with faculties to put
his ideas into proper composition he cannot do so. He may have no ideas
worthy the recording. If a person has not a thought to express, it cannot
be expressed. Something cannot be manufactured out of nothing. The author
must have thoughts and ideas before he can express them on paper. These
come to him by nature and environment and are developed and strengthened
by study. There is an old Latin quotation in regard to the poet which
says "Poeta nascitur non fit" the translation of which is--the poet is
born, not made. To a great degree the same applies to the author. Some
men are great scholars as far as book learning is concerned, yet they
cannot express themselves in passable composition. Their knowledge is
like gold locked up in a chest where it is of no value to themselves or
the rest of the world.
The best way to learn to write is to sit down and write, just as the best
way how to learn to ride a bicycle is to mount the wheel and pedal away.
Write first about common things, subjects that are familiar to you. Try
for instance an essay on a cat. Say something original about her. Don't
say "she is very playful when young but becomes grave as she grows old."
That has been said more than fifty thousand times before. Tell what you
have seen the family cat doing, how she caught a mouse in the garret and
what she did after catching it. Familiar themes are always the best for
the beginner. Don't attempt to describe a scene in Australia if you have
never been there and know nothing of the country. Never hunt for
subjects, there are thousands around you. Describe what you saw yesterday--
a fire, a runaway horse, a dog-fight on the street and be original in
your description. Imitate the best writers in their style, but not in
their exact words. Get out of the beaten path, make a pathway of your
Know what you write about, write about what you know; this is a golden
rule to which you must adhere. To know you must study. The world is an
open book in which all who run may read. Nature is one great volume the
pages of which are open to the peasant as well as to the peer. Study
Nature's moods and tenses, for they are vastly more important than those
of the grammar. Book learning is most desirable, but, after all, it is
only theory and not practice. The grandest allegory in the English, in
fact, in any language, was written by an ignorant, so-called ignorant,
tinker named John Bunyan. Shakespeare was not a scholar in the sense we
regard the term to-day, yet no man ever lived or probably ever will live
that equalled or will equal him in the expression of thought. He simply
read the book of nature and interpreted it from the standpoint of his own
Don't imagine that a college education is necessary to success as a
writer. Far from it. Some of our college men are dead-heads, drones,
parasites on the body social, not alone useless to the world but to
themselves. A person may be so ornamental that he is valueless from any
other standpoint. As a general rule ornamental things serve but little
purpose. A man may know so much of everything that he knows little of
anything. This may sound paradoxical, but, nevertheless, experience
proves its truth.
If you are poor that is not a detriment but an advantage. Poverty is an
incentive to endeavor, not a drawback. Better to be born with a good,
working brain in your head than with a gold spoon in your mouth. If the
world had been depending on the so-called pets of fortune it would have
deteriorated long ago.
From the pits of poverty, from the arenas of suffering, from the hovels
of neglect, from the backwood cabins of obscurity, from the lanes and
by-ways of oppression, from the dingy garrets and basements of unending
toil and drudgery have come men and women who have made history, made the
world brighter, better, higher, holier for their existence in it, made of
it a place good to live in and worthy to die in,--men and women who have
hallowed it by their footsteps and sanctified it with their presence and
in many cases consecrated it with their blood. Poverty is a blessing, not
an evil, a benison from the Father's hand if accepted in the right spirit.
Instead of retarding, it has elevated literature in all ages. Homer was a
blind beggarman singing his snatches of song for the dole of charity;
grand old Socrates, oracle of wisdom, many a day went without his dinner
because he had not the wherewithal to get it, while teaching the youth of
Athens. The divine Dante was nothing better than a beggar, houseless,
homeless, friendless, wandering through Italy while he composed his
immortal cantos. Milton, who in his blindness "looked where angels fear
to tread," was steeped in poverty while writing his sublime conception,
"Paradise Lost." Shakespeare was glad to hold and water the horses of
patrons outside the White Horse Theatre for a few pennies in order to buy
bread. Burns burst forth in never-dying song while guiding the ploughshare.
Poor Heinrich Heine, neglected and in poverty, from his "mattress grave"
of suffering in Paris added literary laurels to the wreath of his German
Fatherland. In America Elihu Burritt, while attending the anvil, made
himself a master of a score of languages and became the literary lion of
his age and country.
In other fields of endeavor poverty has been the spur to action. Napoleon
was born in obscurity, the son of a hand-to-mouth scrivener in the backward
island of Corsica. Abraham Lincoln, the boast and pride of America, the
man who made this land too hot for the feet of slaves, came from a log
cabin in the Ohio backwoods. So did James A. Garfield. Ulysses Grant came
from a tanyard to become the world's greatest general. Thomas A. Edison
commenced as a newsboy on a railway tram.
The examples of these men are incentives to action. Poverty thrust them
forward instead of keeping them back. Therefore, if you are poor make
your circumstances a means to an end. Have ambition, keep a goal in sight
and bend every energy to reach that goal. A story is told of Thomas
Carlyle the day he attained the highest honor the literary world could
confer upon him when he was elected Lord Rector of Edinburgh University.
After his installation speech, in going through the halls, he met a
student seemingly deep in study. In his own peculiar, abrupt, crusty way
the Sage of Chelsea interrogated the young man: "For what profession are
you studying?" "I don't know," returned the youth. "You don't know,"
thundered Carlyle, "young man, you are a fool." Then he went on to
qualify his vehement remark, "My boy when I was your age, I was stooped
in grinding, gripping poverty in the little village of Ecclefechan, in
the wilds of [Transcriber's note: Part of word illegible]-frieshire,
where in all the place only the minister and myself could read the Bible,
yet poor and obscure as I was, in my mind's eye I saw a chair awaiting
for me in the Temple of Fame and day and night and night and day I
studied until I sat in that chair to-day as Lord Rector of Edinburgh
Another Scotchman, Robert Buchanan, the famous novelist, set out for
London from Glasgow with but half-a-crown in his pocket. "Here goes,"
said he, "for a grave in Westminster Abbey." He was not much of a
scholar, but his ambition carried him on and he became one of the great
literary lions of the world's metropolis.
Henry M. Stanley was a poorhouse waif whose real name was John Rowlands.
He was brought up in a Welsh workhouse, but he had ambition, so he rose
to be a great explorer, a great writer, became a member of Parliament and
was knighted by the British Sovereign.
Have ambition to succeed and you will succeed. Cut the word "failure" out
of your lexicon. Don't acknowledge it. Remember
"In life's earnest battle they only prevail
Who daily march onward and never say fail."
Let every obstacle you encounter be but a stepping stone in the path of
onward progress to the goal of success.
If untoward circumstances surround you, resolve to overcome them. Bunyan
wrote the "Pilgrim's Progress" in Bedford jail on scraps of wrapping
paper while he was half starved on a diet of bread and water. That
unfortunate American genius, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote "The Raven," the most
wonderful conception as well as the most highly artistic poem in all
English literature, in a little cottage in the Fordham section of New
York while he was in the direst straits of want. Throughout all his short
and wonderfully brilliant career, poor Poe never had a dollar he could
call his own. Such, however, was both his fault and his misfortune and he
is a bad exemplar.
Don't think that the knowledge of a library of books is essential to
success as a writer. Often a multiplicity of books is confusing. Master a
few good books and master them well and you will have all that is
necessary. A great authority has said: "Beware of the man of one book,"
which means that a man of one book is a master of the craft. It is
claimed that a thorough knowledge of the Bible alone will make any person
a master of literature. Certain it is that the Bible and Shakespeare
constitute an epitome of the essentials of knowledge. Shakespeare
gathered the fruitage of all who went before him, he has sown the seeds
for all who shall ever come after him. He was the great intellectual
ocean whose waves touch the continents of all thought.
Books are cheap now-a-days, the greatest works, thanks to the printing
press, are within the reach of all, and the more you read, the better,
provided they are worth reading. Sometimes a man takes poison into his
system unconscious of the fact that it is poison, as in the case of
certain foods, and it is very hard to throw off its effects. Therefore,
be careful in your choice of reading matter. If you cannot afford a full
library, and as has been said, such is not necessary, select a few of the
great works of the master minds, assimilate and digest them, so that they
will be of advantage to your literary system. Elsewhere in this volume is
given a list of some of the world's masterpieces from which you can make
Your brain is a storehouse, don't put useless furniture into it to crowd
it to the exclusion of what is useful. Lay up only the valuable and
serviceable kind which you can call into requisition at any moment.
As it is necessary to study the best authors in order to be a writer, so
it is necessary to study the best speakers in order to talk with
correctness and in good style. To talk rightly you must imitate the
masters of oral speech. Listen to the best conversationalists and how
they express themselves. Go to hear the leading lectures, speeches and
sermons. No need to imitate the gestures of elocution, it is nature, not
art, that makes the elocutionist and the orator. It is not how a
speaker expresses himself but the language which he uses and the manner
of its use which should interest you. Have you heard the present day
masters of speech? There have been past time masters but their tongues
are stilled in the dust of the grave, and you can only read their
eloquence now. You can, however, listen to the charm of the living. To
many of us voices still speak from the grave, voices to which we have
listened when fired with the divine essence of speech. Perhaps you have
hung with rapture on the words of Beecher and Talmage. Both thrilled the
souls of men and won countless thousands over to a living gospel. Both
were masters of words, they scattered the flowers of rhetoric on the
shrine of eloquence and hurled veritable bouquets at their audiences
which were eagerly seized by the latter and treasured in the storehouse
of memory. Both were scholars and philosophers, yet they were far surpassed
by Spurgeon, a plain man of the people with little or no claim to
education in the modern sense of the word. Spurgeon by his speech
attracted thousands to his Tabernacle. The Protestant and Catholic, Turk,
Jew and Mohammedan rushed to hear him and listened, entranced, to his
language. Such another was Dwight L. Moody, the greatest Evangelist the
world has ever known. Moody was not a man of learning; he commenced life
as a shoe salesman in Chicago, yet no man ever lived who drew such
audiences and so fascinated them with the spell of his speech. "Oh, that
was personal magnetism," you will say, but it was nothing of the kind. It
was the burning words that fell from the lips of these men, and the way,
the manner, the force with which they used those words that counted and
attracted the crowds to listen unto them. Personal magnetism or personal
appearance entered not as factors into their success. Indeed as far as
physique were concerned, some of them were handicapped. Spurgeon was a
short, podgy, fat little man, Moody was like a country farmer, Talmage in
his big cloak was one of the most slovenly of men and only Beecher was
passable in the way of refinement and gentlemanly bearing. Physical
appearance, as so many think, is not the sesame to the interest of an
audience. Daniel O'Connell, the Irish tribune, was a homely, ugly,
awkward, ungainly man, yet his words attracted millions to his side and
gained for him the hostile ear of the British Parliament, he was a master
of verbiage and knew just what to say to captivate his audiences.
It is words and their placing that count on almost all occasions. No
matter how refined in other respects the person may be, if he use words
wrongly and express himself in language not in accordance with a proper
construction, he will repel you, whereas the man who places his words
correctly and employs language in harmony with the laws of good speech,
let him be ever so humble, will attract and have an influence over you.
The good speaker, the correct speaker, is always able to command
attention and doors are thrown open to him which remain closed to others
not equipped with a like facility of expression. The man who can talk
well and to the point need never fear to go idle. He is required in
nearly every walk of life and field of human endeavor, the world wants
him at every turn. Employers are constantly on the lookout for good
talkers, those who are able to attract the public and convince others by
the force of their language. A man may be able, educated, refined, of
unblemished character, nevertheless if he lack the power to express
himself, put forth his views in good and appropriate speech he has to
take a back seat, while some one with much less ability gets the
opportunity to come to the front because he can clothe his ideas in ready
words and talk effectively.
You may again say that nature, not art, makes a man a fluent speaker; to
a great degree this is true, but it is art that makes him a correct
speaker, and correctness leads to fluency. It is possible for everyone to
become a correct speaker if he will but persevere and take a little pains
At the risk of repetition good advice may be here emphasized: Listen to
the best speakers and note carefully the words which impress you most.
Keep a notebook and jot down words, phrases, sentences that are in any
way striking or out of the ordinary run. If you do not understand the
exact meaning of a word you have heard, look it up in the dictionary.
There are many words, called synonyms, which have almost a like
signification, nevertheless, when examined they express different shades
of meaning and in some cases, instead of being close related, are widely
divergent. Beware of such words, find their exact meaning and learn to
use them in their right places.
Be open to criticism, don't resent it but rather invite it and look upon
those as friends who point out your defects in order that you may remedy
Slang is more or less common in nearly all ranks of society and in every
walk of life at the present day. Slang words and expressions have crept
into our everyday language, and so insiduously, that they have not been
detected by the great majority of speakers, and so have become part and
parcel of their vocabulary on an equal footing with the legitimate words
of speech. They are called upon to do similar service as the ordinary
words used in everyday conversation--to express thoughts and desires and
convey meaning from one to another. In fact, in some cases, slang has
become so useful that it has far outstripped classic speech and made for
itself such a position in the vernacular that it would be very hard in
some cases to get along without it. Slang words have usurped the place of
regular words of language in very many instances and reign supreme in
their own strength and influence.
Cant and slang are often confused in the popular mind, yet they are not
synonymous, though very closely allied, and proceeding from a common
Gypsy origin. Cant is the language of a certain class--the peculiar
phraseology or dialect of a certain craft, trade or profession, and is
not readily understood save by the initiated of such craft, trade or
profession. It may be correct, according to the rules of grammar, but it
is not universal; it is confined to certain parts and localities and is
only intelligible to those for whom it is intended. In short, it is an
esoteric language which only the initiated can understand. The jargon, or
patter, of thieves is cant and it is only understood by thieves who have
been let into its significance; the initiated language of professional
gamblers is cant, and is only intelligible to gamblers.
On the other hand, slang, as it is nowadays, belongs to no particular class
but is scattered all over and gets entre into every kind of society and
is understood by all where it passes current in everyday expression. Of
course, the nature of the slang, to a great extent, depends upon the
locality, as it chiefly is concerned with colloquialisms or words and
phrases common to a particular section. For instance, the slang of London
is slightly different from that of New York, and some words in the one city
may be unintelligible in the other, though well understood in that in which
they are current. Nevertheless, slang may be said to be universally
understood. "To kick the bucket," "to cross the Jordan," "to hop the twig"
are just as expressive of the departing from life in the backwoods of
America or the wilds of Australia as they are in London or Dublin.
Slang simply consists of words and phrases which pass current but are not
refined, nor elegant enough, to be admitted into polite speech or
literature whenever they are recognized as such. But, as has been said, a
great many use slang without their knowing it as slang and incorporate it
into their everyday speech and conversation.
Some authors purposely use slang to give emphasis and spice in familiar and
humorous writing, but they should not be imitated by the tyro. A master,
such as Dickens, is forgivable, but in the novice it is unpardonable.
There are several kinds of slang attached to different professions and
classes of society. For instance, there is college slang, political
slang, sporting slang, etc. It is the nature of slang to circulate freely
among all classes, yet there are several kinds of this current form of
language corresponding to the several classes of society. The two great
divisions of slang are the vulgar of the uneducated and coarse-minded,
and the high-toned slang of the so-called upper classes--the educated and
the wealthy. The hoyden of the gutter does not use the same slang as my
lady in her boudoir, but both use it, and so expressive is it that the
one might readily understand the other if brought in contact. Therefore,
there are what may be styled an ignorant slang and an educated slang--the
one common to the purlieus and the alleys, the other to the parlor and
In all cases the object of slang is to express an idea in a more vigorous,
piquant and terse manner than standard usage ordinarily admits. A school
girl, when she wants to praise a baby, exclaims: "Oh, isn't he awfully
cute!" To say that he is very nice would be too weak a way to express her
admiration. When a handsome girl appears on the street an enthusiastic
masculine admirer, to express his appreciation of her beauty, tells you:
"She is a peach, a bird, a cuckoo," any of which accentuates his
estimation of the young lady and is much more emphatic than saying: "She
is a beautiful girl," "a handsome maiden," or "lovely young woman."
When a politician defeats his rival he will tell you "it was a cinch," he
had a "walk-over," to impress you how easy it was to gain the victory.
Some slang expressions are of the nature of metaphors and are highly
figurative. Such are "to pass in your checks," "to hold up," "to pull the
wool over your eyes," "to talk through your hat," "to fire out," "to go
back on," "to make yourself solid with," "to have a jag on," "to be
loaded," "to freeze on to," "to bark up the wrong tree," "don't monkey
with the buzz-saw," and "in the soup." Most slang had a bad origin. The
greater part originated in the cant of thieves' Latin, but it broke away
from this cant of malefactors in time and gradually evolved itself from
its unsavory past until it developed into a current form of expressive
speech. Some slang, however, can trace its origin back to very
"Stolen fruits are sweet" may be traced to the Bible in sentiment.
Proverbs, ix:17 has it: "Stolen waters are sweet." "What are you giving
me," supposed to be a thorough Americanism, is based upon Genesis,
xxxviii:16. The common slang, "a bad man," in referring to Western
desperadoes, in almost the identical sense now used, is found in
Spenser's Faerie Queen, Massinger's play "A New Way to Pay Old
Debts," and in Shakespeare's "King Henry VIII." The expression "to
blow on," meaning to inform, is in Shakespeare's "As You Like it."
"It's all Greek to me" is traceable to the play of "Julius Caesar."
"All cry and no wool" is in Butler's "Hudibras." "Pious frauds,"
meaning hypocrites, is from the same source. "Too thin," referring to an
excuse, is from Smollett's "Peregrine Pickle." Shakespeare also used
America has had a large share in contributing to modern slang. "The
heathen Chinee," and "Ways that are dark, and tricks that are vain," are
from Bret Harte's Truthful James. "Not for Joe," arose during the Civil
War when one soldier refused to give a drink to another. "Not if I know
myself" had its origin in Chicago. "What's the matter with----? He's all
right," had its beginning in Chicago also and first was "What's the
matter with Hannah." referring to a lazy domestic servant. "There's
millions in it," and "By a large majority" come from Mark Twain's Gilded
Age. "Pull down your vest," "jim-jams," "got 'em bad," "that's what's
the matter," "go hire a hall," "take in your sign," "dry up," "hump
yourself," "it's the man around the corner," "putting up a job," "put a
head on him," "no back talk," "bottom dollar," "went off on his ear,"
"chalk it down," "staving him off," "making it warm," "dropping him
gently," "dead gone," "busted," "counter jumper," "put up or shut up,"
"bang up," "smart Aleck," "too much jaw," "chin-music," "top heavy,"
"barefooted on the top of the head," "a little too fresh," "champion
liar," "chief cook and bottle washer," "bag and baggage," "as fine as
silk," "name your poison," "died with his boots on," "old hoss," "hunkey
dorey," "hold your horses," "galoot" and many others in use at present
are all Americanisms in slang.
California especially has been most fecund in this class of figurative
language. To this State we owe "go off and die," "don't you forget it,"
"rough deal," "square deal," "flush times," "pool your issues," "go bury
yourself," "go drown yourself," "give your tongue a vacation," "a bad
egg," "go climb a tree," "plug hats," "Dolly Vardens," "well fixed,"
"down to bed rock," "hard pan," "pay dirt," "petered out," "it won't
wash," "slug of whiskey," "it pans out well," and "I should smile."
"Small potatoes, and few in the hill," "soft snap," "all fired," "gol
durn it," "an up-hill job," "slick," "short cut," "guess not," "correct
thing" are Bostonisms. The terms "innocent," "acknowledge the corn,"
"bark up the wrong tree," "great snakes," "I reckon," "playing 'possum,"
"dead shot," had their origin in the Southern States. "Doggone it," "that
beats the Dutch," "you bet," "you bet your boots," sprang from New York.
"Step down and out" originated in the Beecher trial, just as
"brain-storm" originated in the Thaw trial.
Among the slang phrases that have come directly to us from England may be
mentioned "throw up the sponge," "draw it mild," "give us a rest," "dead
beat," "on the shelf," "up the spout," "stunning," "gift of the gab,"
The newspapers are responsible for a large part of the slang. Reporters,
staff writers, and even editors, put words and phrases into the mouths of
individuals which they never utter. New York is supposed to be the
headquarters of slang, particularly that portion of it known as the
Bowery. All transgressions and corruptions of language are supposed to
originate in that unclassic section, while the truth is that the laws of
polite English are as much violated on Fifth Avenue. Of course, the
foreign element mincing their "pidgin" English have given the Bowery an
unenviable reputation, but there are just as good speakers of the
vernacular on the Bowery as elsewhere in the greater city. Yet every
inexperienced newspaper reporter thinks that it is incumbent on him to
hold the Bowery up to ridicule and laughter, so he sits down, and out of
his circumscribed brain, mutilates the English tongue (he can rarely coin
a word), and blames the mutilation on the Bowery.
'Tis the same with newspapers and authors, too, detracting the Irish
race. Men and women who have never seen the green hills of Ireland, paint
Irish characters as boors and blunderers and make them say ludicrous
things and use such language as is never heard within the four walls of
Ireland. 'Tis very well known that Ireland is the most learned country on
the face of the earth--is, and has been. The schoolmaster has been abroad
there for hundreds, almost thousands, of years, and nowhere else in the
world to-day is the king's English spoken so purely as in the cities and
towns of the little Western Isle.
Current events, happenings of everyday life, often give rise to slang
words, and these, after a time, come into such general use that they take
their places in everyday speech like ordinary words and, as has been
said, their users forget that they once were slang. For instance, the
days of the Land League in Ireland originated the word boycott, which
was the name of a very unpopular landlord, Captain Boycott. The people
refused to work for him, and his crops rotted on the ground. From this
time any one who came into disfavor and whom his neighbors refused to
assist in any way was said to be boycotted. Therefore to boycott means to
punish by abandoning or depriving a person of the assistance of others.
At first it was a notoriously slang word, but now it is standard in the
Politics add to our slang words and phrases. From this source we get
"dark horse," "the gray mare is the better horse," "barrel of money,"
"buncombe," "gerrymander," "scalawag," "henchman," "logrolling," "pulling
the wires," "taking the stump," "machine," "slate," etc.
The money market furnishes us with "corner," "bull," "bear," "lamb,"
"slump," and several others.
The custom of the times and the requirements of current expression require
the best of us to use slang words and phrases on occasions. Often we do
not know they are slang, just as a child often uses profane words without
consciousness of their being so. We should avoid the use of slang as much
as possible, even when it serves to convey our ideas in a forceful
manner. And when it has not gained a firm foothold in current speech it
should be used not at all. Remember that most all slang is of vulgar
origin and bears upon its face the bend sinister of vulgarity. Of the
slang that is of good birth, pass it by if you can, for it is like a
broken-down gentleman, of little good to any one. Imitate the great
masters as much as you will in classical literature, but when it comes to
their slang, draw the line. Dean Swift, the great Irish satirist, coined
the word "phiz" for face. Don't imitate him. If you are speaking or
writing of the beauty of a lady's face don't call it her "phiz." The
Dean, as an intellectual giant, had a license to do so--you haven't.
Shakespeare used the word "flush" to indicate plenty of money. Well, just
remember there was only one Shakespeare, and he was the only one that had
a right to use that word in that sense. You'll never be a Shakespeare,
there will never be such another--Nature exhausted herself in producing
him. Bulwer used the word "stretch" for hang, as to stretch his neck.
Don't follow his example in such use of the word. Above all, avoid the
low, coarse, vulgar slang, which is made to pass for wit among the
riff-raff of the street. If you are speaking or writing of a person
having died last night don't say or write: "He hopped the twig," or "he
kicked the bucket." If you are compelled to listen to a person discoursing
on a subject of which he knows little or nothing, don't say "He is
talking through his hat." If you are telling of having shaken hands with
Mr. Roosevelt don't say "He tipped me his flipper." If you are speaking
of a wealthy man don't say "He has plenty of spondulix," or "the long
green." All such slang is low, coarse and vulgar and is to be frowned
upon on any and every occasion.
If you use slang use the refined kind and use it like a gentleman, that
it will not hurt or give offense to any one. Cardinal Newman defined a
gentleman as he who never inflicts pain. Be a gentleman in your slang--
never inflict pain.
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Previous: KINDS OF STYLE