I received this book for Christmas, and decided to make a tumblr of phrases from it. It’s really the most wonderful thing.
Below, I have pasted the introduction of the book from Project Guternberg.
The most powerful and the most perfect expression of thought and feeling through the medium of oral language must be traced to the mastery of words. Nothing is better suited to lead speakers and readers of English into an easy control of this language than the command of the phrase that perfectly expresses the thought. Every speaker’s aim is to be heard and understood. A clear, crisp articulation holds an audience as by the spell of some irresistible power. The choice word, the correct phrase, are instruments that may reach the heart, and awake the soul if they fall upon the ear in melodious cadence; but if the utterance be harsh and discordant they fail to interest, fall upon deaf ears, and are as barren as seed sown on fallow ground. In language, nothing conduces so emphatically to the harmony of sounds as perfect phrasing—that is, the emphasizing of the relation of clause to clause, and of sentence to sentence by the systematic grouping of words. The phrase consists usually of a few words which denote a single idea that forms a separate part of a sentence. In this respect it differs from the clause, which is a short sentence that forms a distinct part of a composition, paragraph, or discourse. Correct phrasing is regulated by rests, such rests as do not break the continuity of a thought or the progress of the sense.
GRENVILLE KLEISER, who has devoted years of his diligent life to imparting the art of correct expression in speech and writing, has provided many aids for those who would know not merely what to say, but how to say it. He has taught also what the great HOLMES taught, that language is a temple in which the human soul is enshrined, and that it grows out of life—out of its joys and its sorrows, its burdens and its necessities. To him, as well as to the writer, the deep strong voice of man and the low sweet voice of woman are never heard at finer advantage than in the earnest but mellow tones of familiar speech. In the present volume Mr. Kleiser furnishes an additional and an exceptional aid for those who would have a mint of phrases at their command from which to draw when in need of the golden mean for expressing thought. Few indeed are the books fitted to-day for the purpose of imparting this knowledge, yet two centuries ago phrase-books were esteemed as supplements to the dictionaries, and have not by any manner of means lost their value. The guide to familiar quotations, the index to similes, the grammars, the readers, the machine-made letter-writer of mechanically perfect letters of congratulation or condolence—none are sententious enough to supply the need. By the compilation of this praxis, Mr. Kleiser has not only supplied it, but has furnished a means for the increase of one’s vocabulary by practical methods. There are thousands of persons who may profit by the systematic study of such a book as this if they will familiarize themselves with the author’s purpose by a careful reading of the preliminary pages of his book. To speak in public pleasingly and readily and to read well are accomplishments acquired only after many days, weeks even, of practise.
Foreigners sometimes reproach us for the asperity and discordance of our speech, and in general, this reproach is just, for there are many persons who do scanty justice to the vowel-elements of our language. Although these elements constitute its music they are continually mistreated. We flirt with and pirouette around them constantly. If it were not so, English would be found full of beauty and harmony of sound. Familiar with the maxim, “Take care of the vowels and the consonants will take care of themselves,”—a maxim that when put into practise has frequently led to the breaking-down of vowel values—the writer feels that the common custom of allowing “the consonants to take care of themselves” is pernicious. It leads to suppression or to imperfect utterance, and thus produces indistinct articulation.
The English language is so complex in character that it can scarcely be learned by rule, and can best be mastered by the study of such idioms and phrases as are provided in this book; but just as care must be taken to place every accent or stress on the proper syllable in the pronouncing of every word it contains, so must the stress or emphasis be placed on the proper word in every sentence spoken. To read or speak pleasingly one should resort to constant practise by doing so aloud in private, or preferably, in the presence of such persons as know good reading when they hear it and are masters of the melody of sounds. It was Dean Swift’s belief that the common fluency of speech in many men and most women was due to scarcity of matter and scarcity of words. He claimed that a master of language possessed a mind full of ideas, and that before speaking, such a mind paused to select the choice word—the phrase best suited to the occasion. “Common speakers,” he said, “have only one set of ideas, and one set of words to clothe them in,” and these are always ready on the lips. Because he holds the Dean’s view sound to-day, the writer will venture to warn the readers of this book against a habit that, growing far too common among us, should be checked, and this is the iteration and reiteration in conversation of “the battered, stale, and trite” phrases, the like of which were credited by the worthy Dean to the women of his time.
Human thought elaborates itself with the progress of intelligence. Speech is the harvest of thought, and the relation which exists between words and the mouths that speak them must be carefully observed. Just as nothing is more beautiful than a word fitly spoken, so nothing is rarer than the use of a word in its exact meaning. There is a tendency to overwork both words and phrases that is not restricted to any particular class. The learned sin in this respect even as do the ignorant, and the practise spreads until it becomes an epidemic. The epidemic word with us yesterday was unquestionably “conscription”; several months ago it was “preparedness.” Before then “efficiency” was heard on every side and succeeded in superseding “vocational teaching,” only to be displaced in turn by “life extension” activities. “Safety-first” had a long run which was brought almost to abrupt end by “strict accountability,” but these are mere reflections of our cosmopolitan life and activities. There are others that stand out as indicators of brain-weariness. These are most frequently met in the work of our novelists.
English authors and journalists are abusing and overworking the word intrigue to-day. Sir Arthur Quillercouch on page 81 of his book “On the Art of Writing” uses it: “We are intrigued by the process of manufacture instead of being wearied by a description of the ready-made article.” Mrs. Sidgwick in “Salt and Savour,” page 232, wrote: “But what intrigued her was Little Mamma’s remark at breakfast,” From the Parliamentary news, one learns that “Mr. Harcourt intrigued the House of Commons by his sustained silence for two years” and that “London is interested in, and not a little intrigued, by the statement.” This use of intrigue in the sense of “perplex, puzzle, trick, or deceive” dates from 1600. Then it fell into a state of somnolence, and after an existence of innocuous desuetude lasting till 1794 it was revived, only to hibernate again until 1894. It owes its new lease of life to a writer on The Westminster Gazette, a London journal famous for its competitions in aid of the restoring of the dead meanings of words.
One is almost exasperated by the repeated use and abuse of the word “intimate” in a recently published work of fiction, by an author who aspires to the first rank in his profession. He writes of “the intimate dimness of the room;” “a fierce intimate whispering;” “a look that was intimate;” “the noise of the city was intimate,” etc. Who has not heard, “The idea!” “What’s the idea?” “Is that the idea?” “Yes, that’s the idea,” with increased inflection at each repetition. And who is without a friend who at some time or another has not sprung “meticulous” upon him? Another example is afforded by the endemic use of “of sorts” which struck London while the writer was in that city a few years ago. Whence it came no one knew, but it was heard on every side. “She was a woman of sorts;” “he is a Tory of sorts;” “he had a religion of sorts;” “he was a critic of sorts.” While it originally meant “of different or various kinds,” as hats of sorts; offices of sorts; cheeses of sorts, etc., it is now used disparagingly, and implies something of a kind that is not satisfactory, or of a character that is rather poor. This, as Shakespeare might have said, is “Sodden business! There’s a stewed phrase indeed!” [Footnote: Troilus and Cressida, act iii, sc. 1.]
The abuse of phrases and the misuse of words rife among us can be checked by diligent exercises in good English, such as this book provides. These exercises, in conjunction with others to be found in different volumes by the same author, will serve to correct careless diction and slovenly speech, and lead to the art of speaking and writing correctly; for, after all, accuracy in the use of words is more a matter of habit than of theory, and once it is acquired it becomes just as easy to speak or to write good English as bad English. It was Chesterfield’s resolution not to speak a word in conversation which was not the fittest he could recall. All persons should avoid using words whose meanings they do not know, and with the correct application of which they are unfamiliar. The best spoken and the best written English is that which conforms to the language as used by men and women of culture—a high standard, it is true, but one not so high that it is unattainable by any earnest student of the English tongue. FRANK H. VIZETELLY.