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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 26

II.—The Idioms of our Language Should be Conquered by Systematic Practice

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II.—The Idioms of our Language Should be Conquered by Systematic Practice.

But our English tongue has, like every language, its own idioms, which we should not only know, but be able to use with case and skill. These idioms are as expressive, as delicate, as quaint, as comprehensive, as succinct, and as beautiful, as those of any language. In order to be used with ease and effect, they require as careful and repeated practice as those of Latin or Greek. Yet this is a subject which has received comparatively little attention. Look at the innumerable text-books with the most careful and systematic course of graduated exercises in Latin and Greek Construction, at which boys spend the greater part of their whole school course to acquire the power of using correctly. It inspires pleasure and pride to see the immense care bestowed on the systematic study of these languages, and the elaboration of a skilfully graduated course of instruction in their beautiful idioms by examples made by the pupils. But it more than surprises one to find how little has been clone, in this respect, for our own language, equally full of vigorous idiomatic expressions. Where can we point to a book in which the most distant approach has been made towards giving as elaborate and graduated a course of sentence making and construction in English as in these dead but grand old languages? We cannot; it yet remains to be done. The field is as extensive, the material for practice as peculiar and difficult of attainment as the classical, and the subject can be conquered only by a like careful series of exercises in English syntactical and idiomatic structure.

Let us enumerate some of these peculiar idiomatic constructions, to realise more vividly the necessity for thus conquering them, by a systematic course of constructive examples.

1. The peculiar use of "shall" and "will," by which we can give succinct expression to delicate shades of meaning peculiar to English, already spoken of; their distinctive use in indirect sentences; and their different construction in interrogation.

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2. The varied meanings expressible by our possessive, in the use of the 's, or ', or simple "s" to form it; the different ideas given by its use or non-use, as in "he is a friend of my son," and "of my son's;" its special use in names of places, as St Paul's; its use in enumerations, as A., B., & C.'s works, and A.'s, B.'s, and C.'s works.

3. The peculiar use of "the" in English; as in "the lion," to indicate a species, and its non-use as in "gold," to express a like idea; its pretty use with different meanings, as "the professor and the president," and "the professor and president;" its use with adjectives, as "the wise;" its use with comparatives, as in "the better of the two," and the peculiar idiom in "all the greater," &c.

4. The various true indefinites, like the French "on," usable in English, each with its special force and special occasion; such as "one," "we," "you," "a man," "men," "any one."

5. The very varied forms of the tenses in English, each with its own special shade of meaning and association, and special occasion for use.

Under every time—present, past, or future—we have a remarkable variety of ideas and expressions, greater than in most languages: the indefinite or general form, the simple progressive, the perfect, the perfect progressive, the emphatic, the expletive, the interrogative in various forms, the negative in various ways. In addition to these, we have special uses of various tenses—the tense for the expression of general truths, the use of the present for the future, the use of the present for the past, or historical present, the use of the progressive for a continuous action, the use of the present-perfect for a thing completed in past time, the use of the present-perfect for a historical tense, the use of the past for a habitual state, and so on.

6. The different moods of the verb, each with its own peculiar phase of thought—the indicative, the potential form of the indicative, the conditional, the hypothetical in its two forms, the different forms of expressing command, the infinitive in its different forms of to, ing, and gerundive, and the attributive or participial.

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7. The use of "would" and "should," for intention, obligation, condition; and their use as the past of "will" and "shall," in reported speech and hypothetical sentences, which is a frequent source of error even with educated people.

8. The differing uses of a or an as the indefinite article; its use after "such," "many," "too," &c.; before few, little, &c.: the different meanings with and without a; the peculiar idiom in "a good and a true man," and "a good and true man," "a better general than a ruler," and "a better general than ruler,"—and many more.

9. The different and peculiar uses of as.

10. The difficult and peculiar uses of "only."

11. The proper occasions and different uses of that.

12. The former and latter; the one, the other; this and that.

13. Words plural in form and singular in meaning.

14. Ten sail, three score, sixpence and sixpennies.

15. Correlative words, as either, or; verbs followed by certain prepositions; pronouns, like such followed by as, &c.

16. The use of relatives to introduce co-ordinate as well as subordinate sentences.

17. The use of the adjective and the adverb after substantive verbs, which should be carefully distinguished.

18. The use of the substitutional words "it," "there."

The foregoing gives but a slight indication of the immense wealth of peculiar idiomatic phraseology possessed by the English language. To be known they must be used, and to be known and used with case and security, they must receive as careful and graduated practice as those of Latin and Greek.