Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Prose Style
By John Locke (1632–1704)

WHEN they understand how to write English with due connection, propriety, and order, and are pretty well masters of a tolerable narrative style, they may be advanced to writing of letters; wherein they should not be put upon any strains of wit or compliment, but taught to express their own plain, easy sense, without any incoherence, confusion, or roughness. And when they are perfect in this, they may, to raise their thoughts, have set before them the example of Voiture’s, for the entertainment of their friends at a distance with letters of compliment, mirth, raillery, or diversion; and Tully’s epistles, as the best pattern, whether for business or conversation. The writing of letters has so much to do in all the occurrences of human life, that no gentleman can avoid showing himself in this kind of writing: occasions will daily force him to make this use of his pen, which, besides the consequences, that, in his affairs, his well or ill managing of it often draws after it, always lays him open to a severer examination of his breeding, sense, and abilities, than oral discourses; whose transient faults, dying for the most part with the sound that gives them life, and so not subject to a strict review, more easily escape observation and censure.
  Had the methods of education been directed to their right end, one would have thought this, so necessary a part, could not have been neglected, whilst themes and verses in Latin, of no use at all, were so constantly everywhere pressed to the racking of children’s inventions beyond their strength, and hindering their cheerful progress in learning the tongues, by unnatural difficulties. But custom has so ordained it, and who dares disobey? And would it not be very unreasonable to require of a learned country schoolmaster (who has all the tropes and figures in Farnaby’s rhetoric at his fingers’ ends) to teach his scholar to express himself handsomely in English, when it appears to be so little his business or thought, that the boy’s mother (despised, it is like, as illiterate, for not having read a system of logic and rhetoric) outdoes him in it.  2
  To write and speak correctly gives a grace, and gains a favourable attention to what one has to say; and, since it is English that an English gentleman will have constant use of, that is the language he should chiefly cultivate, and wherein most care should be taken to polish and perfect his style. To speak or write better Latin than English may make a man be talked of; but he would find it more to his purpose to express himself well in his own tongue, that he uses every moment, than to have the vain commendation of others for a very insignificant quality. This I find universally neglected, and no care taken anywhere to improve young men in their own language, that they may thoroughly understand and be masters of it. If any one among us have a facility or purity more than ordinary in his mother tongue, it is owing to chance, or his genius, or anything, rather than to his education, or any care of his teacher. To mind what English his pupil speaks or writes is below the dignity of one bred up amongst Greek and Latin, though he have but little of them himself. These are the learned languages, fit only for learned men to meddle with and teach; English is the language of the illiterate vulgar, though yet we see the policy of some of our neighbours hath not thought it beneath the public care to promote and reward the improvement of their own language. Polishing and enriching their tongue is no small business amongst them: it hath colleges and stipends appointed it, and there is raised amongst them a great ambition and emulation of writing correctly; and we see what they are come to by it, and how far they have spread one of the worst languages, possibly, in this part of the world; if we look upon it as it was in some few reigns backwards, whatever it be now. The great men amongst the Romans were daily exercising themselves in their own language; and we find yet upon record the names of orators who taught some of their emperors Latin, though it were their mother tongue.  3
  It is plain the Greeks were yet more nice in theirs; all other speech was barbarous to them but their own, and no foreign language appears to have been studied or valued amongst that learned and acute people; though it be past doubt, that they borrowed their learning and philosophy from abroad.  4
  I am not here speaking against Greek and Latin; I think they ought to be studied, and the Latin, at least, understood well, by every gentleman. But whatever foreign languages a young man meddles with (and the more he knows the better), that which he should critically study and labour to get a facility, clearness, and elegancy to express himself in, should be his own, and to this purpose he should daily be exercised in it.  5
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