Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
A Good and a Bad Style
By Lord Chesterfield (16941773)
From Letters to his Son
I HAVE written to you so often of late upon good breeding, address, les manières liantes, the graces, etc. that I shall confine this letter to another subject, pretty near akin to them, and which, I am sure, you are full as deficient in; I mean, style.
Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage, and be as ill received as your person, though ever so well proportioned, would, if dressed in rags, dirt, and tatters. It is not every understanding that can judge of matter; but every ear can and does judge more or less of style; and were I either to speak or write to the public, I should prefer moderate matter, adorned with all the beauties and elegancies of style, to the strongest matter in the world, ill-worded and ill-delivered. Your business is Negotiation abroad and Oratory in the House of Commons at home. What figure can you make in either case if your style be inelegant, I do not say bad? I imagine yourself writing an office-letter to a Secretary of State, which letter is to be read by the whole Cabinet Council, and very possibly afterwards laid before Parliament; any one barbarism, solecism, or vulgarism in it would, in a very few days, circulate through the whole kingdom to your disgrace and ridicule. For instance; I will suppose you had written the following letter from the Hague, to the Secretary of State at London; and leave you to suppose the consequences of it.
MY LORDI had last night, the honour of your Lordships letter of the 24th; and will set about doing the orders contained therein; and if so be that I can get that affair done by the next post, I will not fail for to give your Lordship an account of it by next post. I have told the French Minister, as how, that if that affair be not soon concluded, your Lordship would think it all long of him; and that he must have neglected for to have wrote to his Court about it. I must beg leave to put your Lordship in mind, as how, that I am now full three quarters in arrear; and if so be that I do not very soon receive at least one half-year, I shall cut a very bad figure; for this here place is very dear. I shall be vastly beholden to your Lordship for that there mark of your favour; and so I rest, or remain, Your, etc.
You will tell me, possibly that this is a caricatura of an illiberal and inelegant style; I will admit it: but assure you, at the same time, that a despatch with less than half these faults would blow you up for ever. It is by no means sufficient to be free from faults in speaking and writing; you must do both correctly and elegantly. In faults of this kind, it is not ille optimus qui minimis urgetur; but he is unpardonable that has any at all, because it is his own fault: he need only attend to, observe, and imitate the best authors.
It is a very true saying, that a man must be born a poet, but that he may make himself an orator; and the very first principle of an orator is, to speak his own language, particularly, with the utmost purity and elegance. A man will be forgiven, even great errors, in a foreign language; but in his own even the least slips are justly laid hold of and ridiculed.
A person of the House of Commons, speaking two years ago upon naval affairs, asserted that we had then the finest navy upon the face of the yearth. This happy mixture of blunder and vulgarism, you may easily imagine, was matter of immediate ridicule; but I can assure you that it continues so still, and will be remembered as long as he lives and speaks. Another, speaking in defence of a gentleman upon whom a censure was moved, happily said that he thought that gentleman was more liable to be thanked and rewarded, than censured. You know, I presume, that liable can never be used in a good sense.
You have with you three or four of the best English authors, Dryden, Atterbury, and Swift; read them with the utmost care, and with a particular view to their language, and they may possibly correct that curious infelicity of diction, which you acquired at Westminster. Mr. Harte excepted, I will admit that you have met with very few English abroad who could improve your style; and with many, I dare say, who speak as ill as yourself, and it may be worse; you must therefore take the more pains, and consult your authors and Mr. Harte the more. I need not tell you how attentive the Romans and Greeks, particularly the Athenians were to this object. It is also a study among the Italians and the French, witness their respective Academies and Dictionaries, for improving and fixing their languages. To our shame be it spoken, it is less attended to here than in any polite country; but that is no reason why you should not attend to it; on the contrary it will distinguish you the more. Cicero says, very truly, that it is glorious to excel other men in that very article, in which men excel brutes, speech.
Constant experience has shown me, that great purity and elegance of style, with a graceful elocution, cover a multitude of faults in either a speaker or a writer. For my own part, I confess (and I believe most people are of my mind) that if a speaker should ungracefully mutter or stammer out to me the sense of an angel, deformed by barbarisms and solecisms, or larded with vulgarisms, he should never speak to me a second time, if I could help it. Gain the heart, or you gain nothing; the eyes and the ears are the only road to the heart. Merit and knowledge will not gain hearts, though they will secure them when gained. Pray have that truth ever in your mind. Engage the eyes by your address, air, and motions; sooth the ears by the elegance and harmony of your diction; the heart will certainly follow, and the whole man or woman will as certainly follow the heart. I must repeat it to you over and over again, that with all the knowledge which you may have at present or hereafter acquire, and with all the merit that ever man had, if you have not a graceful address, liberal and engaging manners, a prepossessing air, and a good degree of eloquence in speaking and writing, you will be nobody; but will have the daily mortification of seeing people, with not one-tenth part of your merit or knowledge, get the start of you and disgrace you both in company and in business.