4 July 2012

The Little Touches

Harry Thurston Peck, What Is Good English? (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899), pp. 40-2:
The enlightened person may be soonest recognised in what he says and writes; for it is in language that the little touches are most truly omnipresent. In a positive way these cannot be defined. They are perceptible most of all in a perfect harmony between word and phrase and the occasion when the word and phrase are uttered. The nice tact, the instinctive adaption of means to end, the delicate understanding of just how far one may go in any given direction, the mental modulations, so to speak, the shadings, the tintings, the half-lights, the recognition of eternal fitness -- these are nowhere so immediately felt as when men and women begin to frame their thoughts in language; and they depend not at all upon recorded rule and precept, nor upon anything that can be taught and learned, but they spring out of that finer taste which may indeed be cultivated and still more refined, yet which is itself the fairy birth-gift that insures enlightenment to its possessor; for it goes with sanity and judgment, and it is both coloured by humour and directed by a sense of true proportion.  
As rule and precept have nothing to do with the little touches, it is impossible to classify these and describe them in a satisfactory way. The most that can be done is to give some illustration of those usages which show their absence and which may, perhaps, explain them negatively; for there are certain things in language which an enlightened person will not do, and there are certain other things which instantly rank the one who perpetrates them with the unenlightened -- that is, with those who lack the little touches.  
In the first place, there is nothing quite so vulgar as the perpetual dread of seeming to be vulgar. The enlightened person is not vulgar, simply because it is utterly impossible for him to be so. The unenlightened person dreads vulgarity, yet he lacks the nice discrimination which divides the easy and the natural from the wholly crude. To adapt one's language to the subject of one's discourse, to the occasion, and to the hearer, is the ultimate test of true refinement and of taste. In public oratory, for example, the speaker who cannot discriminate and feel the instinctive appropriateness or inappropriateness of a particular manner is one who is always in danger of mistaking bombast for inspired eloquence, and windy gabble for fluency and ease. He will talk to a bucolic audience about cattle-raising and farming in precisely the same vein as that in which he would urge a reluctant Senate to declare a war; and on some really stately and momentous occasion he will babble commonplaces or descend to vulgar jocularity.  
In private life, the unenlightened person is very apt to dread colloquialisms. He will wish to speak book-language in recounting the most casual incidents of life. He is always "perusing" a book instead of reading it; he always "retires" and never goes to bed; he "disrobes" and does not undress; he will promise to "correspond" but not to write; he will ask you to "desist" but not to stop. If he is extremely unenlightened he will say that he is "partial" to such and such a thing, and perhaps at table will offer to "assist" you to the cheese. This sort of person is almost as low as the one who takes pleasure in alluding to his "social position" and with whom men and women are always "ladies" and "gentlemen."