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The False Refinements in Our Style, by Jonathan Swift

"Monosyllables . . . are the disgrace of our language"

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The False Refinements in Our Style, by Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift (detail of an oil painting by Charles Jervas; in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

In the Endless Decline of the English Language, we show how purists and doomsayers have been bemoaning the decay of English for centuries. Among those committed to "fixing" the language was Jonathan Swift, best known for his satirical novel Gulliver's Travels (1726) and the viciously ironic essay "A Modest Proposal" (1729).

"The False Refinements in Our Style," Swift's witty complaint about "the continual corruption of our English tongue," first appeared in issue 230 of the Tatler, September 28, 1710. It is in the form of a letter addressed to Issac Bickerstaff, Esq., the pseudonym of the magazine's editor, Richard Steele. Originally untitled, the essay has been reprinted under various names, including "Against Bad English."

As one 19th-century editor pointed out, "[N]otwithstanding the ridicule so justly thrown by our author on barbarous contractions, [Swift] constantly fell into that error in his private letters to Stella." In addition, several of the trendy "polysyllables" that Swift condemns (note his lively battle metaphor at the end of paragraph two) can be found in the writings of Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden.


The False Refinements in Our Style

by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

From my own apartment, September 27

The following letter has laid before me many great and manifest evils in the world of letters, which I had overlooked; but it opens to me a very busy scene, and it will require no small care and application to amend errors, which are become so universal. The affectation of politeness is exposed in this epistle with a great deal of wit and discernment; so that, whatever discourses I may fall into hereafter upon the subject the writer treats of, I shall at present lay the matter before the world without the least alteration from the words of my correspondent.

To Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.

Sir,

There are some abuses among us of great consequence, the reformation of which is properly your province; although, as far as I have been conversant in your papers, you have not yet considered them. These are, the deplorable ignorance that for some years has reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style. I say nothing here of those who handle particular sciences, divinity, law, physic, and the like; I mean the traders in history, and politics, and the belles lettres, together with those by whom books are not translated, but (as the common expressions are) "done out of French, Latin," or other languages, and made English. I cannot but observe to you, that, until of late years, a Grub Street book was always bound in sheepskin, with suitable print and paper, the price never above a shilling, and taken off wholly by common tradesmen or country pedlars; but now they appear in all sizes and shapes, and in all places: they are handed about from lapfuls in every coffeehouse to persons of quality; are shown in Westminster-Hall and the Court of Requests. You may see them gilt, and in royal paper, of five or six hundred pages, and rated accordingly. I would engage to furnish you with a catalogue of English books, published within the compass of seven years past, which at the first hand would cost you an hundred pounds, wherein you shall not be able to find ten lines together of common grammar, or common sense.

These two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third; I mean the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it has been improved in the foregoing hundred. And this is what I design chiefly to enlarge upon, leaving the former evils to your animadversion.

But instead of giving you a list of the late refinements crept into our language, I here send you a copy of a letter I received some time ago from a most accomplished person in this way of writing, upon which I shall make some remarks. It is in these terms.

"Sir,

"I cou'dn't get the things you sent for all about town.--I tho't to ha' come down myself, and then I'd ha' bro't 'um; but I ha'nt don't, and I believe I can't do't, that's pozz--Tom begins to gi'mself airs, because he's going with the plenipo's.--'Tis said the French king will bamboozle us agen, which causes many speculations. The Jacks, and others of that kidney, are very uppish and alert upon't, as you may see by their phizz's.--Will Hazard has got the hipps, having lost to the tune of five hundr'd pound, tho' he understands play very well, nobody better. He has promis't me upon rep, to leave off play; but you know 'tis a weakness he's too apt to give into, tho' he has as much wit as any man, nobody more. He has lain incog ever since.--The mobb's very quiet with us now.--I believe you tho't I banter'd you in my lost like a country put.--I shan't leave town this month, &c."

This letter is, in every point, an admirable pattern of the present polite way of writing; nor is it of less authority for being an epistle: you may gather every flower of it, with a thousand more of equal sweetness, from the books, pamphlets, and single papers, offered us every day in the coffeehouses. And these are the beauties introduced to supply the want of wit, sense, humour, and learning, which formerly were looked upon as qualifications for a writer. If a man of wit, who died forty years ago, were to rise from the grave on purpose, how would he be able to read this letter? and after he had gone through that difficulty, how would he be able to understand it?

The first thing that strikes your eye, is the breaks at the end of almost every sentence; of which I know not the use, only that it is a refinement, and very frequently practised. Then you will observe the abbreviations and elisions, by which consonants of most obdurate sounds are joined together without one softening vowel to intervene: and all this only to make one syllable of two, directly contrary to the example of the Greeks and Romans; altogether of the Gothic strain, and of a natural tendency toward relapsing into barbarity, which delights in monosyllables, and uniting of mute consonants, as it is observable in all the Northern languages. And this is still more visible in the next refinement, which consists in pronouncing the first syllable in a word that has many, and dismissing the rest; such as phizz, hipps, mobb, pozz, rep, and many more; when we are already overloaded with monosyllables, which are the disgrace of our language. Thus we cram one syllable, and cut off the rest; as the owl fattened her mice after she had bit off their legs, to prevent them from running away; and if ours be the same reason for maiming of words, it will certainly answer the end; for I am sure no other nation will desire to borrow them. Some words are hitherto but fairly split, and therefore only in their way to perfection, as incog and plenipo; but in a short time, it is to be hoped, they will be further docked to inc and plen. This reflection has made me of late years very impatient for a peace, which I believe would save the lives of many brave words as well as men. The war has introduced abundance of polysyllables, which will never be able to live many more campaigns. Speculations, operations, preliminaries, ambassadors, palisadoes, communications, circumvallations, battalions, as numerous as they are, if they attack us too frequently in our coffeehouses, we shall certainly put them to flight, and cut off the rear.


Concluded on page two

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