The Ear as Critic
by The Editor Company
Do you ever give your ear a chance to criticise your work? The eye is good, but it misses some things upon which the ear sets a prompt mark of disapproval. If you do not believe it, read your next article or story aloud.
One of Waddy's six rules for "Harmony" is, "Avoid all disagreeable combinations of words," and it is this rule to which your special attention is called.
Words which sound all right when alone are often far from satisfactory when considered in the sentence as a whole. They are like some people—harmonious when left to themselves, but inclined to be quarrelsome if neighbors come too near. For instance: "I can candidly say," results in a "can-can" that is highly displeasing to the ear if not to the eye.
If one has never given any thought to the matter, one will be surprised to find how frequently this rule is violated in the works of good writers.
Sometimes the offending words immediately follow one another, as:
"Quite quietly," "A large party participated," "Endure during the season," "Vary very widely," "Are very various," "The two tourists."
At other times they are farther apart, as:
"A lone cottage where he slept alone," "In front of the looking-glass and looking at herself," "Having longed for them so long," "The query was a queer one," "Clear the track ahead and head off the runaway," "Carrying all the care in the world."
Occasionally, it is only one syllable which makes the trouble by being duplicated, either alone as a whole word, or together with other syllables. "A great family of famine-stricken members of the 'lean-kine' kind," shows this inharmonious arrangement twice in the same sentence: "family" and "famine," "kine" and "kind." Surely the one who wrote it could never have given his ear a chance to criticise it.
Other instances of a duplicated syllable are:
"A ridiculous predicament," "Generally of the genuine lace," "Hope for the future was futile," "In the highly powerful car he had hired," "On the part "of your partner," "Through the following year I followed," "Parted her curls and curled up her feet," "In the form of a former servant,"
"On the other hand a handicap," "Raising in a raisin box," "Considering there has been considerable—" A duplication of three syllables here!
Sometimes, while the spelling may be very different, the pronunciation of a certain syllable will unpleasantly duplicate the sound of a word or syllable near by. It is in such a case that the ear comes in for its best work. For example: in this, "The ruffian who in hot blood bludgeons his mate . . ." the eye might pass over the words with no dissatisfaction; but the ear—the ear would call an instant halt at that "blood bludgeons."Like this—but not so bloodthirsty—are: "Disdains danger," "Roadside in a row," "A jest that's just begun," "Confined to his room by rheumatism."
Several "sides" to the same question are: "Beside, she must decide," "Excitement over the suicide had just begun to subside," "Beside his bedside."
"In an inartistic age" might almost serve for a tongue-twister, while, "The peasant life of the present time," and, "He stared wildly at the wielder of the ladle," are far from pleasing when read aloud. As for this—"There is a certain sense of certainty which . . . ." surely here there is at least no lack of a certain sense of certainty as regards the disharmony of the words themselves.
The three sentences, "Christmas presents were not within her present environment," "It is the purpose of Uncle Eben to send an amount for the same purpose," and, "No one throughout the counties of which she counted herself a resident," if not actually violating the rule, at least convey an impression that the writer's vocabulary is somewhat limited.
They are not great—these little disharmonies; they do not cry out so loudly against a writer as would a double negative, or a plural verb with a singular subject, perhaps; but they need looking after! Their absence makes our style just that much nearer the finished elegance we are all striving to attain. They are—to make use of one last example from my notebook which seems particularly appropriate just here—they are "little ' literary follies," and to find them, there is nothing so competent as that ever-ready critic, the ear.