In these books you will find pieces taken from authors both in prose and verse. But of the authors who have made themselves famous by the books which they have written in our language, many had to be set aside. Because many writers, though their books are famous, have written so long ago, that the language which they use, though it is really the same language as our own, is yet so old-fashioned that it is not readily understood. By and by, when you are older, you may read these books, and find it interesting to notice how the language is gradually changing; so that, though we can easily understand what our grandfathers or our great grandfathers wrote, yet we cannot understand, without carefully studying it, what was written by our own ancestors a thousand, or even five hundred, years ago.
The first thing, however, that you have to do—and, perhaps, this book may help you to do it—is to learn what is the best way of writing or speaking our own language of the present day. You cannot learn this better than by reading and remembering what has been written by men, who, because they were very great, or because they laboured very hard, have obtained a great command over the language. When we speak of obtaining a command over language we mean that they have been able to say, in simple, plain words, exactly what they mean. This is not so easy a matter as you may at first think it to be. Those who write well do not use roundabout ways of saying a thing, or they might weary us; they do not use words or expressions which might mean one or other of two things, or they might confuse us; they do not use bombastic language, or language which is like a vulgar and too gaudy dress, or they might make us laugh at them; they do not use exaggerated language, or, worse than all, they might deceive us. If you look at many books which are written at the present day, or at many of the newspapers which appear every morning, you will find that those who write them often forget these rules; and after we have read for a short time what they have written, we are doubtful about what they mean, and only sure that they are trying to attract foolish people, who like bombastic language as they like too gaudy dress, and are caring little whether what they write is strictly true or not.
It is, therefore, very important that you should take as your examples those who have written very well and very carefully, and who have been afraid lest by any idle or careless expression they might either lead people to lose sight of what is true, or might injure our language, which has grown up so slowly, which is so dear to us, and the beauty of which we might, nevertheless, so easily throw away.
As you read specimens of what these authors have written, you will find that they excel chiefly in the following ways:
First. They tell us just what they mean; neither more nor less.
Secondly. They never leave us doubtful as to anything we ought to know in order to understand them. If they tell us a story, they make us feel as if we saw all that they tell us, actually taking place.