Books: Composition For College Students (1948)

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by Mark Saleski

I love to collect books about writing. Old ones, new ones. Books about technique, books about process.

My favorite among these is the writing memoir. An older example of this might be Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. More recently, there’s been Steven King’s On Writing. At the top of my list is Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway, with equal parts life narative and writing discussion.

One of the things that amazes me about writing in general, and language in particular, is how common usage drastically changes over time.

Just the other day, I was browsing through a book called Composition For College Students. Published in 1948 (fifth edition, first edition was in 1922), this book is just chock full of examples illustrating the huge differences between common usage now and ‘then’.

For example, in the section discussing usage of written outlines (OK, how many people out there actually wrote their outlines before begining their high school papers?) the author makes the point that it might make sense for the student to just sit and think about what he wants to say, even before commiting a sketch to paper:

To the present writers it would seem best to dispense entirely with the help of pen and paper in the first stages of reflection on a subject, while one is struggling in general terms with the question “What is it I really want to say?” and while one is determing the main course of one’s thought.

Phew! All that third-person academi-speak has got me tired out. Style matters aside, however, that particular sentence isn’t so different from what you might find in a composition text today. But check out the next sentence, which completes the thought:

Thoughts are easier to move about than their physical symbols, and unhappily the intense effort which thinking requires can be eluded by means of no mechanical device.

You’d have to dig into a modern semiotics text to find ripe verbiage like that. Does this mean that we’ve dumbed down our language (AIM-speak, anyone?) That’s not for me to answer. It’s just interesting to see how our usage of it has morphed over time.

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