Copy Book Archive

Order and Method Taking the trouble to express ourselves more clearly helps us to think more clearly too.
King George III 1760-1820

By Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck (1799-1863), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

A view of Edinburgh, by Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck.

About this picture …

A view of Edinburgh in 1827, attributed to British watercolourist Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck (?1799-1863). Blair spent most of his life in Edinburgh, at a time when Scotland was producing a remarkable catalogue of engineers, inventors, philosophers, economists and men of letters in what is termed the Scottish Enlightenment, roughly 1730-1820.

Order and Method
In 1783, after serving for twenty-one years as Edinburgh University’s first Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Hugh Blair retired, and immediately published a collection of his lectures. No. XII dealt with the structure of sentences, and urged readers to take time over their sentence-making because disciplined writers make more disciplined thinkers.

THE fundamental rule of the construction of sentences, and into which all others might be resolved, undoubtedly is, to communicate, in the clearest and most natural order, the ideas which we mean to transfuse into the minds of others. Every arrangement that does most justice to the sense, and expresses it to most advantage, strikes us as beautiful. To this point have tended all the rules I have given.

And, indeed, did men always think clearly, and were they, at the same time, fully masters of the language in which they write, there would be occasion for few rules. Their sentences would then, of course, acquire all those properties of precision, unity, and strength, which I have recommended. For we may rest assured, that, whenever we express ourselves ill, there is, besides the mismanagement of language, for the most part, some mistake in our manner of conceiving the subject. Embarrassed, obscure, and feeble sentences, are generally, if not always, the result of embarrassed, obscure, and feeble thought. Thought and language act and react upon each other mutually. Logic and rhetoric have here, as in many other cases, a strict connexion; and he that is learning to arrange his sentences with accuracy and order, is learning, at the same time, to think with accuracy and order; an observation which alone will justify all the care and attention we have bestowed on this subject.


In one of his acclaimed lectures on rhetoric, Hugh Blair (who had retired that same year, 1783, after a distinguished career at Edinburgh University) urged readers to pay close attention to the way they expressed themselves. Sloppy grammar or ill-chosen vocabulary betrays sloppy thinking; likewise, a habit of arranging one’s words with care can help foster a more orderly mind. (59 / 60 words)


From Lectures on Rhetoric (1783) by the Revd Hugh Blair (1718-1800).

How To Use This Passage

You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

For these and more ideas, see How to Use The Copy Book.

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