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Notes for
The Ethical and Pedagogical Importance 
of the Principle of Habit

by William James

[Complete Text]

     This essay raises an important question, especially for students, and I have long wanted to add it to this site. The passages selected for analysis, in addition to the opening and closing, should evoke some interesting discussion among students, especially that in exercise five. (Does excessive listening to music weaken one's character?)  I am also interested in the statistical analysis of James' writing. For more on this, see below.

Ex  # 1 AK 133 7 19.0
Ex  # 2 AK 114 4 28.5
Ex  # 3 AK 279 12 23.3
Ex  # 4 AK 225 7 32.1
Ex  # 5 AK 168 8 21.0
Ex  # 6 AK 103 5 20.6
Ex  # 7 AK 134 6 22.3
Totals/Averages (of 2 - 7) 1023 24.4
G11W WB Statistical Stylistics

     Exercise # 1 consists of the first two paragraphs of the essay, but they consist primarily of quotations from the Duke of Wellington and Professor Huxley. The first sentence in the second paragraph is interesting in that it includes five subordinate clauses, an expletive, and two gerundive constructions, one of which can also be explained as a noun absolute that functions as a direct object. Note how in these opening two paragraphs James establishes the importance of habit by appealing to the authority of Wellington (a general) and Huxley (a scholar).
     Exercise # 2, the third paragraph of the essay, is the first true sample of James's prose. It provides an interesting array of verbals -- gerunds, gerundives, and infinitives, plus a post-positioned adjective and a semi-reduced clause. It would be a good review passage for eleventh graders.
     Exercise # 3, the fourth paragraph, is longer and less suitable as an exercise, but it too includes a wide range of constructions. Note the regular use of "It is" and other simple subjects and finite verbs as the openings of sentences. [This is something that many teachers attempt to teach students to avoid.]
     Exercise # 4 is a sequential paragraph, but it is set up as numbered sentences to make it easier for teachers to assign just specific sentences rather than the entire passage. Sentence four includes the tricky "the .. the..." construction ('the more... the more...; the faster ... the better, etc.)
    Exercise # 5 is likewise a sequential passage with the sentences numbered. It too includes a nice variety of constructions, including two gerunds that function as appositives. As noted above, it was chosen because of its potential interest to students.
     Exercise # 6 is the beginning of the final paragraph. The third sentence in it includes two relatively unusual clause constructions.
     Exercise # 7 is the end of the last paragraph of the essay. Some of the sentences are easy, but others raise complicated questions. The last sentence, for example, illustrates the debatable explanation of noun absolutes that function as nouns.

Statistical Stylistics

     Some day I may have the time to put these selections through the style machine, but I did a quick "hand-count," just to see how many words per main clause James averaged. If you are not familiar with it, this type of statistical analysis has been central to debates about the teaching of grammar. The foundational researchers in this field concluded that professional writers average 20.3 words per main clause. Since the senior high school students they studied averaged only 14.4 words per main clause, they were worried. (See the tables.) The question is complex, but here I just wanted to see where James would fit. It is generally acknowledged that writers in the eighteenth century wrote longer sentences, so I was not particularly surprised to see that the average for James here is 24.4. (Note that this does not include the first selection, which consists primarily of quotations from the words and works of others.)

[In the table, "TW" stands for "total words in the selection; "TMC" stands for the total number of main clauses in the selection (derived by counting the number of vertical lines "/"). Then it is simply a matter of dividing the total number of words by the total number of main clauses.]
Having spent the last year or so primarily on the work of Sherwood Anderson ("The Egg"), Henrietta Marshall (Stories from Robin Hood), and Ouida (A Dog of Flanders), I was somewhat surprised by the relative scarcity of compound main clauses in these samples by James. All three of the others use them frequently. There are numerous stylistic questions involved here, and someday, perhaps, I (or others) will have the time to study these questions in more detail.

Links to William James sites:
At Emory U.