The work of this society should be to encourage polite learning, to polish and refine the English tongue, and advance the so much neglected faculty of correct language, to establish purity and propriety of style, and to purge it from all the irregular additions that ignorance and affectation have introduced; and all those innovations in speech, if I may call them such, which some dogmatic writers have the confidence to foster upon their native language, as if their authority were sufficient to make their own fancy legitimate.
By such a society I daresay the true glory of our English style would appear; and among all the learned part of the world be esteemed, as it really is, the noblest and most comprehensive of all the vulgar languages in the world.
Into this society should be admitted none but persons eminent for learning, and yet none, or but very few, whose business or trade was learning. For I may be allowed, I suppose, to say we have seen many great scholars mere learned men, and graduates in the last degree of study, whose English has been far from polite, full of stiffness and affectation, hard words, and long unusual coupling of syllables and sentences, which sound harsh and untuneable to the ear, and shock the reader both in expression and understanding.
In short, there should be room in this society for neither clergyman, physician, nor lawyer. Not that I would put an affront upon the learning of any of those honourable employments, much less upon their persons. But if I do think that their several professions do naturally and severally prescribe habits of speech to them peculiar to their practice, and prejudicial to the study I speak of, I believe I do them no wrong. Nor do I deny but there may be, and now are, among some of all those professions men of style and language, great masters of English, whom few men will undertake to correct; and where such do at any time appear, their extraordinary merit should find them a place in this society; but it should be rare, and upon very extraordinary occasions that such be admitted.
I would therefore have this society wholly composed of gentlemen; whereof twelve to be of the nobility, if possible, and twelve private gentlemen, and a class of twelve to be left open for mere merit, let it be found in who or what sort it would, which should lie as the crown of their study, who have done something eminent to deserve it. The voice of this society should be sufficient authority for the usage of words, and sufficient also to expose the innovations of other men's fancies; they should preside with a sort of judicature over the learning of the age, and have liberty to correct and censure the exorbitance of writers, especially of translators. The reputation of this society would be enough to make them the allowed judges of style and language, and no author would have the impudence to coin without their authority. Custom, which is now our best authority for words, would always have its original here, and not be allowed without it. There should be no more occasion to search for derivations and constructions, and 'twould be as criminal then to coin words as money.
The exercises of this society would be lectures on the English tongue, essays on the nature, original, usage, authorities, and differences of words, or the propriety, parity, and cadence of style, and of the politeness and manner in writing; reflections upon irregular usages, and corrections of erroneous customs in words; and, in short, everything that would appear necessary to the bringing our English tongue to a due perfection, and our gentlemen to a capacity of writing like themselves; to banish pride and pedantry, and silence the impudence and impertinence of young authors, whose ambition is to be known, though it be by their folly.
I ask leave here for a thought or two about that inundation custom has made upon our language and discourse by familiar swearing; and I place it here, because custom has so far prevailed in this foolish vice that a man's discourse is hardly agreeable without it; and some have taken upon them to say it is pity it should not be lawful, it is such a grace in a man's speech, and adds so much vigour to his language.