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The obscurity.... Part VII. From long sentences.
pothesis which assumes, that although our idea of thought be not included in the idea of matter or "body, as the idea of figure is, for instance, in that of "limited extension; yet the faculty of thinking, in "all the modes of thought, may have been superadded "by Omnipotence, to certain systems of matter: "which it is not less than blasphemy to deny; though "divines and philosophers, who deny it in terms, may "be cited; and which, whether it be true or no, will "never be proved false by a little metaphysical jargon about essences, and attributes, and modes *." The other quotation is from Swift's letter to the Lord High Treasurer, containing a proposal for correcting, improving, and ascertaining the English tongue : "To "this succeeded that licentiousness which entered with "the Restoration, and from infecting our religion and "morals, fell to corrupt our language, (which last was
not like to be much improved by those who at that "time made up the court of king Charles the Second; "either such who had followed him in his banish"ment; or who had been altogether conversant in "the dialect of those fanatic times; or young men "who had been educated in the same company) so "that the court (which used to be the standard of propriety and correctness of speech) was then (and, "I think, hath ever since continued) the worst "school in England for that accomplishment; and so "will remain, till better care be taken in the educa
tion of our young nobility, that they may set out inσε to the world with some foundation of literature, in "order to qualify them for patterns of politeness." There are, indeed, cases in which even a long period will not create obscurity. When this happens, it may almost always be remarked, that all the principal members of the period are similar in their structure,' and would constitute so many distinct sentences, if they were not united by their reference to some com→ mon clause in the beginning or the end.
SECT. II....The double Meaning.
Ir was observed, that perspicuity might be violat ed, not only by obscurity, but also by double mean ing. The fault in this case is not that the sentence conveys darkly or imperfectly the author's meaning, but that it conveys also some other meaning, which is not the author's His words are susceptible of more than one interpretation. When this happens, it is always occasioned, either by using some expression which is equivocal; that is, hath more meanings than one affixed to it; or, by ranging the words in such an order, 'that the construction is rendered equivocal, or made to exhibit different senses. To the former, for distinction's sake, I shall assign the name of equivocation; to the latter, I shall appropriate that of ambi guity.
The double meaning.... Part I. Equivocation.
I BEGIN With the first. When the word equivocation denotes, as in common language it generally denotes, the use of an equivocal word or phrase, or other ambiguity, with an intention to deceive, it doth not differ essentially from a lie. This offence falls under the reproof of the moralist, not the censure of the rhetorician. Again, when the word denotes, as agreeably to etymology it may dénote, that exercise of wit which consists in the playful use of any term or phrase in different senses, and is denominated pun, it is amenable indeed to the tribunal of criticism, but cannot be regarded as a violation of the laws of perspicuity. It is neither with the liar nor with the punster that I am concerned at presènt. The only species of equivocation that comes under reprehension here, is that which takes place, when an author undesignedly employs an expression susceptible of a sense different from the sense he intends to convey by it.
In order to avoid this fault, no writer or speaker can think of disusing all the homonymous terms of the language, or all such as have more than one signification. To attempt this in any tongue, ancient or modern, would be to attempt the annihilation of the greater part of the language; for, in every language, the words strictly univocal will be found to be the smaller number. But it must be admitted, as a rule
in elocution, that equivocal terms ought ever to be avoided, unless where their connexion with the other words of the sentence instantly ascertains the meaning. This, indeed, the connexion is often so capable of effecting, that the hearer will never reflect that the word is equivocal, the true sense being the only sense which the expression suggests to his mind. Thus the word pound signifies both the sum of twenty shillings sterling, and the weight of sixteen ounces averdupois. Now, if you should tell me, that you rent a house at fifty pounds, or that you have bought fifty pounds of meat in the market, the idea of weight will never present itself to my mind in the one case, or the idea of
money in the other. But it frequently happens, through the inadvertency of writers, that the connected words in the sentence do not immediately ascertain the sense of the equivocal term. And though an intelligent reader may easily find the sense on reflection, and, with the aid of the context, we may lay it down as a maxim, that an author always offends against perspicuity, when his style requires that reflection from his reader. But I shall proceed to illustrate, by examples, the fault of which I am treating. An equivocation, then, may lie either in a single word or in a phrase.
As to the former, there is scarce any of the parts of speech, in which you will not find equivocal terms. To begin with particles; the preposition of denotes sometimes the relation which any affection bears to
The double meaning....Part I. Equivocation.
its subject; that is, the person whose affection it is; sometimes the relation which it bears to its object. Hence this expression of the apostle hath been observed to be equivocal: "I am persuaded that neither “death nor life-shall be able to separate us from the "love of God *." By the love of God, say interpreters, may be understood, either God's love to us, or our love to God. It is remarkable, that the genitive case in the ancient languages, and the prepositions cerresponding to that case in the modern languages, are alike susceptible of this double meaning. Only, as to our own language, we may observe in passing, that of late the preposition of is more commonly put before the subject, and to before the object of the passion. But this is not the only way in which the preposition of may be equivocal. As it sometimes denotes the relation of the effect to the cause, sometimes that of the accident to the subject, from this duplicity of signification, there will also, in certain circumstances, arise a double sense. You have an example in these words of Swift: "A little after the reformation of "Luther +." It may indeed be doubted, whether this should not rather be called an impropriety, since the reformation of a man will suggest much more readily a change wrought on the man, than a change wrought by him. And the former of these senses it could not more readily suggest, if the expression in that sense were not more conformable to use.
* Romans viii. 38. &c.
+ Mechan. Operat.