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The double meaning.... Part II. Ambiguity.
But as this is not really the case, it ought to have been otherwise situated; for it is not enough that it is separated by a comma, these small distinctions in the pointing being but too frequently overlooked. Alter the arrangement, then, and the expression will be no longer ambiguous: "At least my own private letters, as a penetrating friend of mine tells me, leave room for a politician well versed in matters of this nature to suspect as much." In the succeeding passage, the same author gives us an example of ambiguity, in the application of an adverb and a conjunction: "I beseech you, sir, to inform these fel
lows, that they have not the spleen, because they "cannot talk without the help of a glass, or convey their meaning to each other without the interposi"tion of clouds *." The ambiguity here lies in the two words not and because. What follows because appears, on the first hearing, to be the reason why the person here addressed, is desired to inform these fellows, that they are not splenetic; on the second, it appears to be the reason why people ought to conclude, that they are not; and on the third, the author seems only intending to signify, that this is not a sufficient reason to make any body conclude that they are. This error deserves our notice the more, that it is often to be found even in our best writers.
SOMETIMES a particular expression is so situated,
* Spectator, No. 53.
that it may he construed with more or less of another particular expression which precedes it in the sentence, and may consequently exhibit different senses: "He has, by some strange magic, arrived at the va"lue of a plumb, as the citizens call a hundred thou"sand pounds *.” Is it a plumb, or half a plumb, which the citizens call " a hundred thousand pounds?" "I will spend a hundred or two pounds, rather than "be enslaved f." This is another error of the same sort, but rather worse. Hundred cannot regularly be understood between the adjective two and its substantive pounds. Besides, the indefinite article a cannot properly express one side of the alternative, and supply the place of a numeral adjective opposed to two. The author's meaning would have been better expressed either of these ways: "I will spend one or "two hundred pounds," or, "I will spend one hun"dred pounds or two, rather than be enslaved." In the former case it is evident, that the words hundred pounds belong to both numeral adjectives; in the latter, that they are understood after the second. reference and construction of the concluding words in the next quotation, is very indefinite: "My chris"tian and surname begin and end with the same let
ters" Doth his christian name begin with the same letter that his surname begins with, and end with the same letter that his surname ends with? or, Both his christian name end with the same letter with
* Tatler, No. 40. † Swift to Sheridan. Spec. No. 505. O.
The double meaning.... Part II. Ambiguity.
which it begins, and his surname also end with the same letter with which it begins? or, lastly, Are all these four letters, the first and the last of each name, the same letter *?
SOMETIMES a particular clause or expression is so situated, that it may be construed with different members of the sentence, and thus exhibit different meanings: "It has not a word," says Pope, "but what "the author religiously thinks in it ‡." One would at first imagine his meaning to be, that it had not a word which the author did not think to be in it. Alter a little the place of the two last words, and the ambiguity will be removed: "It has not a word in it, "but what the author religiously thinks." Of the same kind also is the subsequent quotation: "Mr Dryden makes a very handsome observation on O"vid's writing a letter from Dido to Æneas, in the following words." Whether are the following words, the words of Dido's letter, or of Dryden's observation? Before you read them, you will more readily suppose them to be the words of the letter; after reading them, you find they are the words of the observation. The order ought to have been," Mr Dryden, in the fol"lowing words, makes a very handsome observation on Ovid's writing a letter from Dido to Æneas."
* An example of the first is Andrew Askew, of the second, Hezekiah Thrift, and of the third Norman Neilson.
Guardian, No. 4.
+ Spect. No. 62.
I SHALL Conclude this section with an instance of that kind of ambiguity which the French call a squinting construction; that is, when a clause is so situated in a sentence, that one is at first at a loss to know whether it ought to be connected with the words which go before, or with those which come after. Take the following passage for an example: "As it "is necessary to have the head clear as well as the complexion, to be perfect in this part of learning, I "rarely mingle with the men, but frequent the tea"tables of the ladies *." Whether, "To be perfect "in this part of learning, is it necessary to have the head clear as well as the complexion;" or, "To be perfect in this part of learning, does he rarely min"gle with the men, but frequent the tea tables of the ladies?" Which ever of these be the sense, the words ought to have been otherwise ranged.
SECT. III....The unintelligible.
I HAVE already considered two of the principal and most common offences against perspicuity; and come now to make some remarks on the third and last of fence, mentioned in the enumeration formerly given. It was observed, that a speaker may not only express himself obscurely, and so convey his meaning imperfectly to the mind of the hearer, that he may not on
+ Construction louche.
*Guardian, No. 10.
The unintelligible....Part I. From confusion of thought.
ly express himself ambiguously and so, along with his own, convey a meaning entirely different; but even express himself unintelligibly, and so convey no meaning at all. One would, indeed, think it hardly possible, that a man of sense, who perfectly understands the language which he useth, should ever speak or write in such a manner as to be altogether unintelligible. Yet this is what frequently happens. The cause of this fault in any writer, I take to be always one or other of the three following; first, great confusion of thought, which is commonly accompanied with intricacy of expression; secondly, affectation of excellence in the diction; thirdly, a total want of meaning. I do not mention as one of the causes of this imputation, a penury of language; though this, doubtless, may contribute to produce it. In fact, I never found one who had a justness of apprehension, and was free from affectation, at a loss to make himself understood in his native tongue, even though he had little command of language, and made but a bad choice of words.
PART I....From confusion of thought.
THE first cause of the unintelligible in composition, is, confusion of thought. Language, as hath been already observed, is the medium through which the sentiments of the writer are perceived by the reader. And though the impurity or the grossness of the me