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The obscurity....Part II. From bad arrangement.
one, is liable to the same exception. "I have hopes "that when Will confronts him, and all the ladies in
whose behalf he engages him, cast kind looks and "wishes of success at their champion, he will have "some shame *." It is impossible not to imagine, on hearing the first part of the sentence, that Will is to confront all the ladies, though afterwards we find it necessary to construe this clause with the following verb. This confusion is removed at once, by repeating the adverb when, thus: “ I have hopes that when "Will confronts him, and when all the ladies cast "kind looks.- The subsequent sentence is liable to the same exception: "He advanced against "the fierce ancient, imitating his address, his pace "and career, as well as the vigour of his horse, and "his own skill would allow +." The clause, as well as the vigour of his horse, appears at first to belong to the former part of the sentence, and is afterwards found to belong to the latter. In all the above instances of bad arrangement, there is what may be justly termed a constructive ambiguity; that is, the words are so disposed in point of order, as would render them really ambiguous, if, in that construction which the expression first suggests, any meaning were exhibited. As this is not the case, the faulty order of the words cannot properly be considered, as rendering the sentence ambiguous, but obscure.
*Spectator, No. 20.
Battle of the Books,
Ir may indeed be argued, that, in these and the like examples, the least reflection in the reader will quickly remove the obscurity. But why is there any obscurity to be removed? Or why does the writer require more attention from the reader, or the speaker from the hearer, than is absolutely necessary? It ought to be remembered, that whatever application we must give to the words, is, in fact, so much deducted from what we owe to the sentiments. Besides, the effort that is exerted in a very close attention to the language, always weakens the effect which the thoughts were intended to produce in the mind.
By perspicuity," as Quintilian justly observes," care “is taken, not that the hearer may understand, if he "will; but that he must understand, whether he will "or not*." Perspicuity originally and properly implies transparency, such as may be ascribed to air, glass, water, or any other medium, through which material objects are viewed. From this original and proper sense it hath been metaphorically applied to language, this being, as it were, the medium, through which we perceive the notions and sentiments of a speaker. Now, in corporeal things, if the medium through which we look at any object be perfectly transparent, our whole attention is fixed on the object; we are scarce sensible that there is a medium
* Non ut intelligere possit, sed ne omnino possit non intelligere curandum. Inst. Lib. viii. Cap. 2.
The obscurity....Part II. Form bad arrangement.
which intervenes, and can hardly be said to perceive it. But if there be any flaw in the medium, if we see through it but dimly, if the object be imperfectly represented, or if we know it to be misrepresented, our attention is immediately taken off the object, to the medium. We are then desirous to discover the cause, either of the dim and confused representation, or of the misrepresentation of things which it exhibits, that so the defect in vision may be supplied by judgment. The case of language is precisely similar. A discourse, then, excels in perspicuity, when the subject engrosses the attention of the hearer, and the diction is so little minded by him, that he can scarce be said to be conscious that it is through this medium he sees into the speaker's thoughts. On the contrary, the least obscurity, ambiguity, or confusion in the style, instantly removes the attention from the sentiment to the expression, and the hearer endeavours, by the aid of reflection, to correct the imperfections of the speaker's language.
So much for obviating the objections which are frequently raised against such remarks as I have already made, and shall probably hereafter make, on the subject of language. The elements which enter into the composition of the hugest bodies are subtile and inconsiderable. The rudiments of every art and science exhibit at first, to a learner, the appearance of littleness and insignificancy. And it is by attending to
such reflections, as to a superficial observer would appear minute and hypercritical, that language must be improved, and eloquence perfected *.
I RETURN to the causes of obscurity, and shall only further observe, concerning the effect of bad arrangement, that it generally obscures the sense, even when it doth not, as in the preceding instances, suggest a wrong construction. Of this the following will suffice for an example: "The young man did not want natu"ral talents; but the father of him was a coxcomb, "who affected being a fine gentleman so unmercifully, that he could not endure in his sight, or the frequent mention of one, who was his son, growing into manhood, and thrusting him out of the gay "world +." It is not easy to disentangle the construction of this sentence. One is at a loss at first to find any accusative to the active verb endure; on further examination it is discovered to have two, the word mention, and the word one, which is here closely combined with the preposition of, and makes the regimen of the noun mention. I might observe also the vile application of the word unmercifully. This, together with the irregularity of the reference, and the intricacy of the whole, renders the passage under consideration, one of those which may, with equal
* The maxim, Natura se potissimum prodit in minimis, is not confined to physiology.
Spect. No. 496. T.
Sect. I. The obscurity... Part III. From using the same word in different senses.
justice, be ranked under solecism, impropriety, obscurity, or inelegance.
PART III....From using the same word in different senses.
ANOTHER Source of obscurity, is when the same word is in the same sentence used in different senses. This error is exemplified in the following quotation "That he should be in earnest it is hard to conceive; "since any reasons of doubt, which he might have in "this case, would have been reasons of doubt in the "case of other men, who may give more, but cannot
give more evident, signs of thought than their fel"low-creatures*" This errs alike against perspicuity and elegance; the word more is first an adjective, the comparative of many; in an instant it is an adverb, and the sign of the comparative degree. As the reader is not apprised of this, the sentence must appear to him, on the first glance, a flat contradiction. Perspicuously either thus, " who may give more numerous, but cannot give more evident signs," or thus," who may give more, but cannot give clear"er signs."--It is but seldom that the same pronoun can be used twice or oftener in the same sentence, in reference to different things, without darkening the expression. It is necessary to observe here, that the signification of the personal, as well as of the relative pronouns, and even of the adverbs of place
*Bolinb. Ph. Es. i. Sect. 9.