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Ladies and lordes she every where mote heare . .
Spencer's “ Faerie Queene."
332. Examples of the conditional or suppositive past tense.
I was to pass the river tomorrow; but the bridge is carried away.
I should cross the river tomorrow, but the bridge is carried away.
If I had passed the river yesterday, I could not now return.
If I was on the other side, I could not get back.
The logic concealed under this form of expression is the most subtle and ingenious, which is to be found, in the essential structure of speech; and yet, it is one of the broadest general principles of language. Probably no single rule has more completely escaped detection, or done more to mislead the entire body of grammatical writers. After all, however, this ingenious mental expedient becomes very clear, when devested of the disguise which has been cast over it by a mistaken theory of instrucion.
The verbs printed in italics, in all the above examples, depend on a common principle. In each of the sentences, two actions are principally referred to, one depending on the other. In each a certain fact is alluded to, as being known, or assumed, by the speaker and hearer; and the pre-admission, or conditional assertion, of this fact is denoted, by putting the verb in the past tense.
I was to pass the river tomorrow; but I am not to pass tomorrow; because that the condition of things on which the determination to pass depended, has become changed, by one of the numerous casualties on which the actions of man so generally depend.
I should cross, &c.
The idea here is a pre-existing obligation, from which the actor is released, by an unexpected change of circumstances, which has increased the difficulty, or prevented the possibility of fulfilment.
These few hints will be sufficient to enable the intelligent scholar to make the application of this principle, in its very extensive use; and to adapt it to any language with which he may be familiar. It is one of the striking instances of that rational logic which the Author of our being has firmly fixed in the intellect of man; for, it will be seen, that, in the most rapid utterance, the mind, consistent with itself and with the nature of things, will habitually represent the proper class of actions in the past tense. This is done, not only without the help of formal teaching, but in opposition to all scholastic rules and mistaken attempts at explanation. If then it should be asked whether it is, in part, the design of this train of reasoning to degrade the instruction of the schools ; nothing is farther from it: but if the splendid universities of Europe have done so much for human improvement, under a theory of teaching which is radically bad ; what might they not do, with their rich endowments, their learning and talents, their zeal, enterprise, and philanthropy, if they would consent to adopt a system of inculcation in language, accordant with facts, worthy of their character, and of the cause which their ample resources are calculated to promote ?
The very extensive rule above alluded to, and which exists alike in language, in the mind, and in the nature of things, removes at once all the perplexing contradictions of an imaginary conjunctive mood, and obviates the necessity of all minor explanations and exceptions.
333. Ambiguity from wrong collocation.
Harry. Nothing is better, Peter, than roast beef."
Peter. “I ask your pardon, friend Harry, I think roast beef is better than nothing."
I saw a ship gliding under full sail through a spy glass.
Aman may see how the world goes with half an eye.
The reader is desired to rectify the following mistakes, which were not observed till too late for the correction of the press.
Page 4, line 3d from the bottom, for difficult read deficient.
Some more trifling typographical errors were not observed in reading the proof sheets.