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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, that it may be 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 value of half a plumb, as the citizens call a hundred thousand pounds8." Is it à plumb, or half a plumb, which the citizens call a hundred thousand pounds? “I will spend a hundred or two pounds, rather than be enslavedo.” 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 hundred 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. The reference and construction of the concluding words in the next quotation is very indefinite : “My Christian and surname begin and end with the same letters?." 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, Doth his Christian name end with the same letter with 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 the 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 it3.” 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 Ovid's writing a letter from Dido to Æneas, in the following words4." Whether are the following words, the words of
8 Tatler, No. 40.
9 Swift to Sheridan, 1 Spectator, No. 505. 0.
2 An example of the first, is Andrew Askew, of the second, Hezekiah Thrift, and of the third, Norman Neilson. 3 Guardian, No. 4.
4 Spect. No. 62.
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 following words, makes a very handsome observation on Ovid's writing a letter from Dido to Æneas.”
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 mingle with the men, but frequent the tea-tables of the ladies? Whichever of these be the sense, the words ought to have been otherwise ranged.
Section 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 offence mentioned in the enumeration form erly 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 only 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.
5 Construction louche.
5 Guardian, No. 10.
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 medium will render the image obscure or indistinct, yet no purity in the medium will suffice for exhibiting a distinct and unvarying image of a confused and unsteady object. There is a sort of half-formed thoughts, which we sometimes find writers impatient to give to the world, before they themselves are fully possessed of them. Now if the writer himself perceive confusedly and imperfectly the sentiments he would communicate, it is a thousand to one, the reader will not perceive them at all. But how then, it may be asked, shall he be qualified for discovering the cause, and distinguishing in the writer between a confusion of thought and a total want of meaning? I answer, that in examples of this kind the causes will, sometimes, not always, be discovered, by means of an attentive and frequent perusal of the words and context. Some meaning, after long poring, will perhaps be traced; but in all such cases we may be said more properly to divine what the author would say, than to understand what he says; and therefore all such sentences deserve to be ranked among the unintelligible. If a discovery of the sense be made, that it is made ought rather to be ascribed to the sagacity of the reader than to the elocution of the writer. This species of the unintelligible (which, by the way, differs not in kind, but in degree, from the obscurity already considered, being no other than that bad quality in the extreme) I shall exemplify first in simple, and afterwards in complex sentences.
First in simple sentences: “I have observed,” says Sir Richard Steele, who, though a man of sense and genius, was a great master in this style, “that the superiority among these,” (he is speaking of some coffee-house politicians,)“ proceeds from an opinion of gallantry and fashion?.” This sentence, considered in itself, evidently conveys no meaning. First, it is not said, whose opinion, their own, or that of others; secondly it is not said what opinion, or of what sort, favourable or unfavourable, true or false, but in general an opinion of gallantry and fashion, which contains no definite expression of any meaning. With the joint assistance of the context, reflection, and conjecture, we shall perhaps conclude that the author intended to say, “ that the rank among these politicians was determined by the opinion generally entertained of the rank in point of gallantry and
7 Spect. No. 49.
fashion that each of them had attained.” But no part of this is expressed. Another specimen: “And as to a well-taught mind, when you've said an haughty and proud man, you have spoke a narrow conception, little spirit, and despicable carriage." Here, too, it is possible to guess the intention of the author, but not to explain the import of the expression.
Take the two following examples of complex senteces from the same hand: “I must confess we live in an age wherein a few empty blusterers carry away the praise of speaking, while a crowd of fellows overstocked with knowledge are run down by them ; I say, overstocked, because they certainly are so, as to their service to mankind, if from their very store they raise to themselves ideas of respect and greatness of the occasion, and I know not what, to disable themselves from explaining their thoughts9.” The other example is, “ The serene aspect of these writers, joined with the great encouragement I observe is given to another, or, what is indeed to be suspected, in which he indulges himself, confirmed me in the notion I have of the prevalence of ambition this way?.” But leaving this, which is indeed th dullest species of the unintelligible, I proceed to the secon class, that which arises from an affectation of excellence.
PART. II.-From Affectation of Excellence.
In this there is always something figurative; but the figures are remote, and things heterogeneous are combined. I shall exemplify this sort also, first in a few more simple sentences, and then in such as are more complex. Of the former take the following instances : “ This temper of the soul,” says the Guardian, speaking of meekness and humility, “keeps our understanding tight about us?.” Whether the author had any meaning in this expression, or what it was, I shall not take upon me to determine ; but hardly could any thing more incongruous in the way of metaphor have been imagined. The understanding is made a girdle to our other mental faculties, for the fastening of which girdle, meekness and humility serve for a buckle. "A man is not qualified for a butt, who has not a good deal of wit and vivacity, even in the ridiculous side of his character3.” It is only the additional clause in the end that is here exceptionable. What a strange jumble! A man's wits and vivacity placed in the side of his character. Sometimes in a sentence sufficiently perspicuous, we shall find an unintelligible Clause inserted, which, as it adds not to the sense, serves only to interrupt the reader and darken the sentiment. Of this the following passage will serve for an example: “I seldom see a noble building, or any great piece of magnificence and pomp, but I think how little is all this to satisfy the ambition, or to fill the idea, of an immortal soul4.” Pray, what addition does the phrase to fill the idea make to the sense ; or what is the meaning of it? I shall subjoin, for the sake of variety, one poetical example from Dryden, who, speaking of the universal deluge, says,
8 Guardian, No. 20.
9 Spectator, No. 484.
Yet when that flood in its own depths was drown'd,
The first of these lines appears to me marvellously nonsensical. It informs us of a prodigy never heard of or conceived before, a drowned flood, nay, which is still more extravagant, a flood that was so excessively deep, that after leaving nothing, else to drown, it turned felo-de-se and drowned itself. And, doubtless, if a flood can be in danger of drowning in itself, the deeper it is, the danger must be the greater. So far at least the author talks consequentially. His meaning, expressed in plain language (for the line itself hath no meaning), was probably no more than this: “When the waters of the deluge had subsided.”
I proceed to give examples of a still higher order, in sentences more complicated. These I shall produce from an author who, though far from being deficient in acuteness, invention, or vivacity, is perhaps, in this species of composition, the most eminent of all that have written in the English language : “ If the savour of things lies cross to honesty, if the fancy be florid, and the appetite high towards the subaltern beauties and lower order of wordly symmetries and proportions, the conduct will infallibly turn this latter wayo." This is that figure of speech which the French critics call galimatias, and the English comprehend under the general name bombast, and which may not improperly be defined the sublime of nonsense. You have lofty images and high sounding words, but are always at a loss to find the sense. The meaning, where there is a meaning, cannot be said to be communicated and adorned by the words, but is rather buried under them. Of the same kind are the two following quotations from the same author : “Men must acquire a very peculiar and strong habit of turning their eye inwards, in order to explore the interior regions and recesses of the mind, the hollow caverns of deep thought, the private seats of fancy, and the wastes and wildernesses, as well as the more fruitful and cultivated tracts of this obscure cli
4 Pope's Thoughts on various Subjects. 5 Panegyric on the Coronation of King Charles II. 6 Characteristics, Vol. iji. Misc. ï. Chap. 2.