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The double meaning.... Part Il. Ambiguity.
sion, a reader will have a natural tendency to consider the pronoun as referring to them, without regard to their situation. In support of this observation, I shall produce two examples. The first shall be of the neuter singular of the third personal pronoun :
But " I shall leave this subject to your management, and
question not but you will throw it into such lights, * as shall at once improve and entertain your readert.” There is no ambiguity here, nor would it, on the most cursory reading, enter into the head of any person of common sense, that the
that the pronoun it relates to management, which is nearer, and not to subject, which is
Nor is it the sense only that directs us in this preference. There is another principle by. which we are influenced. The accusative of the active verb is one chief object of attention in a sentence; the regimen of that accusative hath but a secondary value ; it is regarded only as explanatory of the formér, or at most as an appendage to it. This consideration doth not affect those only who understand grammar, but all who understand the language. The different parts of speech, through the power of custom, produce their effect on those who are ignorant of their very names, as much as on the
the grammarian himself; though it is the grammarian alone who can give a rational account of these effects. The other example I promised to give, shall be of the masculine of the same number and person, in the noted
† Spect. No. 628.
complaint of Cardinal Wolsey immediately after his disgrace:
Had I but serv'd my God, with half the zeal
Here though the word king is adjoining, and the word God at some distance, the pronoun he cannot so regularly refer to that noun as to this. The reason is, the whole of the second clause beginning with these words, “ with half the zeal,” maintains but a subordinate rank in the sentence, as it is introduced in explication of the first, and might be omitted, not indeed without impairing, but without destroying the sense. Yet neither the rank in the sentence, nor the nearness of position, will invariably determine the import of the relative. Sometimes, indeed, as was observed by the French author last quoted, the sense of the words connected is sufficient to remove the ambiguity, though the reader should have no previous knowledge of the subject. And, doubtless, it is equally reasonable to admit a construction which, though naturally equivocal, is fixed by the connection, as to admit an equivocal term, the sense whereof is in this manner ascertained. Of an ambiguity thus removed, the following will serve for an example : “ Alexander having “ conquered Darius, made himself master of his domi" nions." His may refer grammatically either to
* Shakespeare. Henry VIII.
The double meaning.... Part II. Ambiguity.
Alexander or to Darius, but as no man is said to make himself master of what was previously his own, the words connected prevent the false sense from presenting itself to the reader.
But it is not the pronouns only that are liable to be used ambiguously. There is in adjectives particularly, a great risk of ambiguity, when they are not adjoined to the substantives to which they belong. This hazard, it must be owned, is greater in our language than in most others, our adjectives having no declension whereby case, number, and gender, are distinguished. Their relation, therefore, for the most part, is not otherwise to be ascertained but by their place. The following sentence will serve for an example: “God heapeth favours on his servants ever liberal " and faithful.” Is it God or his servants that are liberal and faithful? If the former, say, “God, ever liberal and “ faithful, heapeth favours on his servants.” If the latter, say, either—“ God heapeth favours on his ever - liberal and faithful servants," or " his servants who
are ever liberal and faithful.” There is another frequent cause of ambiguity in the use of adjectives, which hath been as yet, in our language, very little attended to. Two or more are sometimes made to refer to the same substantive, when, in fact, they do not belong to the same thing, but to different things, which, being of the same kind, are expressed by the same generic name. I explain myself by an example: “ Both the ecclesiastic and secular powers con“ curred in those measures." Here the two adjec
tives, ecclesiastic and secular, relate to the same substantive, powers, but do not relate to the same individual things; for the powers denominated ecclesiastic, are totally different from those denominated secular. Indeed, the reader's perfect knowledge of the difference, may prevent his attending to this ambiguity, or rather impropriety of speech. But this mode of expression ought to be avoided, because, if admitted in one instance, where the meaning perhaps is clear to the generality of readers, a writer will be apt inadvertently to fall into it in other instances, where the meaning is not clear, nay, where most readers will be misled. This too common idiom may be avoided either by repeating the substantive, or by subjoining the substantive to the first adjective, and prefixing the article to the second as well as to the first. Say either, “ Both the ecclesiastic powers and the secular
powers concurred in those measures ;” or, which is perhaps preferable, “ Both the ecclesiastic powers and " the secular concurred in those measures." The substantive being posterior to the first adjective, and anterior to the second, the second, though it refers, cannot, according to grammatical order, belong to it. The substantive is therefore undersood as repeated ; besides, the repetition of the article has the force to denote that this is not an additional epithet to the same subject, but belongs to a subject totally distinct, though coming under the same denomination. There is, indeed, one phrase liable to the aforesaid objection, which use hath so firmly established, that, I fear, it
The double meaning.... Part II. Ambiguity.
would savour of affectation to alter. The phrase I mean is, “ The lords spiritual and temporal in par
liament assembled.” Nevertheless, when it is not expected, that we should express ourselves in the style of the law, and when we are not quoting either a decision of the house of peers, or an act of parliament, I imagine it would be better to say, “ The spiritual " lords and the temporal.”-On the contrary, whereever the two adjectives are expressive of qualities belonging to a subject, not only specifically, but individually the same, the other mode of speech is preferable, which makes them belong also to the same noun. Thus we say properly, “ The high and mighty states
of Holland,” because it is not some of the states that are denominated high, and others of them mighty, but both epithets are given alike to all. It would therefore be equally faulty here to adopt such an arrangement as would make a reader conceive them to be different. In cases wherein the article is not used, the place of the substantive ought to show whether both adjectives belong to the same thing, or to different things having the same name.
In the first case, the substantive ought either to precede both adjectives, or to follow both ; in the second, it ought to follow the first adjective, and may be repeated after the second, or understood, as will best suit the harmony of the sentence, or the nature of the composition ; for the second adjective cannot grammatically belong to the noun which follows the first, though that noun may properly suggest to the reader the word to be