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The double meaning... Part II. Ambiguity
phrase in question happens to be followed by the preposition on or upon before the object, there is nothing equivocal in it, the sense being ascertained by the connection.
So much for equivocal words and phrases.
PART II. Ambiguity.
I come now to consider that species of double meaning which ariseth, not from the use of equivocal terms, but solely from the construction, and which I therefore distinguished by the name of ambiguity. This of all the faults against perspicuity, it is in all languages the most difficult to avoid. There is not one of the parts of speech which may not be so placed, as that, agreeably to the rules of grammar, it may be construed with different parts of the sentence, and by consequence made to exhibit different senses. Besides, a writer intent upon his subject, is less apt to advert to those imperfections in his style which occasion ambiguity than to any other. As no term or phrase he employs, doth of itself suggest the false meaning, a manner of construing his words different from that which is expressive of his sentiment, will not so readily occur to his thoughts ; and yet this erroneous manner of construing them, may be the most obvious to the reader. I shall give examples of ambiguities in most of the parts of speech, beginning with the pro
As the signification of the pronouns (which by themselves express only some relation) is ascertained merely by the antecedent to which they refer, the greatest care must be taken, if we would express ourselves perspicuously, that the reference be unquestionable. Yet the greatest care on this article will not always be effectual. There are no rules which either have been, or, I suspect, can be devised in any language, that will in all circumstances fix the relations of the pronouns in such a manner as to prevent ambiguity altogether. I shall instance first in the pronoun who, begging that the reader will observe its application in the two following sentences : “ Solo“mon the son of David, who built the temple of Jeru
salem, was the richest monarch that ever reigned o
ver the people of God,” and “Solomon the son of “David who was persecuted by Saul, was the richest “ monarch-” In these two sentences, the who is similarly situated; yet, in the former, it relates to the person first mentioned ; in the latter, to the second. But this relation to the one or to the other, it would be impossible for any reader to discover, who had not some previous knowledge of the history of those kings. In such cases, therefore, it is better to give another turn to the sentence. Instead of the first, one might say, “ Solomon the son of David, and the “ builder of the temple of Jerusalem, was the rich“ est monarch."--The conjunction and makes the following words relate entirely to Solomon, as nothing had been affirmed concerning David.
It is more
The double meaning.... Part II. Ambiguity.
difficult to avoid the ambiguity in the other instance, without adopting some circumlocution which will flatten the expression. In the style that prevailed in this island about two centuries ago, they would have escaped the ambiguous construction in some such way as this, “ Solomon, the son of David, even of him whom Saul persecuted, was the richest--" But this phraseology has to modern ears, I know not what air of formality that renders it intolerable. Better thus,“ Solomon, whose father David was persecuted " by Saul, was the richest -" The following quotation exhibits a triple sense, arising from the same cause, the indeterminate use of the relative :
Such were the centaurs of Ixion's race
Was it the centaurs, or Ixion, or his race, that em, braced the cloud ? I cannot help observing further on this passage, that the relative ought grammatically, for a reason to be assigned afterwards, rather to refer to centaurs than to either of the other two, and least of all to Ixion, to which it was intended to refert.
+ Denham's Progress of Learning, . Let it not be imagined that in this particular our tongue has the disadvantage of other languages. The same difficulty, as far as my acquaintance with them reaches, affects them all; and even some modern tongues in a higher degree than ours. In English, one is never at a loss to discover whether the reference be to persons or to things. In French and Italian the expression is often ambiguous in this respect also. In a French devotional book !
But there is often an ambiguity in the relatives who, which, that, whose, and whom, even when there can be no doubt in regard to the antecedent. This arises from the different ways wherein the latter is affected by the former. To express myself in the language of grammarians, these pronouns are sometimes explicative, sometimes determinative. They are explicative, when they serve merely for the illustration of the subject, by pointing out either some property or some circumstance belonging to it, leaving it, however, to be understood in its full extent. Of this kind are the following examples : “ Man, who is born of woman, is “ of few days and full of trouble.” “ Godliness, which “ with contentment is great gain, has the promise both " of the present life and of the future.” The clause, “ who is born of woman,” in the first example, and “ which with contentment is great gain” in the second, point to certain properties in the antecedents, but do
find this pious admonition :- “ Conservez vous dans l'amour de Dieu, qui peut vous garantir de toute chute." I ask whether the antecedent here be l'amour or Dieu, since the relative qui is of such extensive import as to be applicable to either. The expression would be equally ambiguous in Italian, “ Conservatevi nell'amour di Dio, che
vi puo conservare senza intoppo." In English, according to the present use, there would be no ambiguity in the expression. If the author meant to ascribe this energy to the devout affection itself,
Keep yourselves in the love of God, which can “ preserve you from falling ;" if to God, the great object of our love, he would say, “ who can preserve you.”—This convenient distinction was not, however, uniformly observed with us till about the middle of the last century.
he would say,
The double meaning.... Part II. Ambiguity.
not restrain their signification. For, should we omit these clauses altogether, we could say with equal truth,
, " Man is of few days and full of trouble.” " Godli
ness has the promise both of the present life and of “ the future.” On the other hand, these pronouns are determinative, when they are employed to limit the import of the antecedent, as in these instances : “ The “ man that endureth to the end, shall be saved.” “The
remorse, which issues in reformation, is true repent" ance." Each of the relatives here confines the signification of its antecedent to such only as are possessed of the qualification mentioned. For it is not affirmed of every man that he shall be saved ; nor of all remorse, that it is true repentance.
From comparing the above examples, it may
be fairly collected, that with us the definite article is of great use for discriminating the explicative sense from the determinative. In the first case it is rarely used, in the second it ought never to be omitted, unless when something still more definitive, such as a demonstrative pronoun, supplies its place * The following
In this respect the articles are more subservient to perspicuity in our tongue than in many others. In French, a writer must give the article indiscriminately in all the instances above specified. Thus, “ L'homme, qui est né de la femme, vit très-peu de tems, "et il est rempli de miseres; and “ L'homme, qui perseverera jus
qu'à la fin, sera sauvé.” In like manner, “ La pieté, qui jointe avec le conteņtement est un grand gain, a les promesses de la vie presente, et de celle qui est à venir ;” and “ Le remors, qui a