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The double meaning....Part I. Equivocation. "equivocate is not the only thing that Jesuits can do." This interpretation, though not the author's meaning, suits the construction much better. A very small alteration in the order gives a proper and unequivocal, though a prosaic expression of this sense: "Jesuits can "not only equivocate."— Again, if the word only is here an adjective (and this doubtless is the author's intention), the sense is, "Jesuits are not the only per"sons who can equivocate." But this interpretation suits ill the composition of the sentence. The only other instance of this error in single words I shall produce, is one in which, on the first glance, there appears room to doubt whether a particular term ought to be understood literally or metaphorically. The word handled in the following passage will illustrate what I mean: "Thus much I thought fit to premise, "before I resume the subject, which I have already "handled, I mean the naked bosoms of our British "ladies *." Sometimes, indeed, a thing like this may be said archly and of design, in which case it falls not under this animadversion.
Ir was remarked above, that there are not only equivocal words in our language, but equivocal phrases. Not the least, and not the smallest, are of this kind. They are sometimes made to imply not any; as though one should say, not even the least, not so much as the smallest ; and sometimes again to signify a very great,
* Guardian, No. 116.
as though it were expressed in this manner, far from being the least or smallest. Thus they are susceptible of two significations that are not only different, but contrary. We have an instance in the following passage: "Your character of universal guardian, joined "to the concern you ought to have for the cause of "virtue and religion, assure me, you will not think "that clergymen, when injured, have the least right "to your protection +." This sentence hath also the disadvantage taken notice of in some of the preceding quotations, that the sense not intended by the writer occurs to the reader much more readily than the author's real meaning. Nothing less than is another phrase which, like the two former, is susceptible of opposite interpretations. Thus, "He aimed at nothing "less than the crown," may denote either," Nothing 66 was less aimed at by him than the crown;" or, Nothing inferior to the crown could satisfy his am"bition." All such phrases ought to be totally laid aside. The expression will have mercy is equivocal in the following passage of the vulgar translation of the Bible: "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice *." The expression commonly denotes, "I will exercise
mercy;" whereas it is in this place employed to signify" I require others to exercise it." The sentiment, therefore, ought to have been rendered here, as we find it expressed in the prophetical book alluded to, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice †." When the
Guardian, No. 8o.
*Matt. ix. 13. Hos. vi, 6.
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 Jerusalem, was the richest monarch that ever reigned over 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
Who a bright cloud for Juno did embrace *.
Was it the centaurs, or Ixion, or his race, that embraced 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 refer†.
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. I