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The double meaning.... Part 1. Ambiguity.
ty. As the turn which Buffier gives the sentence in French, in order to avoid the double meaning, answers equally well in English, I shall here literally translate it. On the first supposition, "Lisias, speaking of his friends, promised to his father, never to abandon "them." On the second supposition, " Lisias, speak'ing of his father's friends, promised to his father, ne"ver to abandon them ." to s
Ir is easy to conceive, that, in numberless instances, the pronoun he will, in like manner, be ambi
I even think, that the turn of the sentence is easier in English than in French: "Lisias, parlant des amis de son pere à son pere même, lui promit de ne les abandoner jamais." It may be thought that, on the first supposition, there is a shorter way of removing the doubt. Ses propres amis in French, and his own friends in English, would effectually answer the end. But, let it be observed, that the introduction of this appropriating term hath an exclusive appearance with regard to others, that might be very unsuitable. I observe further, that the distinction in English between his and her, precludes several ambiguities that affect most other European tongues. Suppose the promise had been made to the mother instead of the father, the simple enunciation of it would be equally ambiguous in French as in the other case. "Lisias promit à sa mere "de n' abandoner jamais ses amis," is their expression, whether they be his friends or bers, of whom he speaks. If it were a daughter to her father, the case would be the same with them, but different with us. I may remark here, by the way, how much more this small distinction, in regard to the antecedent, conduces to perspicuity, than the distinctions of gender and number in regard to the nouns with which they are joined. As to this last connection, the place of the pronoun always ascertains it, so that, for this purpose at least, the change of termination is superfluous.
guous, when two or males happen to be mentioned in the same clause of a sentence. In such a case, we ought always either to give another turn to the expression, or to use the noun itself, and not the pronoun; for when the repetition of a word is necessary, it is not offensive. The translators of the Bible have often judiciously used this method; I say judiciously, because, though the other method be on some occasions preferable, yet, by attempting the other, they would have run a much greater risk of destroying that beautiful simplicity, which is an eminent characteristic of the language of holy writ. I shall take an instance from the speech of Judah to his brother Joseph in Egypt: "We said to my lord, The lad cannot "leave his father; for if he should leave his father, "his father would die *." The words his father are in this short verse thrice repeated, and yet are not disagreeable, as they contribute to perspicuity. Had the last part of the sentence run thus, "If he should "leave his father, he would die.," it would not have appeared from the expression, whether it was the child or the parent that would die. Some have imagined, that the pronoun ought always regularly to refer to the nearest preceding noun of the same gender and number. But this notion is founded in a mistake, and doth not suit the idiom of any language, ancient or modern. From the rank that some words maintain in the sentence, if I may be allowed that expres
*Gen. xliv. 22.
The double meaning....Part II. 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 thi 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 reader +." 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 pronoun it relates to management, which is nearer, and not to subject, which is more remote. 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 former, 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 grammarian himself; though it is thẻ 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
I serv'd my king; he would not in mine age
Here though the word king is adjoining, and the word
* 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 con66 curred in those measures." Here the two adjec