« PreviousContinue »
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, Į " 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?" Which ever of these be the sense, the words
ought to have been otherwise ranged,
SECT. 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 formerly 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 on
+ Construction louche.
* Guardian, No. 10.
* Sect. III.
The unintelligible....l'art 1 From confusion of thought.
ly 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.
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 me
dium 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 the world, before they themselves have been 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 cause 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, 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 opi"nion 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 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 expres sion.
Sect. III. The unintelligible.... Part I. From confusion of thought.
TAKE the two following examples of complex sentences from the same hand: "I must confess we live
*Spect. No. 49.
+ Guardian, No. 20.
"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 of 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 thoughts +." The other example is, "The serene aspect of these "writers, joined with the great encouragement I ob"serve 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 ambi"tion this way ‡." But, leaving this, which is indeed the dullest species of the unintelligible, I proceed to the second 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 soul," says the Guardian, speaking of meekness and humility, "keeps our un
+ Spect. No. 484.
Guardian, No. 1.