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equivocal : “ I am persuaded that neither death nor "life-shall be able to separate us from the love of “ God *.” By the love of God, say interpreters, may be understood, either God's love to us, or our love to God. It is remarkable, that the genitive case in the ancient languages, and the prepositions corresponding to that case in the modern languages, are alike susceptible of this double meaning. Only as to our own language, we may observe in passing, that of late the preposition of is more commonly put before the subject, and to before the object of the passion. But this is not the only way in which the preposition of may be equivocal. As it sometimes denotes the relation of the effect to the cause, sometimes that of the accident to the subject, from this duplicity of signification, there will also, in certain cir. cumstances, arise a double sense. You have an exam. ple in these words of Swift : “ A little after the refor
mation of Luther f.”—It may indeed be doubted, whether this should not rather be called an impropriety, since the reformation of a man will suggest much more readily a change wrought on the man, than a change wrought by him. And the former of these senses it could not more readily suggest, if the expression in that sense were not more conformable to use.
My next instance shall be in the conjunctions ; " They
were both much more ancient among the Persians “ than Zoroaster or Zerdusht [." The or here is equivocal. It serves either as a copulative to synonymous words, or as a disjunctive of different things. If, therefore, the reader should not know that Zoroaster and Zerdusht mean the same person, he will mistake the sense. In coupling appellatives, there is not the same hazard, it being generally manisest to those who know the language, whether the words coupled have the same sigpification. If, nevertheless, in any case it should be doubtful, an attention to the ensuing rules may have its utility. If the first noun follows an article, or a preposi
• Romans, vii. 38, &c.
+ Mechan. Operat # Bol. Subst. of Letters to Mr de Pouilly.
tion, or both, the article or the preposition, or both, should be repeated before the second, when the two nouns are intended to denote different things : and should not be repeated, when they are intended to denote the same thing. If there be neither article nor, preposition before the first, and if it be the intention of the writer to use the particle or disjunctively, let the first noun be preceded by either, which will infallibly ascertain the meaning. On the contrary, if, in such a dubious case, it be his design to use the particle as a copulative to synonymous words, the piece will rarely sustain a material injury, by his omitting both the conjunction and the synonyma.
The following is an example in the pronouns : “ She “ united the great body of the people in her and their
common interest *.” The word her may be either the possessive pronoun, or the accusative case of the personal pronoun. A very small alteration in the order totally removes the doubt. Say,
Say, “ in their and her common interest.” The word her thus connected, can be only the possessive, as the author doubtless intended it should be, in the passage quoted.
An example in substantives : “ Your Majesty has “ lost all hopes of any future excises by their consump“ tion t." The word consumption has both an active sense and a passive. It means either the act of consuming, or the state of being consumed. Clearly thus : " Your Majesty has lost all hopes of levying any future " excises on what they shall consume.”
In adjectives : “ As for such animals as are mortal, “ or noxious, we have a right to destroy them I.” Here the false sense is suggested more readily than the true. The word mortal, therefore, in this sentence, might justly be considered as improper; for though it sometimes means destructive, or causing death, it is then almost invariably joined with some noun expressive of hurt or
+ Guardian, No. 52.
Idea of a Patriot King,
# Guardian, No. 61.
danger. Thus we say, a mortal poison, a mortal wound, a mortal disease, or a mortal enemy; but the phrases mortal creature, mortal animal, or mortal man, are always
understood to imply creature, animal, or man, liable to death.
In verbs : “ The next refuge was to say, it was over“ looked by one man, and many passages wholly writ. “ ten by another*." The word overlooked sometimes signified revised, and sometimes neglected. As it seems to be in the former sense that this participle is used here, the word revised ought to have been preferred. Another instance in verbs : “ I have furnished the bouse “ exactly according to your fancy, or, if you please,
my own ; for I have long since learnt to like nothing “ but what you do t.” The word do in this passage may be either the auxiliary, or, as it might be termed, the supplementary verb, and be intended only to supersede the repetition of the verb like ; or it may be the simple active verb, which answers to the Latin facere, and the French faire. In the next quotation the homonymous term may
be either an adjective or an adverb, and admits a different sense in each acceptation :
Not only Jesuits can equivocate If the word only is here an adverb, the sense is, To “ equivocate is not the only thing that Jesuits can do." This interpretation, though not the author's meaning, suits the construction. A very small alteration in the order gives a proper and unequivocal, though a prosaic expression of this sense : “ Jesuits can not only equivo“ cate."-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 persons who can equivo"cate.” 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 whe
ther 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 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.
It 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, 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 t." This sentence hath also the dis. advantage 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 was less « aimed at by him than the crown;" or,“ Nothing " inferior to the crown could satisfy his ambition.” 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 1.' pression commonly denotes “I will exercise mercy ;' whereas it is in this place employed to signify, “I require others to exercise it. The sentiment, therefore,
• Guardian, No. 116.
* Ibid. No. 80.
Matt, ix Is.
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 phrase in question happens to be followed by the preposition on or upori 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 pronouns.
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 circum
• Hos, vi. 6.