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For instance, "If he bestowed the gold to relieve the more painful distress of a friend, the sacrifice is of some weight."....GIBBON, vol. iv. p. 265.
"The supine ignorance of the nobles was incapable of discerning the tendency of such representations; they might sometimes chastise, with words and blows, the plebeian reformer; but he was often suffered," &c. ....GIBBON, p. 574.
The obscurity arising from bad arrangement is, however, worse than that which arises from the ill choice of words. Perspicuity is injured, in this respect, in the following instances:....
1st. By separating the adjective from its proper substantive: "They chose to indulge themselves in the hour of natural festivity." Better "in the natural hour of festivity."
2d. By using the same pronoun in reference to different persons or things in the same sentence: "And they did all eat and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full." By the last they it is difficult to say who are meant, the multitude or only the disciples.
3d By the indiscreet or wrong placing of the relative: "Solomon, the son of David, who built the temple of Jerusalem, was the richest monarch of his time." Again, "Solomon, the son of David, who was persecuted by Saul, was the richest," &c. The who in the firstsentence relates to Solomon, and in the second to David, and yet is similarly situated. It would be better therefore to give a different turn to the sentence, and say...." Solomon the son of David, and the builder of the temple," &c. "Solomon, whose father David was per secuted," &c.
"The laws of nature are truly what my Lord Bacon styles his aphorisms, laws of laws. Civil laws are always imperfect, and often false deductions from them, or applications of them; nay, they stand in many instances in opposition to them."....BOLINGBROKE.
"The perception of the human mind of the essential difference which lies in the nature of things, will direct
it to prize some as objects good, and others to regard as evil."....MACAULEY ON MORAL TRUTH. The others in the last member of the sentence may as well be in apposition to it, and governed by the verb direct as governed by the verb regard. The ambiguity would be remedied by iterating the word objects, or preserving the natural order.
A certain author, speaking of Porto Bello, says: "This celebrated harbour, which was formerly very well defended by forts, which Admiral Vernon destroyed in 1740, seems to afford an entrance 600 toises broad; but is so straitened with rocks that are near the surface of the water, that it is reduced to a very narrow channel." ....JUSTAMOND'S TRANS. OF RAYNAL, b. vii. Better thus: "This celebrated harbour was defended, &c....it seems to afford, &c." "This activity drew numbers of enterprising men over to Virginia, who came either in search of fortune, or of liberty, which is the only compensation for the want of it."....Ibid. Here the two antecedents are so confounded, that it requires a pause to distinguish them, and the construction is very ungraceful as well as obscure. One mode of avoiding ambiguity in this case will be, when two antecedents occur, putting one of them, if possible, in the plural, and the other in the singular number.
A modern writer (Mr. CUMBERLAND, Mem. vol. ii. p. 152.) uses the following expression: "The Marquis Legarda, governor of Vittoria, to whom I had a letter from Count D'Aranda, the Marquis D'Allemanda, and other gentlemen of the place, did us the honour to visit us," &c. It is not clear whether the letter might not have been signed by the Marquis D'Allemanda, &c. The ambiguity might have been avoided by saying, "I had a letter from the Count D'Aranda to the Marquis Legarda, and he and the (or he, as well as the) Marquis D'Allemanda, &c. came to visit us."
3dly. Obscurity is produced by separating the adverb and the adjective, or the adverb and the verb. Ex. “A power is requisite of fixing the intellectual eye upon successive objects so steadily, as that the more may ne
ver prevent us from doing justice to the less important." ....OGILVIE ON COMPOSITION, vol. i. p. 94. “This subject is precisely of that kind which a daring imagination could alone have adopted."....Ibid. Here it is not accurately defined whether a daring imagination only could have adopted, &c. or whether it could have adopted that subject only and no other." He conjured the senate, that the purity of his reign might not be stained by the blood even of a guilty senator.".....GIBBON. The arrangement would be more perfect, "by the blood of even a guilty senator." "He atoned for the murder of an innocent son, by the execution, perhaps, of a guilty wife."....Ibid. The doubt in this sentence may apply to the reality of the execution. "Their intimacy had commenced, in the happier period, perhaps, of their youth and obscurity."
4thly. The following are examples of ambiguity arising from the wrong position of a conjunction....The historian, speaking of an impolitic edict of Julian, thus expresses himself: "He enacted that, in a time of scarcity, it (corn) should be sold at a price which had seldom been known in the most plentiful years.". GIBBON. A common reader would infer from the above, that it was a standing order, that corn should in every time of scarcity be sold cheaper than in a time of plenty, which does not appear from the context to be the intention of the author.
"They were much more ancient among the Persians than Zoroaster, or Zerdusht."....BOLINGBROKE. The conjunction here is perfectly equivocal, and the reader will certainly mistake the sense, unless he previously knows that Zoroaster and Zerdusht are the same.
"At least my own private letters leave room for a politician to suspect as much as a penetrating friend of mine tells me."....SPECT. 43. The conjunction is wrong placed here, and the arrangement should be altered thus: "At least my own private letters, as a penetrating friend tells me, leave room," &c.
Speaking of parents misjudging of the conduct of schoolmasters, a modern author on education adds: “It
has broke the peace of many an ingenious man, who had engaged in the care of youth, and paved the way to the ruin of hopeful boys." It is not perfectly clear whether the circumstances or the master "paved the way," &c. It is impossible to decipher the following sentence. Respecting the Pennsylvania marble, of which chimney-pieces, tables, &c. are made, the historian adds: "These valuable materials could not have been found in common in the houses, unless they had been lavished in the churches."
5thly. Perspicuity is injured very frequently by the fear of concluding a sentence with a trifling word; but surely, however ungraceful, a confused style is a much greater blemish. "The Court of Chancery," says a respectable author, "frequently mitigates, and breaks the teeth of the common law." From this sentence it might be inferred, that it mitigated the teeth. Better, therefore: "frequently mitigates the common law, and breaks the teeth of it," or "its teeth."
6thly. It is an old observation, that the desire of brevity generally induces obscurity. This is exemplified in many forms of expression, to which habit serves to reconcile us, but which are in themselves really ambiguous. Thus we speak of "the Reformation of Luther;" which, if the circumstance was not well understood, might mean the reformation of the man, instead of the reformation of the church.
7thly. An error opposite to this is long sentences and parentheses. Long periods, however, seldom create obscurity, when the natural order of thought is preserved; especially if each division, clause, or member of the sentence, is complete in itself. It is in general the insertion of foreign matter, and parenthetical sentences, that confuse a style.
It is impossible to indicate, or even to class the various causes of ambiguity or obscurity. The few I have instanced may serve to awaken attention to this important point; a clear head and diligent study are the only certain means of securing the beauty of perspicuity in style.
But whatever value we may set upon this great essential, there is not any excellence which more recommends style than purity. This quality is indeed commonly confounded with elegance; though I think elegance implies something more, and necessarily includes some idea of ornament. There is no quality too, which is more easily attained. Nature, or to speak more properly, Providence, must give genius; by hard study knowledge is acquired; but a little attention, with polite reading and polite company, will give purity of style.
A writer of some eminence, with whom I was acquainted in my youth, Dr. Gilbert Stuart, used to assert that the language of books, or composition, was entirely different from the language of conversation. Dr. Stuart was a North Briton, and made the observation at the time when the dialect of that country was much less pure than it is at present. He therefore must be understood as referring to a provincial idiom, otherwise the observation is not true. Polite conversation may be termed a loose and free kind of composition; or composition may be regarded as conversation, pruned, corrected, and refined. We should otherwise write as in a dead language, and our style would not be natural and easy, but artificial and pedantic, both of which I consider as offences against purity. On this occasion I shall pursue the same order as before, and consider purity of style, first, as it regards the choice of words; and secondly, as referring to arrangement.
The offences against purity of style, as far as respects the choice of words, may be reduced to the following heads.... 1st. Obsolete, or uncommon expressions. 2d. Vulgarisms. 3d. Jargon, or cant.
1st. In an age of novelty we have very little to apprehend from obsolete expressions. Scarcely any person, who is at all conversant with polite company, would use such expressions as behoof, behest, peradventure, sundry, anon, whereof, erewhile, whereas, fantasy, &c. It is not a very easy matter to determine the era of pure English; but I think we should not look further back than