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OBSCURITY FROM UNCERTAIN REFERENCE.
Another cause of obscurity lies in the use of pronouns when it does not at first appear to what they refer; for example
“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 direct opposition to them.” Probably every one would not see, on a first reading, that the pronoun them here always refers to the laws of nature, and they to civil laws.
“I like so much to see the corn-fields ; it was cut when we were there, so we saw it carried away.”
“On Wednesday, the rat ventured into the kitchen, and Mr. B., having loaded a pistol, drove it into the garden.”
“It has happened the third time in as many months.”
“ Cicero returned to Rome, about the middle of November, to assist at Milo's wedding, who married Fausta, a rich and noble lady, the daughter of Sylla the dictator."
OBSCURITY ARISING FROM TOO ARTIFICIAL A STRUCTURE
The structure of sentences, of which more is said in another part of this work, is a subject for the student's careful consideration. Long sentences should be, in general, avoided ; and when employed, care should be taken that their members be similarly constructed, so that, if taken to pieces, each member
might constitute a distinct sentence. Some writers on composition are of opinion that parentheses should be altogether discarded, on the grounds that a parenthesis is only an awkward way of inserting a circumstance that would be much better expressed in a separate sentence. This, however, is too severe a rule. Parentheses, when short, are perfectly admissible ; but they should neither be very long, nor occur too frequently. The following passage from Coleridge's “Aids to Reflection,” will strikingly illustrate the above remarks :
“ How any one who calmly considers what a new birth of the soul implies a new birth solemnly announced, by the Lord of Heaven and Earth, to man as a thing in which all men are concerned, which teacher in the chosen nation ought already to have known, which translates the subject of it into the kingdom of heaven-can proceed to explain it, according to the ordinary High Church doctrine, into something so impotent and shadowy, that if it were to vanish from the precincts of religious belief, no serious practical Christian, as I fully believe, would feel that he had sustained any loss, or that anything had gone from him, is to me inconceivable."
If only the words in italics had been retained, this period would have been sufficiently clear and comprehensible ; but, as it stands, the sentence is so overloaded with circumstances and parentheses, that it is next to impossible for the reader to see th: connection of its principal members.
The construction of the following period, extracted from Dean Trench's very interesting little work on proverbs, is open to a similar objection:
“ In this aspect, as having been used at a great critical moment, and as part of the moral influence brought to bear on that occasion for effecting a great result, no proverb of man's can be compared with that one which the Lord used, when He met his future apostle, but at this time his persecutor, in the way, and warned him of the fruitlessness and folly of a longer resistance to a might which must overcome him, and with still greater harm to himself at the last.”
Here there are materials for at least two, if not three, sentences.
OBSCURITY FROM THE USE OF TECHNICAL TERMS.
Strictly speaking, technical terms are not considered as belonging to the language, because they are not in common use, and are, consequently, unintelligible to the general reader. They form, indeed, a distinct dialect, and are understood only by a comparatively small class. In a treatise on some particular art or science, addressed to its students or professors, technical terms are, of course, indispensable. They may be also occasionally introduced in delineation of character.
A sailor would term the hinder part of everything the stern.' Instead of saying he was unfortunate, he would call it being on his beam ends,' or 'cast on a lee shore.' With him, also, meeting an acquaintance would be "sighting' his friend. In the language of the stable, the right and the left-hand sides of the road are called the 'off' and the 'near' sides. A certain mode of joining boards is termed by carpenters 'dovetailing.' Military men would style their lodgings, comfortable quarters,' as a sailor would
say “a good berth. Merchants use the word “advices' in the sense of news'or intelligence.' They talk of advices' from Hamborough, and they speak of a letter as a 'favour,' &c. All these, and many other terms, are familiarly known in certain professions and trades, and though many of such words are probably understood by a large class of readers, they are not used in the current language of polite society, nor should they be introduced in writing on general subjects.
OBSCURITY ARISING FROM DOUBLE MEANING.
Equivocal expressions naturally create a doubt concerning their meaning; and they should be, therefore, always avoided. These may be found in the use of almost every part of speech. To begin with prepositions. The preposition of sometimes has an active, and sometimes a passive, signification. For example: “The love of his family,” &c. Does this mean the love he bore his family, or the love his family bore him? If the former, we had better say, “ His love for his family ;" if the latter, “ The love of his family towards him." Again, " The Reformation of Luther,” may mean the reformation effected by, or on, Luther, &c.
The conjunction 'or' is sometimes used equivocally; as, “ The Greeks worshipped Zeus, or Jupiter.” To those who do not know that Zeus and Jupiter are the names of one and the same heathen divinity, it might here seem that the Greeks worshipped either the one or the other.
Again, in pronouns: “She united the great body of the people in her and their interest.” Her may
be a personal or a possessive pronoun; and it may not
be at once clear to every reader for which of the two it is here intended.
In adjectives :- A 'fearful' man may signify one who inspires fear in others, or one who is himself affected by that passion. In the following sentence, the word ' mortal ' leaves the sense ambiguous : “As for such animals as are mortal,' or noxious, we have a right to destroy them.” • Mortal' means either subject to death, as a mortal creature, or causing death, as a mortal wound, and in the above sentence the wrong sense of the word seems more readily suggested.
In verbs : as, “He spoke of nothing more than what his predecessor did.” (It should be, 'had mentioned.') “I have long since learned to like nothing but what you do" (you like).
The word 'only' is a fertile source of ambiguity. This word may be used either as an adjective, or as an adverb, and the meaning of a sentence in which it is found will mainly depend on its place; thus : “Not only Jesuits can equivocate.” Now this may mean that Jesuits are not the only persons who can equivocate; or, that to equivocate is not the only thing that Jesuits can do. If the former meaning be intended, the sentence should run thus : “ Not Jesuits only can equi. vocate” (i. e. others as well as they can equivocate). If the latter, “ Jesuits can not only equivocate ” (i. e., they can do other things).
A similar difficulty arises from confounding the pronoun 'few' with a few.'
“ Few people will assent to the truth of this proposition,” means that not many will allow it to be true; whereas, “ A few people will assent,” &c., means that a small number will