« AnteriorContinuar »
The more the distinction in the meaning of such words is regarded, the more accurately and forcibly shall we speak and write.
STRUCTURE OF SENTENCES. A PROPER Construction of sentences is of such importance in every species of composition, that we cannot be too strict or minute in our attention to it. For, whatever be the subject, if the sentences be constructed in a clumsy, perplexed, or feeble manner, the work cannot be read with pleasure, nor even with profit. But by attention to the rules, which relate to this part of style, we acquire the habit of expressing ourselves with perspicuity and elegance; and, if a disorder happen to arise in some of our sentences, we immediately see where it lies, and are able to rectify it.
The properties most essential to a perfect sentence are the four following. 1. Clearness. 2. Unity. 3. Strength. 4. Harmony.
Ambiguity is opposed to clearness, and arises from two causes ; either from a wrong choice of words, or a wrong collocation of them. Of the choice of words, as far as regards perspicuity, we have already spoken. Of the collocation of them we are now to treat. From the nature of qur language a capital rule in the arrangement of our sentences is, that words or members, most nearly related, should be placed as near to each other as possible, that their mutual relation may clearly appear. This role is frequently neg- . lected even by good writers. A few instances will show both its importance and application.
In the position of adverbs, which are used to qualify the signification of something, which either precedes.or follows them, a good deal of nicety is to be observed. 66 By greatness," says Addison, “ I do not only, mean the bulk of any single object, but the largeness of a whole view." Here the place of the adverb only makes it limit the verb mean. " I do not only mean." The question may then be asked, wbat does he more than mean? Had it been placed after bulk, still it would have been wrong, for it might then be asked, what is meant beside the bulk? Is it the colour or any other property? Its proper place is after the word object : 6 By greatness I do not mean the bulk of any single object only;" for then, when it is asked, what does he mean more than the bulk of a single object; the answer comes out precisely as the author intends, the largeness of a whole view." Theism," says Lord Shaftsbury, " can only be opposed to polytheism or atheism.” It may be asked then, is theism capable of nothing else, except being opposed to polytheism or atheism? This is what the words literally mean through the improper collocation of only. He ought to have said, “Theism can be opposed only to polytheism or atheism.” Inaccuracies of this kind occasion little ambiguity in common discourse, because the tone and emphasis used by the speaker, generally make the meaning perspicuous., But in writing, where a person speaks to the eye, he ougbt to be more accurate; and so to connect adverbs with the words they qualify, that his meaning cannot be mistaken on the first inspection.
When a circumstance is interposed in the mid
dle of a sentence, it sometimes requires attention to place it such manner as to divest it of all ambiguity. For instance, " Are these designs," says Lord Bolingbroke, “ which any man, who is born a Briton, in any circumstances, in any situation, ought to be ashamed or afraid to avow?" Here we are in doubt whether the phrases, sin any circumstances, in any situation," be connected with "a man born in Britain ;"or with that man's "avowing his designs.” If the latter, as seems most likely, was intended to be the meaning; the arrangement ought to be this, “ Are these designs, which any man, who is born a Briton, ougbt to be ashamed or afraid in
circumstances, in any situation, to avow ?
Still more attention is requisite to a proper disposition of the relative pronouns, who, which, what, whose ; and of all those particles, which express the connexion of the parts of speech. As all reasoning depends upon this connexion, we cannot be too accurate with regard to it. A small error may obscure the meaning of a whole sentence; and even where the meaning is apparent, yet if these relatives be misplaced, we always find something awkward and disjointed in the structure of the period. The following passage in Bishop Sherlock's sermons will exemplify these observations: “It is folly to pretend to arm ourselves against the accidents of life, by heaping up treasures, which nothing can protect us against, but the good providence of our heasenly Father."
Which grammatically refers to the immediately preceding noun, which here is treasures ; and this would convert the whole period into nonsense. The sentence should have been thus constructed: “It is folly to pretend, by heaping up treasures, to arm ourselves against the accidents of life, against wbich, nothing can protect us, but the good providence of our hearenly Father.”
We now proceed to the second quality of a well arranged sentence, which we termed its unity. This is a capital property. The very nature of a sentence implies one proposition to be expressed. It may consist of parts; but these parts must be so closely bound together, as to make an impression of one object only upon the mind.
To preserve this unity, we must first observe, that during the course of the sentence, the subject should be changed as little as possible. There is generally in every sentence some person or thing, which is the governing word. This should be continued so, if possible, from the beginning to the end of it. Should a man express himself in this manner;
16 after we came to anchor, they put me on shore, where I was saluted by all my friends, who received me with the greatest kindness ;" though the objects in this sentence are sufficiently connected; yet, by shift-. ing so often the subject and person, we, they, I, and who, they appear in so disunited a view, that the sense and connexion are nearly lost. The sentence is restored to its proper unity by constructing it thus : “ Having come to anchor, I was put on shore, where I was saluted by all my friends, who received me with the greatest kindness.”
The second rule is, never crowd into one sentence ideas, which have so little connexion, that they might well be divided into two or more sentences. Violation of this rule never fails to disa
please a reader. Its effect indeed is so disgusting, that of the two it is the safest extreme, to err rather by too many sbort sentences, than by one, that is overloaded and confused. The following sentence, from a translation of Plutarch, will justify this opinion: “ Their march,” says the author, speaking of the Greeks, " was through an uncultivated country, whose savage inhabitants fared hardly, having no other riches, than a breed of lean sheep, whose flesh was rank and unsavoury, by reason of their continual feeding upon sea-fish.” Here the subject is repeatedly changed. The march of the Greeks, the description of the inhabitants, through whose country they passed, the account of their sheep, and the reason of their sheep being disagreeable food, make a jumble of objects, slightly related to each other, which the reader cannot without considerable difficulty comprehend in one view.
The third rule for preserving the unity of a sentence is, keep clear of parentheses in the middle of it. These may on some occasions have a spirited appearance, as prompted by a certain vivacity of thought, which can glance happily aside, as it is going along. But in general their effect is extremely bad ; being a perplexed method of disposing of some thought, which a writer has not art enough to introduce in its proper place. It is needless to produce any instances, as they occur so frequently, among incorrect writers.
The fourth rule for the unity of a sentence is, bring it to a full and perfect close. It needs not to be observed, that an unfinished sentence is no sentence with respect to grammar. But sentences often occur, which are more than finished.