Page images

lo general, it may be said, that in writings of this stamp, we must accept of sound instead of sense ; being assured, that if we meet with little that can inform the judgment, we shall at least find nothing that will offend the ear. And perhaps this is one reason that we pass over such smooth language, without suspecting that it contains little or no meaning. In order to write or speak clearly and intelligibly, two things are especially requisite : one, that we have clear and distinct ideas of our subject; and the other, that our words be approved signs of those ideas. That persons who think confusedly, should express themselves obscurely, is not to be wondered at; for embarrassed, obscure, and feeble sentences, are generally, if not always, the result of embarrassed, obscure, and feeble thought; but that persons of judgment, who are accustomed to scrutinize their ideas, and the signification of their words, should sometimes write without any meaning, is, at first sight, matter of admiration. This, however, when fur. ther considered, appears to be an effect derived from thy same cause, indistinctness of conception, and inattention to the exact import of words. The occasions on which we are most apt to speak and write in this unintelligible manner, are the three following.

The first is, where there is an exuberance of metaphor. Writers who are fond of the metaphoric style, are geno. rally disposed to continue it too long, and to pursue it toe far.

They are often misled by a desire of fourishing on the several properties of a metaphor which they have ushered into the discours , without taking the trouble to examine whether there are any qualities in the subject to which these properties can, with justice and perspicuity be applied. The following instance of this sort of wri. ting is from an author of considerable eminence. must acquire a very peculiar and strong habit of turning their view inward, in order to explore the interior regions and recesses of the mind, the hollow caverns of deer thought, the private seats of fancy, and the wastes anit wildernesses, as well as the more fruitful and cultivated. tracts of this obscure climate." A most wonderful way of telling us, that it is difficult to trace the operations of the mind. The author having determined to represent

« Men

[ocr errors]

the human mind under the metaphor of a country, revolvo edin his thoughts the various objects which might be found in a country, without considering whether there are any things in the mind properly analogous to these. Hence the strange parade he makes with regions and recesses, hollow caverns and private seats, wastes and wildernesses, fruitful and cultivated tracts ; words which, though they have a precise meaning, as applied to country, have ao detinite signification, as applied to mind.

The second occasion of our being apt to write uninteli. gibly, is that wherein the terms most frequently occurring, denote things which are of a complicated nature, and to which the mind is not sufficiently familiarised. Of these the instances are numberless in every tongue ; such as, Government, church, state, constitution, power, legisla. ture, jurisdiction, &c.

The third and principal occasion of unintelligible writing, is, when the terms employed are very abstract, and consequently of very extensive signification. Thus the word lion is more distinctly apprehended by the mind than the word beast, beast than animal, animal than being.

The 7th and last rule for preserving propriety in our words and phrases, is, to avoid all those which are not adapied to the ideas we mean to communicate; or which are less significant than others, of those ideas

• He feels any sorrow that can arrive at man ;' better happen to man." ". The conscience of approving one's self a benefactor, is the best recompense for being so;" it should have been “consciousness." "He firmly believed the divine precept, • There is not a sparrow falls to the ground,'" &c. "It should have been a doctrine."

“ It is but opening the eye, and the scene enters." A scene cannot be said to enter: an actor enters; but a scene appears or presents itself.

“ We immediately assent to the beauty of an object, without inquiring into the causes of it:" it is proper to say, that we assent to the truth of a proposition ; but it cannot so well be said, that we essent to the beauty of an object. Acknowledge would have expressed the sense with propriety.

The sense of feeling, can, indeed, give us a notion of extension, shape, and all other ideas that enter at the

[ocr errors]

eye, except colours.” Extension and shape can,

with no propriety, be called ideas ; they are properties of matter. Neither is it accurate, to speak of any sense giving us a notion of ideas: our senses give us the ideas themselves. The meaning of the sentence would have been proper, and much clearer, if the author had expressed himself thus : “ The sense of feeling can, indeed, give us the idea of extension, figure, and all the other properties of matter, which are perceived by the eye, except colours.”

“ The covetous man never has a sufficiency; although he has what is enough for nature,” is much inferior to, " The covetous man never has enough ; although he has what is sufficient for nature."

“ A traveller observes the most striking objects he sees; a general remarks all the motions of his enemy;", better thus ; A traveller remarks,&c. ;.“ A general observes,” &c. “This measure enlarged his school, and obliged him to increase the buildings; it should be,“ increased his school;" and " enlarge the buildings."

He applied a medicine before the poison had time to work ;' better thus : “ He applied an antidote,” &c.

The poison of a suspicious temper frequently throws out its bad qualities, on all who are within its reach;"> better, “throws out its malignant qualities."

“ I will go except I should be ill;" " I saw them all unless two or three :" corrected thus : " unless I should he ill ;"

except two or three." A selection of words and phrases, which are peculiarly expressive of the ideas we design to communicate ; or which are as particular and determinate in their signification, as is consistent with the nature and the scope of the discourse; possesses great beauty, and cannot fail to pro. duce a good effect

[ocr errors]


OF PRECISION. PRECISION is the third requisite of perspicuity with respect to words and phrases. It signifies retrenching superfluities, and pruning the expression, so as to exhibit neither more nor less than an exact copy of the person's idea who uses it.

The words used to express ideas may be faulty in three respects. 1st, They may not express the idea which the author intends, but some other which only resembles it; secondly, They may express that idea, but not fully and completely; thirdly, They may express it, together with something more than is intended. Precision stands opposed to these three faults, but chiefly to the last. Propriety implies a freedom from the two former faults. The words which are used may

proper ;

that is, they may express the idea intended, and they may express it fully; but to be precise, signifies that they express that idea and

no morc.


The use and importance of precision may be deduced from the nature of the human mind. It never can view, clearly and distinctly, mor: than one object at a time. If it must look at two or three together, especially objects that have resemblance or connexion, it finds itself confused and embarrassed. It cannot clearly perceive in what they agree, and in what they differ. Thus, were any object, suppose some animal; to be presented to my view, of whose structure I wished to form a distinct notion, I should desire all its trappings to be taken off ;

1 : should require it to be brought before me by itself, and to stand alone, that there might be nothing to divide my attention. The same is the case with words. If, when any one would inform me of his meaning, he also tells me more than what conveys it; if he joins foreign circumstances to the principal objects; if, by unnecessarily varying the expression, he shifts the point of view, and makes me see sometimes the object itself, and sometimes another thing that is connected with it, he thereby obliges me to look on several objects at once, and I lose sight of the principal. He loads the animal he is showing me, with so many trappings and collars, that I cannot distinctly view it; or he brings so many of the same species before me, somewhat resembling, and yet somewhat differing, that I see none of them clearly. When an authoi tells me of his hero's courage in the day of battle, the expression is precise, and I understand it fully : but if, from the desire of multiplying words, he should praise his courage and fortitude ; at the moment he joins these words together, my idea begins to waver. He means to

express one quality more strongly, but he is in truth expressing two: courage resists danger; fortitude supports pain. The occasion of exerting each of these qualities is different ; and being led to think of both together, when only one of them should be considered, my view is rendered unsteady, and my conception of the object in. distinct.

All subjects do not equally require precision. It is suf. ficient, on many occasions, that we have a general view of the meaning. The subject, perhaps, is of the known and familiar kind, and we are in no hazard of mistaking the sense of the author, though every word which he uses is not precise and exact.

Many authors offend against this rule of precision. A considerable one, in describing a bad action, expresses himself thus : “ It is to remove a good and orderly affectio and to introduce an ill or disorderly one ; to commit an action that is ill, immoral, and unjust; to do ill, or to act in prejudice of integrity, good nature, and worth.”

A crowd of unmeaning or useless words is brought together by some authors, who, afraid of expressing themselves in a common and ordinary manner, and allured by an appearance of splendour, surround every thing which they mean to say with a certain copious loquacity.

The great source of a loose style in opposition to precision, is the injudicious use of the words termed synony

They are called synonymous, because they agree in expressing one principal idea ; but, for the most part, if not always, they express it with some diversity in the circumstances.

The following instances show a difference in the meaning of words reputed synonymous, and point out the use of attending, with care and strictness, to the exact import of words.

Custom, habit.-Custom, respects the action; habit, the actor. By custom, we mean the frequent repetition of the same act; by habit, the effect which that repetition produces on the mind or body. By the custom of walking often in the streets, one acquires a habit of idleness.

Pride, vanity.- Pride makes us esteem ourselves; vapity makes us desire the esteem of others. It is just to say, that a man is too proud to be vain.


« PreviousContinue »