Gordian Plot

(2) their POSITION with reference to one another

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The position of words with reference to one another depends on : (1) their individual force ; (2) their modifying effect upon other words ; and (3) their grammatical relations. What is shown of single words applies also to clauses and phrases, regarded as logical elements of a sentence. 1. The Individual Force of Words. So far as the position of words depends on their in¬dividual force, two particulars are to be regarded : (1) their -Emphasis; and (2) their Abstractness. (1) Emphasis.—Emphasis aims at the economy al. interpreting power by making the emphatic word so prominent as to remove all doubt as to which it is meant to be. This is done by taking the emphatic word out of its natural place in the sentence, and put¬ting it where it will be striking because of the novelty of its position. It would be natural to say, "The mystery of godliness is great ;" but, since "great" is •the emphatic word, it may be put first, and all can see that emphasis is increased by the form, "Great is the mystery of godliness." So also in, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians ; " "Silver and gold have I none ;" "Now is the appointed time." It is clear, however, that too frequent use of this principle of emphatic in¬version would defeat its own end, since the force of it depends on its novelty, i. e., on its being a departure from the common order. (2) AblitradnOBB.—The abstractness of words and clauses should also affect their position. There is rea¬son to suppose that, apart from their connection, the order of words is as important in the building up of a thought, as the order of incidents is in telling a story. As in a narrative each statement should be such as to carry the mind forward and make the account seem natural at every point, without forcing the mind to hold something as unexplained until something else is added, so in a sentence the sequence of words should be such as to waste no power in building up the thought. Mr. Herbert Spencer has treated the question, what is the natural order of images in thought ? (a) He begins by considering the natural order of the adjective and substantive. "Ought we to say with the French—un cheval noir ; or to say as we do—a black horse ? Probably, most persons of culture would de¬cide that o;.o order is as good as the other. Alive to the bias produced by habit, they would ascribe to that the preference they feel for our own form of expression. They would expect those educated in the use of the opposite form to have an equal preference for that. And thus they would conclude that neither of these instinctive judgments is of any worth. There is, how¬ever, a philosophical ground for deciding in favor of the English custom. If a horse black' be the ar¬rangement, immediately on the utterance of the word horse,' there arises, or tends to arise, in the mind, a picture answering to that word ; and as there has been nothing to indicate what kind of a horse, any image of a horse suggests itself. Very likely, however, the im¬age will be that of a brown horse ; brown horses being the most familiar. The result is that when the word 'black' is added, a check is given- to the process of thought. Either the picture of a brown horse already present to the imagination has to be suppressed and the picture of a black one summoned into its place ; or else, if the picture of a brown horse be yet unformed, the tendency to form it has to be stopped. Whichever is the case, a certain amount of hinderance results. But if, on the other hand, a black horse' be the expression used, no such mistake can be made. The word 'black' indicating an abstract quality, arouses no definite idea. It simply prepares the mind for conceiving some object of that color ; and the attention is kept suspended un¬til that object is known. If, then, by the precedence of the adjective, the idea is conveyed without liability to error, whereas the precedence of the substantive is apt to produce a misconception, it follows that the one gives the mind less trouble than the other, and is therefore more forcible." * (b) What, in a general formula, is the order in which the constituent elements of an idea are wanted? In reading history, our conception is much more defi¬nite if we know when and where the events occurred. Hence, if the word or clause marking the time or place be given first, and the statement of fact afterward, we have a more vivid conception of it. This seems to in¬dicate that words referring to time or place should he introduced at the beginning of a sentence. The same precedence, according to Lord Karnes, should be given to any attendant circumstance; for, as he says, "When a circumstance is placed at the beginning of the period, or near the beginning, the transition from it to the principal subject is agreeable ; is like ascending or go¬ing upward." t He explains this fact on the ground that "circumstances are proper for that coolness of mind with which we begin a period as well as a vol¬ume : in the progress, the mind warms, and has a greater relish for matters of importance." "On the other hand, to place it late in the period has a bad ef¬fect; for after being engaged in the principal subject, one is with reluctance brought down to give attention to a circumstance." The principle may be illustrated by a sentence from Swift : "And although they may be, and too often are drawn, by the temptations of youth, and the opportunities of a large fortune, into some irregularities, when they come forward into the great world, it is ever with reluctance and compunction of mind, because their bias to virtue still continues." It is better to put the temporal clause first, thus : "And although, when they come forward into the great world, they may be, and too often are," etc. Lord Karnes closes his ingenious treatment of this topic with this conclusion : "That order of words in a period will be most agreeable, where, without obscuring the sense, the most important images, the most sonoroub words, and the longest members bring up the rear." (c) The explanation of this important truth is found in the economy of interpreting power. The mind has power to hold at once but a limited number of words. If the important images and the longest members come at the beginning, they will be blurred, if not wholly lost, by subsequent attention to accessories. The re¬sult will be, that the hearer or reader will miss what is most important unless he increases his effort. Again, conditions of time, place, and circumstance, are more abstract than a simple action or state affirmed. As the mind increases its burden in the progress of the sen¬tence, and cannot properly lay it aside until the period is ended, the mind is less capable of exertion at the close than at the beginning. Hence, if the abstract ideas come at the end, it is compelled to perform its heaviest work, that of realizing abstractions, when least capable of doing it. The natural order of words and clauses in a sentence is, therefore, from the abstract to the concrete. It is the abstract nature of the prepo¬sition and the adverb, as well as their insignificance to the ear, which renders it improper to use them at the end of a sentence. 2. The Modifying Effect of Words. We have now to consider the position of words as modifying other words in the sentence. It is obvious that most words do not exist for themselves, while some whole classes exist solely for others. This rela¬tion between words gives rise to some of the most ea sential principles of style. It is important, therefore, to proceed under the guidance of a sound analysis oi the facts with which we are to deal. The opposite re¬quirements of the truth-relation and the time-relation have been already pointed out. It is in the equilibrium of these two contrary forces that the main problem of combining words lies. We, therefore, consider this branch of our theme under two heads : (1) Proximity, or, the requirement of the time-relation ; and (2) Par¬enthetical Expressions, or the requirement of the truth- relation. These counter claims do not always conflict. (1) proximit7.—In a la0uage like the English, in which the force of a modifier depends upon its position, two forms of difficulty arise from the separa¬tion of modifiers from what they modify : (1) a word may be supposed to modify a different word from the one Intended, hence Ambiguity ; or (2) it may seem not to modify any word, hence Obscurity. In both these cases there is an obvious waste of mental power. 1) .Axabigaity.—A failure to place related words in proximity often involves excellent writers in ambig uity. Thus Addison says : "Let us endeavor to establish to ourselves an interest in him, who holds the reins of the whole creation in his hands." "The cre¬ation in his hands" is suggestive of insignificance, the very opposite of what the author would convey, for he doubtless means, "who holds in his hands the reins of the whole creation." Dr. Blair, in his "Rhetoric," has not always avoided this fault. He says : "There is a remarkable union in his style of harmony and ease; when he does not mean "his style of harmony and ease," but a "union of harmony and ease in his style." An instance of the violation of this law scarcely less absurd than the famous example of "a horse plowing with one eye," is found in an essay by D'Israeli. He says, "Hence he considered marriage with a modern political economist, as very dangerous." This hit at modern political economists was quite un¬intentional, for the writer meant to say, "Hence, with a modern political economist, he considered marriage very dangerous." (a) This law governs the position of the adverb, that slippery particle which occasions so much trouble. Even Dr. Johnson was sometimes led to offend in its management. He says, "I hope not much to tire those whom I shall not happen to please." He should have said, "whom I shall happen not to please." Dr. Blair too nods, and says, "Having had once some con¬siderable object set before us ;" meaning, not that the object was once considerable, but that some consider. able object was once set before him. Addison is guilty of saying, "By greatness I do not only mean the bulk of any single object, but the largeness of the whole view." If he did not only mean, what did he more than mean (b) The proper use of the pronoun is also deduce( from this law of proximity. Mr. Hume tells us, "They flew to arms and attacked Northumberland's horse, whom they put to death." Truly a glorious achievement, if literally interpreted ; but the historian, doubtless, intends to inform us that they put the Duke to death, instead of his horse. Swift, in his "Letter to a Young Gentleman," says : "From a habit of sav¬ing time and paper, which young men acquire at the university, they write in so diminutive a manner, and with such frequent blots and interlineations that their writing is hardly legible." It sounds strange to hear that young men acquire "time" and " paper " at the university, a place proverbial for wasting both ; but it is the "habit " which Swift meant to say is acquired. It has been demonstrated that the following paragraph of Dean Alford's may be read in 10,240 different ways, only one of which expresses the true meaning : "While treating of the pronunciation of those who minister in public, two other words occur to me which are very commonly mangled by our clergy. One of these (A) is 'covetous,' and its substantive covetous¬ness.' I hope some who read these lines, will be in¬duced to leave off pronouncing them (B) covetions ' an I covetiousness.' I can assure them (0) that when they (D) do thus call them, (E) one, at least, of their • (F) hearers has his appreciation of their (G) teaching disturbed." Mr. G. Washington Moon, in "The Dean's Eng¬lish," has given the following ingenious criticism •

(e) What is technically called the splitting of parti¬cles is forbidden by the law of proximity of related parts. Thus the sentence, "The army arrived at, but, for numerous reasons, could not proceed into, the town ;" is better in the form, "The army arrived at the town, but for numerous reasons, could not proceed into it." When very few words intervene between the preposi¬tion and its case, the objection is very slight, since the governing particle is not long suspended.

2) Obsourity.—The misplacement of words some times produces such obscurity that the sentence seems to be nonsense. Most cases of obscurity resulting from a violation of the law of proximity are really instances of ambiguity so absurd as to seem nonsensical. Lore Bolingbroke says that "The minister who grows lest by his elevation, like a little statue on a mighty pedes¬tal, will always have his jealousy strong about At first glance, we may take the phrase, "like a littlr statue on a mighty pedestal," with the last clause ; but the idea of a little statue on a pedestal with his jealousy strong about him is nonsensical. The obscurity is wholly removed by destroying the absurd ambiguity, thus : " The minister, who, like a little statue on a mighty pedestal, grows less by his elevation, will al¬ways have his jealousy strong about him." The eru¬dite Johnson amuses and puzzles his readers with the astonishing statement that, "This work in its full ex¬tent, being now afflicted with the asthma, and finding the power of life gradually declining, he had no longer courage to undertake." It was Savage who had the asthma, as the sequel shows, but we do not discover it until we are confused with the thought that the 4‘ work " was afflicted. From these illustrations it seems plain that words related ;n thought should be in close proxitnity. The reason is twofold : (1) the English language being analytic and not formal like the Latin, position decides what words are modified ; and (2) the longer the time which elapses between any qualifying expression and the part qualified, the longer the mind must retain something which has yet no force. The more numer¬ous the qualifying expressions, and the more widely they are separated from what they qualify, the greater the expenditure of mental power. (2) Parenthetical Expression—While the time- relation demands proximity of related parts, the truth- relation often requires a separation of them to admit the introduction of a necessary explanation or limita¬tion. The frequency of these parenthetical insertions depends on the character of the writer's mind, and their necessity on the nature of his thought. Some minds are troubled with an overwhelming flood of suggestion after the sentence is begun, without possess¬ing sufficient generalizing power to seize upon the es¬sential points and formulate general truths as they ad¬vance. They will introduce innumerable conditions of time, place, and circumstance in the midst of every proposition. Fullness of matter without definiteness of form leads men to the extremity of involved expres¬sion. It is indeed a work of art "to break up this huge fasiculus of cycle and epicycle into a graceful suc¬cession of sentences, long intermingled with short, each modifying the other, and arising musically by links of spontaneous connection." A reviewer of Coleridge's " Aphorisms " has observed that the aphoristic style is an evasion of all the difficulties of composition. It is easy to state a general truth in brief compass. "The labor of composition begins when you have to put your separate threads of thought into a loom ; to weave them into a continuous whole ; to connect them ; to intro¬duce them ; to blow them out or expand them ; to carry them to a close." * The difficulty, when it is real, must evidently be disposed of in one of three ways : (1) by inserting the limitation, modification, or explanation,—the Paren¬thesis; (2) by omitting the expression,—the Ellipsis ; or (3) by putting what is omitted in another place,— the Foot-note. 1) The Parenthesis.—In the term " parenthesis " are included all expressions introduced between de¬pendent parts of a sentence, whether embraced by the marks of parenthesis or not. It is a very difficult mat¬ter to decide just when these marks should be used, and when they should not. Many writers embrace by com¬mas matter which others would enclose within marks of parenthesis. Dr. Whately compares this to a lame man's throwing away his crutches, to conceal his lame¬ness. The Doctor maintains that this does not effect a cure. He, at least, hobbles along honestly, for some one has counted over four hundred parentheses in his small treatise on "Logic." Dr. Blair says on the use of parentheses : "On some occasions, these may have a spirited appearance ; as prompted by a certain vivacity of thought, which can glance happily aside as it is going along. But, for the most part, their effect is extremely bad ; being a sort of wheels within wheels ; sentences in the midst of sentences ; the perplexed method of disposing of some thought, which a writer wants art to introduce in its proper place." * It is clear that explanatory words and clauses must sometimes be introduced between related members. So every form of motion in machinery must be re. tarded by some friction. We may, however, reduce the waste of power to the minimum by making the suspensions as few and brief as possible without im¬pairing the sense. Dr. Angus thinks parentheses are more endurable in poetry than in prose. His reason is that poetry has pleasure for its object and "in a pleasant stroll men more readily turn aside than when engaged in business pursuits." f It seems not to have occurred to him that men are more willingly called away from their work than from their enjoyment,—which is quite as true, and quite as pertinent. The following lines from Words¬worth illustrate the damaging effects of parenthesir upon poetry : "My voice proclaims How exquisitely the individual mind (And the progressixe powers, perhaps, no lees Of the whole species) to the external world Is fitted.—And how exquisitely too (Theme this but little heard of among men) The external world is fitted to the mind." The truth is, since thought admits of suspension without irreparable damage, while feeling is absolutely dependent upon uninterrupted continuity, poetry, just in proportion as it is true poetry, is affected by parer'. thesis much more seriously than prose. Rhetoric, Lecture XI. f Hand-Book of the English Tongue. 2) Ellipsis.—Ellipsis often contributes to idio¬matic terseness of expression, and so becomes an im¬portant aid to the economy of interpreting power. On the other hand, its improper use may introduce confu¬sion into speech. Addison has left some very awkward ellipses ; as in the sentence, "But in the temper of mind he was then, he termed them mercies," etc. Here he makes Sir Andrew Freeport to be a "temper of mind," when he intended to say "the temper of mind in which he was then." The same writer makes a similar blunder in another instance : "This was a reflection upon the Pope's sister, who, before the promotion of her brother, was in those circumstances that Pasquin represented her." Was Pasquin her representative, or did he represent her as circum¬stances? Although ellipsis is a source of confusion in cases where the sense is affected, it contributes to brevity where the construction alone requires that some¬thing be supplied : as, "Who steals my purse steals trash." Foot-Notes.—Foot-notes often furnish an es¬cape from both parenthesis and ellipsis. Such excres¬cences are omnipresent reminders of the limitations of language as a medium of expression. Just in propor¬tion as an author allows this sign of weakness to exhibit itself, in that proportion he publicly confesses his own insufficiency, or that of his medium. Yet, insuffi¬ciency is likely to show itself somewhere. He who always writes short sentences, and puts his whole thought into them, must take a very short sweep of view. He who writes long ones, must tax the inter¬preting power of his readers. He who constantly lets his thoughts overflow his sentences, and drip down into foot-nOtes, virtually abandons an artistic solu¬tion of the great problem of style for a coarse ex¬pedient. We are to consider the foot-note only as its use is justified or condemned by our general law of style,— the economy of interpreting power. It is surely very distracting to disturb the progress of thought, and make an excursion to the bottom of the page, or even to the end of the volume, for a scrap of information so alien to the text that it could not be incorporated in it. Although it would be a novelty in book making, it would be an excellent plan for an author who uses foot-notes to state in his preface for what purpose he uses them. If there are two classes of notes, it would be well to refer to each by distinct classes of characters. If some were references to other books, and others gave details not appropriate for the continuous text, it would be easy to refer to the first class by num¬bers, and to the second by the ordinary reference marks. The critical spirit of modern times and the wide range of literature require exact references for quotations and opinions, and the foot-note, unnecessary to the ancients and unused by them, is a convenient contrivance for meeting this demand. Such references however, need not interfere with the continuity of reading, provided it is understood in the beginning for what purpose they are used. 3. The Grammatical Relations of Words. Position is often determined by grammatical prin¬ciples. These are, of course, to be strictly observed, except where a departure from precise grammatical order conduces greatly to some more important element of effect, as in transpositions for emphasis. With the particulars of grammar we have nothing to do here, as grammatical propriety is assumed.

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