Reference > H.W. Fowler > The King’s English, 2nd ed.
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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Part II

AMBIGUITY



49. FALSE SCENT


It is most annoying to a reader to be misled about the construction, and therefore most foolish in a writer to mislead him. In the sentences that follow, facilities and excesses are naturally taken as in the same construction, and similarly influences and nature, until the ends of the sentences show us that we have gone wrong. These are very bad cases; but minor offences of the kind are very common, and should be carefully guarded against.

He gloats over the facilities the excesses and the blunders of the authorities have given his comrades for revolutionary action among the masses.—Times.

The influences of that age, his open, kind, susceptible nature, to say nothing of his highly untoward situation, made it more than usually difficult for him to cast aside or rightly subordinate.—Carlyle.


That there is no comma between facilities and the excesses is no defence, seeing how often commas go wrong; indeed the comma after age in the second piece, which is strictly wrong, is a proof how little reliance is to be placed on such signs.

50. MISPLACEMENT OF WORDS


Generous interpretation will generally get at a writer's meaning; but for him to rely on that is to appeal ad misericordiam. Appended to the sentences, when necessary, is the result of supposing them to mean what they say.

It is with grief and pain, that, as admirers of the British aristocracy, we find ourselves obliged to admit the existence of so many ill qualities in a person whose name is in Debrett.—Thackeray. (implies that admirers must admit this more than other people)

It is from this fate that the son of a commanding prime minister is at any rate preserved.—Bagehot. (implies that preserved is a weak word used instead of a stronger)

And even if we could suppose it to be our duty, it is not one which, as was shown in the last chapter, we are practically competent to perform.—Balfour.

The chairman said there was no sadder sight in the world than to see women drunk, because they seemed to lose complete control of themselves. (implies that losing complete control leaves you with less than if you lost incomplete control)

The soldiers are deeply chagrined at having had to give up positions, in obedience to orders, which the Japanese could not take.—Times.

Great and heroic men have existed, who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet.—Emerson. (implies that no one else would say it)

Yes, the laziest of human beings, through the providence of God, a being, too, of rather inferior capacity, acquires the written part of a language so difficult that...—Borrow.

Right or wrong as his hypothesis may be, no one that knows him will suspect that he himself had not seen it, and seen over it... Neither, as we often hear, is there any superhuman faculty required to follow him.—Carlyle. (implies that we often hear there is not)

This, we say to ourselves, may be all very true (for have we, too, not browsed in the Dictionary of National Biography?); but why does Tanner say it all, just at that moment, to...—Times. (implies that others have refrained from browsing)

But in 1798 the Irish rising was crushed in a defeat of the insurgents at Vinegar Hill; and Tippoo's death in the storm of his own capital, Seringapatam, only saved him from witnessing the English conquest of Mysore.—J. R. Green. (implies that that was all it saved him from)


51. AMBIGUOUS POSITION


In this matter judgement is required. A captious critic might find examples on almost every page of almost any writer; but most of them, though they may strictly be called ambiguous, would be quite justifiable. On the other hand a careless writer can nearly always plead, even for a bad offence, that an attentive reader would take the thing the right way. That is no defence; a rather inattentive and sleepy reader is the true test; if the run of the sentence is such that he at first sight refers whatever phrase is in question to the wrong government, then the ambiguity is to be condemned.

Louis XVIII, dying in 1824, was succeeded, as Charles X, by his brother the Count d'Artois.—E. Sanderson. (The sleepy reader, assisted by memories of James the First and Sixth, concludes, though not without surprise, which perhaps finally puts him on the right track, that Louis XVIII of France was also Charles X of some other country)

In 1830 Paris overthrew monarchy by divine right.—Morley. (By divine right looks so much more like an adverbial than an adjectival phrase that the sleepy reader takes it with overthrew)

(From review of a book on ambidexterity) Two kinds of emphatic type are used, and both are liberally sprinkled about the pages on some principle which is not at all obvious. The practice may have its merits, like ambidexterity, but it is generally eschewed by good writers who know their business, although they are not ambidextrous.—Times. (The balance of the sentence is extremely bad if the although clause is subordinated to who; and the sleepy reader accordingly does not take it so, but with is eschewed, and so makes nonsense)

It was a temper not only legal, but pedantic in its legality, intolerant from its very sense of a moral order and law of the lawlessness and disorder of a personal tyranny.—J. R. Green.

The library over the porch of the church, which is large and handsome, contains one thousand printed books.—R. Curzon. (A large and handsome library, or porch, or church?)


Both these last are very unkind to the poor sleepy reader; it is true that in one of them he is inexcusable if he goes wrong, but we should for our own sakes give him as few chances of going wrong as possible.

Luck and dexterity always give more pleasure than intellect and knowledge; because they fill up what they fall on to the brim at once, and people run to them with acclamation at the splash.—Landor. (On and to so regularly belong together now, though they did not in Landor's time, that it is disconcerting to be asked to pause between them)


52. AMBIGUOUS ENUMERATION


In comma'd enumerations, care should be taken not to insert appositions that may be taken, even if only at first sight, for separate members.

Some high officials of the Headquarter Staff, including the officer who is primus inter pares, the Director of Military Operations, and the Director of Staff duties...—Times. (Two, or three, persons? Probably two; but those who can be sure of this do not need the descriptive clause, and those who need it cannot be sure)

Lord Curzon, Sir Edmond Elles, the present Military Member, and the Civilian Members of Council traverse the most material of Lord Kitchener's statements of fact.—Times. (Is Sir E. Elles the Military Member? No need to tell any one who knows; and any one who does not know is not told)

I here wish to remark that Lord Dufferin first formed the Mobilization Committee, of which the Commander-in-Chief is President, and the Military Member, Secretary, Military Department, and the heads of departments both at Army Headquarters and under the Government of India, are members with the express intention of...—Times. (Is the Military Member Secretary of the Mobilization Committee? Well, he may be, but a certain amount of patience shows us that the sentence we are reading does not tell us so)


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