Page images
[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

Some grammatical doubts in regard to English construction stated.

“former we say, The force of gunpowder split the
“rock; according to the latter, The ship split upon the
“rock :- and converting the verb active into a passive,
“we may say, The rock was split by the force of gun-
“ powder; or, The ship was split upon the rock. But
“we cannot say with any propriety, turning the verb
“neuter into a passive, The rock was split upon by
“the ship.” -

THIS author's reasoning, so far as concerns verbs
properly neuter, is so manifestly just, that it com-
mands a full assent from every one that understands
it. I differ from him only in regard to the applica-
tion. In my apprehension, what may grammatically
be named the neuter verbs, are not near so numer-
ous in our tongue as he imagines. I do not enter in-
to the difference between verbs absolutely neuter, and
intransitively active. I concur with him in thinking,
that this distinction holds more of metaphysics than
of grammar. But by verbs grammatically neuter, I
mean such as are not followed either by an accusa-
tive, or by a preposition and a noun; for I take this
to be the only grammatical criterion with us. Of
this kind is the simple and primitive verb to laugh ;
accordingly to say he was laughed, would be repug-
nant alike to grammar and to sense. But give this
verb a regimen, and say, To laugh at, and you alter
its nature, by adding to its signification. It were an
abuse of words to call this a neuter, being as truly a
compound active verb in English, as deridere is in

[ocr errors]

Some grammatical doubts in regard to English construction,

Latin, to which it exactly corresponds in meaning. Nor doth it make any odds that the preposition in the one language precedes the verb, and is conjoined with it, and in the other follows it, and is detached from it. The real union is the same in both. Accordingly he was laughed at is as evidently good English, as derirus fuit is good Latin.

LET us hear this author himself, who, speaking of verbs compounded with a preposition, says expressly, “In English the preposition is more frequently plac“ed after the verb, and separate from it, like an ad“verb; in which situation it is no less apt to affect ‘the sense of it, and to give it a new meaning ; and “may still be considered as belonging to the verb, “ and a part of it. As, to cast is to throw ; but to “cast up, or to compute, an account, is quite a diffe“rent thing : thus, to fall on, to bear out, to give o“ver,” &c. Innumerable examples might be produced, to show that such verbs have been always used as active or transitive compounds, call them which you please, and therefore as properly susceptible of the passive voice. I shall produce only one authority, which, I am persuaded, the intelligent reader will admit to be a good one. It is no other than this ingenious critic himself, and the passage of his which . I have in view will be found in the very quotation above made. “When the verb is passive, one thing is acted upon by another.” Here the verb to act upon is undoubtedly neuter, if the verb to split

stated and examined. “

upon be neuter in the expression censured; and conversely, the verb to split upon is undoubtedly active, if the verb to act upon be active in the passage quoted. Nor can any thing be more similar than the construction. “One thing is acted upon by another.” “The rock is split upon by the ship.”

AFTER all, I am sensible that the latter expression is liable to exception, which cannot be made against the former. I therefore agree with the author in condemning it, but not in the reason of pronouncing this sentence. The only reason that weighs with me is this. The active sense of the simple verb to split, and the sense of the compound to split upon, are, in such a phrase as that above mentioned, apt to be confounded. Nay, what is more, the false sense is that which is first suggested to the mind, as if the rock and not the ship had been split. And though the subsequent words remove the ambiguity, yet the very hesitancy which it occasions, renders the expression justly chargeable, though not with solecism, with what is perhaps worse, obscurity and inelegance.

THAT we may be satisfied, that this and no other

is the genuine cause of censure, let us borrow an ex

ample from some verb, which in the simple form is properly univocal. To smile is such a verb, being a neuter, which, in its primitive and uncompounded state, never receives an active signification; but to smile on, is with us, according to the definition given

Some grammatical doubts in regard to English construction,

above, a compound active verb, just as arridere *, to which it corresponds alike in etymology and meaning, is in Latin. Accordingly, we cannot say, he was smiled, in any sense. But to say, he was rmiled on, as in the following example, 4 He was smiled on by “fortune in every stage of life,” is entirely unexceptionable. Yet the only difference between this and the phrase above criticised, ariseth hence, that there is something ambiguous in the first appearance of the one, which is not to be found in the other. And, indeed, when the simple and primitive verb has both an active signification and a neuter (as is the case with the verb split,) such an ambiguous appearance of the compound in the passive, is an invariable consequence.

I SHALL observe further, in order to prevent mistakes on this subject, that there are also in our language compound neuter, as well as compound active verbs. Such are, to go up, to come down, to fall out. These properly have no passive voice; and though some of them admit a passive form, it is without a passive signification. Thus, he is gone up, and be bar gone up, are nearly of the same import. Now the on

* I know that the verb arrideo is accounted neuter by Latin lexicographers. The reason lies not in the signification of the word, but purely in this circumstance, that it governs the dative and not the accusative. But with this distinction we have no concern. That it is active in its import is evident from this, that it is used by good authors in the passive.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

stated and examined.

ly distinction in English between the active compound and the neuter compound, is this ; the preposition in the former, or more properly the compound verb itself, hath a regimen, in the latter it hath none. Indeed these last may be further compounded, by the addition of a preposition with a noun, in which case they also become active or transitive verbs; as in these instances, “ He went up to her;” She fell out “with them.” Consequently, in giving a passive voice to these there is no solecism. We may say, “She was gone up to by him;” “They were fallen “out with by her.” But it must be owned, that the passive form, in this kind of decomposite verbs, ought always to be avoided as inelegant, if not obscure. By bringing three prepositions thus together, one inevitably creates a certain confusion of thought; and it is not till after some painful attention, that the reader discovers two of the prepositions to belong to the preceding verb, and the third to the succeeding noun.

The principal scope of the foregoing observations on

the passage quoted from Dr Lowth, is to point out the only characteristical distinction between verbs neuter and verbs active, which obtains in our lan


To these I shall subjoin a few things, which may serve for ascertaining another distinction in regard to verbs. When a verb is used impersonally, it ought undoubtedly to be in the singular number, whether Vol. I. D d

« PreviousContinue »