[Discussing the word dis-eate in Macbeth, amended by various editors to disseat, disease, disseizes and defeat. ]

. . . you may say that Shakespeare actually intended, by putting down something a little removed from any of the approximate homonyms, to set the reader groping about their network. One must consider, before dismissing this second idea as absurd, that the Elizabethans minded very little about spelling and punctuation; that this must have given them an attitude to the written page entirely different from ours (the reader must continually have been left to grope for the right word); that from the comparative slowness, of reading as of speaking, that this entailed, he was prepared to assimilate words with a completeness which is now lost; that only our snobbish ability of spelling imposes on us the notion that one mechanical word, to be snapped up by the eye, must have been intended; . . .

From Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson.

I'm trying to figure out the structure and meaning of the bolded part of this sentence.

  • I've added more context. If you will follow your last sentence with some account of just what gave you trouble with this, I think we can get this reopened. Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 14:49

1 Answer 1


The basic structure is

Only X imposes on us the notion Y.

That is, X is the only thing which causes us to believe Y.

X here is our snobbish oddity of spelling—by which Empson means the modern belief that our modern consistency in spelling is the only ‘right’ way to spell, and that Elizabethan practice is ignorant and inferior.

Y is the fallacy of assuming that one mechanical word, to be snapped up by the eye, must have been intended. Modern consistency in spelling means that any string of letters is immediately recognized as representing exactly one word. Empson suggests that this keeps us from seeing that Elizabethan irregular spelling gave writers an opportunity to set down ‘words’ whose exact meaning was ambiguous.

  • @user4550 to be here is an infinitive. It means approximately which is expected to be snapped up. That is, the modern author expects the reader to understand the word immediately, as if grabbing it quickly. Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 18:15
  • @user4550 Yes. It might be generally paraphrased "which is in a situation to be*, and the particular modal signficance - can, intend, may, &c - is inferred from context. He is to go to London means "He is expected to go to London". We have a job to do means We have a job we must do. Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 12:01
  • @user4550 Yes; but equally it can mean should but in context may mean may or can. There's not a 'default' meaning: context always governs. Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 14:04
  • @user4550 This is a very complex issue. It is certainly possible, but in complex texts it requires familiarity with the written dialect, which is syntactically far more complex than conversational dialects. The 'slow reading' movement came about because it has become obvious that schoolchildren are not being adequately exposed to complex texts and therefore have not mastered the written dialect. Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 14:36

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