Sunday, October 21, 2012

Muphry's Law across the pond

Earlier this month, the Financial Times ran a letter complaining about a couple of "grammatical" offenses, and once again the rule known as Muphry's/McKean's/Hartman's Law, or the Iron Law of Nitpicking, was in force: Any criticism of another's spelling or usage will itself contain at least one error.

This criticism came from faithful FT reader Brian Langdon-Pratt, who was in a state:
I'm shocked! Yes, really shocked! Reading the Financial Times last Friday -- as I’ve done for the past 40 years -- I came across two howlers. In the summary review by Nigel Andrews of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, he writes: “The hero Charlie wants to be ... even medalled as a social soldier”, and then later he compounds the grammatical offence by writing: "... half-brother Patrick is crash-coursed in literature". At least he put in a hyphen!
I know that standards of English grammar have slipped, but from Mr Andrews’ photo insert he looks old enough to know -- and hopefully to have been taught -- better.
The verb to medal has been around in the current sense since the 1960s, and Americans have complained about it for decades already. But as Graham at Linguism recently pointed out, medal is somewhat less familiar to the Brits, so if they want to smack it around a bit before they (inevitably) accept it, that's OK. The nonce coinage "crash-coursed," on the other hand, needs no defense -- the author isn't trying to impose it on the English-speaking world, he's just having a bit of fun.

But what about that "hopefully"? Does Langdon-Pratt not know that sentence-adverbial hopefully is (in Bryan Garner's terminology) a "skunked term" for true peevologists? I thought that perhaps hopefully aversion -- like our American which-that fetishism -- might have simply bypassed Britain. But according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "the ranks of hopefully haters grew steadily" in America from the mid-'60s to 1975, the year that "the issue seems to have crossed the Atlantic." British objectors, says MWDEU, "would repeat all the things American viewers with alarm had said, and add the charge of  'Americanism' to them."

You'd think a 40-year FT reader and language watcher would have encountered his culture's hopefully hostility at an impressionable age. But none of us can observe every language peeve, however attentive we may be -- hence the ubiquity, and inexorability, of Muphry's (etc.) Law.

10 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

"Any criticism of another's spelling or usage will itself contain at least one error."

This is so true.

Gregory Lee said...

Well, "hopefully" meh, who cares? There is a more interesting issue raised in the example

I know that standards of English grammar have slipped, but from Mr Andrews’ photo insert he looks old enough to know -- and hopefully to have been taught -- better.

What two phrases does the "and" conjoin, and why is it acceptable for it to do so? Generally, "and" connects two (or more) phrases of the same grammatical category, but here, "to know ... better" and "hopefully to have been taught better" are not both phrases, seemingly.

Cameron MacDonald Gazzola Black said...

Pratt's use of dashes, where commas could have done the job at least as adequately and far more elegantly, also strikes me as considerably more objectionable than his "hopefully".

Sue Dunham said...

Anyone seeking to condemn the verbing of nouns should look to Bill Shakespeare.

Marc Leavitt said...

Very sly. You wrote "Muphry's Law" on purpose.

bibliophile said...

@Marc Leavitt
There really is a Muphry's Law -- as I found by clicking on the helpful link. (I wasn't familiar with it either.) To wit: "If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written".

bibliophile said...

Perhaps my previous comment follows someone's law about stating the obvious. I realize on rereading the post that Jan herself defined it for us as soon as she mentioned it.

Marc Leavitt said...

To bibliophile:

I actually wrote my comment to highlight Jan's point about Muphry's Law, just in case Murphy stopped by:)

Marc Leavitt said...

To bibliophile:

I actually wrote my comment to highlight Jan's point about Muphry's Law, just in case Murphy stopped by:)

Bryan M. White said...

Is there a rule about duplicate comments? *hee hee*