The Corner

Culture

Clash of the Pedants

In the current issue of National Review, Joseph Epstein, in the course of reviewing a book about semicolons, writes the following:

On the matter of rules, here is a sentence I used to set out before students in a course I taught called “Advanced Prose Composition”: “Hopefully, the professor will be able to seriously take the work on which I am presently engaged, which is, I believe, rather unique.” The meaning of the sentence is clear enough, though it contains four mistakes. “Hopefully” is an adverb without a verb to modify; “to seriously take” is a split infinitive; “presently” doesn’t mean “currently”; and uniqueness, like pregnancy, doesn’t allow for qualification. But if the meaning is clear, I would ask students, why bother eliminating these mistakes? The answer is because not to do so is to risk offending people who know better, the educated, a small group, to be sure, some would even say an endangered species, but one that tends to be touchy about such matters. In writing as in just about everything else, while at it, what the hell, you may as well get it right.

He’s right about “touchy,” though I know Mr. Epstein himself does not fall under that heading, which is good, because I’m afraid I will have to disagree, very respectfully, with all four of his points.

I have heard language buffs disparage the introductory usage of “hopefully” since the 1970s, and I’ve never figured out why people make such a fuss over it.  Using an adverb not to modify a verb but to characterize the portion of the sentence that follows is commonplace and unremarkable: “Obviously, she didn’t mean to say that,” “Briefly, here’s what happened,” “Naturally, it didn’t work the first time,” and similarly with “Fortunately,” “Actually,” and many others. Why single out one inoffensive adverb for condemnation?

As for split infinitives, nearly a century ago H. W. Fowler, in his Modern English Usage, stoutly defended the use of split infinitives, but the prejudice against them still lingers. I won’t try to defend split infinitives on logical grounds, because the case against them — infinitives are one word in Latin, ergo nothing should come between “to” and the verb in English — is not a logical argument, just an axiom. If you want to argue that split infinitives often sound awkward, I’ll grant you that, but they’re not ungrammatical.

The same Fowler book agreed with Epstein’s view that “presently” should be used only to mean “immediately” or “very soon,” and while that view was still arguable in the 1920s, absolutely no one talks that way today, at least in American usage, where “presently” always means “at present.” The time has long since arrived for this to be written off as a lost cause. Someone who insists that the archaic meaning of “presently” is the only correct one would do best not to use the word at all, rather than use it and always be misunderstood.

As for “unique,” this one has always puzzled me. There’s nothing wrong with saying that X is “very different” from Y, so if “unique” means “different from everything else,” why can’t we say “very unique” if it’s very different from everything else, and “slightly unique” if it’s slightly different from everything else?  (And by the way, the analogy that Epstein uses to illustrate this is imperfect: It’s not uncommon to describe a woman who is quite visibly expecting as being “very pregnant.”)

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