Eating My Words: Muphry’s Law

In the first of these trips around the words, I quoted an essay by E.B. White. Reminiscing about when he revised William Strunk’s book, The Elements of Style, White wrote:

“I discovered that for all my fine talk I was no match for the parts of speech — was, in fact, over my depth. Not only that, I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.”

Whoa! Hold the presses!

On second (OK, maybe third) reading, it hit me. The venerable Mr. White had mixed his metaphors! In the same sentence, he said, “I write by ear…” then ended with, “…what is taking place under the hood.

From piano to pistons in one sentence.

I ran and checked The Elements of Style.

Use figures of speech sparingly.

When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.”

Could he have violated his own rule? Oy! Say it ain’t so, Elwyn.

Desperate, I appealed to a higher court: In Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler seemed to be enjoying poking some fun at journalists:

“The gentlemen of the Press regularly devote a small percentage of their time to accusing each other of mixing metaphors or announcing that they are themselves about to do so … the offence apparently being not to mix them, but to be unaware that you have done it.”

Ironically, White’s mix-up came in middle of a candid confession of his being grammatically challenged.

So, where does that leave us? Do we censure Mr. White, strip him of his rank, and break his sword?…

No sooner than I’d tear down the statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park for the Bard’s splitting an infinitive!

Yes, yes. I know. The Elements of Style is far from holy writ. The
linguirati look down their scholarly knowses at Strunk and White.

Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pulls no punches:

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.”

Could be. But my admiration for Mr. White has more to do with a children’s book about a spider and a pig than with any manual of grammar rules.

Yes, White was wrong. And, yes, much of the advice in the Elements may be wrong. But that still doesn’t diminish his status as a master stylist.

E.B. White was a victim of “Muphry’s Law.”

No, that’s not a typo. It’s an intentional misspelling of the well-known adage called Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

The term Muphry’s Law was coined by John Bangsund, of the Victorian Society of Editors:

“Muphry’s Law dictates that

(a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written;

(b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book;

(c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault;

(d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

Nigel Harding, writing in the Canberra Society of Editors Newsletter, adds, “Muphry’s Law also dictates that, if a mistake is as plain as the nose on your face, everyone can see it but you. Your readers will always notice errors in a title, in headings, in the first paragraph of anything, and in the top lines of a new page. These are the very places where authors, editors and proofreaders are most likely to make mistakes.”

Ben Zimmer points out on Language Log that the concept underlying Muphry’s Law predates John Bangsund. He suggests that perhaps it should really be called “Bierce’s Law,” for Ambrose Bierce who, in 1909, wrote in his introduction to Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults:

“In neither taste nor precision is any man’s practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply (as in making this book it has supplied) many ‘awful examples.’”

There’s a lesson in all of this: Playing in the language league is not for wimps. When you step up to the plate in the words series, you’re playing hardball, kid.

Or, to switch metaphors, if I’m going to have to eat my own words, can I play with my food?


 

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