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Take My Word!

Happily Splitting the Adverbial Hairs

August 22, 1986|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

As a rule, I like people who give some thought to language--people who treat words and their functions with respect. I don't have to agree with them, but I like their caring, and I respect their respect. Take Janice K. Maslow of North Hollywood, for instance.

In the column that appeared under this heading on July 2, I mentioned that a friend had told me about a restaurant called the Old England Pizzeria. I said the Old England Pizzeria put me in mind of a kosher pizzeria here called the Kosher Nostra. I then wrote: "My mental football having bounced, not surprisingly, from the Old England Pizzeria to the Kosher Nostra, I next traveled across the country . . . inside my head to a kosher Chinese restaurant in New York . . . called . . . the Moishe Peking."

Ms. Maslow wrote to take exception to my use of not surprisingly : "I was surprised at your use of that expression. . . . We were told that adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs," she said. (I feel certain that she simply forgot to mention that adverbs usually modify verbs). "Then, at one point," she continued, ". . . it became accepted that putting an adverb at the beginning . . . modified the whole sentence . . . this usage opened up a whole can of worms and people began throwing adverbs around carelessly. Hopefully, More importantly, etc. These adverbs just dangle . . . and are unrelated to any element in the sentence. . . . I had a run-in with Jack Smith. . . . He had written: 'The house stands happily in the same spot . . .' I tried to convince him that the house could not stand happily, but he would have none of it. He still uses similar phrases. . . . It is obvious that Mr. Smith did not mean that the house was happy; but who was happy was unclear. If he meant he was happy, he should have said so.

"So how can your mental football bounce in a not surprising manner? What you meant was that it was not surprising . . . that your mental football bounced."

The crux of this whole can of worms is, I think, Ms. Maslow's longing for logic in language--a longing shared by a multitude, but one not always satisfied. Language is often logical, but it is also frequently illogical. If logic is what we strive for, I believe we can usually succeed by choosing our words with an eye and an ear to logic and precision, but in so doing we run the risk of being graceless and pedantic. Ms. Maslow's objections provide excellent examples of the logic-vs.-grace problem.

Let's get my not surprisingly out of the way first: I think this one poses no problem at all, being grammatical, logical and graceful (if you accept my image of a bouncing mental football as having grace). I could have written, "My mental football bounced, not surprisingly, from the Old England Pizzeria to Philadelphia and the 1945 Army-Navy football game," but in that sentence, the direction of the bounce is quite inexplicable, and "not surprisingly" would have been absurd. While my bounce from the Old England Pizzeria to the Kosher Nostra was not entirely predictable, it was surely not surprising. The ball bounced in an unsurprising direction; ergo, not surprisingly.

Ms. Maslow's dislike of Jack Smith's happily and the dangling hopefully and more importantly raise the question of logic and grace in an exemplary fashion. Smith's use of happily meaning, I assume, fortunately or perhaps aptly or fitly is by now standard English, having been used in those senses since about the 14th Century. He didn't have to mean that the house was happy. The language is full of similar "illogicalities": "His proudest possession is a 1935 Rolls-Royce" doesn't mean that the car feels proud; nor does "a humble shack by the wayside" mean that the shack feels meekness or modesty of spirit. Illogical, perhaps; graceless, no.

As for "hopefully" in the sense of "it is to be hoped," I don't like it, I wince slightly when I hear it, and I've never used it. But I think we fight it in vain, because it fills a need, and, more important, because it is used constantly by an overwhelming number of people, many of them well-educated and articulate.

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