How to Handle Hubris
By Suzanne E. Rowe
Apolitical candidate claims to engage in “truthful hyperbole.” The candidate explains, “It’s an innocent form of exaggeration.”1
Really? The new term reminded me of Humpty Dumpty telling Alice, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”2
Like Alice, I wonder whether the speaker (or writer) gets to determine what a word will mean. Can “hyperbole” be truthful, or is that just hubris on the part of the candidate? The question led me to the H section of my favorite dictionary,3 where of course I stumbled across a panoply of words that raise questions of writing, grammar and style.
Despite what the candidate had in mind, my dictionary defines hyperbole as “exaggerated statements of claims not meant to be taken literally.” Can a statement be “truthful” at the same time it is “not meant to be taken literally”? Does it matter if the listeners (or voters) do take the exaggerated statement literally?
Given the political season, the word hubris caught my eye. It means “excessive pride or self-confidence,” making it a good word for the season. In Greek tragedies, hubris upset the gods and led to an inescapable downfall. November 2016 is a long time away, leaving ample opportunities for downfall.
The next H word moves us from political style to writing style. The adverb hardly is considered a negative, which limits other words it can hang out with. A sacred rule of English grammar forbids two negatives in one clause. That rule outlaws “I can’t get no satisfaction,” which would combine no (as in “not get”) and no (as in “no satisfaction”). Grammarians would insist on “I can’t get any satisfaction,” not that the Stones or legions of fans would care.
Back to hardly. The rule against two negatives means that “can’t hardly” is illegal because it would combine the negative not with the negative hardly. The correct option is “can hardly,” as in “The law clerks can hardly stand to work with the pompous partner.”
Similarly, hardly can be combined with any (which we’ve agreed is positive) but not with no (which obviously is negative). Defense counsel can brag that the plaintiffs have “hardly any” chance of winning. But it would be a double negative to say “plaintiffs have hardly no chance of winning.”
The same rules hold for cousins of hardly like scarcely and rarely. The correct way to express anticipation would be “I can scarcely wait!”
Hashtag Gets Uppity
This next bit of info is just too fun: The technical name for the symbol # is “octothorp.” What hubris for a little symbol!
The symbol had more lowly uses before it became the famous hashtag on social media. It was called the “number symbol” when it preceded a number and a “pound symbol” when it followed a measure of weight. So the second step for preparing a very rich, very large dessert might be presented this way:
#2 – Cream 2# butter.
In case you have ever wondered why the tic-tac-toe symbol on your phone is called the “pound key,” you now have your answer. It’s from two “pounds” of butter.
Here’s to Legalese
My favorite dictionary doesn’t contain the following advice, but many style guides do. Fancy words starting with “here” sound legalistic and can often be avoided with no loss of anything but hot air. Here are some plain English substitutes:
herein in this document
hereinafter later in this document
hereinbefore earlier in this document
hereof of this document
hereunder as provided by this document
herewith with this document
Note the lovely transformation — from legalese to plain English — in the following sentences:
As stated heretofore herein, an affidavit is attached herewith.
As stated previously in this document, an affidavit is attached.
Heterogeneous vs. Heterogenous
My computer doesn’t even recognize the second of these terms, but that term might appear if you spell the way you talk. Many of us skip the fifth syllable when saying het-er-o-ge-ne-ous. But the resulting word, heterogenous, means “originating outside the organism.” The full, six-syllable word heterogeneous means “diverse in character or content.” My dictionary is smarter than my computer.
He vs. Him
Oh, my! The grammar gods are wailing! In one generation, we’ve gone from clear rules to total chaos. I frequently hear “Him and Mike will argue the case” followed immediately by “Our assistants should bring the supporting documents to he and I.” Another increasingly familiar abomination is “Me and himwent to law school together.” Where to begin?
Let’s start with pronouns, then move to manners. English is filled with pronouns (i.e., words that can replace nouns) of various types. The culprits in the sentences above come from two types of pronouns: subject pronouns and object pronouns. Subject pronouns are those that do stuff, while object pronouns have stuff done to them. Subject pronouns get to be the subjects of sentences, but object pronouns are relegated to being objects of verbs or prepositions.
He, she and I are subject pronouns. Each one could begin the sentence “___ will argue the case.”
Him, her and me are object pronouns. Each one could end the sentence “Hand the documents to ___.”
Most of us get simple sentences like those correct, at least most of the time. But when other people join the action or become objects, we get confused. So, even though we wouldn’t say “Him will argue the case,” we slip and say “Him and Mike will argue the case.” And while we would never say “Give the briefs to he,” we feel okay with “Give the briefs to he and I.”
When in doubt, try the simpler version. Then add the second person. You’ll get the pronouns right, at least most of the time.
And now manners. When you’re talking about yourself and another person, be nice and put the other person first. The following sentence fails both on grammar and on manners. “Me and him went to law school together.” Instead, it should be “He and I went to law school together.”
(Note: I less often hear the subject pronoun “she” and the object pronoun “her” confused. Maybe the male pronouns both starting with H causes the confusion.)
Hoi Polloi and Hoity-Toity
While we are on the topic of people, who are the “hoi polloi”? In Greek, the term literally means “the masses.” In English, the “hoi polloi” are the common people. Interestingly, some writers assume the opposite meaning, thinking the “hoi polloi” are the upper crust — the 1 percent. One possible reason is that “hoi polloi” kind of, sort of sounds like “hoity-toity,” which means “haughty.” And maybe we assume the one percent are haughty while common people aren’t.
The act of moving toward a target is “homing in on” not “honing in on.” This mistake might result from crossing the wires that tell us “to hone” is “to sharpen.” But “homing in on” doesn’t mean sharpening the target but getting closer to it. “Homing in on” a place gets you closer to “home,” or for baseball fans to “home plate.”
Several sources in addition to my favorite dictionary point out that one-third of us incorrectly use honing in. Either that third will realize its error and adopt the correct homing in, or in 20 years someone will write an article explaining that the two have become synonyms.
A space can make a big difference, as in however versus how ever. The adverb however means “in whatever way; regardless of how.” With the space, there’s a question of “how” plus an intensifier “ever.” Compare these two sentences:
However you made the cookies, they were delicious.
How ever did you make the cookies?
In the first sentence, the writer doesn’t care how you made the cookies. They taste great, and the reader hopes to eat lots of them without analyzing any recipes.
In the second sentence, the writer truly wants to know how to make the cookies, perhaps angling for your grandmother’s secret recipe.
Spelling is the challenge here. I always reverse the “e” and “u,” and then I ignore the squiggly red line telling me to check the spelling. My failure is especially disappointing given that “heuristic” means “enabling a person to learn something for herself,” but I haven’t been able to learn the spelling of this word.
Hyperbola vs. Hyperbole
We end with a close approximation of the word that got us started. In math, hyperbolas are those lovely pairs of curves that result when two cones intersect with a plane. There’s no hyperbole in that.
Back to our political candidate. Can words mean whatever we want them to mean? Is grammar going out of fashion?
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”4
1. Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal (1987), quoted in Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated”The New Yorker p.50 (Aug. 31, 2015).
2. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (2003), quoted on goodreads.com.
3. The New Oxford American Dictionary (3d ed. 2010), quoted frequently in this article.
4. Lewis Carroll, supra.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the legal research and writing program..
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2015 Suzanne E. Rowe