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Lex Hartmania

On the first of February last, Your Humble Blogger sent an email to Mark Liberman, of Language Log, in which I referred to Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation. Prof. Liberman made mention of it in a post two months later, as noted in this Tohu Bohu. I failed to notice, thereafter, that the post had been updated, to make note of two others who claimed the law in 1999. Verbatim editor Erim McKean, in the Summer of 1999, wrote “Call it McKean's Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.” A trifle earlier, that is, on April 26, someone calling himself Perchprism wrote, in response to someone calling himself Skitt “You've entered my vocabulary: Skitt's Law, a corollary of Murphy's Law, variously expressed as "any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself" or "the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster."” Evidently, this is fairly well known in the alt.usage.english community; it’s made it into wikipedia.

Digression: I note that Perchprism, or somebody using the same name, is a poster on the Little Green Footballs site, where posted under that name are such charming sentiments as “I want to see Islam destroyed. I want to see Medina and Mecca nuked. Islam is not a religion--it is a political cult.” As Perchprism is, I think, a Gormenghast character, it is perfectly possible that the Perchprism of LGF is not the Perchprism of AUE, and besides his political and theological opinions would not invalidate the formation of the Law in question. End Digression.

Anyway, Jed’s formulation predates either of those, but I don’t suppose that Jed was the first to think of it, nor do I suppose that Jed supposes that. Jesse Taylor at Pandagon formulated it four and a half years later, and I don’t imagine that Mr. Taylor was copying, either intentionally or unintentionally. Nothing here smacks of plagiarism.

No, the question here is twofold: what should we call the Law, and how should it be formulated. I would have said that the canonical formulation was the one Jed used: any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror. Angelo Mercado at Sauvage Noble, however, calls it Lex Hartmania McCeania Scittiaque de talione ex grammaticism and formulates it thusly:

Qui/ae de regulis grammaticorum vel interpunctionis vel scriptionis monet, ipse/a caveat ne simile eret.

Let him/her who warns about rules of grammar or punctuation or writing him/herself beware lest s/he similarly er.

This brings up an important point: translating the translation back into a style more identifiably Jedish, we begin “If ta warns about rules of grammar, punctuation or writing, ta is bound to er taself.” Taself? Is there a reflexive declension of ta? Anyway, as appealing as the latin formation is, I think it misses the point: it is not that the prescriptivist will eventually er, which all prescriptivists must admit, it is that the piece of writing itself will contain erors. Erata. Thus the wikipedia formulation of Skitt’s Law: “Spelling or grammar flames always contain spelling or grammar errors”. This is appealing, and yet ... it is not just the flames that Hartman’s Law invokes, but the learned and rambling essays, the helpful note, the cogent analysis.

As for what to call it, using Google to indicate the spread of a phrase might actually be useful here, since we are dealing with such small numbers. “Hartman’s Law” gets about 44 ghits, but spreading, as “Hartman’s Law confirmed” gets about 22, all of course in the last month. “Skitt’s Law” gets 98 ghits, handily beating my host, while “McKean’s Law” gets only nine. I suspect that searching the usenet rather than the web would verify that it is known as Skitt’s Law most widely. Should we, then accept that it is Skitt’s Law? Skitt himself, of course, denies having formulated it, but that’s neither here nor there. I myself would prefer my friend and host achieve immortality through the law, although I must admit the step in between “widespread use of and familiarity with Hartman’s Law under that name” and “valuable cash and prizes for Your Humble Blogger” seems a bit difficult. On the whole, I would accept that it be called Skitt’s Law, but that Jed’s formulation be canonical. I suppose the only way to really solve the matter would be for Jed, Skitt and Ms. McKean to be locked in a steel cage to battle until only one survived. And yet, where would we find a steel cage at this time of day?

All of which takes the place of adding pants to song lyrics, or for that matter, doing any of the things I ought to be doing.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,