As Had They Their Forebears.

I’m reading Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, by Francis W. Wcislo, which is irritatingly written (e.g., frequently referring to late-nineteenth-century Russians as “Victorians”), though it presents a great deal of interesting material (e.g., the rich widow Anna Rodionovna Chernyshova, godmother to both Emperor Alexander I and Witte’s grandmother Elena Dolgorukaya-Fadeeva, allowed no men on her rural estate, so that when Dolgorukaya-Fadeeva visited in 1816 she had to leave her husband outside the gates); I just hit a sentence so tortured I thought I’d post it and see if anyone can make more sense of it than I:

[Witte’s] emergent sensibilities for the hierarchical order of a world shaped by service and patronage would have pleased both grandparents, but much else in their grandson they would have found inchoate, even incomprehensible, as, in their turn, had they their Muscovite forebears.

Does he mean the grandparents found their Muscovite forebears incomprehensible, or their Muscovite forebears would have found them incomprehensible, or what?

Comments

  1. It looks like he’s going for the latter, logical structure-wise, but accidentally wrote the former because he got tangled up in his own syntactical brambles?

  2. Yes, “in turn” makes no sense for the former, but the syntax doesn’t work at all for the latter.

  3. much else in their[1] grandson[2] they[1] would have found inchoate, even incomprehensible, as, in their[?] turn, had they[?] their[1] Muscovite forebears[3]

    ==>

    they[1] would have found much else in their[1] grandson[2] incomprehensible, as their[1] Muscovite forebears[3] would have found in them[1].

  4. J. W. Brewer says:

    This almost reads as if it had been google-translated into some other language before being google-translated again back into English.

  5. The only halfway-sensible interpretation of the sentence is “Witte’s grandparents would have found almost everything about him except [] inchoate, even incomprehensible, and in turn their Muscovite forebears had found them inchoate, even incomprehensible;” but the author mistakenly wrote “they” instead of “them” in the second clause, becoming lost among twisted word order and incomplete paralellisms. Furthermore, how does “incomprehensible” constitute an extension of the meaning of “inchoate” (i.e. not yet formed)? What exactly are “sensitivites for… hierarchical order”? You truly have my sympathy if you intend to struggle through a volume of this writing.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    Like Vasha, I found “sensibilities for” in the sense presumably intended here (meaning something like a sensibility not only recognizing but appreciating/favoring) a bit jarring and unidiomatic, not least because “for” seems like the wrong preposition. The parallel to, e.g. the perfectly idiomatic “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin” seems obscure and imperfect.

  7. I think the second instance of they should be dropped, leading to the reading “[M]uch else in their grandson they would have found inchoate, even incomprehensible, as, in their turn, had their Muscovite forebears [found many things inchoate/incomprehensible in Witte’s grandparents].” As for inchoate, it is probably being used in the more recent sense of ‘chaotic, disordered, confused’ rather than the etymological sense of ‘not yet fully formed’: see the Wordnik definitions.

  8. I always get my forbears and my hindbears mixed up.

  9. I think the second instance of they should be dropped, leading to the reading “[M]uch else in their grandson they would have found inchoate, even incomprehensible, as, in their turn, had their Muscovite forebears [found many things inchoate/incomprehensible in Witte’s grandparents].”

    Except their Muscovite forebears never knew Witte’s grandparents, so you have to incorporate another “would have.”

  10. The end would sound a lot better as “… had their Muscovite forebears found them.” Also, the use of “sensibilities for” struck me as odd but not ungrammatical.

    However, what really brought be me up short was the use of “inchoate,” which I found incomprehensible in this context. I looked in the OED to see whether there was a secondary sense of the word of which I was unaware, and it turns out there is one listed. The 1993 draft revision gives: “Chaotic, disordered, confused; also, incoherent, rambling,” which seems to fit the intended meaning in this sentence. However, this sense is marked as “Often regarded as unetymologically developed through confusion with chaotic adj. 2, though perhaps better explained as a regular development from ‘undeveloped’ to ‘lacking structure’.” I suppose that I have actually encountered this meaning before, but I probably judged it an error. Even now, using this sense of “inchoate” strikes me as a poor choice.

  11. And how is the author’s name pronounced?

  12. Even now, using this sense of “inchoate” strikes me as a poor choice.

    I agree.

    And how is the author’s name pronounced?

    An excellent question to which I do not have an answer.

  13. Huh. I’d never have guessed, but it’s WICE-low.

  14. Witte’s grandparents seem the fulcrum here: they would have found their descendant(s) and actually found their ancestors incomprehensible and inchoate. “In turn” is baffling though.

  15. This smells like a sentence “corrected” into obscurity by the editor.

  16. “… had their Muscovite forebears found them.”

    As His Hatness says, it has to be “would have found them”, since it’s hypothetical.

    the fulcrum

    No, the “in turn” tells us that it’s a slide (inclined plane), not a see-saw (lever): the forebears would not have understood Witte’s grandparents, and they would not have understood Witte.

  17. Bathrobe says:

    Immediately after Big Bang the Universe was inchoate. Now it’s just incomprehensible.

  18. La Horde Listener says:

    These kids today…all a bunch of bums…barely a single redeeming quality among ’em… “I’m giving you little punks five seconds to get off my lawn!”

  19. I wonder if that last part is an improperly fixed ex-passive (“… as, in their turn, had they BEEN BY their Muscovite forebears”) – perhaps that whole second part of the sentence began its life in passive form (“but much else in their grandson would have been found [etc.] by them…”), and then when the whole thing got rewritten to active the second half ended up mangled.

  20. @John Cowan: The easiest way to correct this sentence is to remove “in turn.” We’ll be left with a hypothetical (Witte’s grandparents probably did not live to witness the full extent of his inchoateness) and a past-perfect factual (even before he was born, Witte’s grandparents surely had known enough about their ancestors to judge them). I strongly doubt that’s what the author meant to say though.

  21. “Forebears” always gives me the idea that someone is claiming ursine ancestry, like Beorn in The Hobbits.

  22. Does Oxford University Press no longer employ copy-editors, subeditors, relecteurs, or whatever they call them there, to deal with such problems (and even the “Victorian Russian” problem) before the book reaches its readers?

  23. Sure. Only they made the big mistake of not sending this book to the relecteur nonpareil, the Hat!

  24. I’m afraid even university presses take the attitude that responsibility for errors is entirely on the author, and they discourage copyeditors from bothering their heads about anything beyond spelling, grammar, and adherence to the press’s style guide; I do the rest entirely on my own hook.

  25. As DeMarco and Lister said in Peopleware, craftsmen left to themselves will always deliver a product of much higher quality than the market demands. Holding their toes to the fire demoralizes them and ends up with a collapse of quality in the long run.

  26. Huh. I’d never have guessed, but it’s WICE-low.

    What would his Polish forebears have thought of that pronunciation?

    (I assume they’d have preferred /’ftɕi.swɔ/…)

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