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"I know that," said Professor McGonagall irritably. "But that's no reason to lose our heads. People are being downright careless, out on the streets in broad daylight, not even dressed in Muggle clothes, swapping rumors."

She threw a sharp, sideways glance at Dumbledore here, as though hoping he was going to tell her something, but he didn't, so she went on. "A fine thing it would be if, on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last, the Muggles found out about us all. I suppose he really has gone, Dumbledore?"

This is from the book Harry Potter. I'm confused by the sentence in bold. I don't know what "A fine thing" here is really referring to? Is it "on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last" or "the Muggles found out about us all"?

I am not sure how to understand the sentence correctly?

My best attempt is:

It would be a fine thing if the Muggles found out about us all, and on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last.

But it sounds like two fine things, not a fine thing. And it seems to me that it's an ironical sentence.

6

You can reword it thus:

It would be a fine thing if the Muggles found out about us all (when) on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last.

There's only one "fine thing" to speak of - the Muggles finding out about us all.

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    I can see where the use of "a fine thing it would be" would be confusing to learners. You might want to edit your question and expound on that a little more. – J.R. Sep 6 '18 at 11:17
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    In agreement with J.R., the only thing I'd add to this answer would be a confirmation that, indeed, "a fine thing" is meant ironically. It does seem the author may have deliberately juxtaposed this ironically "fine" thing with a genuinely fine thing, you-know-who's disappearance, but this answer is correct IMO in pointing out that there is only one actual referent of "fine thing". – Darren Ringer Sep 6 '18 at 12:44
7

You are probably familiar with sentences that begin with It. For example:

It would be a surprise to find a lot of rust on a brand new car.

where "It" => "to find a lot of rust on a brand new car".

By beginning the sentence with "A surprise" we can further emphasize how surprising it would be for a new car to have a lot of rust:

A surprise it would be to find a lot of rust on a brand new car.

This rhetorical strategy is used more often in writing than in speech but it is not exclusive to literature by any means.

In your sentence, "a fine thing" is moved to the front of the clause for such emphasis, but the phrase is being used sarcastically, as you say. It is analogous to:

A delightful thing it would be to find a lot of rust on a brand new car.

Compare:

Mr Jones, I'm sorry to tell you but your 2018 Wizmobile won't pass state inspection. There's a large amount of rust in the right rear wheel-well, and there is a fairly large hole through which exhaust gases can make their way into the passenger cabin.

-- How delightful!

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    I like this is answer, but I think 'a fine thing it would be' is a bit of a set-phrase. Or, at least, if it's not a set-phrase, it's certainly something you hear and would say. 'A surprise it would be' just sounds awkward. I also think the sarcasm that you pick up on is important. 'A fine thing it would be' is indeed sarcastic here and I reckon I'd only use it to be sarcastic. The problem with 'a surprise it would be' might also be that it isn't sarcastic – Au101 Sep 6 '18 at 15:14
  • @Au101: I didn't say that "a surprise" was sarcastic. I said delightful was sarcastic. A fine thing is not always sarcastic. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 6 '18 at 15:20
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    Sorry, maybe I didn't express myself well enough. I think "a fine thing it would be if ..." is something I would use from time to time, but I would probably only use it to be sarcastic. "A fine thing it would be to go to the park today" is fine, but I would agree that's the kind of rhetorical strategy I might use in writing, but would never say. But I might well say "a fine thing it would be if, on the very day we were awarded our Michelin star, the health inspectors found rat droppings in the kitchen!" – Au101 Sep 6 '18 at 15:28
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    To me at least, "a fine thing it would be if ..." is a perfectly normal kind of start to a sarcastic sentence. The issue I have with this answer is it makes it sound like "a fine thing it would be if ..." is similar to "a surprise it would be ..." in terms of naturalness and awkwardness. And I don't agree. I think 'a fine thing it would be if ...' is something that people quite often say, whereas 'a surprise it would be' isn't, in my opinion. What I meant is I think you can use 'a fine thing it would be' in sarcastic utterance, but 'a surprise it would be' isn't sarcastic so ... – Au101 Sep 6 '18 at 15:31
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    @Au101: I think I know what you meant now. "A fine" + something-or-other is a collocation that is used with exclamations. A fine mess we're in now. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 6 '18 at 16:37
5

This is actually quite a complex sentence, but you seem to have mostly grasped it.

The main thing you are confused about is whether the "fine thing" is the disappearance of You-Know-Who or the muggles finding out about us. This is resolved by realising that "on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last" is a parenthetical phrase. That's why it's between two commas. If you remove that phrase the sentence still makes sense (though it loses its implication). That means the "fine thing" must be the Muggles finding out about us.

One reason that the sentence is hard to understand is that the start of it "A fine thing it would be" reverses the normal word order of English. I believe this is an example of anastrophe or possibly hyperbaton. I'm not particularly familiar with the technical description of it, but here the change in word order doesn't change the meaning, but instead emphasises the "A fine thing" part.

The reason this emphasis is important is, as you have noted, the use is ironic, so it makes the irony more prominent. It doesn't quite have the same punch if you say "It would be a fine thing if the Muggles found out about us all on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last". And McGonagall does seem to have a talent for turns of phrase.

  • If by complex you mean convoluted, absolutely. – Anthony Sep 6 '18 at 15:36
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    @Anthony I don't understand why you think this is a "clunky" or "convoluted" sentence. Sure, it's not something you would expect to meet in an "English 101" course, but there is nothing wrong with it at all, given the context that it is being spoken by one well-educated person to another. Sorry, but English schoolteachers of a certain age do talk like that! – alephzero Sep 6 '18 at 20:12
  • I have an English degree, a rhetoric degree, and lurk on an English Language SO for fun. Just because someone might say something with marbles in their mouth in real time doesn't make it good writing. The OP was confused, and the reason why is obvious: the sentence is clunky. It doesn't sound natural, nor does it clearly convey what the character is trying to say and their tone while saying it. Plus, it isn't clear from the provided paragraph why it would be especially more tragic/urgent if muggles found out of their existence the same day as *** disappeared at last. – Anthony Sep 6 '18 at 20:26
  • Does she mean "wouldn't that suck, when we finally got rid of ****, we got an even bigger problem dropped in our lap of muggles learning of our existence?" Or does she mean "the muggles learning of our existence would be 10 times worse if it were to happen after vanquishing ***"? The sentiment isn't clear, making the object of "a fine thing it would be" even less clear. – Anthony Sep 6 '18 at 20:30
  • @Anthony Complex? Absolutely. Convoluted? Somewhat. Clunky or unnatural? Not at all! As was mentioned in another comment "A fine [X]" is a pretty common way to start a sarcastic exclamation, and parenthetical statements are pretty common even in spoken word. In addition, I think McGonagall's construction makes the tone a lot more clear than the fairly flat "It would be a fine thing if the Muggles found out about us all on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last" (Which also doesn't convey why, or if at all, this makes it worse rather than just ironic). – Michael Ferguson Sep 7 '18 at 0:20
4

Your rewording is correct and preserves the surface meaning of the sentence:

It would be a fine thing if the Muggles found out about us all, and on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last.

As others have noted (but for me not combined clearly) "the Muggles found out about us all" is the "fine thing" the sentence is about. The second part of the sentence is about something good happening, and the first part of the sentence is about something bad happening, so it seems a bit backwards. This is because the phrase, "It would be a fine thing..." here is being used sarcastically. That means it would actually be bad.

So let's reword again:

It would be terrible if the Muggles found out about us all, and on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last.

So it would be bad for the Muggles to find out, but what about the second part that actually is a good thing? A terrible thing happening at the same time a great thing happens is even more tragic because of the great thing happening. Sometimes this is irony, and sometimes it's called irony when it's not really irony. An example of this kind of irony is the song "Ironic" by Alanis Morisette. One of the lines from the song is, "An old man turned 98/He won the lottery and died the next day". Something bad happened to him (he died) right after something good happened to him (he won the lottery). That juxtaposition makes the whole situation more tragic (to most people).

Another example similar to the sentence you are asking about is the common phrase, "Out of the frying pan and into the fire." That saying is sometimes used by people when they escape from or resolve some bad situation and then end up in an even worse situation right away. Getting out of a hot frying pan is good, but not if you fall right into the even hotter fire. One implication is that maybe it would have been better to just stay in the frying pan and deal with that.

So let's reword the sentence again:

It would be a terrible thing if the Muggles found out about us all. And it would be so tragic for that to happen on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last.

So it's really about having something very good happen (Voldemort is gone for good) and then something very bad happening (the Muggles find out). And it's also implied that it would be best if nothing had changed. In other worse, it might be better for Voldemort to still be around and the Muggles to still have no idea that magic is real than for reverse to be true.

This is connected to another idea, which is the belief that when something really good happens, everyone should be especially careful to not let anything bad happen at the same time. This is because it seems like when something really good happens to people, they relax and get careless and might accidentally cause something terrible to happen, which is exactly what McGonagall is concerned about.

1

The phrase "on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last" is a prepositional phrase that modifies the main clause. It acts as an adverb modifying the verb "found out"; it describes the manner/timing of that event. So the "thing" is the entire rest of the sentence: "the Muggles found out about us all on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last". So the literal meaning (that is, putting aside sarcasm), is that those two events happening on the same day would, together, be a fine thing. That is, neither individually is asserted to be a fine thing, but the fact that they are happening on the same day would be.

1

Q: What is the thing in:

"A fine thing it would be if, on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last, the Muggles found out about us all."

A: It is the event that

"On the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last, the Muggles found out about us all."

It may become clearer if you shuffle that around a bit to arrive at

"The Muggles found out about us all on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last"

In conclusion the fine thing is both of these big events happening on the very same day.

  • It would be more clear to me if it added "when", like "on the very day when You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last" – dan Sep 6 '18 at 15:44
  • Hi @dan, I think that J. K. Rowling did not write that "when", because that part has already happened, and that day is in fact today, as opposed to a day in the past that we are learning a second interesting fact about. – hkBst Sep 6 '18 at 16:14
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I think you have to know that the word "fine" has another meaning here, it means like "penalty" or "compensation" so we read the sentence by this mean again: a compensation it would be if, on the very day you know who seems to have disapeared at last, the muggles found out about us all.

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