Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Coordination and Quotative Inversion Meet Again

Posted by Neal on December 13, 2006

I’ve been reading another book by Beverly Cleary to Doug and Adam. This one is Muggie Maggie, which was published in 1990. As I read it, every now and then I notice a sentence that, although perfectly good standard English, strikes me as unusual style for Cleary. Finally, I decided I had to go through the whole book and find all these sentences. Luckily, the story is only 70 pages, so within ten minutes I had picked out:

  1. “Many letters start up slowly, just like a roller coaster, and then drop down,” she said, and she traced over the first stroke of each letter with colored chalk. (14)
  2. “Today we practice our signatures,” she said, and she looked at Maggie. (32)
  3. “Well, it’s wrong,” she said, and she sighed so hard that Kisser looked anxious. (61)
  4. I will not enjoy it, thought Maggie, and she said, “All those loops and squiggles. I don’t think I’ll do it.” (8-9)
  5. “Oops,” said Mr. Schultz, and he closed his loops. (20)
  6. “Good for you, Goldilocks,” said her father, and he rumpled her hair. (43)

Now, compare those sentences with these, from a post from back in June. These are from Cleary’s Henry and Ribsy, published in 1954:

  1. “Boy, is he mad about something!” he exclaimed, and ran over to the driveway. (46)
  2. “Wuf,” he said mildly, and waited patiently while Beezus frantically pried Ramona’s fingers loose from his tail. (64)
  3. “Hi,” she answered, and entered the kitchen with her arms full of packages. (73)
  4. “Ow,” he exclaimed, and pulled away. (78)
  5. “Wuf!” he said, and looked hungrily at the lunch box. (129)
  6. Come on, salmon, bite, he thought, and tossed out his line.
  7. “I won’t,” promised Henry, and got back into the car. (15-17)
  8. “I have come to haunt you,” said Henry in his hollow voice, and let out a groan. (19)
  9. “I just stepped into the market to buy a pint of milk to drink with my lunch,” began the officer, and went on to explain what had happened. (30)
  10. “Wuf,” said Ribsy, and went to the refrigerator to show that what he really wanted was another piece of horse meat. (37)
  11. “Day in and day out,” said Mrs. Huggins, and laughed. (39)
  12. “Aw, keep quiet,” answered Henry, and grinned. (70)
  13. “Oh, it’s nothing,” said Henry modestly, and bared his teeth. (90)
  14. “Ribsy!” yelled Henry, and grabbed his dog by the collar. (94)
  15. “Try and get it,” taunted Scooter, and began to laugh. (96)
  16. “I wonder if…” began Mrs. Huggins and paused. (100)
  17. “O.K., you old dog,” muttered Henry, and steeled himself for the meeting with Scooter and Robert. (103)
  18. “Good old Ribsy,” said Henry, and hugged him. (111)
  19. “Wuf,” answered Ribsy, and worried the rope. (112)
  20. “Better not count on it,” said Mr. Grumbie, and yawned. (148)
  21. “Don’t lean out,” said Mr. Huggins sharply, and rewound the rope. (167)

See the difference? In H&R, whenever (1) Cleary uses and to indicate a sequence of two events; (2) the verbs for each event have the same subject; and (3) the first event is one of speech or thought, Cleary regularly omits the subject for the second verb. Thus for example, “Boy, is he mad about something!” he exclaimed, and ran over to the driveway, and not “Boy, is he mad about something!” he exclaimed, and he ran over to the driveway. In the whole book, you will not find a sentence like that. In MM, however, a book half the length of H&R, there are the six such sentences reported above. Moreover, there is not a single instance of Cleary omitting the subject for the second verb when the three conditions are met.

What happened between 1954 and 1990 to cause such a complete flip-flop? My guess is that a prescriptive grammarian got to her, and convinced her that the non-parallelism of “Ow,” he exclaimed, and pulled away was ungrammatical (unlike the non-parallelism of, say, John came early, and Marsha, late). All you linguists out there reading books by Beverly Cleary, check out how she handles sentences like these. With enough books for data points, we can answer important questions such as: When did the switch occur? Was it gradual? Has she alternated between styles over the years? Hey, we could make this the Beverly Cleary meme! On second thought, let’s not. If I launched a meme, then I’d feel guilty about ignoring memes I get tagged with.

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2 Responses to “Coordination and Quotative Inversion Meet Again”

  1. Bob said

    You’re missing the obvious answer: SOMEONE OTHER THAN BEVERLY wrote the later books. Oh, he or she was crafty, all right … the style is so close, everyone has missed it. UNTIL NOW. Folks, we have a genuine Literary Mystery on our hands: who wrote “Mugging Maggie”?!?!?

  2. Tony said

    You’re both jumping to conclusoins. The most likely answer is, Ms. Cleary wrote the book and then a copy editor dumbed it down. Yup, that kind of consistency and small-mindedness is definitely the mark of a pro. Call up the publisher and ask who was responsible for munging Maggie.

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