Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Harry Potter Grammar

Posted by Neal on August 7, 2007

There! I’ve finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, including the epilogue. You won’t get any spoilers from me, unless you wanted to find out for yourself that J.K. Rowling still makes all her interactions of coordination with quotative inversion strictly parallel (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In the whole book, I don’t remember coming across any sentences like, “It’s me,” said Harry, and walked in, and I’m pretty aware of them now. She always diligently puts in the subject of the second verb phrase — “It’s me,” said Harry, and he walked in — so that it becomes a parallel coordination of two entire clauses.

On a matter of morphology, who notices the nonstandard(?) grammar in Harry must defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Q-Pheevr does!

As for dialectal variation between British and American English, I remember that the first Harry Potter book referred to “boogers” twice: once regarding Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavor Beans, and another time regarding the end of a wand that had been jammed up a troll’s nose. In the movie version, it was “bogies,” which was my first clue that this lexical variation existed. In Deathly Hallows, though, the American publishers don’t bother changing it anymore: It’s bogies. I wonder if the British also use this term to refer to over-par golfing, or suspicious items on a radar screen.

And now here’s a bit that fits right in with my last few posts, where a coordination of dissimilar things forces a word to be parsed in two ways. This is a spoiler only if you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. On p. 437, Rowling writes:

…every place that they knew Tom Riddle had ever lived or worked, visited or murdered, Ron and Hermione raked over them again….

Let’s take the coordination piece by piece. First, we have:

every place that they knew T.R. had ever lived

There’s an in missing from the end there, but it’s OK: place is one of the special “adverbial nouns” that lets let you do this. You can’t do it with just any noun; *every apartment that they knew T.R. had ever lived doesn’t work, at least not for me. For location nouns, this behavior is mostly restricted to place, although every now and then I’ll be surprised to see it happen with another one, like spot. OK, moving on:

every place that they knew T.R. had ever worked

Again, place is acting as an adverbial noun, supplying the understood in part of the meaning itself. Next:

every place that they knew T.R. had ever visited

Now place is just an ordinary noun, filling the direct object slot for visited. *Every place that they knew T.R. had ever visited in is no good. And lastly:

every place that they knew T.R. had ever murdered

This one is ambiguous. Taking murdered as a transitive verb, place has to be an ordinary noun, filling in the direct object slot, requiring us to go along with the strange notion that places can be murdered. Having read the books, however, I am confident that murdered is intended to be parsed as an intransitive (with an understood unspecified object: someone or people). In that case, place is once again acting as an adverbial noun, giving us the meaning, “every place in which T.R. ever murdered (anyone).” Even so, when I read the sentence, I was fine with the jump from adverbial place to ordinary place after the comma break, but wanted to take both visited and murdered as transitive verbs.

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7 Responses to “More Harry Potter Grammar”

  1. nice blog… but hard to read man!

  2. Andrew said

    What about her crazy use of colon? I’ve never seen someone end a sentence with one. As you haven’t mentioned it I’m assuming it’s grammatically kosher. How should I interpret a colon ending a sentence?

  3. Neal said

    Thanks, Anton. Sorry if it’s dense sometimes.

    Andrew: I haven’t noticed this. Can you give me an example?

  4. James said

    Being a fan of grammar, I’ve found your comments here pretty enchanting. Nevertheless, there’s something I feel obliged to point out: you said, ‘place is one of the special “adverbial nouns” that lets you do this’. Oughtn’t it to be changed to ‘that let you do this’? I mean, I reckon that the clause refers to ‘adverbial nouns’, and so it would be incorrect to use the verb ‘let’ as though it were referring to ‘one’ above. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s the way I see it. Please write back to give your view.

  5. Neal said

    D’oh! I missed that. Yes, I intended the relative clause to modify ‘adverbial nouns’, not ‘one’, so it should be ‘let’.

  6. [...] the unusual (for J. K. Rowling) construction she used in these passages. Follow the last link and this one to see what I’m talking [...]

  7. […] an example of place used as both an adverbial noun and an ordinary noun simultaneously, see this post about Harry Potter and the Deathly […]

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