Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Tolkien, Rowling, and Quotative Inversion

Posted by Neal on August 31, 2007

Yesterday I finished reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to Doug and Adam, and that’s enough Harry Potter for a while. I haven’t decided what we’ll take up next, but I did read them a little bit out of The Hobbit tonight to see how they liked it. We read only five and a half pages, but look what I found:

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. …I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring. (p. 7)

It’s another coordination of two verb phrases, whose parallelism is disturbed by the inversion of the subject and complement of said (that is, our Mr. Baggins and “We are plain….” respectively). If this had been done as a strictly parallel coordination, it could have been a coordination of just verb phrases, with the subject our Mr. Baggins staying politely out of their way at the front of the sentence, like so:

Our Mr. Baggins said, “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. …I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring.

Or it could have been a coordination of two complete clauses. One would have subject Mr. Baggins and verb said; the other would have the subject he and two verbs, stuck and blew, like this:

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. …I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins, and he stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring.

But what Tolkien has opted for is one single subject meant to go with all three verbs, despite its being wrapped up inside the said verb phrase. It grabbed my attention as soon as a read it, as I’d just read through yet another Harry Potter book and not seen any examples of this construction. And that’s not all: I glanced at the last page before closing the book, and there was another one, the very last sentence in the book:

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar. (p. 330)

I did find one strictly parallel coordination involving quotative inversion; here it is:

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. (p. 6)

Unlike the other two, though, the verb phrases here don’t indicate sequential events — first Bilbo said it, then he meant it — the saying and the meaning of it are simultaneous. If Tolkien had written “Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and meant it, then I would have gotten the strange sequential meaning.

By contrast, as I flipped through Prisoner of Azkaban to see if there might have been some non-parallel coordinations with quotative inversion that I’d missed, the first three I found were all constructed strictly parallel:

“Well, get back to your common room where you belong!” snapped Filch, and he stood glaring until Harry had passed out of sight. (p. 153)

“Malfoy is not having hallucinations,” snarled Snape, and he bent down, a hand on each arm of Harry’s chair, so that their faces were a foot apart. (p. 283)

“Hermione!” said Ron weakly [uh-oh, adverb alert], and he tried to grab her hand as she swung it back. (p. 293)

Hastily generalizing from these books and the Beverly Cleary ones I wrote about, I’d say the avoidance of non-parallel coordination where quotative inversion is involved seems to have begun sometime in the past 20 or 30 years. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who finds this topic addressed in English grammar and usage books. (Arnold?)

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3 Responses to “Tolkien, Rowling, and Quotative Inversion”

  1. Ran said

    I think my instinct is slightly different from yours, in that while I accept both constructions in both cases, “‘Good Morning!’ said Bilbo, and meant it” sounds more natural to me, not less, for being a simultaneous rather than sequential coordination.

    By the way, I had a thought regarding an earlier entry of yours that I’m too lazy to track down now: judging by its name, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children agrees with you on the use of “<adjective> and <adjective> <plural noun>” to refer to two distinct (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) groups of <noun>.

  2. Huh! I’m not sure you can conclude anything at all from Tolkien. It seems entirely plausible that he consciously chose his grammar to set the right tone. There’s probably a notebook somewhere with some notes jotted down: “the Shire: bucolic, simple, provincial—quotative inversion in coordinated verb phrases”.

  3. […] from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say […]

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