Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Away to the Window I Flew, Tore, and Threw

Posted by Neal on December 23, 2009

I’ve written about “The Night Before Christmas” (the poem formerly known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) a couple of times before. Once it was to untangle the dense syntax of As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, so up to the housetop his coursers they flew, with a sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too. The other time, it was on the nonparallel coordination (a multiple-level coordination, in fact, like the ones in my last post) He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. Now I’ve noticed another nonparallel coordination in this poem, in a line that’s usually more noted for the ambiguity of throw up:

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

I’ve heard stories where kids replace sash with hash. Or, which is probably more common these days, when both sash and hash are unfamiliar to kids, they just assume that sash must be some kind of food.

I want to look at just away to the window I flew like a flash. If we put the prepositional phrase away to the window in the more usual position for a verbal modifier, it would go after the verb, like one of these:

I flew away to the window like a flash.
I flew like a flash away to the window.

And if we took the verb phrase in one of those sentences, and coordinated it with the other two verb phrases, we’d have something like this (where I’ve give each verb phrase a different color)

I flew like a flash away to the window, tore open the curtains, and threw up the sash.

This would be a perfectly parallel coordination of three verb phrases. But of course, that’s not what Clement C. Moore (or maybe Henry Livingston) wrote. He moved the away to the window to the front of the sentence for metrical and stylistic reasons. The trouble is, now there’s a subject, I, in between away to the window and the verb phrase it modifies. As a result, away to the window is now in a syntactic position to take scope over not just one verb phrase, flew like a flash, but to an entire clause, consisting of the subject I, and its triple-barreled predicate flew like a flash, tore open the curtains, and threw up the sash. If we were to parse this in unwavering parallel fashion, it would mean that:

  1. I flew like a flash away to the window.
  2. *I tore open the curtains away from the window.
  3. *I threw up the sash away to the window.

Since the last two items aren’t even grammatical, much less interpretable, I take the non-parallel parse to be the correct one. It’s like my other Christmas-related example of adverbial fronting clashing with coordination, Down will come Santa and fill the stockings, and the examples of quotation fronting with coordinated verb phrases.

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3 Responses to “Away to the Window I Flew, Tore, and Threw”

  1. Uly said

    Kids don’t know what hash is? How weird. We eat potatoes hash a few times a month during weekend breakfast (hash, waffles, french toast, pancakes, and omelet make the rotation), and for snack and as a dinner side as well.

  2. The Ridger said

    I agree: hash is still popular, or at the very least hash browns are.

    • Neal said

      OK, but I’ve still heard of kids who weren’t familiar with the word hash, and so they left sash unchanged, and tried to guess a meaning for it.

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