Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Little Women: Gapping and Wrapping

Posted by Neal on March 7, 2012

Two posts ago, I wrote about a right-node wrapping that I found in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was this:

At the door her sisters seized and bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession.

An ordinary transitive verb (seized) and a transitive followed by a directional prepositional phrase (bore … to the parlor) are coordinated, and share a single direct object, her. The V+PP bore … to the parlor wraps around this direct object, giving rise to a syntactically non-parallel coordination that, if phrased in a parallel manner, would probably be written

…her sisters [seized her] and [bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession].

Tonight I was reading aloud some more of Little Women, and it occurred to me that Alcott really seemed to like using another kind of non-parallel coordination that I’ve blogged about a few times: gapping. This is a coordination of two or more clauses that have the same verb, but different subjects, and different content following the verb. In this kind of coordination, some or all of the verb is simply left out, just like a shared subject or shared direct object might be omitted from a more typical coordination. You can find other examples in the other posts in the Gapping category; here’s what I was noticing in Chapter 8 of Little Women:

  • Sitting on the floor with one boot on, Amy began to cry and Meg [began] to reason with her, when Laurie called from below, and the two girls hurried down, leaving their sister wailing.
  • Meg flew to rescue Amy, and Beth [flew] to pacify Jo, but Jo was quite beside herself….
  • Laurie had vanished round the bend, Jo was just at the turn, and Amy [was] far behind, striking out toward the smoother ice in the middle of the river.

Then, only a page or so after that last example (it’s hard to tell with the Kindle), I came to this sentence:

“She is not hurt, and won’t even take cold, I think, you were so sensible in covering and getting her home quickly,” replied her mother cheerfully.

I had to read that one twice. They covered her, and got her home. They didn’t cover her home and get her home. Wow — in one chapter, three cases of gapping, capped off with a right-node wrapping!

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7 Responses to “Little Women: Gapping and Wrapping”

  1. Do these constructions seem jarring or unnatural to you? I find them quite pleasant and enjoy the lack of unnecessary repetition. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who loved Alcott, but I haven’t really read her books since middle school. Nice to know I still enjoy the writing^^

  2. The Ridger said

    I find them utterly unremarkable. But when I think about them, I wonder why, exactly. Because they are kind of odd… Even thought they’re just English omitting repeated words taken to a logical(?) conclusion.

  3. I find them quite elegant and graceful actually. Not jarring at all.

  4. Alacritas said

    Yes, my question as well is whether you find them jarring or not, or if it takes you a second longer than usual to parse them. For me, like the other commenters, I find them very natural and graceful. I usually associate gapping with a more elegant, rather than colloquial, style.

    PS. Could my last sentence be considered some kind of gapping? I could have said “I usually associate gapping with a more elgant style, rather than a colloquial one/style.” Although that seems different to me, not only because it doesn’t involve a verb, but for some other reason I can’t put my finger on.

  5. Neal said

    I find the gapping sentences normal, although associated with a more elevated style. RNWs, on the other hand, I do stumble over. What they have in common is not my reaction to them, but the fact that they’re both examples of non-parallel structure that are often overlooked.

  6. Tom said

    Fun to read these — I just read the Amy/ice chapter to my daughter the other day and can’t say I noticed any of these when reading them aloud. That said, the final right-node wrapping example really is a little mind-bending. I can’t say I’d consider that “grammatical” if a student handed it in to me today.

  7. Eugene said

    I think listeners/readers are very ready to make sense of the ways in which speakers/writers construct these utterances. We do it all the time, every day, and regular people wouldn’t think twice about it. Linguists are different.
    I don’t know anything about “right-node wrapping.” Phrase structure grammar is one way of getting a grip on language structures. It’s a pretty good model of part of what’s going on, but you can’t force all of language use into that (or any) model.
    What I see in the examples presented in the blog is ellipsis. The phrase structure trees might be problematic, but the listener/reader will fill in the gap with the most reasonable constituent required to make sense of the utterance/sentence.
    It’s an interesting problem, though. What would your English teacher say if you produced that kind of complex sentence in an essay? I think you’d get a lesson about parallelism.
    This is Alcott. What would Hemingway do?

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