Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

To Kill a Mockingbird RNW

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2012

I found this hastily scribbled line in my linguistics spiral notebook recently:

They chewed up and spat out the bark of a tree into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.

I had written it down as soon as I heard it sometime in the past few months, but I couldn’t remember where. I’d forgotten I’d even heard it until I saw that page in my notebook again, but it was clear enough why I’d written it down. It was another right-node wrapping. The transitive phrasal verb chewed up is coordinated with the transitive phrasal verb spat out, with the shared direct the bark of a tree. But after that shared direct object, there’s one more phrase in this sentence’s predicate, and it belongs just to spat out. It’s the prepositional phrase into a communal pot.

Googling the phrase, I see that it’s from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I listened to in the car during the summer. Mystery solved!

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2 Responses to “To Kill a Mockingbird RNW”

  1. Philip Whitman said

    I would say, “They chewed up the bark of a tree and spat it out into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.” I would say this because, whereas it would make sense to say, “They spat into the communal pot”, it would make no sense at all to say, “They chewed out into the communal pot.”

    • Neal said

      Right; that’s the interesting thing about RNWs. Even though it makes no sense to say “They chewed out (bark) into the communal pot,” it evidently does make sense to say “They chewed up and spat bark into a communal pot” (specifically, it means they chewed up bark and spat it into the pot).

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