Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Little Women Right-Node Wrapping

Posted by Neal on February 27, 2012

Doug has been dragging his feet on his school reading list this year. He’s been coasting, taking advantage of the fact that he’s already read Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Call of the Wild. He made it through the copy of The Hunt for Red October that he got for Christmas (not on the list) in less than a week, and I figured the book would be done so soon that it wasn’t necessary to remind him of his reading list. He’d be back to it soon enough. But when I saw Patriot Games appear on his nightstand the day after Red October was done, I insisted that he get back to the list.

To help, I even downloaded free copies of the public domain novels on the list onto our family Christmas present, a Kindle. After that he read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but has now found himself slowed to a creep, as he agonizes his way through The Scarlet Letter, recently arriving at 5% of the way through. I keep telling him that the story has got to be really good, in order for the book to have obtained status as a classic despite passages like this:

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf–but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood–at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass–here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

So while Doug continues to chip away at the hard crust of The Scarlet Letter to get to the good stuff that must be inside, I’ve taken another step to move him along his list, and have made Little Women our latest read-aloud book. It moves a little slowly, too, and despite what you may have heard, it’s not about SW fetishes at all, but you don’t get as lost in its syntax as you do in Hawthorne’s stuff. And some passages are funny, like this rant from Jo, when Meg reminds her that she is a young lady:

I’m not! And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…. I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. How I wish that I had a penis! And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!

Doug and Adam refused to believe the line about the penis was really in the book. Their mother didn’t believe it, either. “I would have remembered that!” she said. Meanwhile, sometimes I’ll speculate with the boys about what’s going to happen later in the book, and wonder if Jo will ever get her “special operation.”

Anyway, now we’re at Chapter 7, 12% of the way through the book. (It’s amazing how reading on a Kindle gets you used to thinking about being 5% or 12% through a book, and not about what page you’re on.) A couple of nights ago, I was pleasantly surprised to read this passage:

Beth hurried on in a flutter of suspense. At the door her sisters seized and bore her to the parlor in a triumphal procession.

This may be my earliest right-node wrapping yet. For those who are just joining us, or for those who need a refresher, the main thing is that if you read the parts that are joined by and as a strictly parallel coordination, it means that Beth’s sisters (1) seized her to the parlor, and (2) bore her to the parlor. Even if it were idiomatic English to “seize someone to someplace” (which it isn’t; I checked the Corpora of both Contemporary and Historical American English), it wouldn’t make sense to seize Beth to the parlor, and then to bear her there again. What Louisa Alcott clearly meant was that the sisters (1) seized Beth, and (2) bore her to the parlor.

Now that I’ve been reminded of RNWs again, I’m interested to hear if they turn up in other texts from the 1800s or earlier. If you find one, leave a comment.

5 Responses to “Little Women Right-Node Wrapping”

  1. Ran said

    I didn’t mention it at the time, because I’m not certain that it’s an instance of right-node wrapping, but since you’re now looking at that time period specifically, I think I’ll just post it and let you decide for yourself if it counts.

    A few months ago, when I was reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), I came across this sentence:

    > There are people who seem to have no notion of sketching a character, or observing and describing salient points, either in persons or things: the good lady evidently belonged to this class; my queries puzzled, but did not draw her out.

    The way I read this, “puzzled” and “did not draw out” share the object “her” (hence, RNW); but it’s also possible to view “puzzled” as intransitive, as in these Googled-up examples:

    > It puzzles and perplexes, because every man is bent on making it, not what it is, but what it is intended that it shall be.
    > It may be stripped of all useless verbiage until it is as clear as crystal, or it may be so enlarged and infused with words and scientific terms that it puzzles and mystifies rather than informs.

    So a non-RNW reading is possible, but I still favor the RNW reading. What do you think?

  2. Alacritas said


    I interpreted your Bronte example as an example of RNW; although it does make sense that you could parse it with “puzzle” being intransitive, I also prefer the RNW interpretation. It really seems like she’s referring to the lady being puzzled by her quesetions, not just a general puzzlement that they would induce in anyone.

  3. David Craig said

    I would say it’s RNW only if you are interpreting it as “… puzzled her out, but did not draw her out.” It seems to me, however, that “draw out” is a constituent and does not yield the “out” to use by the “puzzle”.

    • Ran said

      @David Craig: No, sorry, you have that exactly backwards. Right-node wrapping is when you have a coordination of the form “A and B C D”, with the meaning “A C and B C D” (that is, “C” — here “her” — is shared by both coordinands, while “D” — here “out” — belongs only to the second).

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