Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Through Houses They Had Never Been Through Before

Posted by Neal on June 30, 2018

It’s been a while since I wrote about things I noticed in books I read to Doug and Adam at bedtime. It started to be tough to do that when they started going to bed later than I did, and became just about impossible while Doug was off at his freshman year at college. But a member of the extended family is having a baby soon, and one of the gifts we’re sending is a book that the wife and I would read to them about 15 years ago. It’s Mr. Putter and Tabby Walk the Dog, by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard.

Pictured: Tabby, Mr. Putter, Zeke

We like the series because it has an adopted, aged cat in it; the mother-to-be will like it (we hope) because she likes English bulldogs, and will get a kick out of Mr. Putter’s neighbor’s English bulldog Zeke. Also, as I wrote inside the cover:

One of us particularly likes the ambiguity in the phrase "through houses they had never been through before"--look carefully at the illustrations both times it's used!

Here’s the first time: “He tugged Mr. Putter and Tabby through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”

The first time I read it, it was startling to read “through yards and creeks and houses”–what, was Zeke actually dragging Mr. Putter right through the front door and into and out of an individual house? Then I looked at the illustration and realized that Zeke was pulling Mr. Putter between two houses. In other words, the first time, “through houses they had never been through before” has a collective reading: Considering a group of houses all at once, Zeke pulled Mr. Putter through the group.

Now, here’s the second one: “The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”
The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.Having gotten used to the idea of the collective reading, I was surprised and amused to see that this time, the illustration showed exactly the implausible distributive reading I had questioned before! This time, Zeke is pulling Mr. Putter right through a single house.

Lots and lots of research has been done on collective and distributive readings. I’ve been reading a 1996 paper by Brendan Gillon on the subject, and he even has an example with through: “Bill drove through the redwoods”, and imagines the distributive reading that involves Bill either destroying a redwood or using a tunnel. For more details, with a lot of mathy details, you can read Gillon’s paper. Or if it’s behind a paywall from where you are, you might like this set of slides from a presentation in 2009 from Eytan Zweig at the University of York.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: