Grammarchists

Grammarchist (Noun, portmanteau of grammar + anarchist) A writer who blows up language and grammar in ways that startle the reader into a new way of reading.


Literature is a collaboration between reader and writer. It’s the writer’s job to entice the reader into participating in the creative process while the reader tacitly agrees to play along. A writer can leave room in the text for the reader to participate by what is not said, by the elliptical nature of the story, and by how it is told.

Sometimes, I read a sentence in a story or novel thinking at first glance I understand it, but I have to go back and re-read it, realizing the author meant something else or something more. I came across this in the opening paragraph of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 short story “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.”

It is a story told more by what is omitted than what is included. Salinger deliberately leaves out something important that the reader gradually comes to understand. It is set in the bedroom of an older man who is in bed with a younger woman. It is late at night and the phone rings. The caller is Arthur, a younger associate at the law firm where the older man, Lee, works. Lee, Arthur, and Arthur’s wife Joanie had been at a party earlier that evening. Arthur had left the party alone, while his wife stayed behind. He calls Lee because Joanie has not come home yet, and he asks Lee if he knows what time she left.

Here is the opening of the story:

“When the phone rang, the gray-haired man asked the girl, with quite some little deference, if she would rather for any reason he didn’t answer it. The girl heard him as if from a distance, and turned her face towards him, one eye – on the side of the light – closed tight, her open eye very, however disingenuously, large, and so blue as to appear almost violet. The grey-haired man asked her to hurry up, and she raised up on her right forearm just quickly enough so that the movement didn’t quite look perfunctory. She cleared her hair back from her forehead with her left hand and said, “God. I don’t know. I mean, what do you think?”

At first it seems as if nothing is happening here: two people together in bed when the phone rings. But there’s an abundance of detail and implied story packed into his four-sentence, 117-word paragraph. The sentence lengths are: 26 words, 40 words, 27 words and 24 words, all longer than an average sentence length of fifteen to twenty words.

Here is the same paragraph stripped of its elaborate sub-clauses, parenthetical asides and shades of meaning, in 51 words:

“When the phone rang, the man asked the girl if she would rather he didn’t answer it. The girl turned her face towards him. The man asked her to hurry up, and she raised up on her right forearm. She said, “God. I don’t know. I mean, what do you think?”

This shorter version has all the surface details – what happened – of the longer one, but with none of the significance and drama. It lacks the subtext created by Salinger’s baroque syntax and vocabulary.

The first sentence contains a sub-clause that describes how the man asked the girl a question. He asked her “with quite some little deference.” The use of the word “deference” here is significant in this opening paragraph, a carefully chosen word that has multiple connotations. It typically means an affected or ingratiating regard for another’s wishes, the way, for example, a commoner might address royalty. It can be used to describe behavior by a younger person towards an elder.

The word is modified by “quite,” “some,” and “little,” two adverbs and an adjective. How often do we remind each other to delete those useless adverbs and here’s a writer stringing two together – with an adjective – to modify a single word!

To understand how this sentence works, let’s consider several shorter versions:

1. “…the grey-haired man asked the girl, with some deference…”
2. “…the grey-haired man asked the girl, with little deference…”
3. “…the grey-haired man asked the girl, with some little deference…”

Sentences (1) and (2) each contain a single modifier of the word “deference,” sentence (1) implying the older man showed deference to the girl, but perhaps with reservation and sentence (2) suggesting an insufficient amount of respect.

Sentence (3) uses two of the modifiers, and here “some” modifies the adjectival phrase “little deference.” The adverb “some” is used to specify a degree or extent. If I cut my finger and said, “the wound bled,” that doesn’t really suggest how it bled, the way “the wound bled some” does – the bleeding was significant. In sentence (3) the “little deference” he shows her is amplified by the adverb “some.”

In the original version of the sentence the adverb “quite” is used in the sense of a considerable extent. But a considerable extent of what?  He is showing her a considerable amount of very little deference, emphasizing that the grey-haired (older) man has little or no consideration for her wishes when he asks the (younger) girl if he should answer the phone.

What is the opposite of “quite some little deference?” Salinger could have written “…asked the girl with disregard…” or “…asked the girl indifferently…” or “…asked the girl gruffly…” but his use of the word deference suggests that the man should have considered the girl’s feelings about answering the phone. That he should but does not is the first indication of tension in this story, and it is important in this story because the exact relationship of the older man, the younger girl, and the person who is telephoning in this opening scene remains unstated throughout the story and is only suggested in roundabout ways by elliptical sentences such as this first one. As the story unfolds, Salinger adds details that finally allows the reader to realize what those relationships are.

Salinger’s complex wording describes the relationship from the older man’s point-of-view. The phrase “for any reason” is an example of indirect discourse, expository material by a third-person narrator written in the voice of a character. We don’t know the man’s exact words to the girl, but we get a sense of how he must have said it.

This elaborately worded sentence serves a second purpose: it reveals the voice or tone of the third-person narrator, a tone that subtly mocks the characters in the story, the author “winking” at the reader. The story will turn out to be funny in a schadenfreude kind of way.

The girl looks at the old man with a face Salinger describes in detail, including that it is disingenuous, that is, insincere or calculating. This two-word sub-clause, slipped between an adverb and its adjective, further suggests something about the relationship between these two people. Here again, Salinger modifies disingenuous with an adverb, however, implying that even though the look the girl gives the man is disrespectful, she does not care. By placing the sub-clause awkwardly between an adjective and its modifier, Salinger emphasizes the importance of this detail.

The old man asks her to hurry up, and Salinger repeats the word “quite” to now describe her behavior: “…she raised up on her right forearm just quickly enough so that the movement didn’t quite look perfunctory.” But here the adverb quite is used in a different sense, that of actually being the thing that it is.

For example, if I said, “This cake is quite good” I am adding emphasis to the word “good,” as if I had said “really good” or “actually good.”

But in Salinger’s sentence the effect of the adverb is negated. The girl wanted to move in a way that suggested she was not hurrying, that her rising on her forearm was done slowly with no regard for the older man’s wishes. Her response to his request to hurry up was just quick enough to be somewhat deferential.

The use of the word “quite” a second time, even though it is used a different sense, connects this sentence describing the girl to the first sentence describing the old man. It links the two characters and heightens the tension between them, but most importantly it again focuses the reader’s attention on the unspecified nature of their relationship: that of two people who have little or no regard for each other.

After a close reading of Salinger’s opening sentences readers can see that what at first sounds excessively wordy and convoluted is really densely packed with telling details done with an economy of carefully chosen language. It poses questions to the reader that will compel the reader to keep reading: why are these two people subtly hostile towards each other? What are they doing together?

By the time the girl finally answers we have enough information about the mindset of both characters to imagine how she must have sounded when she said “What do you think?” Did she say, “What do you think?” deferring to the older man, or does she say, “What do you think?” rhetorically suggesting that his question was dumb?

What do you think?


J.D. Salinger’s “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” first appeared in the July 1951 issue of The New Yorker and again in his short story collection Nine Stories, published in 1953.


David Sylvester is a local short story writer living in Myrtle Beach. His first collection I Would Tell You If I Could was published in 2020. He is the facilitator of The Short Cafe, a workshop in reading the short story.

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