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The Grammar Nazi vs. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

November 8, 2020

I wasn’t looking for something to criticize while reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, I promise. I’m not a Grammar Nazi. This just caught my attention, and if I can’t mention this on my blog, then where can I mention it?

The protagonist Cora and another slave Caesar had just eluded some slave catchers and found refuge with an abolitionist. Unfortunately, their friend Lovey had been recaptured. In this scene, the abolitionist explained the rumors of what had happened since they escaped.

*****

Cora and Caesar drank greedily from the pitcher Fletcher offered them. The host was unhappy to see the extra passenger, but so many things had gone wrong from the very start.

The shopkeeper caught them up. First, Lover’s mother, Jeer, noticed her daughter’s absence and left their cabin to make a quiet search. The boys liked Lovey, and Lovey liked the boys. One of the bosses stopped Jeer and got the story from her.

Cora and Caesar looked at each other. Their six-hour lead had been a fantasy. the patrollers had been deep in the hunt the whole time.

By midmorning, Fletcher said, every spare hand in the county and from all around enlisted in the search. Terrence’s reward was unprecedented. Advertisements were posted at every public place. The worst sort of scoundrels took up the chase (p.62 in my copy).

*****

Maybe I’m wrong, but when I read that, I thought that the exposition needed past perfect tense instead of simple past tense. Maybe, just maybe, the second paragraph should have said:

The shopkeeper caught them up. First, Lover’s mother, Jeer, had noticed her daughter’s absence and left their cabin to make a quiet search. The boys liked Lovey, and Lovey liked the boys. One of the bosses had stopped Jeer and gotten the story from her.

And then the fourth paragraph in the excerpt could have said:

By midmorning, Fletcher said, every spare hand in the county and from all around had enlisted in the search. Terrence’s reward was unprecedented. Advertisements had been posted at every public place. The worst sort of scoundrels had taken up the chase.

It’s not that big a deal either way. Or maybe it is a big deal. This book won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s not exactly a flimsy paperback bestseller.

What do you think? Should past perfect have been used in that situation? Does it even matter? Is this something that only a Grammar Nazi would care about?

I promise, I’m not a Grammar Nazi!

7 Comments
  1. bojucate permalink

    The first thing I noticed on my first reading was the changing of Lovey’s name to Lover in the 2nd paragraph, 2nd sentence of your quote from the book….  The changes you suggest do make it read better and more clearly.Sent from my Galaxy

  2. Marilyn Kriete permalink

    I agree!

  3. I agree – your version reads much better – because the author prefaces the events which had occured by saying everything that could have gone wrong, did, and so it should be in past tense – makes it more understandable. Because the way it’s written – sounds like it all happening while they are drinking from the pitcher – which confused me. Or perhaps, I am still groggy from having just woken up, and am in a situational state of confusion. I like your way better – makes more sense.

  4. See I would have agreed with you until I saw you use the word ‘gotten’ but then I realised ‘gotten’ is the standard form used in North American English so I guess you’re right. It certainly did need to be written in a different tense because it was confusing the way it is. Do you reckon the grammar of a book is only taken into account at the editing stage, and totally forgotten about once the book is published? So when it is submitted for a literary prize, only the plot, content and story-writing ability is taken into consideration, as well as how the audience engages with it? Because this really seems like something that SOMEONE would have picked out, especially if it had to go through the hoops of a literary prize process… unless there is no process for that?

    • I can see where “gotten” could be “got” since the bosses stopped Lovey before they got the story from her (but it’s still in the flashback exposition, so I’m not sure).

      And I’m not sure if we’re right. Or if this could be part of the author’s style, which is kind of imprecise anyway. Or maybe the editors don’t know verb tenses. Or maybe the editors know verb tense but aren’t allowed to edit Colson.

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