The language of The Catcher in the Rye

We are moving house this summer, and while packing up the books in my study I came across an article I wrote nearly thirty years ago but that I had completely forgotten about. It is about usage problems and their function in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). (Prescriptivism has clearly been one of my lifelong academic interests!)

I had written it as part of a Festschrift for Sarah Betsky-Zweig (1923-1999) when she retired from the chair of American literature at the Leiden English Department in 1986. The article deals with double negation, subject pronouns in object position, between you and I, and he/she/it don’t, and it argues that Salinger used features like these (there are many more in Holden’s language) to depict different types of speakers in a sociolinguistically highly convincing way. All these features, with the exception of he/she/it don’t, are dealt with in English usage guides, as anyone consulting our HUGE database will be able to see for themselves.

With Salinger (1919-2010) having been so much in the news recently (a biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno came out a year ago and five new novels are expected to be published posthumously) I thought I’d revive the article, to confirm Salinger’s brilliance as a writer, and I slightly updated it in the process. So here it is: “Between you and I: Non-standard grammar and The Catcher in the Rye“.

Plain Sense of Things

Salinger is no longer alive, nor is Sarah Betsky. But my copy of the book also contained her thank-you note, in which she made an interesting comment:

You made me remember the strange censorship of Catcher. In the 1950s we were forbidden (upon pain of being fired) to teach Catcher at the university in the U.S.A. Imagine! It would corrupt student language!

Hard to imagine these days that books would be forbidden just because they make a character confuse lie and lay, use like for as if, singular they and that’s for whose!

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