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Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesOne of the joys of reading Lewis Carroll lies in his treatment of logic – the wonderful mixture of care and irreverence with which he manipulates the everyday rules and conventions through which we make sense. As a mathematician who wrote books on logic, Carroll seems to have delighted in playing around with it in his fiction, where he could bend and break the rules as he saw fit.

This exchange from the mad tea-party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a good example:



‘Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’
‘You mean you can’t take less,’ said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take more than nothing.’

Logic – of the formal, Aristotelian variety – is also a longstanding preoccupation of certain grammarians, who lament what they see as illogic in grammar and resist the contradictions, inconsistencies and paradoxes inherent in language. They may enjoy or turn a blind eye to nonsense and wordplay from someone like Carroll while castigating it from Jane or Joe Bloggs, who has not earned any literary stature.

This is partly why grammatical structures such as multiple negation (aka double negatives) are common in many English dialects but unavailable in standard English. Traditional grammarians felt it was illogical for I ain’t seen nobody to mean I saw nobody, because the negatives would supposedly cancel each other out. (They don’t.) This distaste for multiple negation was adopted by educators, and such expressions became socially stigmatised.

Similarly, grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. In his novel Everybody Dies Lawrence Block has someone say ‘There’s worse things’ (rather than ‘There are worse things’), while Angela Bourke in By Salt Water has someone say, ‘that’s the colours I want to use’ (rather than ‘Those are…’).

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull). This last line also features without used to mean unless – a usage once respectable but later coming to mark regional, demotic or uneducated speech, as it probably does in Carroll’s example.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

2 Comments

  • I like this passage from Chapter 7, “The Lion And The Unicorn”, of Through the Looking-Glass even better:

    “Who did you pass on the road?” the King went on, holding out his hand to the Messenger for some more hay.

    “Nobody,” said the Messenger.

    “Quite right,” said the King: “this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you.”

    “I do my best,” the Messenger said in a sulky tone. “I’m sure nobody walks much faster than I do!”

    “He can’t do that,” said the King, “or else he’d have been here first.”

    My commentary:

    This nonsensical conversation results because the King insists on treating the word “nobody” as a name, a name of somebody. However, the essential nature of the English word “nobody” is that it doesn’t refer to somebody; or to put the matter another way, there isn’t anybody to which it refers.

    The central point of contradiction in the dialogue arises in the third sentence, when the King says “… Nobody walks slower than you”. This claim would be plausible if “Nobody” were really a name, since the Messenger could only pass someone who does walk more slowly than he. But the Messenger interprets the word “nobody” in the ordinary English way, and says (in the fourth sentence) “… nobody walks much faster than I do” (i.e., I walk faster than, or as fast as, almost everyone), which the King then again misunderstands. Both the King and the Messenger are correct according to their respective understandings of the ambiguous word “nobody/Nobody”.

  • That’s a great example, John. It recalls Odysseus’ escape from Polyphemus, where he tells the giant his name is Nobody and can therefore make his escape when the other cyclops ask Polyphemus if anyone hurt him.

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