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“It was turning out the dining-room done it, if you ask me,” said Mrs. Sutton. “Now, don’t you overdo yourself, ma’am,” I says to her; but you know how she is, sir. She gets that restless, she can’t bear to be doing nothing."

Is the first sentence "It was turning out the dining-room done it," correct? It's in the novel Suspicion by Dorothy Sayers.

Something seems to be missing in this sentence and I don't understand the meaning of this sentence at all.

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It's colloquial quoted speech- not intended to match textbook English. However without more context I can't tell whether the intended meaning is: It was the "turning out" of the dining-room that had done it OR It was turning out that the dining-room had done it –  Jim Apr 16 at 6:22
    
Assemble the answers by Barrie, etheranger, and medica, and you get one complete answer. –  andy256 Apr 16 at 6:42
    
Even with colloquial speech, I think there is a word missing from the sentence. 'Done' is equivalent to 'did' and 'what' is equivalent to 'that', so you could say 'X done it' = 'X did it' or 'It was X what done it' = 'It was X that done it' = 'It was X that did it', but 'it was X done it' does not ring true, just as 'it was X did it' sounds wrong. –  Paul Smith Apr 16 at 13:34

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I would understand it in the following way:

What was the cause of her being unwell? It was (her) turning out the dining room, (that was what has) done it (read: her not being well for "it").

Or: (that has) done it.

I would not use the term incorrect English. Sayers renders the way simple uneducated people speak and that is interesting and attractive. If you render the language of a four-year-old child it doesn't make much sense to say it is incorrect English. That's the way little children speak.

In uneducated sub-standard speech a relative pronoun is often omitted even if it is a nominative. And the auxiliary verb is sometimes omitted, too.

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What did it? "turning-out the dining room" done it. It was the cause or reason for the women's fatigue or consequent condition. Done instead of did because the thing happened past tense. (If she were to use the word "did" even if she were aware that "did" was proper grammatically, her friend would think she was being uppity.)

After reading through the comments, I realized I had added "that" automatically to understand the sentence. I realized "that" I had added "that" automatically to understand the sentence. It is colloquial and uneducated but accurate. The first thing to lose in dialects is extra words and syllables. It's a lazy way of speaking.

I've also heard, ...it's turning out the dining room "what" done it. Using the same sentence construction.

For turning-out, think how did it turn-out? It turned out grand, a splendid event, everything refined, to put things in order. During the Victorian period turning out a dining room would have involved hand polishing real silver and brass. Perhaps they would launder the linens, tableclothes, placements, napkins, and lace dollies. China would be washed and replaced, the table might be set for diner. Curtains and rugs may be taken outside and beaten. Mirrors and furniture would be polished. If it could be done in a day even with the help of maids, it would be a huge undertaking. You could also turn-out the bedding which leads to the imagery of a pillow case being turned inside out and removed from a pillow.

In my mind, these women are speaking over the fence with laundry billowing, gossiping about the mistress of the house. It also is not the true cause but only an excuse to explain the women's condition. Being ignorant, Mrs. Sutton isn't privy to the real cause and can only create suitable explanations from her experience.

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First, turnout

Turnout noun

a clearing out and cleaning

Second, there is an elided "that". So, to rephrase -

Mrs. Sutton: If you ask me, it was cleaning the dining-room (that) did it.

I would describe it as highly colloquial writing.

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There's quite a few idioms in there, very suggestive of Mrs Sutton being uneducated / lower class.

"Turning out the dining room" - cleaning / tidying the dining room

"It was X done it" - incorrect conjugation of "It was X that did it".

So Mrs Sutton is (with some incorrect English) saying that the act of cleaning the dining room was what caused something to happen.

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Turning out the dining room didn't fix the problem, it caused it. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 at 6:42
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Oh? I haven't read the story so I don't know the context. It read to me that the 'problem' was restlessness. No matter! Either way, a thing was did by turning out the dining room ;) –  etheranger Apr 16 at 7:20

Mrs. Mummery is tired.

Why is she tired, Mr. Mummery might wonder.

"Mrs. Mummery is tired because she works too hard. I warned her, but she insisted on turning out the dining room today" says the help, Mrs. Sutton.

"That's what did it. That's why she's resting."

(As I am an American, I have never turned out a dining room, but I have cleaned it and rearranged things in it. But I'm pretty sure I've not turned one out. To me, that's what you do with very, very, very bad house guests.)

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This is excellent. –  KRyan Apr 16 at 13:21

It means that tidying the dining room, and perhaps discarding some of its contents, was the cause of the lady’s condition. The speech is in a non-standard dialect in which the past tense of ‘do’ is not ‘did’ but ‘done’.

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