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Whilst reading To Kill A Mockingbird I came upon this sentence (full extract below):

It is better to say, built in spite of them.

To me, this sentence seems poorly structured, possibly even incorrect grammatically. I wouldn't have thought that a comma should be used where it is. I would've thought it'd be more appropriate to use a colon and perhaps even quotes around the correction.

I consulted someone I knew who said that they thought the sentence was perfectly fine as it was.

I have thought that it might have been written in this way so as to give the impression of Scout herself saying it but I am unsure.

Any opinions on the validity of this sentence will be very helpful, thanks!

The same sentence, as it appears in its original context, is as follows:

The Maycomb County courthouse was faintly reminiscent of Arlington in one respect: the concrete pillars supporting its south roof were too heavy for their light burden. The pillars were all that remained standing when the original courthouse burned in 1856. Another courthouse was built around them. It is better to say, built in spite of them. But for the south porch, the Maycomb County courthouse was early Victorian, presenting an unoffensive vista when seen from the north. From the other side, however, Greek revival columns clashed with a big nineteenth-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.

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    Yes, it is a valid and correct sentence. Also, the word is "sentence" not "sentance". – Elliott Frisch Apr 15 '14 at 16:37
  • Though your 'It is/would be better to say "built in spite of them." ' (I'm not capitalising as the string in quotes isn't a true sentence, though some might say there's a 'rule' demanding a capital b here) would not be wrong. I'd prefer '(It would be better to say built in spite of them.)'. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 15 '14 at 16:42
  • I'm with Edwin Ashworth. I'da put "built in spite of them" in italics. The sentence as is, however, scans just fine. Evidently for you they did not. As I am wont to say, "There's more than one way to swing a dead cat." Heck, if I'da been the author, I'da worded things as follows: "Another courthouse was built around them (really, in spite of them)." Then again, I'm not Harper Lee! – rhetorician Apr 15 '14 at 16:53
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    Who cares if it is grammatically incorrect? Did passage confuse you? When transforming a reader into an image grammatics go out the window. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 15 '14 at 17:28
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    The comma is a substitute for a quotation mark, that's all. (the point marks the end of the quote) – PatrickT Apr 15 '14 at 17:35
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The sense of Harper Lee's sentence is something like this:

It would have been more accurate for me to say "built in spite of them" than "built around them."

The shorter form that she actually uses is coherent and error-free, although her intent might have been more obvious if (as ChrisW suggests) she had put quotation marks around "built in spite of them" or if (as Edwin Ashworth comments) she had italicized those words. But the deeper oddness of the sentence is that author says one thing and then immediately goes back (as it were) and critiques her own wording instead of altering that original wording. If the second wording is better, why didn't Lee just revise the first sentence to say "Another courthouse was built in spite of them"?

The answer is that the first wording is necessary to convey the idea of where and on what basis the new courthouse was built; the second sentence suggests that the surviving pillars made the design and building of the new courthouse harder, not easier—but without the earlier sentence it would have seemed bizarre to claim the old pillars had any complicating influence on the construction of the new courthouse.

So the sentence "It is better to say, built in spite of them" follows a rather perfunctory account of how and where the new courthouse was built with an allusion to the difficulty of building the new structure around the remains of the old. That sly Harper Lee may even have been using the courthouse as a neat little symbol of the puzzle the South has faced for generations (and not least in the mid-20th century when this book was written) of how to build an up-to-date society that incorporates certain incompatible and problematic remnants of its past.


With regard to Lee's choice of punctuation in this instance, guideline 11.47 in The Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition (2003) seems relevant:

11.47 Unspoken discourse. Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to context or the writer's preference.

[Example] "I don't care if we have offended Morgenstern," thought Vera. "Besides," she told herself, "they're all fools."

[Example] Why, we wondered, did we choose this route?

As for the use of a comma after say in her sentence, it follows from the standard rule to precede a short quotation with a comma. Chicago at 6.53 lays out this guideline:

6.53 Comma with quoted material. Quoted material, if brief, is usually introduced by a comma; if longer, by a colon [cross references omitted]. If a quotation is introduced by that, whether, or a similar conjunction, no comma is needed.

[Example] It was Emerson who wrote, "Blessed are those who have no talent!"

[Example] She replied, "I hope you are not referring to me."

In combination, guidelines 11.47 (quotation-like interior discourse represented without quotation marks) and 6.53 (comma after a verb introducing a quotation) seem to endorse Lee's handling of her sentence. Other style guides may differ, of course, and undoubtedly do on certain points.

  • Thank you for your insight. I can agree that the reasoning behind the correction was for clarity purposes. Your analysis of the sentence is also interesting to hear! Do you have any references on this use of a comma that I could look at? – meiamsome Apr 16 '14 at 15:01
  • The guideline in The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition (2003) that bears most closely on this situation is 11.47, "Unspoken Discourse." I'll add a note about that to the end of my answer. – Sven Yargs Apr 16 '14 at 16:48
  • I don't see one idea in your answer that has anything to do with the sentence. A parenthical idea can come after a comma and it can be at the end of a sentence. – Lambie Dec 30 '16 at 20:45
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I think it's fine.

If there were quote marks (as implied by the verb "say"), then it would use a comma:

It is better to say, "Built in spite of them."

However, adding 'direct quote' marks implies either that it has been said, or that it should literally be 'said' out loud.

So omitting the quote marks is better.

I might have used parentheses instead; any of the following:

  • Another courthouse was built around them (or, better to say, built in spite of them).
  • Another courthouse was built around them (or, built in spite of them).
  • Another courthouse was built around them (or built in spite of them).

The last of the above omits the comma because it also omits the "say".

  • Ah, I guess it makes sense that the quotes would imply a direct speech. I am still unsure on this usage of the comma – it seems to break the sentence unnecessarily: you wouldn't have the sentence "It is better to play, the guitar." I don't really know if that example is very good; I can't think of any thing to put into this form! – meiamsome Apr 16 '14 at 15:15
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The comma is a very versatile punctuation mark. It has many uses, some of which can sometimes be replaced with another punctuation mark, such as a colon, semicolon, em dash, or period (full stop). As to which punctuation mark would be preferable for any specific sentence will depend on the author and the register that the author is writing for. In a way, the comma could be sorta considered to be the default punctuation mark. Here's a quick example:

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.

  • I came; I saw; I conquered.

  • I came. I saw. I conquered.

You'll find that example punctuated in various ways in different books and editions.

The novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, has an adult narrator reminiscing about her childhood, and so, that narrative is done in her voice. It is voiced narrative, which is typical of First Person narrated stories. The narrative is done in the way the narrator would speak or think.

For your specific sentence, there is an ellipsis of text (omission), and could be understood as: Another courthouse was built around them. It is better to say, (another courthouse was) built in spite of them. If you were talking to a personal friend, you would usually ellipt (omit) the understood material--in the way that the author did in your example.

Note that a First Person narrator is talking or expressing their thoughts and opinions to the reader.

Harper Lee wrote the narrative the way she did in order to show how the character would have actually thought or talked in her novel.

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It is better to say, built in spite of them. This is an example of a metanoia and conversational interrupting phrase.

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