Please take a look at this excerpt from The Catcher in the Rye:

I think I probably woke he and his wife up, because it took them a helluva long time to answer the phone.

This phrase confused me. Why does the author not write "him and his wife", rather than "he and his wife"? Also, I'm slightly confused about his use of "a helluva" - could someone give me other examples of its use? I think I understand what it means, but I'm not sure how to use it in practice.

4 Answers 4


The speaker is Holden Caufield narrating his life. Holden is the rebellious protagonist of the novel, and if you've read much of the book, you'll know that Holden doesn't get along in school. J. D. Salinger is trying to capture how such a character would sound.

"Helluva" is a phonetic rendition of "hell of a," meaning a remarkable example of something. This may be used in a good way. "That was a helluva party last night" means that the speaker enjoyed last night's celebration. Or it may be used ironically. Secretary of State John Kerry was caught on an open mic saying about an Israeli military operation that resulted in casualties, "That was a helluva pinpoint operation," meaning that it was remarkable as an example of how not to conduct things.

  • 2
    I think 'helluva' is an 'Eye Dialect' spelling of 'hell of a'. It doesn't seem to indicate a different pronunciation, but the choice of spelling affects the readers perception of the character.
    – bdsl
    Jul 8, 2015 at 0:20
  • 1
    John Kerry's statement sounds like sarcasm -- you could replace "helluva" with a ton of adverbs ("totally" for example) and preserve the meaning, it's not that "helluva" can be more ironic in particular. Jul 8, 2015 at 14:31

Because the grammar is incorrect.

It should be "him and his wife" as you correctly say.

This is probably an example of hypercorrection. The speaker has been corrected at some time for using 'him' instead of 'he', e.g.

"Him and me did it."

He has misunderstood the grammatical rules, over-generalised and gone to the other extreme.

  • 9
    +1 for being the only answer so far to mention that this he is an instance of hypercorrection. It’s nothing to do with the fact that Holden is not good in school—it’s that he’s trying to speak correctly, but failing because he doesn’t understand the underlying rule. Jul 7, 2015 at 19:13
  • 1
    @Janus Bahs Jacquet - the technical explanation of what is occurring (pronoun shift) is new to me, as I learned to speak & write, almost exclusively, through reading (consequently, I'm learning my grammar here). I guess what I was asking you was, is there something explicit in the Catcher that informed your conclusion that Holden's use of 'he' rather than 'him' was due to something other than the informal and slangy speech of a teen who found all adult rules and conventions to be ... hypocritical bullshit?
    – user98990
    Jul 7, 2015 at 21:43
  • 1
    @LittleEva I would say almost certainly 2). It would be quite an odd way of rebelling against conventions. It’s similar to how you ‘shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition’—no teenager would rebel by overdoing that and start saying things like “For what did you do that?” instead of “What did you do that for?”. Weird rebellion, at least. [I use my own, personalised keyboard layout in OS X, so em dashes are easy for me. On Windows machines, I usually end up doing it the ugly way: holding down the <kbd>Alt</kbd> key and then type <kbd>0151</kbd> on the numeric pad on the right.] Jul 7, 2015 at 22:37
  • 1
    This answer doesn't address the author's intentions. If this was non-fiction I would agree that 'he' is a hyper-correction, but I'm not convinced that Salinger intended it to be read as such rather than simply as an error.
    – bdsl
    Jul 8, 2015 at 0:31
  • 3
    Hypercorrection shows up in the language of characters in fiction all the time. Usually rural characters embarrassed about their countrified speech pattern when talking to someone who doesn't speak that way. It's how you know they're trying hard to sound less uneducated. Perhaps this case is an exception to the rule that incorrect usage of forms like "I" instead of "me" is a sign of a less-educated character trying to be proper, though. I'm inclined to agree with @Janus that intentionally following your own non-standard usage rules is a weird way to rebel. Jul 8, 2015 at 2:22

You have to understand that this novel is written from the perspective of a youth who speaks largely in slang and colloquialisms and the imperfect grammar is part of his persona. That said:

  1. Correct grammar would dictate that the pronoun used as an object of an action (here the action is waking up) should be "him". So correctly the phrase would include "him and his wife".

  2. "Helluva" is a slang contraction of "hell of a" which itself is just a modifier along the lines of 'very' and you can imagine it being a stand-in for 'quite the'. For example one might say, "Did you see my opponent after the fight? I did a helluva number on him" which is akin to saying "I did quite the number on him".


I think the author wants to show how the youngster Holden Caulfield speaks. He and him, I and me are often used incorrectly. Salinger hits the jargon of the central figure and his views of the world, his frustration with parents, schools, and himself, short with everything perfectly.

"helluva" is a hell of a long time, simply a dynamic expression for a very long time.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.