I was reading the Catcher in the Rye, and I have seen some expressions like this.

Where I lived at Pencey, I lived in the Ossenburger Memoial Wing of the new dorms.

What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country.... five buks apiece.

I have never seen sentences with this type of structure and I think changing it to this will be more grammatical.

Where I lived at Pencey was Osseburger...dorms.

What he did was starting these...apiece

So which one is correct?

I know that it's arrogant of me to suggest changes to a prominent author's work, but I have realized that author used lots of slangs and profanities to make his work look more realistic, so I just had doubts. Thanks.

2 Answers 2


This is a form of ellipsis. The complete sentence would read:

What he did was that he was starting these undertaking parlors . . .

You see this kind of thing in colloquial speech all the time. The most common example is probably:

The thing is, is that . . .

To be complete you would render that as

What the thing is, is that . . .

But who has time for all those extra words?

  • I'm, sort of, puzzled by: "The thing is, is that . . ." and "What the thing is, is that . . ." Would you please care to explain?
    – Sankarane
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 21:35
  • @Sankarane: I thought I had explained. What don't you understand?
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 22:01
  • I thought something is missing in "What it is, is that...". Isn't it, "What it is, it is that..."? (i'm more versed in French than English and I'm rather not clear here...) :-)
    – Sankarane
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 22:21
  • (What the thing is) + is + that. The part in the parentheses is a noun phrase acting as the subject of the sentence.
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 15:25

What you're reading in Catcher in the Rye is the first-person interior monologue of the narrator, the character Holden Caulfield, a confused and alienated teenager. Thoughts aren't polished prose. We could take

Where I lived at Pencey, I lived in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing of the new dorms. It was only for juniors and seniors. I was a junior. My roommate was a senior. It was named after this guy Ossenburger that went to Pencey. He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece.

and translate it thus

I attended a private school called Pencey Preparatory, where I lived in an upperclassmen's dorm called the Ossenburger Memorial Wing. It was named after an alumnus who made his fortune in the undertaking business, starting a string of franchise undertakers establishments which provided cheap funerals.

But this loses all the immediacy of the characters thinking and his commentary on his thoughts. Thoughts aren't necessarily linear, complete, or even entirely verbal. Thus they have no regard for grammar. Salinger has to write his character's thoughts down grammatically enough so that his readers can follow, while still keeping the feel of what the character is talking about to himself.

  • So this is not grammatically correct? Robusto said it's ellipsis so I guess it's correct...or is it not?
    – sooeithdk
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 21:32
  • @sooeithdk It's not a matter of correctness; it's a matter of the appropriateness of style. The strict rules of writing for formal occasions are not appropriate for the fictional account of a teenager's interior monologue.
    – deadrat
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 21:37
  • Yes, I understood that. I just thought by saying they are not polished you meant these sentences are, you know, wrong and don't make much sense to people and are clumsy.
    – sooeithdk
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 21:44
  • English has a set of rules for forming meaningful sentences. Violating these rules will be wrong in any context. E.g., "John me oceanly." If this has any meaning, it's a private one that I would have to explain to you. English has another set that dictates what sentences are appropriate to the situation in which they're used. Catcher in the Rye isn't "polished," but it makes so much sense to people that Wikipedia says that over 65M copies have been sold.
    – deadrat
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 22:03

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