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In the first chapter of The Hobbit, I just read this:

“Thank you!” said Bilbo with a gasp. It was not the correct thing to say, but they have begun to arrive had flustered him badly. He liked visitors, but he liked to know them before they arrived, and he preferred to ask them himself. He had a horrible thought that the cakes might run short, and then he—as the host: he knew his duty and stuck to it however painful—he might have to go without.

Should that last part not be:

He had a horrible thought that the cakes might run short, and then he -- as the host, he knew his duty and stuck to it, however painful -- might have to go without.

His use of a colon here, lack of any commas, and the repeated "he" before and after the "injected" sentence, seems wrong to me.

But since he was such a scholar and respected author, I assume that this is not technically wrong. But it sure seems like a serious series of typos to me, all in one place. Like some sort of pre-publish, work-in-progress early draft that has not been gone through properly yet. But this is a late edition of the book, which specifically mentions in the forewords that it has been gone through to fix such errors. Did they possibly incorrectly "correct" his original wording into this mess? (I have no access to the original edition.)

This frankly makes me question my entire understanding of the English language.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 1:12
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    English is not easy. Did someone tell you it was? That is not a grammatical error, it's just a structure you never saw before.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 7:56

3 Answers 3

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As Mark Guarino asserts in this Chicago Tribune article, The Hobbit was meant to be read aloud. Not only was the prose intended to sound like someone speaking, but "[t]he voice is often written to sound breathless, as if the narrator himself can't keep pace with the latest crisis to pivot into the path of his heroes."

Repetition is characteristic of spoken language, and commonly used after interruptions--including self-interruptions. It also adds to that feeling of breathlessness that Guarino described. On a cognitive level, the parenthetical aside between dashes is long enough that the repeated "he" is helpful to listeners. When we're reading silently we can go back and hunt for the subject of a verb, but when we're listening to a live reading we don't have that luxury.

As for the colon, it introduces a clause here, so it's not incorrect, though it may look odd to us. Even if it were incorrect, Tolkien would not have been the first author to break the rules for the sake of art.

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    And, in any event, Tolkien knew exactly what he wanted to convey, and has obviously managed to convey it to many. As I said recently in a different context, there really is no "Shouldn't it be ...?" when an authority writes something. Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 18:59
  • @JohnLawler: Sometimes there can be a “shouldn’t be” — even Homer nods. But agreed in most cases — most “rules” of grammar and style are approximations, and thoughtful stylists may break them consciously and with good cause.
    – PLL
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 17:07
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    Thoughtful stylists don't break rules, certainly not consciously. The "rules" are scrap metal from various failed teaching techniques. Most of them are nonsense, but some people never learn anything about grammar after grammar school, and they keep on believing in the Punctuation Fairy. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 18:09
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    @JohnLawler Sometimes "Shouldn't it be..." is the most effective way to ask a question, even if the asker knows the answer will begin with "No, because..." before the question is asked. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 18:09
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This is probably an example of a resumptive pronoun. It could also be an example of anacoluthon, which is the intentional breaking of syntax or grammar for effect.

The following is speculation on my part, but it may be useful.

These were used in Old English prose sometimes, and Tolkien was very familiar with Old English. In OE, it seems that the writers might have gotten lost in a clause or two and forgotten what the subject was, so they restate it. We do this in speech a lot.

He may have also used it to add a bit of stylistic flair to the passage. To my ears, it highlights the speaker returning from the parenthetical and recommitting to the original sentence.

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This is intended to give the impression of being informal, discursive conversation, in which a speaker starts to say the sentence "the cakes might run short, and then he might have to go without," but realises part way through saying it that he hasn't explained to the listener why the cakes going short would mean he was the one to go without. He breaks off to insert the explanation and then resumes the sentence again, going back to the beginning of the interupted clause.

It consists of a partial sentence "the cakes might run short, and then he..." that gets broken off, the inserted sentence "as the host: he knew his duty and stuck to it however painful" that fills in the missing context, then the resumption of the original sentence, repeating just enough of it to make the fragment make sense on its own. Transcripts of real spoken conversations usually contain many digressions and sentence fragments like this.

Tolkien uses the technique deliberately for effect. The intention is partly to convey something of the character and mood of Bilbo: a bit disorganised and flustered but concerned to do the right and polite thing, just as the narrator here is disorganised and has got things out of order, but is concerned that the listener should have all the necessary context. And also it works to make the narrative sound more informally conversational and friendly, which is a common tactic in writing for young children. The style of writing is part of what sets the scene's mood - discursive or unstructured in the comic scenes, more grammatically formal in the serious scenes, archaic and poetic in those scenes aiming to evoke the mystery and majesty of ancient history and magic.

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