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It was eighteen minutes after nine when Mr. Martin turned into Twelfth Street. A man passed him, and a man and a woman, talking. There was no one within fifty paces when he came to the house, halfway down the block.
Source: James Thurber, The Catbird Street

Does it mean "A man passed him, and a man and a woman who was talking passed him as well."?

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I agree with David. The man passed him; the man also passed a man and a woman. I also think the 'passing' man was the one that was talking. –  user4682 Feb 24 at 20:36
3  
Since Mr. Martin is mentioned in sentence 1, he is referred to in sentence 2, and the "he" in sentence 3 seems to be Mr. Martin again, it seems unlikely that the wroter wants top draw our attention to a really weird guy that passes by the protagonist, and then some more people, while mysteriously talking to himself, only to completely ignore that weird man afterwards. It is much more likely that the writer simply describes that Mr. Martin was passed by a solitary man (without a pre-war cellphone or talking to voices in is head) and Mr. Martin was also passed by a couple that were talking. –  oerkelens Feb 24 at 21:19

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I read this as the following happening:

  1. A man passed him.

  2. A man and a woman that were talking (with each other), also passed him.

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Nice terse explanation. –  Ian Lewis Feb 24 at 16:52
    
And I usually hear I talk to much :) Thank you for the compliment :) –  oerkelens Feb 24 at 21:20

First, realize that this is not normal grammatical english usage.

The author has chosen an unusual phrasing in order to create a certain effect in the mind of the reader.

That said, the correct interpretation is that Martin was walking along Twelfth Street, and met and passed first a man walking alone, and then, a couple who were engaged in conversation. He continued along until he arrived at the house.

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I suppose that, strictly speaking, there are other possible event flows:

A

  1. A man passed him.
  2. That same man also passed a man and a woman who were talking with each other.

B

  1. A man passed him who was talking, e.g. into a cell phone
  2. That same man also passed a man and a woman

That being said, I agree that within the context of the other sentences, the explanation of Oerlekens is the most straightforward. The problem is of course that the word 'talking' has the same form, regardless whether it applies to a man or to a couple. In many languages I think you would be able to see the difference.

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I agree with David. The man passed him; the man also passed a man and a woman. I also think the 'passing' man was the one that was talking. –  user4682 Feb 24 at 20:36
1  
The Catbird Street was published in 1942, so I think it unlikely the man was talking into a cell phone. –  Tyler James Young Feb 24 at 20:49
1  
Since Mr. Martin is mentioned in sentence 1, he is referred to in sentence 2, and the "he" in sentence 3 seems to be Mr. Martin again, it seems unlikely that the wroter wants top draw our attention to a really weird guy that passes by the protagonist, and then some more people, while mysteriously talking to himself, only to completely ignore that weird man afterwards. It is much more likely that the writer simply describes that Mr. Martin was passed by a solitary man (without a pre-war cellphone or talking to voices in is head) and Mr. Martin was also passed by a couple that were talking. –  oerkelens Feb 24 at 21:19
    
↑ Yes, this also. –  Tyler James Young Feb 25 at 19:49

From what I've read of Thurber I would interpret this as:

A man passed him.

then

A man and a woman passed him with the woman talking to the man who was not saying anything himself in reply.

I think that if he had meant that they were having a proper conversation he would have used "were talking" and not "was talking".

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The quote says “a man and a woman, talking”, which has the meaning expressed in oerkelens' answer. –  Tyler James Young Feb 24 at 16:37
    
agreed. I either missed that important comma or it wasn't there when I wrote my reply. –  Craunch Feb 24 at 16:50

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