8

I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other. When you're five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I'm twenty three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It's a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm-you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you're not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it.
   You start to forget words: they're on the tip of your tongue, but instead of eventually dislodging, they stay there. You go upstairs to fetch something, and by the time you get there you can't remember what it was you were after. You call your child by the names of all your other children and finally the dog before you get to his. Sometimes you forget what day it is. And finally you forget the year. (Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants)

What is ‘his’?: your child’s dog? And what does the whole clause mean?

  • It's worth noting that, although I frequently mix-up the names of my children, I've never used a pet's name when trying to address one of my kids. I'd assume the author is attempting humor, and not really relating how she started calling her son 'Fido' by mistake. – J.R. Oct 17 '13 at 19:40
  • My Grandmother (bless her heart) called me, "Sherri, Christy, Vicky, Trisha, Jolene" for years. It happens, but the dog's name is probably a bit of an exaggeration. – Jolenealaska Apr 4 '14 at 18:39
15

The author describes losing mental acuity over time, to the point where she mistakenly calls her son by the wrong name— first calling him by the names of her other children, and if that were not bad enough, by the name of the dog.

To accentuate a sense of being mentally overwhelmed, she has run the words together for literary effect. A few dashes would make the sentence easier to parse:

You call your child by the names of all your other children— and finally [by the name of] the dog— before you get to his [name].

  • Quick comment: dashes are not used in formal British English grammar, but are often used informally in such narratives. – charmer Mar 20 '18 at 12:30
  • My mother once went through the names of her four other children AND TWO OF OUR DOGS before she remembered mine. She wasn't particularly old at the time, just in a hurry/distracted, so it's not just an age-related thing. – Rob Crawford Feb 20 at 18:31

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