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. . . ,though it [a strange laugh] originated but in one [chamber], and I could have pointed out the door whence the accents issued. (Jane Eyre)

When I re-write the sentence: - and I could point out the door whence the accents issued, it seems somewhat awkward. Is it strange? If yes, what’s the reason?

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    It sounds okay to me. By the way, people don't say whence much anymore, so I'd avoid it unless you want to sound old-fashioned or very formal. – snailboat Mar 11 '13 at 1:06
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Slightly more context helps with understanding Charlotte Brontë's rationale for the phrase “the door whence the accents issued”:

[The laugh] passed off in a clamorous peal that seemed to wake an echo in every lonely chamber; though it originated but in one, and I could have pointed out the door whence the accents issued.

The first part of the sentence says the strange laugh seemed to echo in all the rooms of the long, narrow, low, and dim passage that Jane is passing through when she hears the laugh. The last part indicates that she could identify which room the laugh came from. It is not clumsy to talk about sounds coming from a room. Usually it is clumsy to talk about sounds coming from a door. In this case, however, “the door” stands for the room where the laugh began.

The rephrasing “and I could point out the door whence the accents issued” would fit, and I think be natural enough. I imagine that Brontë's phrasing is slightly more careful and hints at a bit of delicacy on Jane's part: while she “could have pointed out the door” she did not do so or did not care to do so. “I could point out the door” does not hint at that.

  • Only the last two sentences seem relevant to the question as posed. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '13 at 3:03
  • @FumbleFingers, Much of the apparent awkwardness of “I could point out the door whence the accents issued” stems from its “door whence the accents issued” phrase, and in my first paragraphs I explain why, in context, it isn't awkward. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Mar 11 '13 at 3:57
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Jane says "I could have pointed out the door" firstly because she didn't actually point it out, but secondly because at the time, she didn't even think of so doing. I'm not reading the passage to check, but quite possibly she was on her own. Why would she point out the door? Who to? (I know - the reader).

Using conditional perfect emphasises the fact that it didn't happen. She's only telling us she could have, so we know the source of the laugh was close, and Jane knew exactly which room it was coming from.

If she'd said "I could point out the door", that wouldn't really be right. I'm sure in common parlance some people would use this form in such contexts, but it's a bit sloppy. She could point out the door right now, or tomorrow. In fact, sometimes we say I could [do X] when we mean I was able to, and in fact I did [X]. It's very loose phrasing that doesn't really specify when you could have done it - or even if you did it.

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