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Witchy Speech

Witches and wizards found in fantasy literature reveal themselves as magical not only through their actions and outward appearances but also through their speech. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gandalf adorns his head with a pointy gray hat and carries a wooden staff. The witches in Whispering to Witches by Anna Dale dress in black and send messages on leaves to other covens with windsprites. Dumbledore has silver hair that tucks into the belt of his purple robes and extinguishes streetlights with a Put-Outer in the Harry Potter series. However, these witches and wizards clearly also sound witchy. Thus, through their witchy speech, which follows the prescriptive grammar of the highest registers, witches and wizards expose their magical natures.

During his exhaustive search for information about Nicolas Flamel in Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry stumbles upon the Mirror of Erised. After Dumbledore explains the image the mirror shows, Harry wants to know what Dumbledore sees when the headmaster looks in it. When Dumbledore tells Harry that he sees himself holding a pair of socks, Harry stares at the headmaster in reply. Dumbledore then continues, “One can never have enough socks.” (Stone 214) One, which is the subject of the sentence, is an impersonal pronoun. As Lester Faigley suggests in The Brief Penguin Handbook, the nominative case of the impersonal pronoun one should be avoided for stylistic and agreement problems (411). He also suggests substituting one with the second-person personal pronoun you for better sentence construction (Faigley 411). Lester Faigley, however, is a dolt. One as a pronoun is used to refer to an unspecified person. For example, the way in which Dumbledore uses one means a human being can never have enough socks. He is not speaking to or about a specific person or persons. If he were making the statement in front of a crowd, then Dumbledore would be gesturing towards his audience but to no one in particular. Thus, Dumbledore follows the prescriptive grammar of the highest registers, which instructs one and only one can be used as an impersonal pronoun.

Conversely, you is a personal pronoun that refers to a specific person, most typically the person to whom the speaker is talking. If Dumbledore used you instead of one, he would be speaking about Harry, meaning that Harry can never have enough socks. When Faigley suggests replacing the impersonal pronoun one with the personal pronoun you (Faigley 411), he is exemplifying the shift in English grammar to including you in the list of impersonal pronouns (“Generic”). Because an overuse of one can sound awkward and unnatural—one must tie one’s shoe before one runs to avoid hurting oneselfyou has taken its place in less formal registers. As such, you can never have enough socks can have the same meaning as one can never have enough socks in all but the highest registers. However, Dumbledore is a wizard. He uses one when is he referring to an unspecified person since only one is acceptable in the most formal and highest academic registers. Dumbledore thus asserts his identity as a wizard through his witchy speech with his use of the impersonal pronoun one.

After Harry escapes from the Chamber in Chamber of Secrets, he questions why the Sorting Hat placed him in Gryffindor House instead of Slytherin House even though he bears a striking likeness to Tom Riddle, who was in Slytherin before transforming into Voldemort. Harry eventually answers his own question by telling Dumbledore that he asked the Sorting Hat not to put him in Slytherin. Dumbledore replies, “Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle.” (Chamber 333) In stating so, Dumbledore follows the traditional style recommendation concerning prepositions by using the phrase different from as opposed to different than. Although different than is commonly used in everyday speech and less formal registers of writing, only different from is acceptable in the highest registers (Hopper 166). However, different than is gaining acceptance when followed by some sort of clause (Felts). For example, if Dumbledore were to change his statement to the way Harry Potter acts is different than the way Tom Riddle acts, then different than is acceptable in all but the highest academic registers because a noun phrase modified by a clause—the way Tom Riddle acts—follows the preposition. Nevertheless, Dumbledore uses the phrase different from, which only is considered correct in the highest registers. As such, he affirms himself as a wizard through his witchy, and thus formal, speech.

When Joe Binks is unable to answer why every copy of Mabel’s Book is missing page five hundred and thirteen while perusing the Midnight Market with Twiggy in Whispering to Witches, the witch behind the book table asks him, “To which coven do you belong?” (Dale 125) In the sentence [1], to which coven is the adverbial complement of the verb phrase do belong because it completes the verb. If changed from an interrogative to a declaration, the statement would read you belong to which coven. In either sentence type, which coven is clearly the object of the preposition to. However, had the witch behind the book table chosen to use the grammar of a lower register, she could have asked the same question but with a slightly different structure: Which coven do you belong to? In such a sentence [2], to is the adverbial complement, and which coven is still the object of the preposition.


Marooned Preposition

However, the object of the preposition is less obvious because it does not directly follow the preposition. When a preposition is lacking or separated from its object, it is considered marooned (Hopper 31). Nevertheless, the preposition and the noun phrase together are still semantically the adverbial complement.

According to prescriptive grammar, although possible and common in English, particularly spoken varieties, marooned prepositions should be avoided in the highest registers. Instead, prepositions should be pied-piped as in the original example of what the witch behind the table asks Joe: “To which coven do you belong?” First described by linguist John R. Ross, pied-piping occurs in a prepositional phrase when a correctly marooned preposition is moved to the fronted position of its object. Objects of pied-piped prepositions always begin with a wh-word: whom, where, whence, whither, which, what, whose, when, and how (“Wh-movement”). Like different from and different than, marooned prepositions are acceptable in lower registers such as everyday speech and informal writing while only pied-piped prepositions are considered corrected in the highest registers such as academia and witchy speech. Therefore, the witch behind the book table in Whispering to Witches narrates her magical nature through her high register of grammar.

During the first meeting of the Dueling Club in Chamber of Secrets, Lockhart loses both his balance and his wand when Snape hits him with a Disarming Charm. But, as always, once Lockhart gathers himself together again, he pompously states, “[Y]es, an excellent idea to show them that, Professor Snape, but if you don’t mind my saying so, it was very obvious what you were about to do.” (Chamber 190-191) In the sentence [3], the function of the verb phrase my saying so is the direct object of the verb phrase don’t mind because my saying so receives the action of the verb. However, the form of the direct object is not a noun phrase as the majority of direct objects are. Instead, the form of the verb phrase my saying so is a gerund (or present participle) phrase, which always contains at least a gerund but also other words that complete the verb phrase. Unlike a typical noun, which is simply a noun, a gerund is a verb in the form of a present participle that acts like a noun (Smith). Saying is the present participle of the verb say and could therefore be a verb, adjective, or gerund. But, because it is performing the function of direct object, which is typically performed by a noun phrase, saying is a gerund.


Since gerund phrases are generated from other sentences (Smith), the example of what Lockhart says to Snape—you don’t mind my saying so—can be peeled apart into two subject-verb-object sentences: I say so and you don’t mind this. In the original sentence, a gerund phrase created from I say so replaces the pronoun this, which is the direct object. To construct the gerund phrase my saying so from I say so, the verb is first conjugated into the present participle (Smith). Like other nouns, gerunds can be preceded by a determiner. In the example you don’t mind my saying so, the gerund saying is determined by the possessive determiner my, which effectively replaces the subject pronoun I to maintain a sense of the subject in the gerund phrase (Smith). According to the traditional rule of prescriptive grammar, only forms such as articles, demonstratives, and possessive determiners [4] can function as determiners for gerunds (Smith).

Possessive Determiners

Like with you as an impersonal pronoun, however, the use of object pronouns [5] as determiners for gerunds is gaining acceptance in all but the highest registers.

Object Pronoun

As such, you don’t mind me saying so would not be considered incorrect in everyday speech and informal writing. The problem with me arises, though, in that the object pronoun me technically becomes the direct object of don’t mind with saying so modifying the pronoun. With me, saying is no longer the direct object. Thus, Lockhart as a proper although pompous wizard uses the prescriptively correct my instead of me, which reflects the high register of witchy speech.

Even though Gandalf convinced Bilbo to accompany the group of dwarves as a burglar on their adventure to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit, the wizard frequently slips away from the travellers. However, after the incident during which the dwarves are almost eaten by three trolls, Gandalf decides to lead the journey for a while. As the group reaches the beginning of the Misty Mountains, he says, “We must not miss the road, or we shall be done for.” (Tolkien 46) In the sentence, Gandalf uses two modal auxiliary verbs, the second of which is shall. Because English does not have a future verb tense, modal verbs such as shall and also will are used to express the future as well as orders and requests. The subtle difference between the two words is that shall indicates command or obligation and will indicates wish or desire (“Shall”). As Gandalf says, if the travellers fail to take the right road through the Misty Mountains, they will be obligated to die because only one path is the correct path. They do not wish to die but rather to reach the Lonely Mountain, which marks the desired destination of their journey, but all other roads except the correct road lead to death. Thus, shall is the correct modal auxiliary verb according to traditional prescriptive grammar because of a mandate to die as opposed to a request.

Along with command or obligation, shall is also used to express futurity for the first person subjects I and we, particularly in England (“Helping”). In fact, while American English leans towards the use of the modal will to indicate futurity for all persons, British English still consistently prefers the modal shall for both the singular and plural first person (Faigley 515). For example, I shall learn the subtle distinction between shall and will” is generally used in England as opposed to “I will learn the subtle distinction between shall and will,” which is likewise more generally used in the United States. Nevertheless, prescriptive grammar for formal writing hitherto indicates that shall should be used for first-person subject and will should be used for second- and third-person subjects to express the future tense. Therefore, shall is correctly used in the statement Gandalf gives Bilbo and the dwarves because the subject of the sentence is the first-person we. In either case—futurity or obligation—Gandalf correctly uses the modal auxiliary verb shall according to the prescriptive grammar of the highest registers and ultimately asserts himself as a wizard through his witchy speech.

In Half-Blood Prince, Narcissa Malfoy sneaks to the very last house on a street called Spinner’s End accompanied by her sister. Before Bellatrix can stop her, Narcissa knocks on the door and is quickly greeted by a pale man with greasy black hair and a hooked nose. Tensely, she whispers through the crack in the door, “May I speak to you?” (Prince 22) Like in the previous “we shall be done for” (Tolkien 46), the distinction between the modals may and can is similar to shall and will. In the highest registers of English, may expresses permission while can expresses ability (“Helping”). Narcissa therefore correctly uses the modal auxiliary verb may to ask for authorization to speak with the man at the door. Dissimilarly, if she were to ask “can I speak to you,” she would be questioning her ability to participate in the physical act of speaking. However, like other areas of English grammar that are dictated by prescriptions from the highest registers, can has completed the shift to also expressing permission in all but the most formal and academic writing (“Helping”). Regardless of its changing definition, Narcissa rejects the modal auxiliary verb can when asking for permission and uses may instead. In doing so, she fortifies through her witchy speech her identity as a witch.

Even though witches and wizards often dress and act in ways that disclose their witchiness, they also reveal their magical natures through their witchy speech. Unlike Muggles in their everyday conversations, Dumbledore correctly uses the impersonal pronoun one as opposed to the personal pronoun you when referring to an unspecified person. Similarly, the bookseller witch at the Midnight Market in Whispering to Witches pied-pipes her prepositions instead of marooning them. Even Gandalf exposes himself as a wizard through his accurate traditional use of the modal auxiliary verb shall. Witches and wizards in fantasy literature not only appear witchy but sound witchy as well because of their absolute adherence to the prescriptive English grammar of the highest registers.


Dale, Anna. Whispering to Witches. Bloomsbury: New York, 2004.
Faigley, Lester. The Brief Penguin Handbook. Pearson Longman: New York, 2003.
Felts, David. “Different from versus Different than.” Grammatically Correct. 4 Oct. 2005. University of Houston-Victoria. 26 Apr. 2006. <http://www.uhv.edu/ac/student/writing/grammartip100405.htm>
“Generic you.” Wikipedia. 24 Apr. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 26 Apr. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generic_you>
“Helping and Modal Auxiliary Verbs.” Guide to Grammar and Writing. Capital Community College Foundation. 27 Apr. 2006. <http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/auxiliary.htm>
Hopper, Paul J. A Short Course in Grammar. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1999.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999.
—. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.
—. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
“Shall and will.” Wikipedia. 11 Apr. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Apr. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shall>
Smith, Dr K. Aaron. Class lecture. Tradition and non-traditional grammars. Illinois State University. 26 Apr. 2006.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Ballantine Books: New York, 1937.
“Wh-movement.” Wikipedia. 9 Feb. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Apr. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wh-movement>

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