Do do, that that, and how my literary mistress botched it bad

If the boy is the father to the man, then the simple crude vulgarity of childhood prattle is the father to a more refined adult sensibility. At least that’s how I justify to myself the uproarious delight I feel when someone uses the gorgeously awkward expression: “do do” — as in, “When you do do decide to go to the store…” or “Make sure that if you do do this, that you don’t overdo it in polite company.”

Whenever I hear this construction used — rewardingly often, I might add — by my family and friends, or by a new client in a meeting, or even by a complete stranger at a nearby table at lunch, I always wink at them and chuckle, “You just said do do.” Pathetic, I know. But it makes me laugh, and I like to laugh a lot, even at the cost of sacrificing the half-way decent opinions of others’. It’s worth it, it really is.

While this may be my favorite awkward construction, it shares a syntactical similarity with my least favorite one, by a custom country mile: “that that.” Damn, that’s ugly, dreadfully so. On the face of it, it looks like an anagram, but it’s not, so it breeds a kind of visual frustration. And although it has promising onomatopoetic properties, nothing really sounds like it. Cupboards don’t clatter that that, crows don’t squawk that that, and doors don’t sound that that when you knock knock who’s there on them. Worst of all, you can’t pun on life’s second greatest physiological process with that that. It’s dead to possibility.

Now, even a novelist of Wharton’s stature, whose prose is a remarkably supple instrument, with which she effortlessly presents complex social situations and trenchant psychological observation, even Wharton, who is my literary mistress and, with my wife’s full permission, my “hall pass,” beating out such beauties as Isabella Rosellini and Cate Blanchett, even Wharton can botch a sentence something terrible, bless her soul.

In The Custom of the Country, Ralph Marvell, who learns that his wife Undine is enjoying a drawing-room party, is jovially cautioned by Mrs. Shallum not to stick his husbandly nose into the soiree: “I don’t think husbands are wanted!” 

Something isn’t wanted, that’s for sure. And then we get this bit of mischief from Wharton. “Ralph laughing rejoined that that was just the moment for them to appear….” Husbands, that is.

Or that that.

4 Responses to Do do, that that, and how my literary mistress botched it bad

  1. ‘had had’ is a similar one – I find myself using it more than I would like. As in, “I had had enough of blogging by then…” etc.

  2. Very funny Kevin – even ignoring the boyish scatalogical humour. Must say I often try to work around these constructions. Not sure I always achieve it, but I do my best to avoid them. The do trip one up rather don’t they – and anyhow, you then avoid that pesky little MsWord Checker pulling you up on a “repeated word”!

  3. sshaver says:

    I bet there’s a Greek phrase for that construction.

    But I only speak Texan, not ancient Greek.

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