How to persuade them?
July 9, 2012 5:47 AM   Subscribe

From "The Call of the Wild".-The sled was broken out. Men were holding their breaths,intensely unconscious of the fact.- Some classmates claim that the fact means that men were holding their breaths, not that the sled was broken. I can't talk them over to my point of view that the fact is that the sled was broken because only my intuition tells me so... How could you persuade them as a native speaker? Or are they correct?
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Based on a quick reading of the passage, the sled being "broken out" isn't indicating that the sled was damaged, but that the sled was being deployed.

As in definition 3.b. here:

break out
1. To become affected with a skin eruption, such as pimples.
2. To develop suddenly and forcefully: Fighting broke out in the prison cells.
a. To ready for action or use: Break out the rifles!
b. To bring forth for consumption: Let's break out the champagne.

I don't think they they could be unaware of that fact. On the other hand, holding one's breath without being aware of it, is a common idiom indicating anticipation or anxiety, which would be consistent with starting out on a sled journey.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 5:54 AM on July 9, 2012 [26 favorites]

I don't think it means the sled was broken. I haven't read Call of the Wild, but to me, if something is "broken out" that means it was got out in preparation to be used, not that it was broken.

The second sentence most naturally is interpreted as "unconscious of the fact that they were holding their breath". Elided elements in English usually have as their referent the most recent element that they could possibly refer to. Clumsy writers sometimes don't do this, but I don't believe the Call of the Wild is considered clumsy writing!
posted by lollusc at 5:56 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

My reading of that sentence (as a native speaker) is that the fact refers to holding their breaths, actually.

It would be strange to say that you're "intensely unconscious" about some piece of information like a broken shed. The sentences around it would probably make the meaning more clear, though.
posted by randomnity at 5:56 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

In this part of the book, when it talks about "breaking out" the sled, it does not mean that the sled has broken. It means the sled is no longer trapped in the ice and snow. The men are unconscious of holding their breath because the act they just witnessed was so surprising.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:57 AM on July 9, 2012 [12 favorites]

The classmates are correct; it's a tense scene and the men don't realize they are holding their breaths. Also, the sled isn't broken as in damaged, it has a heavy load and they're watching to see if the dog can pull it (As in "break free").
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:58 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The story is being told from the point of view of the dog, Buck, who is pulling the sled. Buck throws himself to one side, then the other to break the ice from the sled's runners.

The audience is holding its breath in anticipation, not sure that the dog has broken the sled free from the ice. But Buck is pulling the sled; he knows.
posted by Seppaku at 5:58 AM on July 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

Actually I guess "the fact" doesn't really have an elided element, because it COULD stand alone, but the definite article here means you are meant to assume a referent already stated, and again, good writers keep referents as close as possible to the element that refers to them. Especially if ambiguity might result otherwise.
posted by lollusc at 5:58 AM on July 9, 2012

I remember that passage. The sled had been sitting for a while, and the ice was frozen all around the runners, encasing them so the sled could not move. The dogs were required to exert enough pressure on the harness so as to break the ice (=break the runners out of the ice encasing them) and start the forward motion.

The thing that was broken was the ice around the sled runners. The fact that the men were unconscious of was that they were holding their breaths because of the tension in the air--would the dogs be strong enough for a never-before-seen feat?
posted by Liesl at 5:58 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

In fact Jack London discusses "break out" a few paragraphs earlier in the text:
A quibble arose concerning the phrase "break out." O'Brien contended it was Thornton's privilege to knock the runners loose, leaving Buck to "break it out" from a dead standstill. Matthewson insisted that the phrase included breaking the runners from the frozen grip of the snow. A majority of the men who had witnessed the making of the bet decided in his favor, whereat the odds went up to three to one against Buck.
So O'Brien claims it is just to do with starting the sled moving and Metthewson agrees with this but adds that it explicitly involves disengaging the sled from the ice - if you have just started it moving you have not actually broken out. Note that in neither sense is it proposed that the sled is broken - ie damaged.
posted by rongorongo at 6:17 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The narrator (the dog, Buck) is trying to tell you about three related events:
1. The sled he's pulling breaking free
2. The men holding their breaths
3. The men being unaware that either event #1 or event #2 has occurred.

If it is that the men are unaware that event #1 has occurred, then there is no motivation for event #2 (i.e., why are the men holding their breaths?). If it is that the men are unaware that event #2 has occurred, it makes sense because it would be a result of the intensity of event #2, which is the result of the intensity of event #1.

Event #3 has scope over event #2, both pragmatically and syntactically.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:30 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

They are unconscious of the fact that they're holding their breaths, because they are acutely conscious of the effort to break the sled free from the ice.
posted by musofire at 6:40 AM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

In the paragraph in question, we read "The crackling turned into a snapping, the sled pivoting and the runners slipping and grating several inches to the side. The sled was broken out". It seems unlikely that the men would have missed all this snapping and grating and movement, when they are all clearly focused on the contest.

Further down we read "... as the sled gained momentum, (...) it was moving steadily along (...) Men gasped and began to breath again, unaware that for a moment they had ceased to breathe".

So whether or not they noticed the breaking free from the ice, they certainly were holding their breath without knowing about it.
posted by emilyw at 6:51 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The previous line is "The crackling turned into a snapping, the sled pivoting and the runners slipping and grating several inches to the side."

There had been discussion a few paragraphs earlier about what would constitute "breaking out" for this contest. "Several inches" of movement is noted. It is not defensible to say that the men had not noticed the breaking out. "Men were holding their breaths,intensely unconscious of the fact," stands alone: they did not realize they were holding their breaths.

"Intensely unconscious," is a grievous misuse of the English language.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:07 AM on July 9, 2012

For those who want to read the full passage, here's the chapter where the passage is found. (The link at the top of the thread is to the wrong chapter.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:14 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Intensely unconscious," is a grievous misuse of the English language.

Jack London is one of the great English language stylists ever. It would certainly be inappropriate to use an oxymoronic* phrase like "intensely unconscious" in, say, a business report to a supervisor or in a casual conversation.

However, in a literary short story, an oxymoronic phrase like this is part of the artistic effect. London is writing from the point of view of a dog describing men who are in an extreme situation, challenged by nature. The paradoxical language of "intensely unconscious" highlights the unusualness of the situation, where the normal rules do not apply.

*mizukko, if you haven't encountered the word "oxymoron" yet, it's the English word for a figure of speech where two seeming opposites are brought together. "Intensely unconscious" is an oxymoron, because intensity and unconsciousness are opposites. Famous literary examples include the English writer Charles Lamb's description of a smuggler as "the only honest thief."
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:04 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Of course I meant "novella" when I wrote "short story" above! D'oh!

mizukko, this is an interesting question, because it really highlights the ways literary language can differ from the language in everyday use. It's challenging for native and non-native speakers of English alike.

The difficulty level is also heightened because there are many idioms specific to the Yukon and other extreme northern territories used in "The Call of the Wild"---the "breaking out" the sled is one idiom that definitely can be confusing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:18 AM on July 9, 2012

As loads of commentators have said, 'the fact' is the fact that they're holding their breath but don't notice because they're so focused on what Buck is doing.

And there's lots of non-standard language in the chapter: the dialect stuff alone is eccentric in the extreme. It's still well written (although I really wish I liked London -- I never have).
posted by jrochest at 2:48 PM on July 9, 2012

Thank you everyone, I found that I was mistaken. Sigh.
posted by mizukko at 4:43 AM on July 18, 2012

Don't worry; even native speakers misinterpret things sometimes. And the distinction between breaking and breaking out is not very obvious if you are new to the language.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:42 PM on July 18, 2012

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