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Elena Semino, Lancaster

Language, Mind and Autism in Mark

Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog
in the Night-Time1
Abstract: In this chapter I adopt a linguistic approach to Mark Haddon’s The
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) in order to account for one of
the most central aspects of readers’ interpretation of the novel – the perception
that the protagonist and first-person narrator, Christopher Boone, has an autistic-
spectrum disorder, usually identified as Asperger’s syndrome. I begin by consid-
ering the variety of kinds of information that Christopher provides about himself,
either directly or via the voices of other characters. I then discuss distinctive
choices and patterns in vocabulary, grammar, figurative language, deixis, speech
presentation and interactional behaviour. I argue that these patterns contribute to
or, minimally, are consistent with the inference that Christopher has an autistic-
spectrum disorder. Where relevant, I supplement traditional stylistic analysis
with quantitative evidence gained by applying corpus-linguistic methods to the

1 Introduction

In this chapter I adopt a linguistic approach to Mark Haddon’s The Curious

Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in order to account for one of the most central
aspects of readers’ interpretation of the novel – the perception that the protago-
nist and first-person narrator has an autistic-spectrum disorder, usually identified
as Asperger’s syndrome. The novel appeared in 2003 and has received several
literary prizes, including The Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the Book-
trust Teenage Fiction Award. It is part of a growing trend in ‘crossover fiction’,
namely, novels and stories that are aimed at a readership including both older
children and adults (it was published in two different covers, for adults and
children) (see Walsh 2007).
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (hereafter The Curious
Incident) is narrated by fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. Christopher explains

1 Earlier versions of some sections of this chapter have appeared in Semino (2005), Semino
(2007) and Semino (2011).
280 Elena Semino

that he has been encouraged to write a novel by Siobhan, his favourite teacher at
the special-needs school he attends. However, as he does not like “proper novels”
(Haddon 2003: 5),2 he has decided to write an autobiographical murder mystery
novel, that chronicles his attempt to discover who killed his next-door neigh-
bour’s dog, Wellington. As the story progresses, Christopher not only discovers
the identity of Wellington’s murderer but much else besides, and goes through
several traumatic experiences. In addition, Christopher’s narrative reflects and
reveals his own peculiarities, and particularly the challenges and insights that
result from having a mind that clearly works in a way that cannot be straightfor-
wardly described as ‘normal’. The words ‘autism’ and ‘Asperger’ never occur in
the novel, but Christopher is normally described in these terms by readers,
reviewers, critics, Haddon himself and the book’s back cover. More importantly,
the novel has been almost universally praised for providing a realistic and moving
representation of the workings of an autistic mind. For example, the following
comment was posted on an online Question-Answer session with the author that
was conducted on the website of the UK Guardian newspaper in January 2004:

Mark, I read your book last week and was so moved I can barely find the words. My 19-year
old son has Asperger’s Syndrome, although he is more socially functional than Christopher.
I believe you have done more to advance understanding of this form of autism than all the
textbooks and professional journals ever written. I have bought a second copy of the book to
lend to anyone who asks, “What exactly is wrong with him?” That’s the first answer they
need: There’s nothing “wrong” – he just sees the world differently, and you’ve made that
very clear.3

Perhaps more unusually, the novel has been praised in similar terms by specia-
lists in cognitive disorders, as, for example, in the following extract from a review
that appeared in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry:

The book brilliantly portrays the mind and behaviour of a person with autism without being
sentimental or condescending and helps the reader understand the difficulties that such an
individual has with information overload, social relationships, and emotional abstractions.
[…] This text is recommended to all mental health professionals, especially those who are
likely to come into contact with patients with autistic spectrum disorders. Parents who must
come to terms with a new diagnosis in an offspring might find Christopher’s story particu-
larly helpful. (Andrade 2007: 474)

2 All references to the novel are to this edition and will henceforth be referred to by page number
3 (accessed 23 September
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 281

The novel has also been criticised, however, for contributing to the folk notion
that people with autistic-spectrum disorders tend to be savants (Christopher is a
talented mathematician), as, for example, the character famously played by
Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man (see Draaisma 2009). Haddon himself, on
the other hand, has claimed to have only “what you might call an interested
layperson’s knowledge of autism and Asperger’s”4 and has expressed his view of
the main theme of the novel as follows: “[I]f anything it’s a novel about difference,
about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing
way. it’s as much a novel about us as it is about christopher.”5
What makes The Curious Incident interesting for my purposes is the consider-
able amount of evidence that many readers of the novel form a realistic impres-
sion of a mind that works in an unusual way, which they tend to see as a
consequence of an autistic-spectrum disorder.6 As I have mentioned, Christopher
is often more specifically described as having Asperger’s syndrome, a form of
higher-functioning autism whose sufferers typically have problems with commu-
nication, social relationships and imagination, even though they have near-
normal language development and average-to-high levels of intelligence. I am
specifically concerned with how the narratological and linguistic characteristics
of the novel make these readers’ reactions possible. My chapter is therefore
influenced by the recent focus in narratology on the representation of ‘mind’ and
‘fictional mental functioning’ (e.g. Margolin 2003, Palmer 2004, Fludernik 1996),
and by the tradition within stylistics for the study of ‘mind style’ in fiction –
defined by Fowler as “any distinctive linguistic representation of an individual
mental self” (1977: 103).
Margolin (2003), in particular, has pointed out “the preference of much
literature for nonstandard forms of cognitive functioning, be they rare or margin-
al, deviant, or involving a failure, breakdown, or lack of standard patterns” (287).
Leech and Short (1981) have proposed a cline from “natural”, “uncontrived” mind
styles at one end, to, at the other end, mind styles, “which clearly impose an
unorthodox conception of the fictional world” (151), as in the case of Lok in
Golding’s The Inheritors, for example (Halliday 1971). The Curious Incident is in
fact one of several recent novels in English that feature protagonists with autistic-

4 (accessed 23 September

5 Spellings as in original, from the author’s blog:
autism (accessed 23 September 2011).
6 Of course, some readers may come to this conclusion independently while reading the novel.
Other readers may be aware that the protagonist is described as autistic before they read the novel.
Other readers may ignore or resist the potential description of Christopher as autistic.
282 Elena Semino

spectrum disorders (see Greenwell 2004). In Leech and Short’s terms, Christo-
pher’s narrative projects a mind style that arguably lies between the middle of the
cline and the ‘unorthodox’ end. In this chapter, I discuss a range of aspects of the
language of The Curious Incident that, I propose, contribute to the readers’
perception that Christopher’s mind works in an unusual way, and to the attribu-
tion to him of an autistic-spectrum disorder.
I begin by considering the variety of kinds of information that Christopher
provides about himself, either directly or via the voices of other characters. I then
discuss distinctive choices and patterns in vocabulary, grammar, figurative lan-
guage, deixis, speech presentation and interactional behaviour. I argue that these
patterns contribute to or, minimally, are consistent with the inference that Chris-
topher has an autistic-spectrum disorder. Where relevant, I supplement tradi-
tional stylistic analysis with quantitative evidence gained by applying corpus-
linguistic methods to the novel (see also Archer 2007, Mahlberg 2007, Semino and
Short 2004).

2 Self-Presentation and Descriptions of Behaviour

As the novel’s narrator, Christopher often engages in descriptions of himself. In

Culpeper’s (2001) terms, part of Christopher’s characterisation in the novel is
achieved explicitly via ‘self-presentation’. For example, early in the novel Chris-
topher mentions that he has “behavioural problems”, and lists 18 specific
problems, including: “Not talking to people for a long time”, “Not liking being
touched”, “Groaning”, “Not noticing that people are angry with me”, “Not
smiling” and “Getting cross that someone has moved the furniture” (59–60).
Throughout the story, readers are exposed to instances of the behaviours or
habits mentioned by Christopher. For example, early in the novel Christopher
describes how he hit a policeman because he had touched him, which resulted
in Christopher being arrested and briefly detained at the local police station.
Similarly, Christopher often explicitly mentions his exceptional abilities in
mathematics and science, and his narrative provides evidence in support of his
claim: he often includes mathematical digressions in his narrative, and tells of
how, at a younger age than normal, he achieved an A grade in an A Level exam
in mathematics.
The novel also contains many examples of what Culpeper (2001) calls ‘other
presentation’ of Christopher, i.e. stretches of text where Christopher reports what
others say about him. For example, he is outraged by the fact that the brother of
one of the other pupils at his school “said that I would only ever get a job
collecting supermarket trollies or cleaning out donkey shit at an animal sanctu-
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 283

ary” (33). On a different occasion, he reports being described as a “prize speci-

men” (188) by a policeman who had engaged him in conversation while Christo-
pher was struggling to find his way in a railway station.
Readers (and particularly adult readers) are likely to make inferences about
Christopher’s characteristics that go beyond what he or others say about him. For
example, the claim that he gets upset when the furniture in his house is moved
is likely to strengthen readers’ impression that Christopher is unusually fond of
routine, and distinctly unable to cope with variations to what he is used to. This
may in turn be perceived to be consistent with what readers may know about
people with certain types of cognitive challenges, including autistic-spectrum
disorders. A particularly important episode in this respect occurs just before the
middle of the novel. Christopher recalls a conversation he had with a teacher as a
small child and explains his answers to her questions as follows:

That was because when I was little I did not understand about other people having minds.
And Julie said to Mother and Father that I would always find this very difficult. But I don’t
find this very difficult now. Because I decided that it was a kind of puzzle, and if something
is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it. (145)

Some readers may recognise the teacher’s questions as a task aimed to check
whether a child has what is known as a ‘Theory of Mind’ problem, which is
associated with autistic-spectrum disorders: the inability to understand that
others have minds that are separate from one’s own, and to attribute mental
states to others (e.g. Baron-Cohen 1995, Zunshine 2006). The combination of
exceptional mathematical abilities with some difficulties in understanding and
interacting with others is central to lay notions of people with autism. As I
mentioned earlier, the novel has been criticised for contributing to the view that
cognitive and social limitations in people with autistic-spectrum disorders tend to
be compensated for by outstanding abilities elsewhere (see Draaisma 2009).
In addition, Christopher’s narrative provides a wealth of what Culpeper
(2001) calls ‘implicit cues’ to his characterisation, namely, a variety of more
indirect sources of inferences about Christopher’s characteristics, and especially
about the workings of his mind. These implicit cues primarily involve the ways in
which Christopher uses language, both as a narrator and as a character in his own
story. To use Fowler’s terms, in the rest of the chapter, I will show how, in the
novel, “[c]umulatively, consistent structural options, agreeing in cutting the pre-
sented world to one pattern or another, give rise to an impression of a world-view,
what I shall call a ‘mind style’” (1977: 76).
284 Elena Semino

3 Vocabulary

Christopher’s narrative includes several episodes where it becomes clear that he

does not know the meanings of common lexical items that would normally be
familiar to a fifteen-year-old. For example, he has to check that ‘quid’ means
‘pound’ in relation to UK currency (187); he does not know what ‘single’ and
‘return’ mean in relation to train tickets (189); and he refers to a credit card slip
as “a little bit of paper to sign” (188). In Fowler’s (1986) terms, this suggests
some degree of ‘underlexicalisation’: a verbal repertoire that is more limited
than normal, suggesting the lack of concepts that are generally available. The
particular gaps that Haddon chooses to highlight in Christopher’s vocabulary
are not always, strictly speaking, plausible and consistent (e.g. it is unlikely
that someone like Christopher would not be familiar with ‘quid’, and he does
seem to know exactly how bank cards work). However, sufficient indications
are given for readers to gain the impression that Christopher’s vocabulary is
unusually restricted in some areas, because of his cognitive and social difficul-
ties, and of the resulting limitations to the range of experiences that he has
The relative simplicity of Christopher’s vocabulary is confirmed by the type-
token ratio in the novel, which is a measure of how varied the vocabulary is.
According to the Wordlist facility in WordSmith Tools (Scott 1999), the type-token
ratio in the approximately 62,000 words in The Curious Incident is 6.68. This is
lower than, for example, in the fiction section of the corpus described in Semino
and Short (2004) (approximately 80,000 words of twentieth-century fiction),
where the type-token ratio is 12.09. In other words, the vocabulary in the novel is
considerably less varied than in the fiction corpus.
Christopher’s vocabulary is not, however, consistently simple or limited.
When he talks about the scientific topics that reflect his interests and talents, he
exhibits what Fowler (1986) calls ‘overlexicalisation’ – the availability of an
unusually large number of specialised lexical items in particular areas. Christo-
pher only uses prime numbers for numbering his chapters (i.e. 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.)
and, as I have already mentioned, discusses a variety of mathematical formulae
and problems in the course of the book. In addition, he occasionally switches into
a technical scientific register, both as a narrator and as a character. For example,
he describes one of his favourite videos as follows:

(1) The video was about the sea creatures who live around sulphur chimneys, which are
underwater volcanoes where gases are ejected from the earth’s crust into the water. Scien-
tists never expected there to be any living organisms there because it was so hot and so
poisonous, but there are whole ecosystems there. (100)
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 285

Similarly, he rephrases a neighbour’s description of Battenberg cakes using

precise geometrical vocabulary:

(2) And she said, “[…]. And what about Battenberg?”

And I said, “I don’t know because I don’t know what Battenberg is.”
She said, “It’s a kind of cake. It has four pink and yellow squares in the middle and it
has marzipan icing round the edge.”
And I said, “Is it a long cake with a square cross-section which is divided into equally
sized, alternately coloured squares?”
And she said, “Yes, I think you could probably describe it like that.” (52–3)

This unevenness in Christopher’s vocabulary does not have to be entirely consis-

tent, nor medically accurate, in order to create the impression that he is unable to
function properly in relatively mundane situations, but has ‘prodigy’ qualities in
a few specific areas. In the case of the conversation with the neighbour, humorous
effects can also result from Christopher inappropriately using overly technical
vocabulary to describe a type of cake in an informal interaction.
In order to gain a further overview of the lexis used in The Curious Incident, I
used the Keyword facility in the online corpus-comparison tool Wmatrix to
compare the list of words in the novel with the list of words in the Imaginative
Writing section of the Sampler of the British National Corpus (BNC) which con-
tains approximately 233,000 words. The output of the tool is a list of words in the
text under analysis, starting with those that are ‘overused’ to the highest level of
statistical significance as opposed to the larger reference corpus. In corpus
linguistics, the words that are overused to a statistically significant extent in a
particular set of data as compared with a relevant larger corpus are known as ‘key
words’. The top five key words in the novel are: ‘and’, ‘I’, ‘because’, ‘father’, ‘said’.
As I have mentioned, Christopher lives with his father for most of the novel, which
explains why ‘father’ is used unusually frequently. I will account for the overuse
of the other four words in the rest of the chapter.

4 Grammar

A consideration of Christopher’s use of grammatical structures reveals similar

patterns to what I have noted for vocabulary. By and large, Christopher’s sen-
tences rely on coordination much more than subordination. The overuse of ‘and’
in the novel as compared with the Imaginative Writing corpus is indeed due to the
fact that Christopher tends to use ‘and’ to connect phrases and clauses. He also
frequently begins his sentences with ‘and’. The extract below is representative of
Christopher’s reliance on ‘and’ (all occurrences of ‘and’ are in bold):
286 Elena Semino

(3) There were lots of people on the train, and I didn’t like that, because I don’t like lots of
people I don’t know and I hate it even more if I am stuck in a room with lots of people I don’t
know, and a train is like a room and you can’t get out of it when it’s moving. And it made
me think of when I had to come home in the car from school one day because the bus had
broken down and Mother came and picked me up and Mrs Peters asked Mother if she could
take Jack and Polly home because their mothers couldn’t come and pick them up, and
Mother said yes. But I started screaming in the car because there were too many people in it
and Jack and Polly weren’t in my class and Jack bangs his head on things and makes a
noise like an animal, and I tried to get out of the car, but it was still going along and I fell
out onto the road and I had to have stitches in my head and they had to shave the hair off
and it took 3 months for it to grow back to the way it was before. (196)

The use of ‘and’ in this extract is more typical of speech than of writing, and is
reminiscent of child-like speech. Indeed, it has been noted that a high frequency
of ‘and’ in fiction is one of the devices that is associated with child-narrators, or
with characters/narrators who have child-like minds, such as Benjy in Faulkner’s
The Sound and the Fury (e.g. Leech and Short 1981: 165). Extract (3) also contains
four instances of the conjunction ‘because’, which is also overused in the novel as
compared with the Imaginative Writing corpus. ‘Because’ is a relatively basic
subordinating conjunction, and its high frequency in the novel reflects Christo-
pher’s concern for cause-effect relationships, and his tendency to spell out in
detail explanations for facts and events.
As I noticed in relation to lexis, however, Christopher’s grammatical struc-
tures exhibit greater complexity in some of the stretches of text where he talks
about topics of a scientific nature that particularly interest him. This can be seen,
for example, in extracts (1) and (2) above, which also show Christopher’s over-
lexicalisation in, respectively marine biology and geometry. Both the sentences
that make up extract (1) are longer than the novel’s average sentence length of
17.61 words (29 and 24 words respectively). The first sentence contain three rela-
tive clauses, while the second sentence includes, amongst others, a subordinate
clause with the formal and slightly archaic structure ‘there to be’. In extract (2)
Christopher’s description of Battenberg cake consists of a 16-word noun phrase
(beginning “a long cake”).
These occasional switches to greater grammatical complexity are less likely
to be consciously noticed by readers than changes in lexical complexity. None-
theless, the greater complexity of these extracts may contribute to the general
impressions that Christopher sometimes switches to a different style, and possi-
bly to a more competent and confident persona, when he talks about topics he
has a special interest and talent in. It is also possible, of course, for Haddon to
be criticised for inconsistency, by arguing that, for example, someone who
ordinarily expresses himself as Christopher does would not be able to use
structures such as ‘there to be’. Conversely, such occasional shifts to a more
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 287

complex and formal style could be explained and made coherent with the
general representation of Christopher as being affected by an autistic-spectrum
disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome. For example, extract (1) could be read as
a verbatim quotation on Christopher’s part of an extract from the video itself.
Exceptional powers of memory are a characteristic of high-functioning autism,
and Christopher explicitly mentions that he is “really good at remembering
things”, as his memory is “like a film” (96). I will return to this point below.
Overall, the grammatical patterns and contrasts in Christopher’s narrative are
consistent with what I have pointed out in relation to lexis: they suggest a mind
that is relatively simplistic and child-like in some respects, but exceptionally
able in a few areas.

5 Figurative Language

As I mentioned earlier, throughout his narrative, Christopher often consciously

reflects on his own difficulties and peculiarities, sometimes via metalinguistic or
metanarrative comments. These include his references to the problems he has
understanding other people’s use of metaphor:

(4) The second main reason [why Christopher finds people confusing] is that people often
talk using metaphors. These are examples of metaphors

I laughed my socks off.

He was the apple of her eye.
They had a skeleton in the cupboard.
We had a real pig of a day.
The dog was stone dead.

[…] I think it [metaphor] should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do
not have skeletons in their cupboards. (19–20; emphasis in original)

This explicit metalinguistic observation is supported by a few episodes in the

novel where Christopher fails to understand metaphorical expressions of the kind
mentioned in the extract above, such as “I’m going to hit the hay” and “It’s brass
monkeys out there” (55). In contrast, Christopher explicitly approves of simile,
because, unlike metaphor, it “is not a lie” (22), and indeed often uses complex
similes in his narrative, especially when trying to express the workings of his own
Interestingly, the examples of metaphorical expressions that Haddon uses to
illustrate Christopher’s difficulties tend to be rather opaque metaphorical idioms
(e.g. “apple of her eye”, “brass monkeys”), which readers can easily perceive as
288 Elena Semino

metaphorical and as potentially confusing. The fact that Christopher reports

several instances of communicative problems due to the use of similar expres-
sions provides sufficient systematicity for readers to gain a convincing sense that
he has a problem with metaphor. Similarly, his reflections on similes foreground
the difference between metaphors and explicit comparisons such as similes, and
justify Christopher’s ability to use simile in a sophisticated and often highly
conscious way, as in the extract below:

(5) He was asking too many questions and he was asking them too quickly. They were
stacking up in my head like loaves in the factory where Uncle Terry works. The factory is a
bakery and he operates the slicing machines. And sometimes the slicer is not working fast
enough but the bread keeps coming and there is a blockage. I sometimes think of my mind
as a machine, but not always as a bread-slicing machine. It makes it easier to explain to
other people what is going on inside it. (8)

Not surprisingly, however, the representation of Christopher’s relationship with

figurative language is not guided by medical research on autism generally and
Asperger’s syndrome in particular (e.g. Happé 1995, Norbury 2005), nor is it
consistent throughout the novel. For example, Christopher both understands
and uses not just many conventional metaphorical expressions such as ‘stay out
of other people’s business’, but also more novel expressions like ‘detach one’s
mind at will’ (which he reads in one of his favourite Sherlock Holmes novels). In
other words, Haddon brilliantly exploits both the folk psychological notion that
autistic people have problems with metaphor, and a folk linguistic view of
metaphor as a salient and creative use of language which involves stating
something that is obviously untrue. As a consequence, he succeeds in making
Christopher’s problems believable without attempting to achieve accuracy in
medical terms, or complete consistency in terms of the linguistic characteristics
of the narrative. While, as Fowler (1986) and Leech and Short (1981) have stated,
the projection of mind style does require some degree of systematicity in the use
of distinctive linguistic patterns, this systematicity does not need to be perfect
and complete in order to achieve realism. In fact, complete systematicity (as
well as medical accuracy) would often be incompatible with comprehensibility
and with the creation of empathy and aesthetic effects in fiction (see also
Semino 2007).
In addition, as example (5) shows, Christopher repeatedly uses elaborate
similes or analogies that describe his own cognitive processes in terms of the
workings of different kinds of machines. This also applies to the following
passages from the novel:
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 289

(6) My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the
conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what
they smelled like, because my memory has a smelltrack which is like a soundtrack.
And when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and fast
Forward and Pause like on a video recorder, but more like a DVD because I don’t have to
Rewind through everything in between to get to a memory of something a long time ago.
And there are no buttons, either, because it is happening in my head.
If someone says to me, “Christopher, tell me what your mother was like,” I can Rewind
to lots of different scenes and say what she was like in those scenes. (96)

(7) And when I am in a new place, because I see everything, it is like when a computer is
doing too many things at the same time and the central processor unit is blocked up and
there isn’t any space left to think about other things. […] And sometimes, when I am in a new
place and there are lots of people there it is like a computer crashing and I have to close my
eyes and put my hands over my ears and groan, which is like pressing CTRL + ALT + DEL
and shutting down programs and turning the computer off and rebooting so that I can
remember what I am doing and where I am meant to be going. (177–8)

Metaphors to do with machinery, and with computers more specifically, are

conventionally used in English to describe cognitive processes and the mind
generally, as in the case of expressions such as “My mind just isn’t operating
today” and “I’m a little rusty today” (see Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 27–8; italics in
original). However, Christopher’s similes are strikingly original in terms of the
specific comparisons he makes, and of the linguistic expressions he uses. This
can be perceived as consistent with other aspects of his characterisation. He has a
better understanding of technology than of the minds of human beings, and he
therefore sometimes exploits his knowledge of the former to make sense of the
latter (cf. Bromden in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Semino and
Swindlehurst 1996]). In addition, the use of creative mechanistic imagery for the
workings of Christopher’s minds may be perceived as appropriate to the descrip-
tion of the mind of someone with an autistic-spectrum disorder, as machinery
metaphors tend to emphasize predictability and rationality over unpredictability
and the emotions.

6 Person Deixis

As I mentioned earlier, a comparison between the novel and the Imaginative

Writing section of the BNC Sampler conducted by means of the Wmatrix online
tool revealed that the subject pronoun ‘I’ is the second top key word in the novel:
it occurs over 2,000 times in the approximately 62,000 word contained in novel.
This finding is in fact best discussed as part of a pattern that involves person
deixis more generally, namely, the pronouns used to make references to partici-
290 Elena Semino

pants in communication (e.g. Lyons 1977). In addition to ‘I’, the first-person

deictic expressions ‘me’ and ‘my’ were also found to be overused in the same
comparison.7 In contrast, first-person plural pronouns and second-person pro-
nouns are used unusually infrequently by Christopher. In this section I discuss
these findings in more detail.
It could be objected that the high frequency of first-person pronouns in
comparison with the Imaginative Writing section of the BNC Sampler could
simply be due to the fact that The Curious Incident is a first-person narrative.
However, ‘I’ was revealed to be the third top key word even when the novel was
compared with the 40,000-word corpus of first-person twentieth-century fiction
created as part of the project discussed in Semino and Short (2004). ‘My’ was also
found to be overused in this second comparison. In other words, the frequency of
first-person singular pronouns in Haddon’s novel is unusually high, even as
compared with other examples of first-person fiction. This applies particularly
clearly to the subject pronoun ‘I’. I would argue that this contributes to the
impression that Christopher is unusually focused on himself, and, more specifi-
cally, on his own actions and thoughts, which may in turn contribute to the
impression that he has an autistic-spectrum disorder. In addition, his use of plural
first-person pronouns suggests some degree of alienation from others.
The comparison between The Curious Incident and the Imaginative Writing
section of the BNC Sampler revealed that the pronoun ‘we’ is the twenty-third
most underused word: it is used unusually infrequently in the novel as compared
with the reference corpus. The corresponding object pronoun ‘us’ and possessive
determiner ‘our’ are also underused. ‘We’ and ‘our’ were also found to be under-
used when the novel was compared with the first-person fiction corpus. This
could be taken as an indication that Christopher’s sense of commonality with
others is less evident in the novel than is the case in other fictional texts.
An examination of a concordance of ‘we’ in the novel revealed a further
relevant pattern in Christopher’s use of this pronoun. Christopher almost exclu-
sively uses ‘we’ as the subject of verbs indicating what Halliday (1985) calls
‘material processes’, namely verbs evoking physical actions, such as ‘we drove
off’, ‘we went for a walk’. Conversely, Christopher does not use expressions such as
‘we felt’, ‘we decided’, ‘we thought’: he does not use ‘we’ as the subject of verbs
indicating what Halliday calls ‘mental processes’, namely verbs evoking cognitive
and emotional states and changes. The only exception to this pattern are cases of
the ‘generic’ use of ‘we’ to refer to people generally, which Christopher primarily

7 All results reported in this section reach a level of statistical significance of 99 per cent (p <
0.01) or above.
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 291

employs when discussing knowledge about scientific topics, as in “because when

we look up into the sky at night there will be no darkness” (13). In contrast, the
first-person fiction corpus (which, it should be noted, is smaller in terms of word
count than The Curious Incident) contains expressions such as: ‘But we still love
the place for itself’, ‘the experience we had shared’, ‘I think we liked it that way
because both of us had a feeling that the meetings should be something of a secret’.
In Palmer’s (2004) terms, these kinds of expressions are one of the textual indica-
tors of ‘intermentality’, the attribution of shared internal states to groups consist-
ing of more than one person, or, in this case, of groups consisting of the speaker/
narrator and at least one other person. The fact that this form of intermentality does
not seem to occur in Christopher’s narrative can be seen as yet another way in
which the novel suggests that Christopher has a Theory of Mind problem: he does
not tend to talk about shared mental states with others because he does not have a
fully developed ability to understand the workings of others’ minds.
A further set of comparisons by means of the keyword tool in Wmatrix was
carried out in order to exclude the possibility that the quantitative results I have
presented were unduly influenced by the presence of other characters’ voices
within Christopher’s narrative. I created an electronic version of the novel which
excluded all instances of direct speech presentation of utterances produced by
characters other than Christopher himself (for convenience, this will be referred
to as the ‘Christopher only’ version of the novel). I then repeated the comparisons
mentioned above. All results were confirmed as statistically significant at similar
levels, with the exception of ‘me’, which was not found to be overused in the
‘Christopher only’ version of the novel as compared with the Imaginative Writing
section of the BNC sampler. In fact, as suggested earlier, ‘me’ was not found to be
overused in the complete novel as compared with the first-person fiction corpus
even in my first set of comparisons, in contrast with ‘I’ and ‘my’, which turn out to
be overused in all the comparisons I have conducted. This suggests that Christo-
pher tends to talk unusually frequently about what he does and thinks, rather
than about how other people affect him.
The results obtained when comparing the ‘Christopher only’ version of the
novel with the two reference corpora revealed a further potentially relevant
pattern in Christopher’s use of person deixis that was not equally prominent when
considering the novel as a whole. This pattern concerns the use of second-person
pronouns in The Curious Incident. The reflexive second-person pronoun ‘yourself’
is underused in the whole novel as compared with the Imaginative Writing section
of the BNC Sampler, while ‘you’ is underused in the whole novel as compared with
the first-person fiction corpus. When the same comparisons were carried out with
the ‘Christopher only’ version of the novel, the underuse of second-person pro-
nouns turned out to be more marked. The comparison with the Imaginative
292 Elena Semino

Writing section of the BNC sampler revealed that ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘yourself’ are all
underused. ‘You’ and ‘your’ were also found to be underused in the ‘Christopher
only’ version of the novel as compared with the first-person fiction corpus. In other
words, Christopher’s narrative, including his direct speech, seems to contain an
unusually low frequency of references to an addressee.
An examination of the concordances for ‘you’ and ‘your’ in the ‘Christopher
only’ version of the novel provides further insights into Christopher’s distinctive
use of second-person pronouns. The vast majority of Christopher’s uses of ‘you’
and ‘your’ occur in narration rather than direct speech, and are best described as
instances of the ‘generic’ use of the second-person pronoun to refer to people in
general, as I noted above in relation to some instances of ‘we’. This is the case, for
example, in “It was a clear night and you could see the Milky Way” (11), and “in
this experiment you put your head in a clamp” (146). Only 18 instances of ‘you’
(out of a total of 321) and one instance of ‘your’ (out of 35) occur in direct speech
reports of Christopher’s utterances, and hence function as deictic references to
another participant in communication (e.g. “I said, ‘But you can’t cook.’” [29]). In
other words, most of the utterances that Christopher attributes to himself do not
include deictic references to his addressee(s) by means of second-person pro-
nouns, as he does not tend to comment on or inquire about his interlocutors. This
may further contribute to the impression that he is unusually self-focused, and
that he has little awareness of others’ mental states.
Overall, I would argue that, in The Curious Incident, the combination of over-
use of singular first-person pronouns and underuse of both plural first-person
pronouns and second-person pronouns contributes to create the impression that
Christopher is unusually self-focused, has difficulties understanding the mental
states of others, and seldom feels a sense of affinity and commonality with them.
This is consistent with the attribution to Christopher of a high-functioning autis-
tic-spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome.

7 Speech Presentation

Throughout his narrative, Christopher regularly uses lengthy sequences of direct

speech presentation in order to report the conversations he has with other
characters. The extract below is part of Christopher’s representation of a conver-
sation with a policeman in the railway station of his home town:

(8) Then he said, “What’s your name?”

And I said, “Christopher Boone.”
And he said, “Where do you live?”
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 293

And I said, “36 Randolph Street” and I started feeling better because I like policemen
and it was an easy question, and I wondered whether I should tell him that Father killed
Wellington and whether he would arrest Father.
And he said, “What are you doing here?”
And I said, “I needed to sit down and be quiet and think.”
And he said, “OK, let’s keep it simple. What are you doing at the railway station?”
And I said, “I’m going to see Mother.” And he said, “Mother?”
And I said, “Yes, Mother.”
And he said, “When’s your train?”
And I said, “I don’t know. She lives in London. I don’t know when there’s a train to
London.” (184–5)

As shown by extract (6) above, Christopher provides a metanarrative comment

that explains and justifies the way he reports conversations in this narrative: his
memory is “like a film”, which enables him to remember details with exceptional
precision, including what was said in conversations. This comment ingeniously
addresses, in part, an issue that has been raised by scholars of narrative, namely
the fact the problematic status of the claim to verbatim reproduction that is
conventionally associated with the use of direct speech, which assumes, among
other things, that narrators are able to remember past conversations word-by
word (see Fludernik 1993: 407–16; Short, Semino and Wynne 2002).
The way in which Christopher uses direct speech does not just, however,
function as a testimony to his superior powers of memory.8 First, the fact that he
does present in full many relatively mundane interactions suggests that, while he
is able to remember what was said, he is unable to select what is most relevant
and filter out or summarise what is less relevant. As I suggest in more detail
below, this can contribute to the impression that he has a Theory of Mind
problem: he cannot judge how much his addressees (whether readers or other
characters) need to know. Second, the way in which Christopher uses reporting
clauses (e.g. ‘I said’) is rather unusual. In extract (8), Christopher uses a reporting
clause before every single utterance that he reports in direct speech. Generally
speaking, this does not happen in the representation of two-party conversations,
as it is normally possible to infer who says what on the basis of what they say
and of their alternation in turn-taking (Short 1996: 301; Semino and Short 2004:
92). In addition, Christopher tends to place his reporting clauses before the
extract in quotation marks (rather than after or in the middle), and mostly uses

8 In fact, Christopher’s use of direct speech does require some suspension of disbelief on the part
of the reader, as even someone like Christopher is unlikely to be able to remember verbatim every
conversation he has had.
294 Elena Semino

the verb ‘say’ to introduced utterances, often in a clause that begins with the
conjunction ‘and’. This particular use of reporting clauses contributes to account
for my finding that both ‘and’ and ‘said’ are overused in The Curious Incident as
compared with the Imaginative Writing section of the BNC Sampler. More specifi-
cally, the systematic use of reporting clauses, their initial positioning, and their
tendency to include ‘say’, lend a rather mechanical, stilted tone to Christopher’s
reporting of conversations. This is consistent with the idea that people with
autistic-spectrum disorders have difficulties with communication and with the
social relationships that are expressed through them.
The finding that ‘said’ is overused in comparison with the reference corpus
prompted a search for other common reporting verbs in The Curious Incident,
which may carry more information about utterances than is provided by ‘say’. I
used the Concord facility in WordSmith Tools to search for occurrences of a
selection of speech acts verbs that are used in the fiction section of Semino and
Short’s (2004: 239–40) corpus to introduce direct speech. This revealed that
Christopher’s narrative in The Curious Incident contains no instances of common
speech act verbs such as ‘admit’, ‘beg’, ‘demand’, ‘promise’, ‘warn’, and others.
Rather, Christopher relies on a small set of relatively basic verbs indicating the
occurrence of speech (‘say’ and ‘tell’) or, less frequently, simple speech acts and
utterance types (e.g. ‘ask’, ‘answer’, ‘call’ and ‘explain’). Cumulatively, Christo-
pher’s underlexicalisation in this area may reinforce the overall impression that
he has difficulties understanding the illocutionary force of others’ utterances
and, more generally, the intentions and attitudes that lie behind what people

8 Conversational Behaviour

Given that autism, and Asperger’s syndrome in particular, are typically associated
with difficulties in social relationships and communication, it is not surprising
that, in The Curious Incident, Christopher’s communicative behaviour, both as a
character and as a narrator, displays a number of salient features, which readers
may well interpret as a reflection of his condition. These salient characteristics
can be captured, in large part, by Grice’s (1975) Cooperative Principle and by
theories of politeness and impoliteness (Leech 1983, Brown and Levinson 1987,
Culpeper 2011).
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 295

8.1 Grice’s Maxims

The extract below occurs early in the novel, and helps to establish a sense of
Christopher’s peculiarities in communication, both as a narrator and as a char-
acter. While wandering out at night, Christopher has discovered Wellington’s
dead body, with a garden fork sticking out of its stomach. Distraught, Christopher
has entered his neighbour’s garden to pick up the dog. The neighbour, Mrs
Shears, has found Christopher holding the dog, and has called the police. The
passage below is the beginning of Christopher’s account of the arrival of the

(9) Then the police arrived. I like the police. They have uniforms and numbers and you know
what they are meant to be doing. There was a policewoman and a policeman. The police-
woman had a little hole in her tights on her left ankle and a red scratch in the middle of the
hole. The policeman had a big orange leaf stuck to the bottom of his shoe which was poking
out from one side.
The policewoman put her arms round Mrs Shears and led her back towards the house.
I lifted my head off the grass.
The policeman squatted down beside me and said, “Would you like to tell me what’s
going on here, young man?”
I sat up and said, “The dog is dead.”
“I’d got that far,” he said.
I said, “I think someone killed the dog.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
I replied, “I am 15 years and 3 months and 2 days.” (7)

Apart from the relative simplicity of Christopher’s lexis and grammar, the
passage shows, I would argue, that he has difficulties providing information at
the level of detail that would normally be expected from a fifteen-year-old. As a
narrator, he describes some minute characteristics of the police officers’ legs
that are not required in context (a hole in the tight, a leaf stuck under a shoe),
and that will not turn out to be relevant to any subsequent developments in the
plot (unlike what normally happens in detective fiction, for example, when
descriptions appear to be unnecessarily detailed). As a character, Christopher’s
answers to the policeman’s questions are either uninformative, when he tells
the policeman what he already knows (“The dog is dead”, “I think someone
killed the dog”), or unnecessarily detailed (“I am 15 years and 3 months and
2 days”).
Similarly, Christopher’s narratorial descriptions of his own activities often
include details that would normally be regarded as unnecessary, as in the follow-
ing account of drawing cash from an ATM machine:
296 Elena Semino

(10)And I put the cashpoint card into the machine like Father had let me do sometimes when
we were shopping together and it said ENTER YOUR PERSONAL NUMBER and I typed in
3558 and pressed the ENTER button and the machine said PLEASE ENTER AMOUNT and
there was a choice

← £10 £20 →
← £50 £100 →
Other Amount
(multiples of ten only) →
(187; bold as in original)

On one particular occasion, Christopher’s tendency to include irrelevant detail in

his narrative is conveyed indirectly when he reports the advice he received from
his teacher on the writing of his novel: “So I started walking, but Siobhan said I
didn’t have to describe everything that happened, I just have to describe the
things that were interesting” (232).
In Gricean terms, Christopher seems to have difficulties with the maxims of
Quantity and Relation, as formulated below.

The category of Q UANTITY relates to the quantity of information to be provided, and under it
fall the following maxims:
1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the
2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
(Grice 1975: 45)

Under the category of R ELATION I place a single maxim, namely ‘Be relevant.’ (46)

However, the ways in which Christopher provides irrelevant and inadequate

information, both as a character and as a narrator, are nonetheless informative
for the reader, as they lead to inferences about why he behaves like this (and not
just in the above extract, but consistently, or consistently enough, throughout the
novel). Readers are likely to conclude that Christopher’s communicative beha-
viour is involuntary rather than deliberate, i.e. not a narratorial or conversational
strategy but the result of a genuine inability to assess what information is relevant
and how much detail is required. In Gricean terms, Christopher’s behaviour
does not, I would argue, constitute a violation or flout of the relevant maxims
(since both are intentional strategies), but rather an ‘infringement’, which Tho-
mas (1995) defines as follows:

[A] speaker who, with no intention of generating an implicature and with no intention of
deceiving, fails to observe a maxim is said to ‘infringe’ the maxim. […] This type of non-
observance could occur because the speaker has an imperfect command of the language (a
young child or a foreign learner), because the speaker’s performance is impaired in some
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 297

way (nervousness, drunkenness, excitement), because of some cognitive impairment, or

simply because the speaker is constitutionally incapable of speaking clearly, to the point,
etc. (74)

In Christopher’s case, the breaking of Grice’s maxims provides evidence of his

‘cognitive impairment’, namely his inability to assess what normally counts as
the ‘appropriate’ level of detail in communication. As I mentioned earlier, it
becomes clear in the course of the narrative that Christopher is actually unable to
filter out irrelevant or distracting details from his environment (another character-
istic that is known to be associated with autistic disorders): he does not like going
on holiday because he finds new places overwhelming, and he indeed suffers
some kind of stimulus overload when he ventures on a train trip on his own. In
other words, his problems with the maxims of Quantity and Relation are partly
due to the fact that, as he puts it, he “see[s] everything” (174), as well as to the fact
that he has exceptional powers of memory. In addition, Christopher’s inability to
provide the ‘appropriate’ level of detail in communication may be seen as further
evidence that he has a Theory of Mind problem, i.e. that he is unable to infer what
his addressees already know and/or need to know.
Christopher’s difficulties with Grice’s maxims of Relation and Quantity can
also be inferred from his own reflections on the difficulties he has interpreting
what other people say and write, as in the extract below:

(11)For example, people often say “Be quiet,” but they don’t tell you how long to be quiet for.
Or you see a sign which says KEEP OFF THE GRASS but it should say KEEP OFF THE
lots of grass you are allowed to walk on. (38; bold as in original)

Efficient communication depends on the ability to infer what is not said explicitly,
on the basis of shared knowledge and common sense. From Christopher’s per-
spective, however, others’ communicative behaviour often appears confusingly
vague and ambiguous.
A further salient communicative behaviour can be observed in relation to
Christopher’s approach to ‘telling the truth’, which is captured by Grice’s maxim
of Quality:

Under the category of Q UALITY falls a supermaxim – ‘Try to make your contribution one that
is true’ – and more specific maxims:
1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. (Grice 1975: 46)

Christopher repeatedly mentions, both in his narrative and in conversation with

other characters, that he “always tell[s] the truth” (23; see below). In addition, on
298 Elena Semino

a number of occasions, Christopher tells the truth even though the circumstances
would allow or require some relaxation of Grice’s maxim of Quality. In the extract
below Christopher interacts with a police inspector at the police station where he
was briefly detained after hitting a policeman:

(12) “Did you kill the dog, Christopher?”

I said, “I didn’t kill the dog.”
He said, “Are you telling the truth?”
I said, “Yes, I always tell the truth.”
And he said, “Right. I am going to give you a caution.”
I asked, “Is that going to be on a piece of paper like a certificate I can keep?”
He replied, “No, a caution means that we are going to keep a record of what you did,
that you hit a policeman but that it was an accident and that you didn’t mean to hurt the
I said, “But it wasn’t an accident.”
And Father said, “Christopher, please.” (23)

Here Christopher’s explicit statement that he “always tell[s] the truth” precedes
an example of his relentless approach to truth-telling: he points out that his
hitting the policeman was not an accident (i.e. he did mean to hit the policeman
at the time) even though it has become clear that the police inspector has decided
to take a lenient approach to the attack.
In fact, in the course of the story Christopher does at times conceal informa-
tion from other characters. However, there are enough salient examples of un-
necessary or inappropriate truth-telling to support Christopher’s own statements,
and to contribute to the inference that he has a Theory of Mind problem. When we
lie, we deliberately instil in another a belief that is different from what we believe
to be true. This necessarily involves the ability to distinguish between one’s own
beliefs and those of others.

8.2 (Im)politeness

One of the consequences of Christopher’s approach to telling the truth is that he

does not refrain from saying things that, in the terms used by Brown and Levinson
(1987), threaten other characters’ faces, and particularly their ‘positive face’ – the
desire to be approved of. As I mentioned earlier, Christopher lists among his
behavioural problems “saying things that other people think are rude” (60). In
the course of his narrative, his teacher Siobhan is reported as giving him advice
that suggests that he does indeed have a tendency to disregard other people’s
feelings, as in the extract below:
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 299

(13) I also said that I cared about dogs because they were faithful and honest, and some dogs
were cleverer and more interesting than some people. Steve, for example, who comes to
school on Thursdays, needs help to eat his food and could not even fetch a stick. Siobhan
asked me not to say this to Steve’s mother. (6)

The request uttered by Siobhan suggests that Christopher could well otherwise
tell Steve’s mother that, unlike a dog, her son could not even fetch a stick. In
Culpeper’s (2011) terms, the behaviour that is implicitly attributed to Christopher
is impolite in the sense that it conflicts with how Steve’s mother would expect and
want her son to be talked about. More specifically, this kind of behaviour conflicts
with people’s expectations, desires and sense of morality, and tends to cause
negative emotional reactions. These would apply even in cases such as Christo-
pher’s, where the behaviour in question is not necessarily perceived as intention-
ally causing offence. Christopher’s inability to attribute mental states to others
means that he can say things that hurt others’ feelings without intending to do so.
In terms of Leech’s (1983) Politeness Principle, the kind of utterances that
Siobhan warns Christopher not to produce break the Approbation Maxim, which
requires speakers to “Minimize dispraise of other” (Leech 1983: 132; italics in
original). A further relevant tendency in Christopher’s communicative behaviour
is best captured in terms of another of Leech’s maxims, namely the Modesty
Maxim, which requires speakers to “Minimize praise of self” (Leech 1983: 132;
italics in original). Christopher often boasts about his own abilities in a rather
blatant and unsubtle way, which is more typical of children younger than his age,
as in the extracts below:

(14) […] I am going to go to university and study Mathematics, or Physics, or Physics and
Mathematics […], because I like mathematics and physics and I’m very good at them. (33)

(15) I think I would make a very good astronaut.

To be a good astronaut you have to be intelligent and I am intelligent.
You also have to understand how machines work and I’m good at understanding how
machines work. (65)

Overall, these aspects of Christopher’s behaviour as a character and/or narrator

contribute to suggest that he lacks some of the communicative and social skills
that are normally within the reach of fifteen-year-olds. This can in turn be seen as
a result of the Theory of Mind problem that is typically associated with autistic-
spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome.
300 Elena Semino

8.3 Phatic Communication

5.2 The final aspect I will consider in Christopher’s communicative behaviour is an

inability in engage in what is known as ‘phatic communication’ – a concept
originally introduced by the anthropologist Malinowski (1972) in order to capture
the relatively ritualistic use of language to avoid silence and manage transitions
in conversations, for example at the beginning and end of interactions (see
Simpson [1989] for a stylistic application). As I have already noted in relation to
other types of behaviour, Christopher explicitly states that he has problems with
small talk, and reports instances of conversation where he appears rather too
abrupt or taciturn. For example, in the extract below, Christopher speaks to a
neighbour, Mrs Alexander, for the first

(16) I went up to Mrs Alexander and said, “Do you know anything about Wellington being
And she said, “No, I don’t.”
I replied, “Somebody must know because the person who killed Wellington knows that
they killed Wellington. Unless they were a mad person and didn’t know what they were
doing. Or unless they had amnesia.”
And she said, “Well, I suppose you’re probably right.”
I said, “Thank you for helping me with my investigation.” And she said, “You’re
Christopher, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes. I live at number 36.” And she said, “We haven’t talked
before, have we?”
I said, “No. I don’t like talking to strangers. But I’m doing detective work.”
And she said, “I see you every day, going to school.” I didn’t reply to this.
And she said, “It’s very nice of you to come and say hello.”
I didn’t reply to this either because Mrs Alexander was doing what is called chatting
where people say things to each other which aren’t questions and answers and aren’t
connected. (51)

The first utterance Christopher addresses to Mrs Alexander is the question he

wants an answer for: he does not begin with a greeting, nor with some prelimin-
ary comments about Wellington’s death. Later in the conversation, he fails to
respond to some of her turns, which he dismissively describes as “chatting”. In
other words, Christopher is unable to engage in the kind of talk that oils the
wheels of social interaction, and therefore appears to be a rather curt and
reluctant conversationalist – an impression that is consistent with the attribution
to him of an autistic-spectrum disorder.
■ Language, Mind and Autism ■ 301

9 Concluding Remarks

Throughout the chapter, I have discussed a variety of narrative and linguistic

techniques in The Curious Incident that can cumulatively account for the repre-
sentation of a narrator/protagonist with an autistic spectrum disorder such as
Asperger’s syndrome. These include: the way in which Christopher describes
himself; the metalinguistic and metanarrative comments he makes about his own
difficulties with language and communication; the way he is described by other
characters; and a variety of more or less obviously noticeable but distinctive
linguistic patterns, including his use of lexis, grammar, figurative language and
deixis, and various aspects of the way he communicates, both as a character and
as a narrator. As I have shown, these patterns do not need to be totally consistent,
nor entirely accurate in medical terms, for readers to form a realistic impression
of Christopher’s idiosyncrasies, challenges and talents, and to interpret them as a
reflection of a form of high-functioning autism.
Clearly, the fact that Christopher is the first-person narrator is crucial in
giving readers the opportunity to understand and potentially empathise with a
character that would be hard to relate to if he was presented entirely from an
external perspective: as I have mentioned, Christopher’s behaviour can appear
both disconcerting and threatening from the perspective of an external observer.
It should also be noted that, as others have pointed out (Leech and Short 1981,
Margolin 2003), the presentation of a character who has some form of cognitive or
social impairment does not straightforwardly lead to a negative evaluation of that
impairment: Christopher’s difficulties also give the reader an opportunity to
realise how much is missed by being able to filter out less relevant details, and
how the ability to communicate ‘normally’ involves compromise and some degree
of hypocrisy (see Draaisma 2009). As Margolin (2003) has suggested, the fictional
presentation of the “breakdown and failure” of cognitive mechanisms “is itself a
powerful cognitive tool which may make us aware of actual cognitive mechan-
isms, and, more specifically, of our own mental functioning” (278).
More generally, I hope that my analysis of Haddon’s novel has demonstrated
how a linguistic approach to the study of literary texts can be fruitful in a number
of important ways. Such an approach can help to account for how readers
respond to a text. It can provide insights into the characteristics of the text that
other approaches do not provide; this, I would argue, can lead to a more con-
scious and sophisticated appreciation of what the writer has achieved. A detailed
linguistic analysis of an individual text can also provide insights into aspects of
the production and reception of literature that may be generalisable to other texts,
as in the case of my comments on the linguistic representation of cognitive
impairments or on the achievement of realistic effects. I also hope to have shown
302 Elena Semino

that the use of techniques borrowed from corpus linguistics can usefully support
one’s claims and intuitions, and thus put the study of literary texts on a firmer
empirical footing.

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