“Emily’s father had pasted away.”

I can’t seem to get students to say “died.” Do they think it isn’t civilized?

They don’t go so far as to say “went to heaven” or “is with God,” but several have actually referred to literary characters as “crossing over.”

Most, though, say “passed away.” And when I say “say,” I use the term advisedly. Of those who say “passed away,” at least half write “past away.” In theory, the confusion is reasonable: what spoken difference is there, really, between “passed” and “past”? And once someone has passed away, that person clearly belongs to the past—all the good times are past because they have passed into history (the past). No matter how he has passed his time with pastimes, those times are past. (And yes, who can blame those students who spell “pastimes” “pass-times”?) The words must be easy to confuse, at least when spoken.

But surely, when we write we are not merely transcribing sounds we have heard; otherwise, the first half of this sentence could read “Wen oui rite wee are knot merely transcribing sounds we halve herd.” Somewhere our education must intervene—mustn’t it?—to tell us how to make correct choices as to how to represent those sounds.

Maybe that’s what happened to the student here, who was writing about Faulkner’s chilling, tender short story “A Rose for Emily.” By the time of the story Emily is dead at 74; but the narrator tells us the story of her life, including her three-day refusal as a young woman to give up the corpse of her father for burial, or even to acknowledge that he has died. The picture the narrator paints presents the father as haughty, powerful, and perhaps violent (he holds a horsewhip), dominating his daughter and driving off all her suitors as not good enough to marry into his family. A “crayon” (pastels) portrait of him presides over the sitting room of her house for as long as she lives, and over her coffin at her wake.

It’s hard to match up such a man with the verb “pass away,” with all its implied gentle subtlety: “storm out” or “confront God” might be closer to what he would do.

But my student seems to want to use “passed away” anyhow. And she seems to have begun it by writing “past.” Did she then have a visual flash of an “-ed” ending for the die verb, and tack “-ed” onto “past” just to be safe?

For whatever reason, that’s what she did, and not even Spell-check could save her, because “pasted” is a legitimate verb. The only problem is that it means “attached with paste or glue,” not “went by.”

And so for me, and for most readers I hope, Emily’s father was either putting up wallpaper with energy and perhaps enthusiasm (implied by “away”)—even though by the time of her death the wallpaper would be just as cracked and faded as the silk upholstery Faulkner describes—or madly “scrap-booking.” He has laid his whip on the settee, and any wayward paste won’t show on his white suit as his powerful fist plies the paste-brush.

Emily’s faithful “Negro servant” lets the mourners into her house and then leaves: he “walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again,” passing through, passing on. Behind him, there the others are in my mind, Faulkner’s fatal trio: Miss Emily, passing with her shreds of dignity almost imperceptibly away; her reluctant lover Homer’s skeleton in an attitude of embrace, his flesh long past; and Mr. Grierson, pasting away at his scrap-book, memorializing a past time and way of life.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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