“Next in the procession are four Paul bearers carrying a coffin.”

I do hope Paul was in the coffin.

What will my student do when someday he’s asked to be a pallbearer for someone NOT named Paul? Will he ask where Paul is?

He didn’t ask that question when he wrote this sentence. What picture was in his mind, if any? Did he imagine these bearers are carrying Paul AND a coffin? Or, since he specifies that these bearers are carrying a coffin, should we wonder if he even knows that “bear” already means “carry”?

Maybe he thinks that a Paul bearer is just someone in a procession, and sometimes this person also carries something, and sometimes that something is a coffin. This kind of assumption might proceed out of the expression “native bearers,” a phrase I used to see in old British tales of safaris and jungle adventures. I knew that no “natives” were being carried: these were not native-bearers, but natives (of Africa) who were doing the heavy lifting, bearing something (either the safari equipment or a dead beast or some lolling white safari-goer too lame or rich to walk). It would be possible, I guess, for someone to think that Paul bearers are not Paul-bearers, but people who are named Paul and who bear things, including the occasional coffin. But then, what happens to people who die but knew no one named Paul? Do funeral parlors hire people named Paul for just such occasions?

I just don’t know. One sure thing is that he has heard the expression but has not (knowingly) seen it written. The other sure thing is that he has written this down without wondering why, or how, someone named Paul is involved in this funeral parade at all.

And that failure to think while writing is how he got into my little book.


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

5 responses to ““Next in the procession are four Paul bearers carrying a coffin.”

  • linguischtick

    I don’t know the expression “native bearers” – where do you put the stress? That affects the interpretation, cf. FRENCH teacher (someone who teaches French) vs. french TEACHER (some teacher who is French). Maybe this student didn’t know the appropriate stress pattern for “pallbearer” whence the interpretation of “people named Paul who bear”

    • RAB

      It’s Na-tive BEAR-er (that Na is meant to get a kind of medium-level stress, with tive and er unstressed and BEAR getting the principal stress. But written, the two terms might seem similar in intention. Aloud, PAUL-bearer would sound more like bearing the pall, which is actually what one does. To someone who doesn’t know what a pall is—and I think my student was one of those—the aural stress might suggest a capital letter, a proper noun.…

  • Delft

    Why not look on the bright side: it could have been “Paul barer”!

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