with one of them muttering at each ear

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Gabriel Aparta

Senior Member
Español - Venezuela
Hi, please, from David Copperfield by Dickens:

Again, the dreaded Sunday comes round, and I file into the old pew first, like a guarded captive brought to a condemned service. Again, Miss Murdstone, in a black velvet gown, that looks as if it had been made out of a pall, follows close upon me; then my mother; then her husband. There is no Peggotty now, as in the old time. Again, I listen to Miss Murdstone mumbling the responses, and emphasising all the dread words with a cruel relish. Again, I see her dark eyes roll round the church when she says "miserable sinners," as if she were calling all the congregation names. Again, I catch rare glimpses of my mother, moving her lips timidly between the two, with one of them muttering at each ear like low thunder.

In this scene they are in church, the main character, who is a child, his mom, the mom's husband and the sister-in-law. These last two aren't nice people. The mother is afraid of both. Now, what is he talking about when he says one of them?

Thanks!
 
  • Dretagoto

    Senior Member
    Inglés británico
    His mother is between two people and each one of them - the sister in law and her husband - is talking quietly into one of her ears, the husband on one side and the sister in law on the other.

    It means the same as "each of them muttering at one of her ears".
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    He means that his mother is sitting on the pew between her husband and her sister-in-law — they are sitting on either side of her, “one of them muttering at each” of her ears.
     

    Gabriel Aparta

    Senior Member
    Español - Venezuela
    I thought that, it just seems strange to me that he didn't say something as each of the or both of them.

    Thanks!
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    it just seems strange to me that he didn't say something as each of the or both of them.
    But neither of those would work unless you changed “each ear” (and see Dretagoto’s comment in #2).

    with one of them muttering at/in each ear like low thunder :tick:
    with each of them muttering at each ear like low thunder :cross:
    with both of them muttering at each ear like low thunder :cross:
     

    Gabriel Aparta

    Senior Member
    Español - Venezuela
    That first sentence makes me believe that only one of them was muttering to both ears, are you saying that the last two sentences are not grammatically correct? Now I'm more confused.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    You’re right, that ticked version in #5 (which, with “at”, is exactly what Dickens wrote!) could conceivably be misconstrued if read out of context. But frankly, the meaning would be obvious to the vast majority of native English-speakers.

    If you really wanted to be totally clear, you might have to spell it out. For example: …with one of them muttering at her left ear and the other on her right.

    (Note: they were muttering the responses required of the congregation in the church service, rather than speaking directly to her, which is why “at each ear” is more appropriate than “in”.)
     
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