English English language Expression Grammar Linguistics Usage

Deconstructing sports talk

Q: I have been annoyed at sports commentators who seem to ALWAYS put the subject at the end of the sentence. Example: “Since he returned from injury he is a different player, Smith.” Please advise.

A: The construction you mention is very common in live sports commentary. The speaker puts the subject at the end of the sentence almost as an afterthought.

Sometimes there’s a pronoun mentioned first, but sometimes not: “He came up from the  minors like a rocket, Jones,” or  “Up at bat now, Brown.”

It’s as if the speaker assumes at first that the audience will know who “he” is, or will mentally supply the subject. But just to be sure, a name is added.

It could even be that the speaker consciously delays mentioning the name to give himself time to think. (Lots of names to remember!)

In the case of your example, the subject (Smith) is reinserted by name at the end to identify who’s meant by “he.”

This kind of thing is sometimes heard in casual conversation outside the broadcast booth as well.   

A mother might say, “He’s a good boy, Johnny,” just as a sports reporter would say “It was brilliant, that catch.”

The examples are parallel. When an informal sentence has a pronoun (“he,” “it”) as its subject, the speaker sometimes names the subject at the end for clarification.

In elliptical constructions, the verb might be omitted completely: “A good boy, Johnny” … “Brilliant, that catch.”

Or the verb might be repeated: “He’s a good boy, Johnny is” … “It was brilliant, that catch was.”

Here’s another kind of casual sentence, one you might hear at the playground: “Interesting, watching children play.”

The subject is “watching children play,” and the verb (“is”) is missing. Full sentence, transposed and with verb added: “Watching children play is interesting.”

More often, the pronoun “it” is used up front as a dummy subject: “It’s interesting, watching children play.” The true subject—“watching children play”—identifies the mystery pronoun.

As we said, such sentences are common in informal speech. But the habitual use of such constructions—especially when there’s no original pronoun or when the verb is missing—is a hallmark of live sports commentary.

In the broadcast booth, speakers use a telegraphic style in which loose sentence fragments are strung together, often without explicit grammatical connections.

Some linguists call this “parataxis,” a term from Greek in which it means “placing side by side.” In the parataxis of sports commentary, “Outbursts of short, snappy, loosely connected clauses are typical,” Kersti Borjars and Kate Burridge write in their book Introducing English Grammar (2nd ed., 2013).

Sometimes pronouns, conjunctions, even verbs may be missing, as in “Strong bullpen, the Twins.” Or “Needs a walk, Anderson.” It’s almost stream-of-consciousness.

And the faster the live action, the more telegraphed the commentary. And yet the listener understands perfectly—even though the things we ordinarily consider crucial to the English sentence aren’t there.

One bit of commentary given by Borjars and Burridge is certainly elliptical. It consists of a single word, “Unbelievable.” But there’s isn’t a listener alive who wouldn’t understand.

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