Q: While I was watching TV with my wife, a commercial came on for the movie When Calls the Heart. It reminded me of another corny title, Comes a Horseman. What makes an author choose this syntax?
A: Authors use unusual wording because it’s often more effective and attention-getting than the routine syntax one would expect.
The wording “when calls the heart,” with its poetic and archaic flavor, stands out more than “when the heart calls.”
And “comes a horseman” is more noticeable than “a horseman comes” or “a horseman is coming.”
But a usage that some readers find catchy may seem corny or pretentious to others.
What’s attention-getting about these constructions is the word order—verb before subject instead of the other way around.
In some English sentences, a verb-before-subject arrangement is so common that we don’t even notice it. For instance, verbs routinely come first in questions, in statements starting with “here” or “there,” and in others that we’ll mention later.
But in more straightforward declarative sentences, we expect to find the subject before the verb. Reversing them can make a sentence sound literary, even stirring (or pretentious if overdone).
For effectiveness, you can’t beat the verb-before-subject placement in these examples:
“Male and female created he them” (King James Bible) … “So have I a noble father lost” (Shakespeare) … “Into the Valley of Death / Rode the six hundred” (Tennyson) … “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’ ” (Poe).
Today we associate subject-verb inversions with poetry and with the writings of an older time, though even now we may find them used for effect: “What care I for fame and fortune?” … “Then sings my soul” … “In a hollow lived three little pigs” … “Come Sunday, you’ll be a married man.”
But as we said before, inverted word order goes unremarked in some kinds of sentences, like these (again, we’ll underline verb and subject).
● Sentences starting with “there,” “here,” and “then”: “There comes a time when one must face facts” … “Here lurked the answer we’d been waiting for” …“Then came the startling news.”
● Questions: “Am I right?” … “When is the party?” … “Finished, are you?” … “How goes it?” … “Where were you?” … “Pretty, aren’t they?”
● Questions with auxiliary verbs only: “May I?” “Do you?” “Shall we?” (We aren’t including sentences in which the subject follows the auxiliary but comes before the main verb, as in “Never have I seen such a day,” “Had I known … ” and so on.)
● With “neither” and “nor”: “We aren’t going, nor is Sally” … “He isn’t upset and neither am I.”
● With “say” and other quoting verbs: “ ‘Holy cow!’ said Pete” … “ ‘The butler didn’t do it,’ concluded the detective” … “ ‘Call me Ishmael,’ wrote Melville.”
● With “do” as an auxiliary: “We own a dog, as do our neighbors” … “He went to the movie, as did Mom.”
● With “so”: “And so say all of us” … “She has seen Venice and so have you.”
● In lists of subjects headed by one verb (common in news reporting): “Injured were the bus driver, eight passengers, and the driver of the car” … “In the lineup were eight felons, none of whom were identified as the perpetrator.”
● After adverbs or adverbial phrases: “Steadily onward plodded the wagon train” … “Just inside the door stood a hat-rack.”
● After adjectives or adjectival phrases: “Happy was the man who won her hand” … “Great was his respect for my father” … “Gone forever was the day” … “Many were the times ….”
● After a participial phrase: “Taking home the trophy in the pie-baking contest was a seven-year-old boy” … “Lying in a pool of blood was Colonel Mustard.”
● After a prepositional phrase: “In the threatened wetland are three species of rare orchid” … “Through the mist shone an eerie light.”
Saving the subject for last can almost make it a punch line. But sometimes it’s placed at the end because it’s less urgent. This is a common practice in sports broadcasting, as we wrote on our blog a couple of years ago.
The linguist Georgia M. Green discusses this kind of inversion in her paper “Some Wherefores of English Inversions.”
“Perhaps the most striking demonstration of this pragmatic exploitation of syntax,” she writes, “is the use of inversions in the play-by-play broadcast of sports events.” (From the journal Language, September 1980.)
Some of her examples, taken from TV and radio: “Underneath the basket is Barbian” … “High in the air to get the ball was Jim Brady” … “Now way out front with the ball is Brenner” … “At the line will be Skowronski” … “Stealing it and then losing it was Dave Bonko” … “Coming back into the game for New Trier West will be Kevin Jones.”
As she notes, inversion lets the speaker mention the action first, followed by the player’s name.
Finally, a historical note about why subject-verb inversions like “comes a horseman” carry a whiff of antiquity.
The regular word order in a typical declarative sentence today is subject-verb-object, as in “I lost it.”
Old English had both patterns—verb first as well as verb second. However, verb-before-subject constructions were more common in Old English than they are today.
Placement of the object, as well as the subject and verb, added to the complexity of Old English.
“Old English had many SVO [subject-verb-object] word orders like those in Modern English, but at least as many SOV word orders, or orders that seem to be a mix” of those, according to The Syntax of Early English (2000).
The authors—Olga Fischer, Ans van Kemenade, Willem Koopman, and Wim van der Wurff—note that a number of changes in word order came about over the course of the Middle English period (about 1150-1500).
That was when the relative position of the verb and the direct object shifted in English.
More relevant to our discussion, the use of verbs before subjects in declarative clauses “rapidly declined in the course of the last part of the fourteenth and in the fifteenth century, and saw a revival in the literary language in the sixteenth century,” write the authors.
[Update, May 9, 2016: Several readers have pointed out that odd syntax is what makes Yoda’s speech so odd. The great Jedi master of the Star Wars series favors such constructions as “Do it you must.” The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum wrote about Yoda talk on the Language Log in 2005.]
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