Q: I recently watched a video of a discussion in which Antonin Scalia refers to Louis Brandeis as “no hidebound conservative, he.” Can you end a sentence like that with a pronoun? When would you do so? Is it an old-fashioned way of speaking? Is it used mostly in a humorous or sarcastic way today?
A: Yes, it’s OK to end a sentence (or a clause) that way. In the clause “no hidebound conservative he,” the subject is the pronoun “he,” but it could also have been a noun, a gerund, a noun phrase, or anything else acting as a noun.
Technically, the passage is an elliptical clause with subject-verb inversion. It’s elliptical because the verb “was” is missing but understood, and it’s inverted because the subject follows the implied verb—reversing the usual subject-verb order.
A clause, as you know, is a group of words with its own subject and verb. An elliptical clause is one in which the subject or verb is implicit. If we restored the verb in Justice Scalia’s clause and rearranged the words in a more conventional order, it would read “he was no hidebound conservative.”
A verb usually follows the subject in a declarative sentence or clause, one making a simple statement. However, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with having the subject follow the verb, as in “no hidebound conservative was he” (an example of subject-verb inversion). And there’s nothing wrong with dropping the verb: “no hidebound conservative he.” (Some writers would use a comma, as you did, to mark the ellipsis, or missing verb, while others wouldn’t.)
People put the subject after the verb for many reasons. In questions, it’s natural: “Was Justice Brandeis a hidebound conservative?” And it’s common in statements that begin with a negative expression: “At no time was he considered a hidebound conservative.” It’s also seen after the auxiliary verb in conditional clauses: “Had he been called a hidebound conservative, he would have denied it.”
And, of course, the usage is often seen in poetry (for example, Tennyson’s “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”) and literary prose (Tolkien’s “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”).
As you suggest, it can also be used to give a statement an old-fashioned, humorous, or sarcastic tone. We think Scalia, a linguistic and political conservative, was simply being his traditional self in both senses when he argued that judges shouldn’t fill in gaps left by legislators in statutes: “As Louis Brandeis said—no hidebound conservative he—‘To apply omissions transcends the judicial functions.’ ”
(Scalia made his comment on March 5, 2015, in a discussion at the Newseum in Washington with the lawyer and language writer Bryan A. Garner about their 2012 book Reading Law: Interpretation of Legal Texts.)
Interestingly, what we now consider subject-verb inversion was common word order in Old English. An Anglo-Saxon would put the subject after the verb in clauses that didn’t begin with the subject. As the linguist Eric Haeberli explains, Old English “exhibits frequent occurrences of subject-verb inversion when a non-subject is in clause-initial position.”
The usage is still common in other Germanic languages, but it began falling out of favor in Middle English, Haeberli writes in “The Development of Subject-Verb Inversion in Middle English and the Role of Language Contact,” a 2007 paper published in the journal Generative Grammar in Geneva.
Haeberli, a University of Geneva linguist who specializes in the development of syntax in early English, cites several Old English examples of the usage, including this one: “And egeslice spæc Gregorius be ðam” (“And sternly spoke Gregorius about that”). From Her Ongynð Be Cristendome, a 10th-century homily by Wulfstan, a bishop of London and an archbishop of York.