azz wrote: ↑
Sat Jun 15, 2019 3:36 am
This is very hard to get a grip on. I'd like to test a few other sentences, and then I'll quit. I think we have two problems. First: where can one use inversion? Second: when does one have to use inversion?
azz, your second question is easy to answer: Never ... except when it is mandatory.
Your first is largely answered in my previous post, but the answer in that post is not entirely satisfactory, or indeed complete.
I can't find any detailed analyses of the precise syntactical scenario you are asking about, so I shall do my best without the help of other sources.
It is important to understand exactly what is going on here.
Firstly, we need to distinguish between "fronting" and "inversion". In English, normal
word order is Subject - Verb - Object - Adverbials
. If you do not depart from this, you will rarely, if ever, be wrong, although your language will be a little dull and uninteresting.
So we have the structure "the kids played football in the park every evening."
It is possible to move the adverbial expressions (usually only one) to the front of the sentence for emphasis:
"Every evening the kids played football in the park."
The effect of this "fronting" is to place the focus of the sentence on the fronted element, i.e. the time of day in this example. It would be possible, but unusual, to front "in the park" instead:
"In the park, the kids played football every evening."
This places the focus on the park. We are talking about what happens in the park, and not what the kids did. It is an unusual emphasis to have, but if that is the emphasis, the fronting is correct.
But note that the subject - verb - object
word order remains unchanged.
Note also that we can never (except in poetry) front the object of the sentence:
"*Football played the kids in the park every evening."
We can only front the adverbials.
Adverbial expressions fall into five categories, although we generally only think of the first three of these: Adverbials of time, manner, place, degree and frequency.
Any adverbial can be fronted in English:
- In the tent, Wellington explained the situation to Major Sharpe.
- In 1803, Sharpe was a sergeant in India.
- With the last of his strength, Major Sharpe killed the remaining thirteen Dragoons.
- Every time he met a woman, Major Sharpe had difficulty keeping his trousers on.
- Greatly, Major Sharpe wished that he could remember where his trousers were.
So far, so good: We can always front adverbials.
In some cases, we can also invert the subject and the verb after an adverbial has been fronted:
"Into the fray rushed Major Sharpe, his weapon unsheathed."
The question is, when can we use this inversion and is it mandatory or common?
Before I attempt to answer that and immediately qualify my answer with an exception, I shall add another element to the mix. English sometimes provides the option of using "dummy subjects" in a number of situations:
- It is raining.
- There was a guard in the hallway.
In sentences of the type we are discussing, it is sometimes possible to use a dummy subject. In the examples below, I will often give the non-inverted form, the inverted form and the form with the dummy subject "there" and mark those which are not possible [*] or which are, in my opinion, dubious [?].
Okay, off we go!
Neither inversion nor the dummy subject are possible for transitive or ditransitive verbs:
- In the clearing, Major Sharpe found a dead Frenchman.
- *In the clearing found Major Sharpe a dead Frenchman.
- *In the clearing, there found Major Sharpe a dead Frenchman.
- That afternoon, Major Ross gave Major Sharpe a letter.
- *That afternoon gave Major Ross Major Sharpe a letter.
- *That afternoon there gave Major Ross Major Sharpe a letter.
The list could be extended endlessly, but I have been unable to find any examples of transitive or ditransitive verbs being used with inversion in such scenarios.
So what about intransitive verbs?
Intransitive verbs allow inversion only when the adverbial that is fronted is an adverbial of place (one exception to this is described below):
- In the hallway stood Major Sharpe. (Place)
- *At five o'clock rose Major Sharpe. (Time)
- *With great urgency ran Major Sharpe to the bedroom. (Manner)
Again, there are endless examples, but I can think of only one exception to this rule (see below).
Furthermore, even when the fronted element is an adverbial of place and the verb is intransitive, there appear to be restrictions:
- In the courtyard stood Sergeant Harper.
- *In the courtyard smoked Sergeant Harper.
- Over the fort flew the banner of the French Imperial Guard.
- In the tent slept Major Sharpe.
- *In the tent coughed Major Sharpe.
- Along the track rode Major Sharpe.
- On the battlefield stood two thousand men.
- ?On the battlefield waited two thousand men.
- *On the battlefield fought two thousand men.
- *On the battlefield died two thousand men.
Some people may argue that the last two of these examples are (just) acceptable, but they sound impossible to my ears.
So what determines whether inversion is possible or not in these examples? This is not easy and leaves considerable latitude for subjectivity. It seems to me that in all the cases where inversion is possible, the verb must inherently suggest a location or some kind of movement. In other words, if you use a word like "stand" or "sleep", it implies motionlessness. And if you use words like "ride" or "walk", they imply motion. They therefore have a direct semantic affinity to the fronted adverbial. If I say "The flag flew", with no further context, it begs the question "where?". If I say "Major Sharpe coughed", it begs no such question. If I say "Major Sharpe rode", without any other context, it begs the question "where" or "where to?". "Sleep" implies a state of motionlessness (but does not beg the question "where?"). "Smoke" does not imply movement or location, neither does it beg the question "where".
Of course, all events happen at a location, but the important thing is the extent to which the location is important to our understanding of the event (the verb). Exactly where the line is drawn will lie in the judgement of the speaker. In stylized writing, and in poetry in particular, this boundary can be stretched. This is the case with your original "in the room danced two youngsters"; and I could imagine a novelist using "in the courtyard smoked Sergeant Harper" to achieve an effect of "painting a scenario". Indeed, it seems to me that the inversion technique is used for precisely this purpose: to "freeze" a narrative in order to paint a backdrop to further narrative.
So, we have 3 principles by which we can determine with some confidence whether or not inversion can be used in such constructions:
- The fronted adverbial must be an adverbial of place. (But see exception below.)
- The verb must be intransitive.
- The verb must in some way imply or demand a location or describe motionlessness or motion.
Before I look at the issue of whether inversion is mandatory, I shall tackle a couple of outstanding issues.
I have been tantalizing you with the threat of an exception. I suggested above that inversion can only be used when the fronted adverbial is an adverbial of manner. I can think of one and only one exception to this, namely the figurative use of "come" with an adverbial of time:
- In Autumn come the winds.
- In 1815 came the battle of Waterloo - and Sharpe came too.
- At five o'clock came the eagerly anticipated news.
- *At five o'clock came the train.
This is not possible, because "came" is being used literally.
I can think of no other exceptions to my second principle outside of the realm of poetry or highly stylized writing.
The second issue to be cleared up concerns the use of the dummy subject "there" in such constructions:
At present, it seems to me that the usage is subject to the same constraints as inversion, but with the additional constraint that the real subject must not be a proper noun.
- Along the track rode a company of Dragoons.
- Along the track, there rode the company of Dragoons he had seen earlier.
- Along the track rode Major Sharpe.
- *Along the track, there rode Major Sharpe.
Otherwise, as I say, the constraints are the same as for the use of inversion.
The third issue that needs clearing up concerns the use of the verb "be".
Take the sentence "the house was on the hill". Some may want to call this an "existential" use of "be", with the meaning that something exists at a particular location. I prefer to see it as a copular usage, the same as "the house is large" or "the house is white". Indeed, we can say "the house was large, white and on the hill".
In this sentence, the "on the hill" can be fronted:
"On the hill was the house." In this case, the inversion is mandatory:
"*On the hill, the house was."
This example would appear to fit into the same schema as the others we have been looking at, but that is not so. Because the verb "be" is copular, "on the hill" is not adverbial, but adjectival. This explains why inversion is mandatory with "be", but not with any other verb that we are looking at. The syntax is simply different.
So is inversion ever mandatory other than in the exception above? Let me put it this way: Fronting is never mandatory, so this inversion is, in that sense, never mandatory. Also, there are often other options available which would be preferred in modern English.
But let's look at some examples:
- Along the track rode Major Sharpe.
Excellent in a narrative context.
- Along the track, Major Sharpe rode.
In its naked form, this sounds strange. But narrative sentences are rarely as simple as the examples we are playing with here. In the context of a longer sentence, this works fine: "Along the track, Major Sharpe rode, worried that he might have contracted the pox.". The inverted version also works fine in such a context: "Along the track rode Major Sharpe, worried that he might have contracted the pox."
- Above the fort flew the banner of Castille.
- Above the fort, the banner of Castille flew.
This is fine, and not as ungainly when naked as "Along the track, Major Sharpe rode.".
- In the hallway stood the guard.
- ?In the hallway, the guard stood.
This is very peculiar in the naked form shown here, but again, it is fine in "In the hallway, the guard stood, smoking a cigarette."
So is the inversion mandatory when all three principles I listed are met? Sentences 2, 4 and 6 above are certainly ungainly when standing on their own, but in a more normal extended syntactical context, they are fine. I would say that the inverted form is preferable when the construction has no further adornment, but it is not mandatory, and certainly not when the sentence is elaborated.
Of course, despite all that I have said, there will be cases where writers use fronting and inversion in ways that do not follow the principles I have hypothesized above. And often they will work well. But they will be conscious departures from what seems to me to be normal practice.
I said to Tony that I would revisit "in the distance". In fact, I shall revisit all of azz's original sentences, as I was perhaps over-hasty in my response.
- In the room danced two youngsters.
- In the room were dancing two youngsters.
- In the distance moved a cloud of dust.
- In the distance was moving a cloud of dust.
- With the basketball played a group of young people.
- With the basketball were playing a group of young people.
I shall ignore sentences b, d and f, as the use of the past progressive in preference to the simple past is of no significance. If the narrative demands the progressive (which it often will), the progressive is just fine, and all of my above comments remain valid for the progressive forms.
meets criterion 1, as the fronted adverbial is an adverbial of place. It meets criterion 2 because the verb "dance" is intransitive. For me, it is absolutely marginal in respect of criterion 3. While the verb "dance" does imply movement, "in the room" implies a static location, so the verb and the adverbial do not "match" completely. But I stand by my original assessment that the sentence is possible if well prepared for.
in fact has the same analysis: It meets criteria 1 and 2 and is marginal on criterion 3 on the same grounds. "Moves" implies motion, but the adverbial does not. I still do not like it, but I have to say that it is acceptable. For some reason, it seems to work better with the dummy subject: "In the distance, there moved a cloud of dust".
. Hmmmmm, sentence e. I do not know what I was thinking when I said that this was conceivable. Often, when confronted with one of azz's sentences, I will spend many minutes, hours or even days thinking "before I say that this is ungrammatical, can it be made to work?", and I, like Tony, construct scenarios in which the sentence can be forced to work. Clearly, I did that with this sentence. Ah yes! It comes back to me! I had imagined somebody relating a dream sequence about a basketball... Such scenarios are obscure, and even then, I doubt that one in a million would choose even to front the adverbial, let alone to attempt to invert the subject and verb. So again, I revise my opinion somewhat. Sentences e and f are highly unlikely.
Like Major Sharpe, the battle over, I would like to turn to more enjoyable things. But unlike Major Sharpe, I am too bloody exhausted...