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Strange Sentence Orders
Sentence order--subjects coming before predicates, verbs coming before
objects--is very important in English. Some languages have special
endings for nouns that identify the subject noun phrase and object noun
phrase as such. In such languages, one can vary the normal sentence order
fairly freely. In English, variations in normal sentence order risk
confusing the reader. Even when one can avoid confusion, variations call
attention to themselves. One can use them as a way of highlighting
certain elements in one's sentence, while avoiding them otherwise.
Cleft Sentences. One way for a writer to single out an
element of a sentence for special focus is the cleft sentences.
In the tradtional it-cleft sentence, the noun-phrase to be
stressed is placed after an it-subject and a form of be,
while the rest of the sentence is placed in a relative clause. If we
start with a sentence like sentence (1) below, we can put even more stress
on the subject by using an it-cleft like sentence (2). Sentence
(3) uses an it-cleft to stress an object noun phrase, and
sentence (4) applies that-DELETION to sentence (3):
One can also use an it-cleft to highlight a recipient or an
adverbial. In such cases, it may be a prepositional phrase, an infinitive
phrase, or even a subordinate clause that is singled out, as in the
following cleft sentences:
(1) George wanted to sell my old tennis shoes.
(2) It was George who wanted to sell my old tennis
(3) It was my old tennis shoes that George wanted to
(4) It was my old tennis shoes George wanted to sell.
(5) It was to Martha that George wanted to sell my old
(6) It was to raise money for charity that George wanted to
sell my old tennis shoes
(7) It was when he ran out of coffee money that George
decided to sell my old tennis shoes.
Another kind of cleft sentence is known as the WH-cleft
or pseudo-cleft sentence. In this structure, the phrase to be
singled out becomes a subject complement following a form of be,
and the rest of the sentence is put into a WH-clause, as in the sentences
below. When the it is the original subject that is singled out, the
one(s) who, as in sentence (9), may be preferable to a simple
The order can be reversed as well, producing a reverse WH-cleft or
inverted pseudo-cleft sentence. In such structures the singled-out
phrase itself is the subject and a form of be is followed by a
WH-clause. Use of the one(s) who with subjects remains
preferable, as in sentence (11):
(8) What George wanted to sell were my old tennis
(9) The one who wanted to sell my old tennis shoes was
(10) My old tennis shoes were what George
wanted to sell.
(11) George was the one who wanted to sell my old tennis
As a subject, the it of an it-cleft is singular and
takes a singular verb. The it, after all, anticipates a clause
and is itself semantically empty. In other cleft forms, the verb agrees
with the new subject and thus varies. The same is true of another variant
of the cleft sentence, in which appropriate demonstrative pronouns are
used instead of it. This variation seems to lack an agreed-upon
term to identify it by. It looks like this:
(12) Those were my old tennis shoes that
George wanted to sell
(13) That was George who wanted to sell
my old tennis shoes
Existential There-Sentences. The so-called
existential sentences have a structure very similar to it-clefts.
Be is the original verb of such sentences, which begin with
there is or there are, followed by the original subject.
Such sentences affirm against potential doubt the existence of something
with a particular quality. These sentences are an important exception to
the usual rules about verb agreement. The verb continues to agree with
the original subject, even though there is treated as the
grammatical subject for purposes of question formation, whether by
INVERSION or by TAG-FORMATION:
When we use contractions like there's, it is not unusual
violate the rule that the verb agrees with the original subject,
particularly in speech, with results like sentence (20) below. Try to
follow the rule when writing at least.
(14) There is a fly in my soup.
(15) There are flies in my soup.
(16) Is there a fly in my soup?
(17) Are there flies in my soup?
(18) There is a fly in my soup, isn't there?
(19) There are flies in my soup, aren't there?
(20) There's two flies in my soup.
Inversion. The subject can also be displaced from its usual
position by inverting the normal subject order. When the verb is a form
of be, and the subject complement cannot be mistaken for a
subject noun phrase, one
can simply switch the subject with the subject complement. The verb
continues to agree with the subject:
Moving a direct object in front of the subject for focus is also possible,
though it is advisable only if the verb is such that no confusion is
(13) On the bench is Chris Webber.
(14) At night are some great parties.
(15) Very silly are your questions.
(16) The prime minister they simply assassinated.
How Much of This Will be on the Test?|
In everyday usage, the most common of the structures discussed in this
section is the existential there- sentence. You should be
able to identify it and catch subject-verb agreement errors resulting from
its use. Cleft sentences are less common, but you should be able
to identify them--the it- cleft, the WH-cleft (or
psuedo-cleft), and the reverse WH-cleft (or inverted
psuedo cleft). You should also be able to identify sentence functions
correctly even in inverted sentences.