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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):

(1) George wanted to sell my old tennis shoes.
(2) It was George who wanted to sell my old tennis shoes.
(3) It was my old tennis shoes that George wanted to sell.
(4) It was my old tennis shoes George wanted to sell.
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:
(5) It was to Martha that George wanted to sell my old tennis shoes.
(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 who-clause:

(8) What George wanted to sell were my old tennis shoes.
(9) The one who wanted to sell my old tennis shoes was George.
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):
(10) My old tennis shoes were what George wanted to sell.
(11) George was the one who wanted to sell my old tennis shoes.

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:

(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?
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.
(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:

(13) On the bench is Chris Webber.
(14) At night are some great parties.
(15) Very silly are your questions.
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 possible:
(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.