Review of Full-verb Inversion in Written and Spoken English
|AUTHOR: Carlos Prado-Alonso
TITLE: Full-verb Inversion in Written and Spoken English
SERIES TITLE: Linguistic Insights. Studies in Language and Communication. Vol. 127
PUBLISHER: Peter Lang
Alan Huffman, Program in Linguistics, Graduate Center of the City University of
Full-verb inversion (FVI) is one of the most oft-studied phenomena in English
linguistics, particularly from a functional perspective. There is substantial
disagreement among analysts as to just what is to be studied under this rubric;
however, (1) would be included by most or all:
On the table burned a candle.
Adv. - Verb - Subject
Example (1) exemplifies a particular construction: Preposing of some constituent
before the verb plus placing of the subject after the verb. It constitutes a
problem in linguistic analysis because of the non-canonical ordering of subject
and verb. Carlos Prado-Alonso’s (P-A) book reviews the history of the problem,
details its many subcategories, giving reasons for either including them in his
purview or excluding them, and offers a review of the literature. This review
is one of the most useful aspects of this book, being very thorough except for
one omission (the significance of which is discussed below). P-A is concerned
that discussions of FVI have neglected two points: a) occurrences of FVI in
spoken language, and b) in written language, the distribution of FVI in
fictional versus non-fictional texts. He introduces data from four large
corpora to elucidate these points. P-A refers to his own work as an
“analysis”. However, it does not actually present an original approach to
understanding FVI; rather, it introduces new kinds of data for the
already-existing approaches and evaluates their ability to incorporate this data.
In Chapter 1, P-A chooses what subcategories of inversion to include and which
to exclude. Broadly speaking, the excluded examples fall into two categories.
(I) The form of the inversion itself differs from that of FVI. There is
another form of inversion involving subject and only part of the verb, when the
verb form has more than one word, which P-A calls “subject-operator inversion”
(e.g. p. 19 ff.), or “subject-auxiliary inversion” (pp. 25, 137):
How did the candle look on the table?
Aux. - Subj. - Verb
There is an area of potential ambiguity between the two constructions: the verbs
‘am/is/are/was/were’ may be inverted alone, without an auxiliary, in the latter
construction, rendering such examples formally indistinguishable from FVI.
However, as discussed below, there are both formal and semantic diagnostics
which can usually disambiguate the two.
(II) The canonical form of the inversion construction, as in example (1), is
not present. This excludes such types as verb-first inversion (3) and quotation
(3) Came a terrific flash of lightning and clap of thunder.
(4) “We always thought Perot would cause people to take a new look at the race,”
said Charles Black.
Also excluded are existential-‘there’ examples (5), containing an additional
structural element ‘there’, which P-A asserts is a “dummy”, i.e. devoid of
semantic content; preposing (6) and left-dislocation (7), which in any case do
not contain subject-verb inversion, and equatives (8), which P-A claims (p. 43)
“do not allow us to distinguish between the subject and its complement.”
(5) There was a storm last night.
(6) Three coins of gold I found yesterday.
(7) Matthew, he is the one to be blamed for such bad results.
(8) Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde in Stevenson’s novel.
Included in P-A’s purview, then, are: adverb phrase inversion (9), adjective
phrase inversion (10), prepositional phrase inversion (11), noun phrase
inversion (similar to and sometimes hard to distinguish from equatives) (12),
verb phrase inversion (with a participial phrase placed first, similar to
adjective phrase inversion) (13), and subordinator inversion (14):
(9) Therein lie the reasons for Clinton’s confidence that he can stave off any
(10) Prominent among inversions is full inversion.
(11) Among them was the seriously injured driver of the Sprinter, Steve Carpenter.
(12) A key connection was Frank O’Hara.
(13) Gathered together are paintings that reveal his interest in linguistics.
(14) Such were the practical results of the commissioner’s efforts to impose a
scheme that no one in the locality had wanted.
Chapter 2 is a survey of modern research on FVI. Useful bibliography is
provided throughout the chapter. P-A justifiably gives short shrift to
syntactic accounts, since these largely ignore details of usage and because the
flagship syntactic analysis - a “root transformation” - is contradicted by
well-known examples. He instead focuses on the numerous and diverse functional
accounts. Green (1980, 1982) lumps FVI together with the formally distinct
subject-operator inversion (example 2), and, not surprisingly, discovers a
heterogeneous variety of functions for “inversion”, making no serious attempt to
unify them. Birner (1992, 1994, 1996), discussed in Huffman (2002), views FVI
from the standpoint of the organization of the construction (example 1) as an
“information-packaging” strategy, which allows the mentioning of older or more
familiar information (the clause-initial constituent) before newer or less
familiar information (the inverted subject). However, Birner’s own data contain
numerous examples in which the postposed information is not newer than the
preposed information (about a quarter of her corpus in Birner 1992). In
addition, it is of course quite common for new information to be introduced
without FVI, and Birner does not attempt to differentiate these cases.
Furthermore, Birner’s information-packaging rationale does not answer the
challenge posed by example (15), in which the given¬-new relation between
initial constituent and following subject obtains as much as in example (1), yet
the canonical subject-verb order is used:
On the table a candle burned brightly.
Adv. - Subject - Verb
Dorgeloh (1997), like Green, pools FVI data with subject-auxiliary inversion;
Dorgeloh, however, suggests that the use of non-canonical word order indicates
the introduction by the writer of an element of subjectivity into the discourse
and allows the writer to express a point of view and in some sense manage the
reader’s attention. P A finds this rationale vague and untestable, in that it
ought to apply to any kind of non-canonical word order; P-A thus appears to
impute to Dorgeloh an iconic view of this use of word order. I would add that,
like Birner, this analysis also fails to meet the challenge of example (15); and
since two distinct types of subject-verb inversion have been mingled here, one
is tempted to conclude that any consistent pragmatic effect is due only to the
clause-initial preposing of a constituent that is neither subject nor verb, a
conclusion that sits poorly with the idea of FVI as a “construction”.
Kreyer (2006) draws data from the British National Corpus. He finds that the
constituent postposed after the verb in FVI is likely to contain more words than
the preposed constituent, which P-A, citing Green (1980), says is because the
longer constituent is more likely to contain new information. Kreyer also finds
that preposed information is relatively more retrievable from preceding
discourse than postposed information, and that the postverbal position is used
to introduce or shift to a new topic or subtopic by putting in final position
those elements that link to what is coming next. With all parts of the
construction thus cognitively or communicatively motivated, one might conclude
that the construction itself is an unnecessary entity, obscuring the fact that
the same motivations would apply even when only one of these parts, but not the
entire construction, is present. P-A himself, though, does not draw this
Chen (2003) offers an analysis of FVI in the framework of cognitive linguistics.
Chen views FVI as an instantiation of the Ground-before-Figure model, the
ground being represented by the initial locative or other constituent, and the
figure by the postverbal subject. He takes examples with a preposed locative
and ‘am/is/are/was/were’ (16) as prototype and those with verbs of motion (17)
and those with non-spatial preverbal constituents (18) as radial extensions of
(16) On the table was a candle.
(17) Into the room darted Lopez.
(18) Of great concern to us is the shortage of qualified candidates.
Chen then attempts to relate these three types to discourse genres: description,
narration, and exposition. P-A, being interested in the distribution of FVI
across genres, critiques Chen mainly on this point. However, there are a number
of more fundamental analytical questions not raised by P-A, which surely must be
clarified first. 1) If Ground-before-Figure is the cognitively natural way to
relate a subject to a spatial background, it is unexplained why the great
majority of examples, even with locatives, use canonical subject-verb order, not
FVI. 2) The challenge of example (15), which introduces constituents in
Ground-before-Figure order but does not invert subject and verb, remains
unaddressed. 3) The choice of the straight locative type (16) as prototype and
(17) and (18) as derived is asserted but not proven. 4) If (16) does indeed
represent the prototype, it is quite easy to see (17) as being derived from it;
but the large category represented by (18), which includes most non-locatives,
does not seem derivable from (16) without a strong appeal to metaphor (“This ...
type facilitates the introduction of an item into a space of ideas and
arguments”, P-A p. 100). Since Chen finds that this is the only type of FVI
inversion used in exposition, such an exclusive appeal to metaphor seems highly
implausible. Note also that Chen would apparently exclude example (1), because
it does not contain ‘am/is/are/was/were’, and defines out of his purview
examples like (3), verb-first inversion, and (4), quotation inversion, as well.
Finally, P-A repeats from Chen without criticism a confusing and erroneous
discussion regarding transitivity and inversion (P-A p. 102). Both authors
reject an alleged “transitivity constraint” on inversion, but create confusion
when they present examples (example 103) of transitivity in the preposed
constituent, whereas the constraint is generally held to apply only to the main
verb itself. An analytical error is perpetuated by examples like (19) (example
102 in P-A) purporting to demonstrate the lack of S-V inversion when there is an
a. Lopez pushed Davis through the revolving door.
b. * Through the revolving door pushed Lopez Davis.
Subj. - Obj.
Subject precedes object in both. However, in the rare but actually-occurring
examples of FVI with transitives, the object in fact precedes the subject
(examples from Bolinger 1977:102):
In the tower strikes the hour a clock of many chimes.
Obj. - Subj.
In that realm held sway a hated despot.
Obj. - Subj.
In summary, P-A does a good job of presenting the positions of the various
analyses in the literature, but comes up somewhat short in discerning and
articulating their weaknesses and analytical flaws. His interest lies mainly in
pragmatic considerations and genre differences. But he ignores more fundamental
considerations of structural analysis, without which one cannot proceed to deal
with the pragmatics.
Chapter 3 describes the corpora used in this study, as well as the sampling
techniques and search methodology employed. The corpora are: For written
English the Freiburg-Lancaster-Oslo-Bergen Corpus of British English (1991), and
the Freiburg-Brown Corpus of American English (1992); for spoken English the
International Corpus of English: the British Component (1990-1993), and the
Corpus of Spoken Professional American English (1994-1998), for a total of 1.8
million words. Both the written and the spoken corpora were subdivided into
various genres, the written comprising both fiction and non-fiction. Analysis
of the corpora was mainly done manually, but automated analysis was employed for
the spoken material.
In Chapter 4, P-A applies the analytical ideas discussed in Chapter 2 to the
corpora described in Chapter 3, with, again, a particular view to determining
whether there are significant differences in occurrence patterns of FVI in a)
fictional vs. non-fictional written discourse, and b) written vs. spoken
discourse. P-A leans very heavily on the view of the FVI construction as
iconic, especially in seeing the location of the first constituent as helping to
promote a text-structuring purpose. He applies a subcategorization of FVI
types, introducing first the categories “obligatory full inversion” and
“non-obligatory full inversion”, and then reintroducing the subcategories
enumerated in (9) - (14) above. P-A concludes that FVI is actively exploited in
fiction as well as non-fiction, and in speech as well as in writing. The
differences lie in favorings of the subcategories within each genre. He
concludes that fiction and non-fiction differ greatly in their use of the
various types of obligatory full inversion. As for non-obligatory full
inversion in written texts, he concludes that “fiction and non-fiction do not
differ in the overall distribution of the construction but rather in the
different types of non-obligatory full inversion used, and in the different
functions that these inversions serve in both genres” (p. 183). Concerning
spoken vs. written language, he concludes that writing makes more extensive use
of non-obligatory full inversion than of obligatory full inversion, whereas in
speech the reverse is true. P-A offers explanations of these skewed frequencies
of FVI across the different genres as a function of the iconic nature of the FVI
construction and in consideration of the appropriateness of FVI to meet the
different communicative demands of those genres.
In the evaluation to follow, two points in particular will be developed. 1) The
problem of separating out FVI from “operator-(auxiliary-)subject inversion”,
which has seriously plagued many previous analyses, is not completely squelched
here either. Since it is unclear how many such examples are mixed in to P-A’s
data, it is unclear to what extent these data overall are reliable. 2) The
challenge of example (15) has not been clearly addressed here either, and this
challenge reveals a serious underlying theoretical issue that cannot go
unresolved if any collection of data is to be meaningful.
Full-verb inversion is a complicated object of analysis, both formally and
functionally. Adequate and consistent controls need to be applied to its many
variables. Without such controls, it is not even clear which data constitute
the object of study. P-A, on p. 26, deliberates whether syntactic-formal
criteria or pragmatic-semantic criteria are the appropriate ones to apply. The
answer is, of course: both. This point recalls the Saussurean notion of the
linguistic sign, a unified object comporting both a formal and a semantic side -
both a signal and a meaning. In recent times, the control of the sign has been
applied most rigorously and consistently by William Diver and his successors
(see Diver, Huffman, Davis 2012). P-A himself opts to favor syntactic criteria;
but even here the analysis appears sometimes to stumble. As noted earlier, FVI
can be indistinguishable from auxiliary-subject inversion with
am/is/are/was/were, which do not take auxiliaries in circumstances where other
verbs do and can be directly inverted with the subject:
Near that table stood a candle. / Near that table was a candle.
V - S / V - S
b. S-Aux Inv.:
Never did a candle stand near that table. / Never was a candle near that table.
Aux. - S - V / V - S
However, one can usually disambiguate these cases by switching to a
Near that table had been a candle.
Aux. - V - S
b. S-Aux. Inv.:
Never had a candle been near that table.
Aux. - S - V
Subject-auxiliary inversion carries a distinct semantic content as well: It
introduces some element of assessment of the probability or likelihood of
occurrence of the event denoted by the verb. Either the event is presented as
directly questioned, or only potentially occurring, or as non-occurring; even
for an actually-occurring event, the occurrence is presented against the
background of some question having been raised about its occurrence, or as
occurring contrary to some expectation. This is clearly quite different from
what is signaled by FVI. Applying these formal and semantic disambiguators,
then, at least the following examples and tables classified by P A as FVI would
appear to merit reevaluation:
Chapter 1: 37 (with ‘have’), 63.
Chapter 4.1: 22, 23, 37, 51, 117, 118
Chapter 4.2: 15, 17, 36
Tables 24, 31; Figures 27, 29.
The identification of FVI requires evaluation of subtle semantic effects, and
one must wonder how much of this can be left to a machine. The identification
of noun-phrase inversions, to take one salient example, clearly requires human
evaluation. Examples in the book sometimes seem inconsistent. For example, on
p. 29, “Near the fire is colder.” is rejected because “the initial prepositional
phrase ... serves as a subject”; but on p. 147 “... now is the appropriate time
to make significant changes” is accepted, even though the adverbial ‘now’ also
seems to serve as a subject. Examples (35) and (36) on pages 149-50 deal with
inversion after ‘first’, ‘second’, ... ‘finally’. Example (35) contains the
sentence “Finally, probably far more common than either of the other forms of
assault and harassment are the beatings of ...”, with ‘finally’ underlined, but
the preposed adjective phrase ‘far more common’, which is the more immediate
correlate of the inversion, ignored; example (36) has: “Finally, fifth in the
hierarchy is the lower class...”, with ‘finally’ underlined, but ‘fifth’
ignored. Some of these questionable examples represent classes included in the
database (as in the first list given above, where eight of the eleven examples
are negative correlatives), and the implications for the validity of the
database as a whole are not immediately clear.
Our first point of evaluation has focused mainly on the formal side of the
equation; the second point focuses more on the functional side: What are the
functional units, actually? FVI consists of two parts: the initial placement of
something other than subject or verb, and the ordering of subject and verb
relative to each other. Functional analyses have emphasized the
text-structuring effect of first position, an iconic use of word order. P-A, we
have seen, maintains that the effect of the construction is due to iconicity.
Word order is without a doubt functional; but it is not always iconic. It is
sometimes semiotic: an arbitrary signal of a meaning analogous to the plural -s
or the past-tense -ed in English. The present author (Huffman 2002, not
included in P-A’s literature review), has proposed that while the preposing is
indeed iconic and serves a broad text-structuring purpose, the two orderings:
subject-verb and verb-subject are signals of two meanings. According to this
hypothesis, briefly, the two orderings signal two different degrees of
attention-worthiness attributed by the writer or speaker to the event and
participant denoted by the subject and verb. Subject-verb ordering indicates a
greater degree of attention-worthiness, verb-subject ordering a lesser degree.
This choice is made separately from the choice of whether to prepose, although
the two may work hand in hand to achieve a particular type of communicative
effect in a text. Thus, this work has shown that S-V tends to be used for major
characters and V-S for minor characters; V-S with verbs denoting low-key types
of events and S-V for those involving more activity; V-S to merely place a
character on the scene without saying much about what he/she does, S-V for the
more important actions of the character. Counts made on whole texts confirm, as
suggested by examples (1) and (15) taken together, that the mere presence of an
adverb draws enough attention for these events to favor S-V over V-S. The
scene-setting or text-structuring effected by preposing of the locative phrase,
on the other hand, is an independent choice that may be equally appropriate for
This deconstructing of the FVI construction redefines the object of study--the
data to be included--in a fundamental way. It brings in verb-first inversion
(example 3), quotation inversion (example 4), and ‘there’-inversion (example 5).
The failure of earlier analyses to distinguish between the effects of preposing
and those of subject-verb ordering leads to a heterogeneous, even
self-contradictory list of “functions” for the FVI construction, such as we find
in Green and Dorgeloh, and leaves unanswered questions such as that posed by
example (15) for Birner and Chen. P-A himself at times seems to be on the verge
of this solution (e.g. pp. 26, 184), but never takes the crucial step.
I would recommend that this book be on the bookshelf of any serious student of
English full-verb inversion or English word order in general. It is especially
valuable for its review of current literature and its bibliography. (One could
suggest including a more complete discussion of Bolinger 1977.) It does,
however, fall short on critical evaluation of previous work, and its value as an
analysis in its own right is compromised by its encountering some of the same
obstacles as the works it surveys. The new data it presents are interesting,
but their ultimate significance as part of the solution to the FVI problem must
be held in abeyance until more fundamental questions are resolved.
Finally, the index is a bit thin. One annoying deficiency is the omission of
proper names from the index. It would be helpful to be able to turn quickly to
all mentions of the various authors discussed in the text. I encountered
several minor typos and editorial slip-ups, but none that really impede
Birner, Betty J. 1992. The Discourse Function of Inversion in English. Ph.D.
dissertation: Northwestern University.
Birner, Betty J. 1994. “Information status and word order in English: an
analysis of English inversion.” Language 70 (2): 233-259.
Birner, Betty J. 1996. The Discourse Function of Inversion in English. New
York and London: Garland.
Bolinger, Dwight. 1977. Meaning and Form. London: Longman.
Chen, Rong 2003. English Inversion: A Ground-Before-Figure Construction.
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Diver, William, Alan Huffman, and Joseph Davis. 2012. Language: Communication
and Human Behavior. The Linguistic Essays of William Diver. Leiden and Boston:
Dorgeloh, Heidrun. 1997. Inversion in Modern English: Form and Function.
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Green, Georgia M. 1980. “Some wherefores of English inversions.” Language 56
Green, Georgia M. 1982. “Colloquial and literary uses of inversion.” In
Deborah Tannen (ed.) Spoken and Written Language. Exploring Orality and
Literacy. Norwood NJ: Ablex, 119-154.
Huffman, Alan 1997. The Categories of Grammar: French lui and le. Amsterdam
and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Huffman, Alan 2001. “The linguistics of William Diver and the Columbia
School.” WORD 51 (1): 29-68.
Huffman, Alan 2002. “Cognitive and semiotic modes of explanation in functional
grammar.” In Wallis Reid, Ricardo Otheguy and Nancy Stern (eds.) Signal,
Meaning, and Message. Perspectives on sign-based linguistics. Amsterdam and
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Kreyer, Rolf 2006. Inversion in Modern Written English. Syntactic Complexity,
Information Status and the Creative Writer. Language in Performance 32.
Tuebingen: Gunter Narr.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Alan Huffman is Professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York and of English and linguistics at the New York City
College of Technology of CUNY. He is a specialist in Columbia-school
linguistics. He has authored a book (Huffman 1997) dealing with clitic
pronouns and case government in French, an article (Huffman 2001) giving an
overview of Columbia-school linguistics, several shorter articles, and most
recently, with Joseph Davis, a volume (Diver, Huffman, Davis 2012)
presenting foundational works of the Columbia school. He is an active
member of the University Seminar on Columbia School Linguistics at
Columbia, where he received his master’s and doctoral degrees in linguistics.