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I was reading The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and I came across a sentence in which I don't fully understand its grammar.

..., and when they rose taller they seemed than mortal men.

I think I understand the meaning, but written in the grammar that I'm used to the sentence would be something like:

..., and when they rose, they seemed taller than mortal men.

I checked here to see if I could find some kind of exception or explanation to this, but I couldn't find anything similar.

Maybe this is not common but...

  • is it allowed?
  • my copy of the book got this wrong?
  • is it an old way of writing?
  • did the author take a poetic license?
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2 Answers 2

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Consider just the main clause:

Taller they seemed than mortal men.

The standard English way to write that would be "They seemed taller than mortal men."

English has a stricter word order than some other languages, but even it allows a little latitude for poetic effect, and moving a word to the end or the beginning is hand-waved when it highlights that word. For example:

Boldly they rode and well

(Tennyson)

We were soldiers once and young.

(A.E. Housman)

Tolkien wanted a more archaic sound, without making the sentence unintelligible.

Edit: This question leads to this useful article. This structure is apparently called "fronting".

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This is an example of how important punctuation can be - put in a significant pause after the word rose (or insert a comma) and the whole sentance becomes far more poetic and lilting.

Still not common usage, but far more understandable.

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  • Tolkien doesn't use a comma.
    – James K
    Apr 10, 2019 at 22:01
  • I know he doesn't. In his own head it was probably perfectly understandable, but on paper it isn't. No one is perfect - many authors think that they can break the rules of English with impunity, which is an entirely seperate argument.
    – MikeB
    Apr 11, 2019 at 9:30

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