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I was checking example sentences for the phrase at the bottom of the heap, and I noticed several sentences similar to the below one.

"At the bottom of the heap are the rural poor." [Reference: The free dictionary]

I am wondering if we can use other place-related phrases/words/nouns in a similar way? Like:

In schools are the students.

Personally, I think that this example does not sound natural. So, what would be the applications for such word ordering? Does it emphasize one specific part of the sentence? Thanks.

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Does it emphasize one specific part of the sentence?

Yes. It makes the sentence a declaration identifying the occupants of the bottom of the heap rather than a declaration identifying the location of the rural poor.

Such a construction can also be used to give end weight, which is useful at the end of a section to introduce the subject of the next section. More generally, end weight is useful as a rhetorical device delivering the key idea of a sentence last, where it will stick more firmly in the reader's or listener's mind, or where it may be preceded by a pause for dramatic effect.

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It does not really matter which way you order the words of those two sentences. You can say "The rural poor are at the bottom of the heap" or "At the bottom of the heap are the rural poor." You can also say "At the schools are the students" or "The students are at the schools."

These two statements describe society, i.e. where you find certain categories of people. Students are found at the schools, the rural poor are at the bottom of the heap. In this case, "the bottom of the heap" is an idiom meaning the low end of society where people have little economic or political clout. The ones with the money are at the "top of the heap." They have power and political clout to change things. But the children, the students, are in the schools.

Here is a sample paragraph or little story I made up just now using the sentence structure you are asking about. I think it is quite effective in it's place.

In the schools are the students. In the vicarage is the vicar. In the kitchens are the women. In the store is the merchant. And in the precinct is the village constable. But the men, they are in their fishing vessels on the sea.

So yes, in the appropriate situation we can use place-related nouns. Usually, though, it is for idiomatic or figurative speech. The students are not in school all the time and the rural poor are not literally under the bodies of the other community members like a pile-up of bodies in contact sports.

I think that little story describing the fishing village shows a natural application for that word ordering. In everyday conversation it hardly comes up.

Re-Ordering the Words & Clauses

You ask:

Does it emphasize one specific part of the sentence?

No, as I stated at the beginning, one can order the words any way saying either:

  • The rural poor are at the bottom of the heap.
  • At the bottom of the heap are the rural poor.

Clauses

What I did here was rearrange very specific clauses. When this sentence stands alone it does not matter which part comes first. In an on-going story, it might be important depending on what ideas had already been imparted to the listener. For example, a description of a community like the fishing village above might show the positions and accomplishments of the elite in the county, then add:

At the bottom of the heap are the rural poor.

"Heap" is figurative for "community" and the story had already introduced the concept of "community." Thus, it is stronger to put "rural poor" at the end. However, this is more a lesson in writing techniques; it does not change the meaning of the sentence.

Words Inside Clauses

What does change the meaning of the sentence is rearranging words inside the clauses. For example:

At the bottom of the heap are the poor rural people.

I had to add "people" because just saying "rural" is incomplete.

That sentence implies that not all rural people are poor, whereas "the rural poor" implies that rural dwellers are inherently poor.

Another rearrangement could be this:

The rural poor are in the heap at the bottom.

Again, I had to change a few words to make it grammatically correct; the goal is to rearrange "heap" and "bottom."

We now have more than one heap: one at the bottom and one or more that is not at the bottom.

NOTE: This applies to this particular sentence. I cannot speak for all sentences because I have not examined them. Thus, I am not sure if this really answers your question.

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  • Thank you Sarah, by that question I meant does that type of ordering underline any of the involving words? For example, does "at the bottom of the heap" being at the beginning evoke a more emphasized image of poverty compared to when it comes at the end? I ask this, because I was taught changing the word orders may change the focus of the sentence when reading it, especially when changing the order of adverbs. – Cardinal Jun 3 at 5:55
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    Thank you for this info. I added to my answer. I am not sure if it really answers your question. Possibly I am not qualified; I base my answer on personal experience of using English language lifelong in writing and reading. I learned English at age 7 by immersion, not by grammar rules, and completed all education through advanced uni degree with it. So I speak and write by "instinct" rather than by conscious grammar rules, meaning I don't know the names of the rules but I know what is correct/incorrect. – Sarah Bowman Jun 3 at 14:12

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