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This is found in Bob Dylan's line:

The Times They Are a-Changin’

I would like to have an educated view on three aspects:

  • It seems to be an artistic license, an incorrect form of Times are changing. Incorrect because of the two subjects (not using and/or), times and they, for a single verb.

  • Is it how people say something is changing? Does someone using this sentence make an explicit reference to the song?

  • Is it limited to spoken language or used in writing?

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    It's folksy dialectal song lyrics from 70 years ago! It's not really a suitable text for learning current English. Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 13:38
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    In spoken (not written) English, you might occasionally introduce a subject of conversation as an isolated noun or noun phrase, pause, and then follow it with a full sentence: "The war in Ukraine - it is still raging today." This conveys a sense of thoughtfulness or perhaps strong emotion. It's more of a rhetorical flourish than a grammatical construction and would be more likely in a formal speech before an audience or a news broadcast than in casual conversation. Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 13:38
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    I’m voting to close this question because 70-year-old folk song lyrics (that didn't remotely reflect mainstream natural speech even at the time) aren't worth analyzing for anyone seeking to learn current mainstream English. Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 13:42
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    I very much doubt many (if any) people have said "The times they are a changing" anywhere in the world in the last 50 years, unless they're deliberately quoting the line from the song. Personally, I'd have though plus ça change would have been said more often anyway (but you won't learn much about English from that one either! :) Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 15:11
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    This is actually a phenomenon called "left dislocation". If you edit the question to ask specifically about "the times they" (which might appear to be a double subject), I'd be happy to write out an answer. Writing "is there more to understand about this use?" appears to invite speculation, which might be why you've gotten some close votes. Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 15:23

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It seems to be an artistic license, an incorrect form of Times are changing. Incorrect because of the two subjects (not using and/or), times and they, for a single verb.

This is an example of "left dislocation", a common (though often informal) construction in English. The "normal" sentence would be:

The times are a-changin'.

Huddleston & Pullum write (with some light editing by me):

A dislocated clause has a constituent, usually a noun phrase, located to the left or right of the nucleus of the clause, with a linked pronoun or comparable form within the nucleus itself. Compare:

i Her parents seem pretty uncaring. [non-dislocated version]
ii Her parents, they seem pretty uncaring. [left dislocation]

(Huddleston & Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pg. 1411)

Note that it is common to include a comma between the dislocated noun phrase and the nucleus. I'm not sure why Dylan didn't do so.


Is it how people say something is changing? Does someone using this sentence make an explicit reference to the song?

People do sometimes use this exact phrase, and in such cases most listeners (or readers) understand that it is a reference to Dylan's song, which is very famous.


Is it limited to spoken language or used in writing?

According to Language Log,

Left dislocation is certainly grammatical in English. Up to 1500 or so, roughly one in every 100 or 200 sentences had this form, even in formal writing, and a similar frequency of use continues in spoken English to this day. Over the past few centuries, the frequency of this construction in standard written English has been declining, and it's now quite rare except in archaic styles, in representations of speech, or in informal styles that use spoken-language norms.

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    @mins Yes, in English LD is most often used for subjects, but it can also be used for other functions, such as in this example from that Language Log post: "The Saturns, you can get air bags in them." Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 17:09

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