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On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street. (From: The Gift of the Magi. by O. Henry)

What is the intention of "on went" in the sentences? Does it mean "wear"?

  • It might be subject-dependent inversion. Consider a possible non-inverted version: "Her old brown jacket went on (her); her old brown hat went on (her)". Though, it seems that these non-inverted versions don't sound as good as the original inverted ones. (This sometimes happens; and sometimes only the inverted version is acceptable for that meaning, e.g. "Here comes the bus", but not * "The bus comes here" for that same meaning.) – F.E. Oct 22 '14 at 19:49
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The style of "on went" suggests that the person who is donning these articles of clothing is being quick about it. Compare "a whirl of skirts".

If someone were slowly removing articles of clothing, in a seductive way, for example, one would not write "off went the hat, off went the skirt, off went the blouse..."

  • Really good point. – user64617 Oct 23 '14 at 7:36
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It means that she put them on. First she put on her old brown jacket. Then she put on her old brown hat. Finally, she walked out the door and down the street.

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Just to clarify michelle's "put them on" answer (which is correct), "to put an article of clothing on" means to dress in that article. A single English verb for this would be to "don" an article of clothing, but that expression is slightly formal/antiquated these days.

I'd disagree with TRomano's comment on the implied quickness, however. The "whirl of her skirts" bit could potentially imply quickness, but simply saying "on went her jacket" does not. In fact, I'd question whether the "whirl of her skirts" is intended to imply quickness -- it could imply a joyful, lighthearted motion. This also works with "fluttering" down the steps, and the sparkle in her eyes.

Further, I absolutely disagree with the assertion that one wouldn't use "off went her [x]" in a seductive way... A long string of those statements tied together would leave me feeling with a slow, steady, almost rhythmic progression. Again, though, that's due to the use of the phrase in a specific way; I'd say that by itself, "on went [x]" doesn't imply slow or fast action.

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