5

I saw a sentence like:

  1. "Behind me lies a dog."

It has peculiar sentence structure in order of "Prepositional phrase" + "Verb" + "Subject".

What is this called? And when is this used? And could you explain me whole concept of this?

4

That is subject-dependent inversion, which is an information packaging construction where the subject is switched with an internal dependent of the clause.

For your original example, the usual canonical ordering would be something like:

  1. "[A dog] lies [behind me]."

which has Subject-Verb-Dependent order (or S-V-PP order).

With subject-dependent inversion, it becomes:

  1. "[Behind me] lies [a dog]."

which has Dependent-Verb-Subject order (or PP-V-S order).

A writer will often use subject-dependent inversion when the subject contains newer info than the info that is contained in the fronted dependent, or when the fronted dependent is a locative expression (e.g. "behind me"). We often prefer to have the newer info at the end of a clause or sentence, and have the older info at the front (which is usually the subject slot). Locative expressions are often moved to the front in order to help set the setting for the rest of the sentence.

You'll find this type of construction more often in edited prose than in informal writing or casual speech, because it usually takes some editing effort to apply this (subject-dependent inversion) to a sentence. Also, there are pragmatic constraints on when this type of inversion is acceptable.


For more info, there's the 2002 CGEL, pages 1385-90, "5 Subject-dependent inversion". For example, starting on page 1386, there's section "5.2 Pragmatic constraints on inversion", and its first paragraph is:

For inversion to be felicitous, the following conditions must obtain:

[3]

  • i. The preposed phrase must not represent information that is less familiar in the discourse than that represented by the postposed NP.

  • ii. Unless the preposed dependent is semantically locative, the inversion requires an appropriate open proposition that is discourse-old.

  • iii. The verb must not represent information that is new to the discourse.

And the discussion on these pragmatic constraints on subject-dependent inversion goes on for another couple of pages.

NOTE: The 2002 CGEL is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

  • One often hears this sort of sentence from news reporters, as they stand looking into the camera, addressing the TV audience. "Behind me stands the old Acme Shoe factory. In just a few minutes it will be reduced to a pile of rubble." – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 25 '14 at 20:01
  • @TRomano Yes, but they are professionals who talk that way for a living. They've learned to quickly set up the setting for the viewer (time is money, so to say). For the rest of us, when we do casual speech, we too might also do that, but that will usually involve a bit of planning as we're talking or about to talk. Usually we'll just ramble on, automatically using the current topic as the subject or as the beginning of the new sentence (or use "I" or "You" to begin sentences). – F.E. Nov 25 '14 at 20:18
  • Thanks @F.E., this made things more clear, but i am still bit confused. Could also give some sample sentences in case when subject contains newer info than the info in fronted dependent? – ringord Nov 26 '14 at 4:49
  • @aborealscene I was routinely driving my car to work when I heard a growling sound coming from behind me. I glanced into my rearview mirror. On the backseat was [a tiger with long canines and a hungry look in its eyes]. <== In the last sentence, the stuff about the tiger being there and how it looks, that's all new info, and it is the subject in that sentence. – F.E. Nov 26 '14 at 6:59
  • @F.E. Thanks, but your example also contains _locative expression_("On the backseat"). In your answer, you mentioned that there are two cases, one with locative expression in the sentence, and the other one with newer info, your tiger example seems to have both expression in one sentence. If you don't mind, could you make sentence only with newer info? thanks in advance. – ringord Nov 26 '14 at 9:45

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