What is the difference between the two?

For example

  1. John came along.
  2. Along came John.

I don't understand the difference in usage and yet I come across too many sentences starting with 'Along came'

Could you please explain how to understand this.

  • It would be helpful to add some example sentences that are causing confusion, as you mentioned you checked some.
    – user3169
    Dec 29, 2014 at 6:14
  • @F.E. Does “inversion” usually cover reversed word order for rhetorical effect or just inversion as a grammatical device, as in questions, negation, and commands?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 29, 2014 at 8:04
  • @BenKovitz On ELL, I think there's only the one "inversion" tag. And so, I use it to cover all forms of subject-dependent inversions, which include: subject-auxiliary inversion due to any grammatical or rhetorical cause, and subject-complement inversion due to any grammatical or rhetorical cause, etc. (I'm hesitant to add too many new tags for specialization purposes, as that might get out of hand and/or be misused, considering that this is ELL with many learners and different grammar books. Though, perhaps a small number of new ones related to inversion might be doable. imo.)
    – F.E.
    Dec 29, 2014 at 21:53
  • And of course, there's Little Miss Muffet by Mother Goose: Little Miss Muffet, Sat on a tuffet, Eating her curds and whey; Along came a spider, Who sat down beside her, And frightened Miss Muffet away. -- Which sounds much better than if it had used "A spider came along".
    – F.E.
    Dec 30, 2014 at 18:53
  • 2
    @BenKovitz As to the inverted construction "Along came NP", I'm not completely sure about its status. It might be a mere inversion, or it might be an inversion where for some of its meanings it is similar to "Here comes the bus!" in that it cannot be used in a non-inverted form with the same meaning, or perhaps it might be more of a hybrid, which might have an unclear status. Maybe it's idiomatic or an idiom, maybe it's a mere inversion, similar to "In came Kim", "Up went the balloon", etc. Be interesting to see an answer post on that, if possible.
    – F.E.
    Dec 31, 2014 at 2:40

6 Answers 6


Flexible word order

The difference is only that the words are in a different order. The grammar is the same. English actually has somewhat flexible word order, though we rarely exploit this in everyday conversation or prose.

The normal word order in English is SVO: subject-verb-object. That's the order of “John came along.” (There’s no object in that sentence; along is a particle, part of the phrasal verb “to come along”.)

But you can rearrange the words in many sentences and still make grammatical sense. One way to do that is to put the subject right after the verb, as in “Along came John.” There are other ways, too.

Famous examples

Here are some more examples, all of them famous:

Able was I, ere I saw Elba.   (A famous palindrome.)

= “I was able ere [before] I saw Elba.” (Meaning: I, Napoleon, had power before I was exiled to the island of Elba.)

He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three.
  (From Old King Cole, a nursery rhyme.)

= “…and he called for his three fiddlers.” The purpose of putting the adjective after the noun is to rhyme with an earlier line in the poem, which also has unusual word order.

We three kings of Orient are.   (Christmas carol, John Henry Hopkins, 1820–1891.)

= “We are three kings of Orient.” (That is, we are three kings from the East.)

My mind to me a kingdom is.   (Sir Edward Dyer, 1543–1607.)

= “To me, my mind is a kingdom.”

But why?

As you can see from the examples above, one use of unusual word order is to fit the constraints of poetry or word-play.

More often, unusual word order indicates that something is special or important, thus deserving the emphasis and attention that comes from using words in an unexpected way. When someone says “Along came John”, they mean that John came along unexpectedly, and this was a wonderful or perhaps terrible event.

For example (not famous; I'm just making this up now):

In the orchestra pit holding a baton stood my son.

= “My son stood holding a baton in the orchestra pit.” A parent might use reversed word order to proudly describe seeing their son conducting an orchestra for the first time. The ordinary word order feels too dull and prosaic to describe such a momentous event.

This example illustrates another important use of unusual word ordering: to put the words in the order in which you want the listener to think about or imagine their meanings, when this is not the same as the normal order. The sentence above leads the listener to first imagine an orchestra pit, then some unidentified person holding a baton (therefore the conductor), and finally it is revealed that the conductor is the speaker’s son.

Often, a word gets strongest emphasis by appearing last, especially if it’s a noun. Mentioning the son last emphasizes the son, and mentioning John last emphasizes John.

Finally, unusual word ordering can sometimes create nice rhythms. The sentence about “my son” has a pleasing rhythm: it contains three “feet” of equal duration, each starting and ending with a stressed syllable: “orchestra pit”, “holding a baton”, “stood my son”. The prosaic version has a disorganized rhythm, like most prose. Ending on a stressed syllable often gives a sentence extra “punch”.

But how?

It takes “an ear for the language” to know when you can say words out of order and still be understood, and to predict what kind of poetic effect it will have. Part of the way you develop an ear for the language is by becoming familiar with well-known examples of unusual word order and poetic expression. They not only make you familiar with ways to “stretch” the language, they’re phrases that you can expect most English speakers to have heard, so your own unusual phrasings will echo the familiar ones in listener’s minds, helping them to follow the syntax.

  • very helpful explanation. found things I was looking for.
    – Leo
    Dec 29, 2014 at 8:15
  • 1
    "Along came John with me to the party" sounds wrong, or at least a little odd. I would interpret it as meaning you were somehow separating John's movements with the fact that he was going with you to the party. For example, maybe he came from somewhere else and caught up with you walking along or something like that. Dec 29, 2014 at 9:58
  • 2
    As a Scot I think @FrancisDavey is being a little too tight in his definitions. As far as I'm concerned both 'I was going to leave, but then along came John', and 'I was going to leave, but then John came along' have exactly the same meaning. I prefer the first one in that context, though. OTOH, 'along came John with me to the party' sounds supremely weird. Like Francis, if you just said 'John came along', I would assume John went with you somewhere, and 'along came John' would mean that John arrived where you were.
    – Alan Third
    Dec 29, 2014 at 15:43
  • 1
    @AlanThird Do you find “Along came John with me to the party” more acceptable when the context provides a basis for finding it more surprising or notable, such as “John wasn’t invited, but we were handcuffed together. So, along came John with me to the party.”?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 29, 2014 at 15:48
  • 1
    @AlanThird Interesting. I hadn't expected that. Well, it's supposed to sound a little weird, but only enough to grab attention in a familiar way and reflect the weirdness of the situation. Now I'm curious to ask some more people.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 29, 2014 at 16:58

When you say:

John came along.

It means John went with you (or others).

John came along with us to the party.

But when you say:

Along came John.

it means from your point of view, John arrived within your view.

I was going to go home, but then along came John.

At first you did not see him or know he was around, but in the second phrase you saw John come in your direction.

  • I’m wondering if there’s a difference in literal meaning here that I haven't encountered before. How about “John wasn’t invited, but we were handcuffed together. So, along came John with me to the party.”? With the context from the first sentence, does the second sentence seem self-contradictory?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 29, 2014 at 17:27
  • Also, does this sentence seem self-contradictory? “Abigail and I were standing and talking, when John came along and said ‘Hi.’”
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 29, 2014 at 17:30
  • @BenKovitz In the case of "John wasn’t invited, but we were handcuffed together. So, along came John with me to the party.”, this is saying that John came from somewhere else even though he was handcuffed to you. That doesn't make sense. It should be "So, John came along with me to the party.” along came has a sense of *out of sight" but then "in sight".
    – user3169
    Dec 29, 2014 at 19:06
  • @BenKovitz As for “Abigail and I were standing and talking, when John came along and said ‘Hi.’”, this statement is a bit odd and could be taken either way (with some rewriting so it is clearer).
    – user3169
    Dec 29, 2014 at 19:14

Just something to think about(since I can't comment). As an American anglophone, I don't think you will ever hear John came along by itself, ever. You many hear John came along with... but not the prior.

You typically must specify what or whom John came along with.

Both these are valid:

  • John came along with us
  • John came along with his wife (unwieldy)
  • John came along with a dangerous object

Also, just a note. When it comes to English, it is verbose by nature. It is probably best to assume the longest and/or most detailed statement is the correct one.


I'm not sure that the difference in meaning can be explained, but it can be exemplified. Such 'swapping' is, I think, always used in the past tense (including the present progressive as used for story telling). It is almost always used with adjectival verbs of motion. It is frequently used in rhyme, and it is invariably effective in adding interest. A good example would be Waltzing Matilda, verses two to four:-

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong. Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee. And he sang as he stowed that jumbuck in his tucker bag: "You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred. Down came the troopers, one, two, and three. "Whose the jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag? You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong. "You'll never take me alive!" said he. And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong: "Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."


When you use the term 'came along' you are including yourself. It implies that you were together as you came along. It also implies movement on your behalf.

When you use the term 'along came' you are impling that you were waiting. You are being still and waiting on the movement of the person as in their arrival.

If you are still confused and just need a quick fix then try this: Write out your complete sentence first. It is important that do this before adding words from the next part.
Now directly after (no words between) try adding "with me".
Ask yourself, "Does it still make sense?".

It only makes sense when used with 'came along'.
John came along (with me) to the party.
Along came (with me) John to the party.

As you can see the first sentence makes complete sense. The second sentence just turned to dribble.

  • 1
    How about “Along came John with me to the party”?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 29, 2014 at 9:27
  • 'With me' would go before John, not after. It must be put directly after with out any words or names inbetween. Dec 29, 2014 at 9:51
  • "*Along came with me John to the party" is not grammatical in Standard English. You might say "Along with me came John...", though it would sound odd in most circumstances.
    – psmears
    Dec 29, 2014 at 11:31
  • The idea isn’t to make it work, it’s to help a person figure it out on their own. Its a slight advantage for people that may need it. For most of us, following some quick instructions then reading to see if it makes sense is easier than trying to figure out how to find an answer to a question that we're not sure how to ask. I know fix-its like this may not be 100 percent but with only a high school education they sure come in handy. Jan 5, 2015 at 14:28

As an expat Brit, I can confirm Francis Davey's take on the difference in meaning. In addition to the subtle change in the point of view and the sequence of events, there is also a stylistic difference in emphasis:

'Just as we were leaving, along came John.' (John arrived on the scene. By placing John at the end of the sentence the narrator also heightens his significance.)

'We were coming over and John came along.' (The narrative of two events of equal status; i.e., John's role in this case is subdued.)

  • Would you like to put the difference in meaning into your own words? It might make a more interesting and useful answer. I'm still wondering if along come really has acquired a literal meaning of its own among some people, or if even those people are parsing it the same as come along and being influenced by the altered sequence and emphasis the same as happens with any other reversal of normal word order.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 31, 2014 at 1:23

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