Tag Archives: Word order

Word order and meaning – shaping reader response


In the caves, between spells of fitful dozing and fearful waiting, were being born the nightmares of generations yet to be.

 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke (1953)


Why is this such a dramatic sentence? Because it makes us wait … it holds back the most important part of the sentence (the subject) until the very end.

We are given all the elements of narrative in a mere twenty-one words. First we have a place: the prepositional phrase In the caves. Then we have an implicit sense of character: the verbal nouns (dozing and waiting) provide the ‘action’, while the adjectives (fitful and fearful) tell us something about the inner life of the protagonists.

And finally, we have the drama. The post-modified noun phrase the nightmares of generations yet to be (the subject of the sentence) builds on the image of disturbed sleep. The language is emotive and the position emphatic.

For dramatic effect, the writer has used two linguistic devices:

fronting puts linguistic units other than the subject in the initial position: the prepositional phrase of place (in the caves) and the prepositional phrase of time  (between spells of fitful dozing and fearful waiting)

inversion of subject and predicator changes the order of information; here it further delays the subject until the end of the sentence, where end focus gives it added semantic weight

The shape of the sentence draws us on, then leaves us haunted by the negative connotations of nightmares and the timelessness of their capacity to affect future generations.

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To pre- or post-modify, that is the question …


On Radio 4’s The Archers, one of the characters was expecting a baby … Someone described her baby as ‘a Down’s Syndrome baby’ and she insisted she was having ‘a baby with Down’s Syndrome’. Can you see the semantic difference?

At a level of language, we can describe the two structures very differently. The first is a pre-modified noun phrase: the head word ‘baby’ is at the end of the phrase and we therefore first register the condition. The second is a post-modified noun phrase: the noun ‘baby’ comes first with the condition as a qualifier (in the form of a prepositional phrase).

The order of information in a phrase is important because it affects the way we respond. In this case, the character was drawing attention to the fact that her baby would not be defined by her condition – that she was a baby first and that her condition was just one element of who she would be.

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