• Disrupting the usual declarative pattern for stronger emphasis

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    NOW that the 2016 national election fever has considerably simmered down, I am tempted to resurrect in slightly modified form an essay on grammatical inversion that I wrote way back in 2004. That sentence pattern, which purposively disrupts the usual declarative form to achieve stronger emphasis, is often used to ensure a smoother, clearer transition from one sentence to the next.

    Consider this passage where the second and third sentences depart from the normal subject-verb-predicate construction: “We are not lacking in political talent with the requisite education, expertise, and vision to propel our country to greatness. But so warped by the broadcast entertainment media is our mindset that we put a higher level of trust on popular entertainers than on legitimate, level-headed leaders. Looming larger in our minds is the instant gratification of our imaginary desires by celluloid or video heroes than real, long-term solutions to our national problems by truly competent aspirants to public office.”

    We can see inversion at work when the second sentence leads off with the adjectival phrase “but so warped by the broadcast entertainment media is our mindset,” whose normal declarative form is “our mindset is so warped by the broadcast entertainment media.” The same is true in the third sentence, which leads off with the participial phrase “looming larger in our minds is the instant gratification of our imaginary desires” instead of the normal declarative, “the instant gratification of our imaginary desires by celluloid or video heroes looms larger in our minds.”

    The effect of the twin inversions is a logical, clearer transition of ideas from one sentence to the next—better than if all three sentences were in this simple declarative: “We are not lacking in political talent with the requisite education, expertise, and vision to propel our country to greatness. Our mindset, however, is so warped by the broadcast entertainment media that we put a higher level of trust on popular entertainers than on legitimate, level-headed leaders. The instant gratification of our imaginary desires by celluloid or video heroes looms larger in our minds than real, long-term solutions to our problems by truly competent aspirants to public office.”

    But inversion has its limits. It works badly when used to make abrupt transitions to ideas not specifically taken up in preceding sentences. See how it falters in doing its job in this passage: “You are talented and you work hard to finish a college education. In the art of management and governance you hone yourself assiduously. From out of nowhere comes a popular upstart, unschooled in both the academic disciplines and governance, telling you that he is much more fit for public office than you are.”

    So craggy are the inversions above that they simply don’t work. Only when the antecedent ideas are established clearly beforehand, in fact, does inversion function well: “You are talented, work hard to finish a college education, and hone yourself assiduously in the art of management and governance. Then all of a sudden and from out of nowhere comes a popular upstart, unschooled in both the academic disciplines and governance, telling you that he is much more fit for public office than you are.”

    There’s another clear and present danger when we construct inverted sentences: the higher probability of our verbs failing to agree in number with the subjects of our inverts. Take this somewhat poetic invert: “To the dark recesses of public office go the scoundrels for their last refuge.” It would seem that the plural verb form “go” should be the singular “goes” instead to agree with the singular “public office.” A closer look, however, shows that the true subject of the invert is not “public office” (nor even “dark recesses”) but the plural “scoundrels.”

    The price of using inversion, it turns out, is eternal vigilance in our grammar.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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