Writer's toolkit

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Some of the most interesting patterns in English grammar are really commonplace - so ordinary you wouldn't notice them. Unless, of course, you're a grammarian. Here's an example. Ha, you missed it, didn't you? You blinked. Let's try again: "Here's an example." And again: "There goes our bus." And again: "Here comes your dad."

Got it? Once we've raised your interest, we'll make a point about KS3 writing.

What's interesting about all these examples is where they put the subject - an example, our bus, your dad. The usual position for the subject is just before the verb, and often right at the start of the sentence: "An example occurred to me."

But in our first examples, the subjects are at the end - in grammar-speak, they're "delayed subjects". How can we be sure that they are subjects at all? That's easy, because present-tense verbs "agree" with the subject, so we say: He goes, He is, but They go, They are. The same happens when we change the nouns in our first examples:

* "Here are (not: is) some examples."

* "There go (not: goes) our buses."

So these nouns really are subjects. What is going on? How come these subjects are allowed to break the rules which other subjects follow so slavishly? It's actually got very little to do with the subjects themselves, though you will notice that we don't delay pronouns (we say:

"Here he comes", not: "Here comes he"). It has everything to do with the rest of the sentence. First notice the verbs: just three verbs allow this subject delay, and they are be, come and go.

Try it with a different verb:

* "Here exists an example." (No!)

* "There departs our bus." (No!)

* "Here approaches your dad." (No!) Then look at the bit before the verb: just two words are possible, namely here and there.

* "In the next line's an example." (Dodgy style)

* "Round the corner goes our bus." (No!)

* "Towards us comes your dad." (No!) Conclusion: subject delay is possible just after herethere + appropriate forms of begocome. The first point is that very ordinary casual speech is controlled in detail by rules - we don't just do what we feel like. This would be a good topic for a 10-minute classroom slot on the grammar of spoken language - let the class work out for themselves the grammar of subject delay.

Here comes the bit about KS3 writing that we promised. There's another kind of subject delay which is not part of ordinary casual speech, but is part of the formal academic English that KS3 learners are absorbing:

* "In the next line is an example."

* "In the far corner stands an ancient oak tree."

From this discussion emerges the need for KS3 learners to understand the similarities between these unfamiliar patterns and things they say every day.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VISchool, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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