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Author Topic: A bewildering encounter with an inverted sentence  (Read 109 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: September 01, 2017, 12:01:07 AM »


Take a look at this multiple-choice sentence completion test and figure out the correct answer:

“In the fine print at the end of the document ____________________ result from civil unrest.”

(A) “lies the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that”

(B) “lies the clauses that make us liable for any expenses which”

(C) “lies the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that”

(D) “lie the clauses that make us liable for any expenses which”

(E) “lie the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that”

Forum member Miss Mae says that her answer was (C) “lies the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that,” but was told that the subject of the sentence, “the clauses,” requires the verb to be in the plural form “lie” instead of the singular “lies.”

Even so, she asks, why is it that the correct answer is (E) “lie the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that,” such that the sentence should read as follows: “In the fine print at the end of the document lie the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that result from civil unrest.”


As we will recall, the construction above is an inverted sentence, one that deliberately departs from the normal declarative form of this rather structurally unwieldy sentence: “The clauses that make us liable for any expenses that result from civil unrest lie in the fine print at the end of the document.” We can see that although that sentence is grammatically correct, its bad syntax makes it clunky and difficult to comprehend.

In contrast, the particular form of inversion used here puts the prepositional phrase “in the fine print at the end of the document” at the beginning of the sentence, and then positions the intransitive verb “lie” ahead of its subject “the clauses.” This inverted sentence is the result: “In the fine print at the end of the document lie the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that result from civil unrest.”

As we can see, inversion has made the sentence not only much more readable but also highly emphatic. This improvement in syntax comes at a price, though. When we look at the inverted sentence, it strongly appears that the subject of the verb “lie” is the singular noun “document”—not the plural “clauses”—so the reader is apt to be tempted to correct that verb to the singular form “lies.”

 

When constructing inverted sentences, it is therefore crucial to identify its true subject correctly. That true subject is the subject of the main clause of the inverted sentence, and the verb should agree with the number of that subject, not with that of the noun that intervenes or comes before it. Indeed, the singular verb form “lies” for the plural “clauses” is what makes (C) “lies the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that” incorrect.

That, however, still leaves as possible correct answers either (D) “lie the clauses that make us liable for any expenses which” or (E) “lie the clauses that make us liable for any expenses that.” So what is it that makes E the only correct answer?

Looking closely at the sentence structure, we will find that what makes E the only correct answer is its use of the relative pronoun “that” as opposed to the use in D of the relative pronoun “which.” Remember now that in American English, “that” is used when the relative clause is restrictive or indispensable to the meaning of the sentence, and “which” (preceded by a comma) is used when the relative clause is nonrestrictive or not absolutely necessary to that meaning. In the inverted sentence in question here, the relative clause “that result from civil unrest” is clearly a restrictive relative clause, one strongly bound semantically to the noun “expenses” in that sentence. (2012)

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the July 21, 2012 issue of The Manila Times, © 2012 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

RELATED READING:
The emphatic forms and inverted sentences
Guideposts for using “who,” “that,” and “which” to link relative clauses

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