In the vast majority of cases, the central clause elements, subjects (S), predicate verbs (V), objects (O), and predicatives (P) occur in a fixed order. Thus, as in the following examples, the subject precedes the verb, which precedes the object or predicative.
(1) The entire population (S) grieved (V) the death of their leader (O).
(2) The results (S) were (V) very surprising (P).
Adverbials have much greater freedom of position, and may occur in initial position, in final position, or even in various medial positions between other clause elements, although such placement is fairly restricted in English. The following example illustrates various adverbial positions in English.
(3) At the outset the containers were carefully monitored to avoid contamination.
The main rule which is relevant here is, again, that the subject precedes the predicate verb in all but a few well-defined types of clauses.
However, there are a few cases in English where the order between subject and predicate verb is inverted, that is, when the predicate verb (or one of the verbs that belong to the predicate verb) actually precedes the subject. This is called inversion. Inversion is discussed in the sections below.
A special case: clauses with two subjects
Most clauses have only one subject. However, there are clause types which grammarians analyse as having two subjects. Such clauses have a 'light' subject in the form of a pronoun in the usual position before the predicate verb and another 'heavier' subject after the verb. In the following examples the two types of subject are highlighted.
(4) It was suggested that the Emperor of Austria should become the German Emperor.
(5) There were no signs of violence.
As these examples show, the first subject, referred to as the preparatory subject, can be either it or there. It is the form of the second subject, referred to as the postponed subject, that determines the choice of preparatory subject.
- It is used as the preparatory subject when the postponed subject is a clause.
- There is used as the preparatory subject when the postponed subject is a noun phrase.
In clauses with there as the preparatory subject it is the noun phrase functioning as the postponed subject that determines the form of the verb. Thus, when the postponed subject is a singular noun phrase, the predicate verb is also singular, and when the postponed subject is a plural noun phrase, the predicate verb is also plural.
(6) There was a sudden pause.
(7) There were several armed uprisings after the revolution.
Cases where the predicate verb precedes the subject
While the subject normally precedes the predicate verb, there are cases where the order is reversed so that the predicate verb, or part of the predicate verb, precedes the subject. The most common instance of inverted word-order is found in yes/no questions, as in the following examples.
(8) Will (v) the government (S) survive (V) the election?
(9) Can (v) the President (S) go (V) beyond the law?
These examples illustrate the fact that when the predicate verb is made up of several verbs, only the first auxiliary verb precedes the subject.
For the purpose of forming questions in this way, English has a special auxiliary, do, which is used in clauses where the predicate verb consists of a single verb. Thus, to form a yes/no question from The President sent a message to Downing Street, we insert do before the subject.
(10)The President (S) sent (V) a message to Downing Street.
(11) Did (v) the President (S) send (V) a message to Downing Street?
Inverted word-order in non-questions: After negative elements
The same inverted word-order as that found in yes/no questions is also used in clauses introduced by a negative or restrictive clause element. In the following example, the initial element Not only is negative and is followed by inverted word order: could congress declare...
(12) Not only could (v) Congress (S) declare (V) war but the states were forbidden to engage in it without the consent of Congress.
Further examples (with the initial negative element highlighted):
(13) Never before have human rights been so fully and completely violated.
(14) On no account must the moisture level raise above 7 or 8 per cent.
(15) Not until the end of the hour-long conversation did the President get to the point.