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Concourse 2

Postponement and Extrapositioning

postponement

Look at these two sentences:

  1. Hamilton is in third place.
  2. In third place is Hamilton.

If you have followed the guide to fronting on this site, linked in the list at the end, you might consider that this was simply a case of fronting the prepositional phrase for emphasis and in many cases, you'd be right.  This is a form of markedness and for more on that you should consult the guide linked in the list of related guides at the end.
A better interpretation is that we have a case of the subject being postponed to the end of the clause.  Hence the name postponement.
There are two principles at work here which are important and they are known as end weighting and end focus.


2

Two important concepts

  1. There is a tendency to place new information towards the end of a clause or sentence.  This is end focus.
  2. There is a tendency to place heavy elements towards the end of a clause or sentence.  This is end weighting.

Heaviness is the term used to describe elements which are semantically important, grammatically complex or simply long.  For example, we could say:

  1. In third place but moving up the field quite quickly now that he has new tyres is Hamilton.

but we are more likely to say:

  1. Hamilton is in third place but moving up the field quite quickly now that he has new tyres.

In order to achieve end weighting and / or end focus, there are lots of times in English when an element of a clause or sentence is moved from its normal position and postponed to the end.
In example 2. above, (In third place is Hamilton) it is the subject of the verb which has been moved and that is a common form of postponement.
Normally, English has the canonical word order of Subject + Verb + Object (or Complement), like this:

Mary gave John the book
Subject Verb Indirect object Direct object

or like this:

I went to the pub yesterday
Subject Verb Prepositional complement Adverbial complement

There are times, however, when we want to depart from the normal word order in English in order to emphasise, i.e., mark, something, to provide a contrast or obey the principle of end weighting.  For example:

Mary gave the book to the man she met on the train with nothing to read
Subject Verb Direct object Indirect object

or

Yesterday I went to the new pub on the corner by the market place
Prepositional complement Subject Verb Adverbial complement

The key to understanding why we do this lies in knowing that sentences which grow to the right in English are easier to understand than sentences which grow in the centre.  Compare, for example:

  1. The man who John met while standing at the bar in his favourite place was unhappy.

with

  1. While standing at his favourite place at the bar John met a man who was unhappy.

In sentence 6., the speaker has deliberately (although probably unconsciously) put the new information to the right so it's easier to understand the intention.


misplaced

Extrapositioning

The general name for the phenomenon of moving an element out of its normal position is extrapositioning and it's very common.  Some analyses confine this term to those times when postponement requires the insertion of the dummy or empty it at the beginning, effectively giving the verb two subjects.
Figure out what is happening to comply with the principle of end weighting (or end focusing for new information) in these examples and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

It's a shame that it's raining
It's not surprising he lost his job
It is not worth talking to him
eye open
This is called extraposition of the clause subject.  All of these sentences contain what is called the anticipatory it.  The alternative, usual, word order sounds at best clumsy, at worst, is actually wrong.  Consider:
That it's raining is a shame
That he lost his job is not surprising
*Talking to him is not worth.
It was hard harvesting all the fruit on the trees
It's usually a waste of time telling him he's wrong.
It's no use arguing with her.
eye open
Again, we have the anticipatory it in all three examples and, again the alternative, usual word order sounds at best clumsy.  Consider:
Harvesting all the fruit on the trees was hard
Telling him he's wrong is usually a waste of time
Arguing with her is no use
What we have here is participle clause extrapositioning.
I dislike it when you argue with me
She finds it quite interesting working on the oil rig
eye open
In these examples, it is the object clause which is extrapositioned.  The 'normal' ordering would be:
*?I dislike when you argue with me.
She finds working on an oil rig quite interesting.

The first of those is arguably unacceptable.
How angry is she with you?
How bored is she by working here?
eye open
In these example it is the prepositional phrase which is moved from its 'normal' position.  This involves end-focus for the phrase the speaker wants to emphasise.
Compare:
How angry with you is she?
How bored by working here is she?
What went wrong that took so long to fix?
What did you say that made the child so happy?
eye open
In the first case, the content of the subject has been extrapositioned.  Compare the doubtful:
What that took so long to fix went wrong?
In the second case, it is part of the object that has been moved.  Compare the very doubtful:
What that made the child so happy did you say?
The earthquake last week which damaged the house
eye open
Here, the relative clause has been extrapositioned.  Compare the 'normal':
The earthquake which damaged the house last week.
The time has come to tell her the truth
All the cheese was bad except the parmesan
A proposal has been made to close the hospital
eye open
In these examples part of the noun phrase has been shifted to the end, resulting in a discontinuous noun phrase.  This is another example of speaker emphasis and end focus.
Compare the 'normal':
The time to tell her the truth has come
All the cheese except the parmesan was bad
A proposal to close the hospital has been made
He produced better work for the final photographic exhibition at the college than anyone else had managed to do for a long time
eye open
Here we have an example of a common extrapositioning: that of the comparative clause.  Compare the clumsy, if not inaccurate:
He produced better work than anyone else had managed to do for a long time for the final photographic exhibition at the college

As a summary, the following are the usual subjects of postponement and extrapositioning with some more examples:

Clause as subject
It's lucky that we have enough money to get a new one
compare
That we have enough money to get a new one
is lucky
Participle clauses as subjects
It was cruel taking all his money and leaving him with nothing
compare
Taking his money and leaving him with nothing was cruel
Clauses as objects
She made it my responsibility to finish the work on time
compare
She made to finish the work on time my responsibility
Prepositional phrases
How dark is it in the depths of winter?
compare
How dark
in the depths of winter is it?
Relative clauses
The storm late yesterday afternoon and in the evening which interrupted the electricity supply
compare
The storm which interrupted the electricity supply late yesterday afternoon and evening
Noun-phrase splitting
The day will arrive when we will all have to pay for this stupidity
compare
The day when we will all have to pay for this stupidity
will arrive
Comparative phrase splitting
The restaurant cooked better food for a small party of 10 than it did for the huge wedding party
compare
The restaurant cooked better food than it it did for the huge wedding party
for a small party of 10

teaching

Teaching in this area

It is unlikely that postponement and extrapositioning would form a discrete part of any language syllabus but, because the phenomena are so common, we need to be aware of them and deal with them as and when they arise.

A simple place to start is with an example of post postponement or extrapositioning and get the learners to figure out which form is the more natural and why.  This is an exercise in encouraging a feeling for naturalness or Sprachgefühl.

All the following are possible in English.  Which sounds best to you? What changes to the grammar do you see?
Sentence Tick (tick) which sounds best to you Grammar changes
At the party sitting on the floor in the corner and talking to his friends was John    
John was at the party sitting on the floor in the corner and talking to his friends    
It was thought to be impossible for anyone to lift it    
For any one to lift it was thought to be impossible    
It doesn't matter what you say to him    
What you say to him doesn't matter    
It seems likely that the government will introduce a new tax on tobacco and alcohol next March     
That the government will introduce a new tax on tobacco and alcohol next March seems likely    

The next step is to remove the more natural forms and get the learners to re-phrase the sentence to make it sound more natural.  This will often require the dummy it pronoun.

One of the difficulties with understanding sentences in which elements have been shifted to comply with end focus and end weight is the need to identify which is the subject and which the object of the verb, especially when the noun phrases have ended up split into two sections.  This is especially relevant to learners who need to access complex academic or formal texts.  One solution is a little practice:

Identify the subject, verb and object in these sentences.  This first one is an example.
Sentence Subject Verb Object
The government has accepted all the findings of the report except those that will mean a loss of tax revenue. The government  has accepted  all the findings of the report except those that will mean a loss of tax revenue
All the company's employees at the meeting accepted in principle the proposals including the new pay rates except those who stood to lose income.    
It would be a pity if the company completely ignored the findings of such a thorough investigation.      
It will not particularly help the situation that most of the main participants will be on holiday when the meeting is held to consider the next steps.      

Another solution is to use academic or formal texts to identify the main constituents of clauses and sentences as part of a reading skills development programme.
It is a fairly straightforward and useful tactic to include where opportunity presents some exercise on identifying (i.e., noticing) the important constituents as one reads.


Try a test on this area.



Related guides
the word order map for links to other guides in this area
cleft sentences explaining how we get from, e.g., She liked the hotel to What she liked was the hotel
circumstances analysing prepositional and adverbial phrases somewhat differently
coordination which all consider the ordering of clauses
subordination
conjunctions
existential it and there for an analysis of what are sometimes called 'dummy' subjects
markedness for more on how English deploys marked and unmarked forms and word ordering
fronting which explains how items can be moved to the beginning of a clause or sentence for effect
theme and rheme which considers why the leftmost consituent of a clause is often the most important