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This question made me think about the structure of the sentence.

I'm familiar with the expression 'Enter Michael'/'Exit John' to represent Michael's or John's entry or exit, respectively, to a dramatic stage, and its metaphorical use.

Is this a real sentence, or a sentence fragment? Either way, should John be treated as the subject of the sentence, and put in the nominative case? I realise that this makes little practical difference as English words are not typically declined based on case, and "exit him" or "Enter I" sounds wrong either way. However I am curious.

Initially I had thought that "exit" might be the subjunctive, and that the phrase was equivalent to "Let John exit". But the plural of "exit" in stage directions is "exeunt", and both "exit" and "exeunt" are present indicative in Latin.

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

My interpretation is that we are looking at a nominative. Here is why. The key to the noun case lies I believe in the analysis of the verb inflection.

One first need to acknowledge that scene directions in play-texts used to take various forms1.

  1. All Latin:
    • Present indicative mood: intrat/intrant and exit/exeunt. In which case the characters are in nominative case.
    • Present subjective mood: exeat/exeant (nominative as well)
    For instance in exeunt omnes as you note, exeunt is the 3rd person plural of the present indicative of the verb exeo. In theory, omnes is possibly the masculine plural nominative, vocative or accusative of omnis.
    Since exeunt is not an imperative, we can rule out vocative.
    Since exeunt is a plural we can rule out accusative - if it were an accusative we would have exit omnes, not exeunt omnes, some kind of "there exit all".

  2. Mixed English/Latin:
    • Present indicative mood: Entreth[enters]/enter (singular plural) and exit/exeunt. For instance "Enters the King". The King is a nominative case (note that the verb is inflected as a 3rd person singular).
    • If we read Enter John, one could interpret enter as an imperative in which case John is a vocative. but that doesn't square up with exit (a Latin indicative - the imperative would be exi or exito) and seems awkward in the case of "Enter the King".
      There is another explanation though. I would venture that since exit is both a Latin 3rd person singular and an English infinitive, the enter form is a symmetric infinitive. Said otherwise, the exit started as a Latin indicative and was retained because it looked like an English infinitive. This would explain the weird mix of English and Latin (enter is no Latin word of course). In this case, the noun is in the nominative case.


Note 1
A Japanese professor of European literature named Mariko Ichikawa has actually devoted a (freely available) whole article to Shakespearean Entrances. Here is a short excerpt:

A survey of stage directions in early English renaissance plays shows that the use of the English direction 'Enter' (presented in the imperative mood and used for either one or more characters) along with the Latin direction 'Exit'/'Exeunt' (in the present indicative mood) was not completely established until the early or mid-1590s. Some of the earliest surviving play-texts basically employ the convention of massing the names of all the characters who appear in any given scene in one list at its opening, without the word 'enter' or its equivalent, in imitation of the printed form of Roman comedy current in the Renaissance. Some almost exclusively use the Latin directions: 'intrat'/'intrant' (in the present indicative mood) and either 'exeat'/'exeant' (in the present subjective mood) or 'exit'/'exeunt'. Others normally use vernacular verbs such as 'come in' and 'go out', and 'enter' and 'go out'. 'Entreth[enters]'/'enter' (singular plural) and 'exit'/'exeunt' are usually found[...]
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This is a great answer, exactly what I was looking for. –  RoundTower Jul 3 '11 at 11:20
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It's probably best just to treat it as a "fixed expression" rather than try and analyse in terms of a it being a 'normal' piece of syntax. (Once a word or expression is interchangeable with a piece of Latin, that's a good sign not to get too bogged down with an analysis in terms of "normal" syntax...)

I really don't think there's much mileage in trying to analyse in terms of "subjunctive", for example. I'm actually skeptical that it's appropriate to say that English has subjunctive forms in the first place, but even if you buy into the idea that it does, it's probably appropriate to say that subjunctives, like verb forms generally, have a subject position and normal word order, something that's not obviously present in the case of "enter John/*John enter/*enter I".

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Subjunctive forms in English do have unusual word orderings, though. "Be that as it may", "Were I better informed about this, ...", "Should it rain tomorrow, ...". And "enter" isn't Latin, although it is derived from it of course. –  RoundTower Jul 1 '11 at 23:03
    
Well, maybe... but again it depends on whether you really regard these as "subjunctive" or just fixed expressions. Remember that in languages with clear candidates for "subjunctive", subjunctive forms are generally ordinary, boring parts of the conjugation system rather than being primarily involved in "special" cases as in English. –  Neil Coffey Jul 2 '11 at 0:10
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I can't point to a reference, but this seems to be a case where form comes from function. Entrances and exits are important events for actors, so "enter" and "exit" come first so that those directions are easy to spot. The character(s) doing the entering or exiting is the next most important piece of information, and comes next, followed by more specific information like "stage left" or "with bloody dagger."

Anyway, in a stage direction it's always the case that the character (John) is the subject of the verb (enter), and the scene is the implied object of the verb.

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