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I recently listened to the lyrics of Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and noticed the following line.

Of his honour and his glory, the people would sing.

It struck me as being non-typical of modern English syntax, albeit fitting the context of the song. I have a Russian speaking wife, and a 10-year-old daughter, both of whom sometimes get confused about dealing with different sentence structures such as this. This leads to vague recollections of my primary school English class where we did exercises breaking sentences down into subject, verb and predicate.

Pondering the above line I wondered whether it should be...

Subject: his honour and glory. Verb: sing. Predicate: the people.

or

Subject: the people. Verb: sing. Predicate: his honour and glory.

Is there only the one right interpretation, or can there be two?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

The second parsing of the lyric ("subject: the people") is right; the first is not. To understand a sentence, the thing to do is: simplify. Take out various pieces and see if what remains makes sense. It will only be a skeleton of the meaning, but should contain an essence of the sentence. You want to find two main components: the subject and the verb.

If you take out "the people" part (as in the first parsing) and many peripheral words, you get:

his honour sing

alternatively, dropping that and keeping "people":

the people sing

The latter makes more sense: honour and glory do not go around singing; people do. Looking at the sentence, there are two main parts. Can one be left out and still make sense? Yes; keeping the part identified above:

the people would sing

That could be a sentence which stands alone. One can see the other part adds detail (what did they sing?):

the people would sing of his honour and his glory

This version makes sense and is straightforward, and seems to match the original line well. From this one can see that the original line inverts the order of the prepositional phrase of the predicate and the main subject-verb pair as compared to the ordinary (boring) ordering.

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It's a simple sentence in OSV (Yoda) word order. The subject is "the people" and the predicate is "of his honour and glory...would sing."

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1  
Yes. Another answer could be: "The subject-predicate analysis is too simplistic to be worth bothering on any sentence of moderate complexity such as this." –  Neil Coffey Jul 20 '11 at 2:22
    
@Neil Coffey: It's not clear to me how subject-predicate analysis can enlighten anyone about any sentence. Except in the context of being able to call the two parts by those names - but for all practical purposes you might as well call them Part A and Part B (or B and A if that's more to your taste! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 20 '11 at 2:51
4  
+1, except that the order is not really OSV, since there is no real object (the first constituent begins with of): it is rather an adverbial adjunct or possibly complement. –  Cerberus Jul 20 '11 at 4:43
    
@FumbleFingers -- I tend to agree. It's not even clear that, linguistically speaking, there are actually distinct constituents corresponding to "subject" and "predicate". Shock revelation: not everything they teach you in primary school has a good scientific basis. –  Neil Coffey Jul 20 '11 at 11:05
    
I think the problem comes from thinking that simplistic grammar terminology axiomatically defines something real and unavoidably present in sentence structure that we should be able to find every time. But actually it's just primitive attempts to describe some of the simpler cases that arise. I'm not even convinced it's worth learning such stuff in the first place, since it runs out of steam once you start applying it across a broad range of "valid" structures. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives still seem useful terms, though. –  FumbleFingers Jul 20 '11 at 15:21

Subject/predicate are terms from traditional grammar. Modern grammars introduce the terms topic/comment and theme/rheme. So "Of his honour and his glory" would be the topic/theme of the sentence and "the people would sing" would be the comment/rheme.

In traditional grammar, "the people" is the subject and the rest of the sentence is the predicate.

I have written a page about subject/predicate and English sentence types (plus quizzes) for my ESL students. It's at:

http://esl.fis.edu/learners/advice/syntax.htm

You might find it helpful.

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Since the previous sentence in the song is:

He went to fight wars for his country and his king

...I'm inclined to think that "his honour" is the subject, as in your first interpretation. It was almost certainly written in the odd order it was so that king would rhyme with sing.

(Despite loving ELP's music, the lyricist and editor in me both wince at this construction. This is a mild example, but if one needs to twist language to this degree, it's often an indication one needs to rewrite to avoid the awkward construction.)

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