English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm reading a book right now that in my opinion overuses a certain construct. It's used so much that it distracts from the content.

Some examples:

Eccentric and egotistical, Berkeley was not so much interested in dance steps as he was in camera movement.


A somber man privately, Johnson had an acid humor, quite different at the dinner table … from what reached the screen.


Solely a screen actor, Gary Cooper mastered his craft so that he knew exactly how to react for the camera.

1. Is there a term for this construct?

I'm thinking maybe it's some kind of topicalized apposition? So you could start with

Gary Cooper, solely a screen actor, mastered his craft so that he knew exactly how to react for the camera.

and then pull the appositive phrase to the front to make the sentence interesting:

Solely a screen actor, Gary Cooper mastered his craft so that he knew exactly how to react for the camera.

2. What is the relation between the phrases?

There does seem to be some relationship between the phrases in the particular constructs I quoted: Johnson's somberness and acid humor obviously contrast one another; Cooper's mastered the specific craft of the screen actor; I suppose Berkeley's eccentricity accounts for his interests. That last one's less clear to me.

But is this kind of relationship a requirement? Say I combine two phrases:

A big man, John Doe loved the color yellow.

Could that just be one way of expressing two unrelated things in one sentence, or would the reader expect them to have a bearing on each other?

I'm curious about the "rules" (whether written down somewhere, or the conventional usage, or your intuitions) of the relationship between the phrases in this construct.

share|improve this question
An aside. It is interesting to guess when "an interesting quirk in style" crosses the line to "distracts from the content". – GEdgar Jun 28 '12 at 14:33
@GEdgar Definitely. I think it was when I saw it two or three times on the first page of a new chapter (after having seen it several times per chapter before that) that I was inspired to write this question. – Henrik N Jun 28 '12 at 15:07
up vote 5 down vote accepted

First, you shouldn't start with apposition; apposition is not a starting place, but the result of relative clause pruning.

  • My son the doctor is coming for dinner = My son, who is a doctor, is coming for dinner.

In the case of the construction you ask about, it's not a relative clause that's being pruned, but an adverbial subordinate clause. A starting point for Eccentric and egotistical ... (with parenthesized material pruned) might be

This is rather like participial constructions, except the only verb in sight is the predicate adjective auxiliary be, which is totally predictable and therefore deleted, along with the equally predictable subject, leaving only the adjectives, but keeping the clausal intonation (whence the comma), and leaving the conjunction unspecified.

And giving rise to "dangling participles" like

Sitting on the fence, my mother saw three cats fighting.

As you suspect, the identity of the conjunction that would be appropriate is up to the listener to calculate from (their knowledge of (the speaker's knowledge of)) the context. So if you can't guess what connection might exist between being eccentric and egotistical, on the one hand, and having an interest in camera movement on the other, then for sure you might not be able to see what the speaker's getting at.

This kind of calculation is Pragmatic -- situational, dependent on the goals and effects of speech -- and not a part of a syntactic construction, or even semantics. It's all inference, though there are some guidelines.

share|improve this answer
Interesting point about the "identity of the conjunction" being tacitly implied/understood by speaker/listener. When the "parenthetical" clause is shifted to the front as in OP's examples, it does rather tend to grab the focus of attention. Forcing the hearer to extrapolate some connection with the next clause, which can usually be understood as an implied Because/Although/While/Similarly. – FumbleFingers Jun 27 '12 at 22:31
Thank you! Good answer. – Henrik N Jun 28 '12 at 13:11

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.