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The opening sentence to The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien reads,

In a hole in the ground there lived [verb] a hobbit [subject].

I wonder if there are accepted stylistic purposes for such a structure. When is it natural, and when is it unnatural?

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I think it's a literary thing. It may be ok in a book, but might be considered unusual in everyday speech. –  user1306322 Jan 3 '13 at 23:30
It's a syntactic thing. The rule is called There-Insertion, and it's governed by a lot of verbs. It replaces the subject with a dummy there and moves the former subject to a position after the verb. It's used for subjects that are new information, rather than old, which is the norm with subjects. New information is best placed at the end of a sentence. –  John Lawler Jan 3 '13 at 23:48
@JohnLawler You can do it with here, too, although not so often as with there, I hazard. –  tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 23:58
@tchrist: No, this isn't the locative there; this is different. **There's** a man here to see you. But not the other way round. Also, adverbs don't raise, but dummy there does: There/*Here is said by many to be some truth to it. –  John Lawler Jan 4 '13 at 0:29

5 Answers 5

This is called subject–verb inversion, and is done for a variety of reasons. The referenced article mentions four sorts:

  1. Locative inversion
  2. Directive inversion
  3. Copular inversion
  4. Quotation inversion

This one is locative inversion, because the sentences starts with a location specification, a “where” phrase. This is completely common in English.

  • At the back of the closet stood a secret door.

  • Down the street came the ice cream truck.

I once made a study of the inversions in Tolkien (whom you have quoted above without attribution), and it is a distinctive style choice in some cases, especially in the copular inversion. Furthermore, the inversions vary in number and type depending on whether you are looking at The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings.

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It's an issue of fluidity and aesthetics.

If you rewrite the sentence,

"A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground."

it does not sound nearly as pretty, does it?

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Tales traditionally begin with a slight delay – usually a formula like “so heisst es” or “Once upon a time” or even “Wance upon a time, an’ ’twas nayther my time nor your time, but ’twas somebody’s time” – which takes a grip on the audience and provides them a cue to become quiet and attentive before the first event or character is introduced. Tolkien knew this as well as anybody: he was famous for the resounding “Hwæt!” with which he opened his Oxford lectures on Beowulf.

He was, moreover, an accomplished poet in traditional metres; and it’s hard to imagine that that crafty decelerando from the urgent anapaests to solemn iambs transforming in mid-flight into trochees was anything but a deliberate device to throw the emphasis onto the final word, hobbit.

˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘

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I think it adds drama or style and is best suited for the stage or page. Could also be used to preserve effect in translation of foreign works, "Thus Spake Zarathustra..." in German: "Also sprach Zarathustra"

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+1, yes, and in Italian: “Cosi' parlo' Zaratustra”. –  user19148 Jan 4 '13 at 0:17

English is primarily ordered SVO , Subject Verb Object, or more accurately primarily right branching, -primarily-. English is not as fluid in word order as more inflected languages like Latin (which, whatever your Latin teacher might say, is primarily SOV, just not as primarily as English).

That said, even outside of poetry and other literature, there is some slight room for word order variety. The communicative purpose in English (as I surmise in other languages) is for emphasis. Even if something is grammatically the subject, one mat want to emphasize the object or even give some suspense as to the subject or verb.

Surely 'John gives the book to Mary' means something very different from 'Mary gives John to the book'. But one can introduce things in a different order but maintaining the ostensible roles.

It was given to Mary by John, the book it was.

(yes a bit stilted but there it is)

Whether stylish or not, I've heard such variations are characteristic of Irish English, where the substrate of Irish Gaelic has VSO word order. I don't know if there's a causal relationship but it is an observation.

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“Here comes the bus!” is hardly poetry nor literature. –  tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 23:56
@tchrist: but "Here comes the sun" can be musical... –  Olivier Dulac May 27 '13 at 18:47

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