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Recently a program gave me this text in a dialog box: "All purchases have been downloaded for this account." While I understand its meaning, splitting the subject (the noun and its attributive phrase) makes it awkward in my mind.

"All purchases for this account have been downloaded" seems clearer to me. Is there a grammar rule to cover this?

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"For this account" is a prepositional phrase. An adjective is a word such as high or red. The sentence does not contain a single adjective. –  RegDwigнt Jan 10 '13 at 23:24
    
@RegDwigh: all –  Cerberus Jan 10 '13 at 23:34
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@Cerberus No, he is right. All is a determiner. –  tchrist Jan 10 '13 at 23:40
    
@tchrist: It is both to me. Just depends on your model and definitions. –  Cerberus Jan 10 '13 at 23:41
    
@Cerberus I guess it is an aller adjective than it is some. –  tchrist Jan 11 '13 at 0:04
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

There is no rule forbidding it, and in general you can move prepositional phrases around quite a bit in a sentence. (Not everywhere, but quite a bit.)

You just have to realize that they will most often attach themselves to whatever is closest, so people may take the wrong meaning.

This is not a problem if there is something that draws them out to something more distant. For example, “I washed the baby with that new soap you got” will not attach to baby because of the tendency of soap and water to go together. On the other hand, “I took a picture of the baby with the red cap” has no such issue, since caps do not take pictures.

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The English in your dialog box sentence looks grammatical. If you run it by numerous native English speakers, I suspect you will hardly find any reports of a flaw.

The sentence which you propose is not precisely equivalent to the original, but rather subtly different. The high level semantics are identical, because we know the context, or at least we assume that it's some kind of online shopping situation: from both sentences we understand that this account has associated purchases, and that all of those purchases have been downloaded.

In "all purchases have been downloaded for this account", the phrase "for this account" modifies the verb.

In "all purchases for this account have been downloaded", "purchases for this account" constitutes a noun phrase. That entire phrase is the subject.

The difference is not simply that we are rearranging syntax, because the syntactic categories are changing.

Both of these sentences have multiple possible interpretations, depending on the context and the way words are emphasized in speech. For instance, suppose that an account requires certain purchases to be downloaded, but also requires some other things (let's say widgets) to be downloaded. Then "all purchases have been downloaded for this account" emphasizes that the purchases have been downloaded, but perhaps the widgets have not yet been.

Also, consider these hypothetical conversations:

Bob: Alice, for which accounts have all the purchases been downloaded?

Alice: All purchases have been downloaded for this account.

Bob: I see.

Versus:

Bob: Alice, for which accounts have all the purchases been downloaded?

Alice: All purchases for this account have been downloaded.

Bob: Yes, yes. I know all purchases were downloaded for this account, but were there any other purchases for other accounts?

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Kaz, I think you're right that they are subtly different. No doubt. I guess I was thinking that "all purchases" and "for this account" go together. (It is, indeed, an online store - Apple iTunes.) If we use a more concrete example, such as "This cake was baked for you." That makes sense, more so than, "This cake for you was baked." –  IAmNaN Jan 11 '13 at 2:39
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