Please help me understand the grammar of this sentence:

When the girls get their bills, out come the pocket calculators.

What connotations does this inversion add? Can "out come" here be analyzed as a phrasal verb? If so, what other phrasal verbs can be inverted this way so that the preposition precedes the verb?

  • Are you asking for the difference in connotation between this and "When the girls get their bills, the pocket calculators come out"?
    – Rupe
    Jun 6, 2014 at 9:56
  • And yes, I'm asking about this difference.
    – thorn
    Jun 6, 2014 at 11:51
  • In that case, I can't think of a difference. Seems like a choice dictated by style rather than meaning. Verb-first reads a bit more easily.
    – Rupe
    Jun 6, 2014 at 12:08
  • 1
    I think there's a slight difference in nuance -- the quoted version emphasizes "out come" by putting it first. You envision lots of simultaneous reaching for purses.
    – Barmar
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:33
  • The wording reminds me of the classic chant that accompanies assisted respiration after a instance of near drowning, in fictional comedic works like cartoons and beach movies: "Out goes the bad air; in comes the good air!"
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 6, 2014 at 18:46

1 Answer 1


When the girls get their bills, out come the pocket calculators.

The main clause of your example has undergone subject-dependent inversion:

  1. [the pocket calculators] come [out] -- (non-inverted)

  2. [out] come [the pocket calculators] -- (subject-dependent inversion)

In version #1, the subject ("the pocket calculators") is located in its typical slot--before the verb. But in version #2, the subject has switched its location with that of the dependent "out".

There are reasons related to information packaging why a writer or speaker might prefer the inverted versions for certain contexts. Some of these reasons are: 1) newer info is often moved to the end of a clause, 2) info that is to be emphasized is often moved to the end of a clause for a stronger effect on the reader. Both of those reasons seem applicable to your example.

Notice how your original sentence reads better (imo) than this more basically structured version:

  • The pocket calculators come out when the girls get their bills.

In your original version, "the pocket calculators"--by being placed at the end of the sentence--get emphasized to the reader. It was the pocket calculators that the writer wanted to be the main, and unexpected, point of the sentence.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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