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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 '14 at 9:56
  • And yes, I'm asking about this difference. – thorn Jun 6 '14 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 '14 at 12:08
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    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 '14 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 '14 at 18:46
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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.

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