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At the beginning of 1807, based on information gathered from Burr’s correspondence allegedly showing that he had begun preparations for a large-scale military expedition, the former vice president was arrested in Louisiana and indicted on the charge of “wickedly devising and intending ♦ the peace and tranquility of the same United States to disturb and to stir, move, and excite insurrection, rebellion and war against the said United States”

Would someone please affirm the position of to disturb in the passage cited above? Am I right in thinking that it can equally be planted at ♦, as one might in contemporary English?

If correct, what’s this stylistic placement called? Also, what are its advantages or disadvantages? I find it more onerous and less lucid; I had to reread it to determine the infinitive.

Source: page 54 of America on Trial, by Alan Dershowitz

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  • I replaced the embedded quotation from Dershowitz' book from the Indictment of Aaron Burr with the corresponding passage from the original, so as to remove the ellipse included by the original poster, which in my opinion, introduced too much ambiguity to allow the original poster's question to be answered.
    – brasshat
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 7:27
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    Looks like a rhetorical device to get the damning words disturb, stir, move, and excite all together in a row for best results when spoken.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 18:13

3 Answers 3

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Yes, it is correct as written.

It is a stylistic choice used to draw attention to some portion of the sentence. This is the rhetorical device called anastrophe, itself a type of hyperbaton. Anastrophe is defined by the OED as:

Inversion, or unusual arrangement, of the words or clauses of a sentence.

Poetic Use

As mentioned here, Coleridge uses this device in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the more common word-order of a breeze never blew up is replaced by never a breeze up-blew:

The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all ’gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.

He could have written A breeze never blew up instead, but that would have thrown off the meter.

Another example of this, again drawn from the same poem, is:

And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same,
Full many shapes, that shadows were,
In crimson colours came.

Coleridge uses anastrophe quite a bit in his poetry. Consider the opening lines from his poem “Kubla Khan”:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Without placing pleasure-dome before decree, he could not have rhymed it with sea later on. Even modern poets writing in rhyme still do this sort of thing all the time. In his short poem about Eärendil, JRR Tolkien uses anastrophe at several points in this single stanza:

A ship then new they built for him
of mithril and of elvenglass

with crystal keel; no shaven oar
nor sail she bore, on silver mast
the Silmaril as lantern light
and banner bright with living flame
of fire unstained by Elbereth
herself was set, who thither came
and wings immortal made for him,
and laid on him undying doom,
to sail the shoreless skies and come
behind the Sun and light of Moon.

If you rearrange all the anastrophic orderings, you get something more like:

Then they built a new ship for him of mithril and of elvenglass with crystal keel. She bore no shaven oar nor sail. The Silmaril was set on silver mast by Elbereth herself as a lantern light and a bright banner with living flame of unstained fire. She came thither and made immortal wings for him and laid on him undying doom: to sail the shoreless skies and come behind the Sun and the Moon’s light.

Doesn’t sound so nice anymore, does it?

Prose Use

Using OSV or SOV ordering instead of SVO ordering was formerly more common in English than it is today. The ritual marriage vows of With this ring I thee wed and till death do us part both place the object before the verb instead of after it. This SOV ordering still happens all the time in related languages like Dutch and German, but in English it can sound archaizing to the modern ear.

Nonetheless, it does still get used, and not just for poetry alone, either. Although anastrophe is at times used purely for the meter’s sake (as it here seems to be in Coleridge), at other times it is used to pull important words up to the front of their phrase so as to draw attention to them.

In rhetoric, anastrophic rearrangements have other purposes than for the sake of the meter, since in prose there is (well, in theory) no meter to serve. It can be done purely for emphasis, like saying More money you will never get from me.

In the Burr indictment, it seems to have been done to keep certain words and phrases close to each other for increased effect. It clusters the infinitives together without risking an object separating them. To disturb and to stir certainly belong together like that, but if you had put the object of disturb after the verb, you would have an unsightly wedge driven between the related infinitives — or you would have driven an unsightly wedge between the related verbs; your choice. :)

Fronting the object like that places the focus of the verb on the object. This isn’t really “inversion poetical” so much as it is using simple matters of word order to control the emphasis. See this answer for a longer citation regarding using word-order emphatically; it is something that is natural in English.

Fronting isn’t as strange as you might think; it happens with relative clauses all the time, like saying This is the man I told you about.

The advantage of anastrophe is that you notice it. That may also be its disadvantage if you aren’t prepared for such parses. That is, it may cause the unsophisticated reader to temporarily misparse the sentence.

But gee whiz, when you are talking about a single sentence that’s one thousand two hundred and six words long the way the Aaron Burr indictment is, greater problems of clarity than might be caused by mere anastrophe alone shall surely baffle the reader.

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You're right, this is an older usage. It looks like the object was fronted or "topicalized" to the front of the infinitive. This no longer works in English but I guess it used to! Similar rules exist is German and other Germanic languages.

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Searching through Google Books and then again through Google for the phrase "intending * to disturb" (that is, for the word "intending" followed by the phrase "to disturb", optionally separated by other words), I got three types of result:

  1. intending to disturb
  2. intending [adverb or adverbial phrase] to disturb; for example "intending not to disturb", "intending in every respect to disturb"
  3. intending [conjunction] [present progressive verb] to disturb; for example "intending and contriving to disturb", "intending or acting to deliberately disturb" (which has an adverb obtruding into the infinitive, but that's not my object of investigation)

I have not seen any other instances of the usage intending [direct object of 'disturb'] to disturb. You are correct in thinking that the typical modern usage would be to insert the infinitive where you placed the diamond.

Does Dershowitz' book cite the author of the quoted statement? It might be a usage peculiar to that author; or it might be a usage that was common in legal English at that time, but which Google Books (for example) simply has no other record of.

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