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I had heard some story of her too, a critical, unpleasant story, but what it was I had forgotten long ago.

This is a sentence from The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald. The clause after the but kind of confuses me--it looks not that familiar to me, the way it's written. It's the very first time to see structure like that. Is it for some literary effect? Like emphasis? It would be more familiar to me, if it were written as . . .

but I had forgotten what it was long ago

or

but it was what I had forgotten long ago

What might have been the reason for F.Scott Fitzgerald to write that way?

  • "... but I had forgotten what it was long ago": not optimal, because long ago is separated from forgotten; "... *"... but it was what I had forgotten long ago": wrong, it's grammatical but it doesn't mean the same thing. "... but long ago I had forgotten what it was": better than either of the above; "but what it was I had forgotten long ago": this has the advantage putting "I had forgotten" next to "what it was", which is the object of "I had forgotten". – Peter Shor Mar 23 '15 at 11:49
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    To sum up what @PeterShor said, the reason Fitzgerald wrote it that way is that he was a careful writer with a good ear. To add my own two cents, listen to the rhythm of the (somewhat loose) anapests in that clause: ". . . what it was I had forgotten long ago." – Robusto Mar 23 '15 at 12:02
  • @Robusto amazing, i never thought about it. – hjjg200 Mar 23 '15 at 12:07
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This is a simple matter of object/subject reversal, which is perfectly valid. You correct deduced that

  • what it was I had forgotten long ago

Is equivalent to:

  • I had forgotten long ago what it was

The sentence as quoted from the book is quaint, but not wrong.

I did the laundry. The laundry I did. I had forgotten to do the chores. The chores I had forgotten.


As a matter of style, one might prefer a comma in the reversed form:

  • I did the laundry; the chores, I had forgotten.

  • . . . but what it was, I had forgotten.

But who am I to quibble with F. Scott Fitzgerald's style? He has sold a lot more books than I have!

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