I came across the following odd-sounding sentence while reading The Time Machine by H. G. Wells:

  1. But how the trick was done he could not explain.

In this sentence, the clause 'how the trick was done' is a noun clause and functions as the object of the verb 'explain'. So it should go after the verb and the correct version of this sentence should be as follows:

  1. But he could not explain how the trick was done.

Is this kind of shifting of noun clause normal in English literature?

  • 3
    Yes, it's common, but it's also but specifically employed to make the clause stand out: for emphasis. I'm not sure this qualifies, but breaking from standard/conventional word order for effect is known as hyperbaton. There are many sub-types to it; ,aye one describes this particular type of rearrangement. – Dan Bron May 7 '15 at 5:53
  • This syntax rule is known to English syntacticians as Topicalization. If it were in Greek, it would probly be hyperbaton, but English doesn't have anything like the same syntax as Greek, or the same word order, either. Further examples of topicalization and related rules in English can be found starting at the bottom of p.5 on the link above. – John Lawler May 9 '15 at 17:22

Dan Bron has accurately identified this technique as hyperbaton. It is definitely more common in English literature, and its frequency steadily decreased through time. Also, contemporary American literature conventions almost cut it out entirely.

Its main use is to greatly emphasize the shifted phrase. Writing can become literally and even visually repetitive (such as using an introductory phrase at the beginning of every sentence), so a technique like this is very useful.

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