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I just recently read this paragraph: "Think of an ad campaign that you still remember long after viewing it. Consider a book that might have inspired you. Behind those memories are solid writing."

I would say grammatically, the subject of that bolded sentence is "writing," and "behind those memories" is a prepositional phrase modifying "writing." Therefore, the verb would be "is" not "are" since it needs to agree with the subject. (solid writing, which is singular).

But even if it were changed to "Behind those memories is solid writing," I still find the sentence awkward. I am trying to figure out how I would reword, but perhaps, I am wrong, and it is fine as is.

  • No. This is simply a fronted locative phrase, though the plural are is wrong; it should be Behind those memories is solid writing. One could also use There-Insertion instead of fronting: There is solid writing behind those memories. – John Lawler Jan 31 '18 at 23:04
  • Was the "no" answering the main question—can a preposition act as a subject—or suggesting I was wrong that "writing" is the subject? I had never heard of a fronted locative phrase; I had to look it up. But good to know I was right about the verb needing to be singular. So "solid writing" is the subject, but the phrase "behind those memories" is a fronted locative phrase rather than a prepositional phrase. Is that correct? – dsrt16 Jan 31 '18 at 23:13
  • @JohnLawler Don’t you always have to assume an unseen expletive there or dummy it to do away with allowing these to function as nominative constituents? If so, how does construing something that isn't there help the analysis? Some of us had this very discussion yesterday, where we indeed started out with the assumption that this was nothing more than fronting but when that became awkward we ended up deciding it could be used substantively in rare cases. Is the leading preposition here simply spurious? “In the mailbox would be a good place.” Or is that an inverted copular subject? – tchrist Jan 31 '18 at 23:16
  • @tchrist I am totally lost. Can you recommend a decent online glossary of grammatical terminology? – Ross Murray Feb 1 '18 at 2:42
  • @RossMurray Usually Wikipedia has them, or at least the Google, but I might be speaking in a funky accent here. :) – tchrist Feb 1 '18 at 21:54
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Yes, this is in fact possible, albeit rather unusual.

Q: May I call you later?

A: Sure, if it’s early.

Q: How early is early?

A: After ten would be too late.

In that final sentence, it’s most easily analyzed as the prepositional phrase acting as the grammatical subject of the verb be. You can swap the whole thing out as a syntactic constituent and replace with any more conventional subject without any trouble:

  • He would be too late.
  • Your call would be too late.
  • Calling after ten would be too late.
  • To delay even a little would be too late.
  • For you to delay even a little would be too late.
  • Whenever you called (it) would be too late.

Considering how interchangeable all those different types of subjects are in that sentence with the original “after ten”, we must conclude that prepositional phrases can sometimes serve as the syntactic subject or object of a sentence, not just as modifiers of nouns as verbs.

English is sometimes surprisingly flexible in its syntactic flexibility, and this one of those times.

Although there are ways to avoid this, these can themselves be unnatural if you aren’t careful. Most involve rearranging things and supplying a dummy it as the grammatical subject.

It would be too late for you to call me if it were after ten.

  • I completely agree (an even better substitue would be "Yes, it would be too late"). I'm not going to upvote just yet though, because I think you need to point out that in the OP's example, the PP isn't the subject. Rather the sentence illustrates subject-dependent inversion and the subject is solid writing where some kind of proximity concord has taken place (some might argue/feel that the sentence is ungrammatical - not me though). The use of this sructure is forced because solid writing is new and those memories is old. AsJL says an existential construction works better. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 1 '18 at 21:49
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    @Araucaria I was hoping somebody might allege that the subject is a "prepositional phrase" in the for-complementizer of the infinitive's subject in "For you to delay even a little would be too late." :) – tchrist Feb 1 '18 at 21:52
  • Once upon a time I would have! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 1 '18 at 21:54
  • @Araucaria, in my original question, I pointed out that I knew the PP wasn't the subject in that sentence. I figured that grammatically "solid writing" is the subject of the sentence. But because the writer chose to use the plural verb "are," I realized the author thought the PP was the subject, and then that got me wondering if a PP could ever be a subject. I did just learn about subject-dependent inversion and fronted locative phrase from a previous comment, so that construction is less awkward to me now. – dsrt16 Feb 1 '18 at 23:43
  • @dsrt16 Your question is a very good question indeed. I'm not trying to undermine it in any way (how I wish there were more questions like this here!). I'm just trying to nudge TC into giving more info in his answer :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 2 '18 at 0:03

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