This sentence from Walden by Henry David Thoreau strikes me as unusual.

I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. (Walden)

I can't figure out what grammatical phenomenon this is. Is it a case of dummy subject omission? "I sat at a table where there were rich food and wine in abundance."

Or is it an inversion where the original sentence should read "I sat at a table where rich food and wine were in abundance."? If this is the case, is it a subject-auxiliary inversion or a subject-verb inversion (copular inversion)? And is the inversion kosher/standard?

Also what part of speech is where in this sentence? Adverb or conjunction?

  • poetic license! – lbf Nov 11 '18 at 16:51
  • It is subject-auxiliary inversion in the relative clause where the subject, "rich food and wine", and the auxiliary verb "were" have inverted. There's no obvious reason for the inversion - perhaps, as lbf says, it's nothing more than 'poetic license'. "Where" is the relativised word. In traditional grammar it is classified as an adverb, but modern grammar analyses it as a preposition. – BillJ Nov 11 '18 at 17:46
  • 'locative inversion' yea. that's what i meant ! – lbf Nov 11 '18 at 18:11
  • @BillJ I don't think this is genuine SAI, but rather a form of subject postposing (not locative inversion, imo, because the uninverted version would still have locative where in initial position). Reason for not being SAI is that you could substitute were with another verb like appeared, resided or lay, for example. – Araucaria Nov 11 '18 at 19:07
  • @Araucaria The quote is from a book over 130 years old, so analysing it is tricky. But I wonder if this has a parallel with expressions like "My goodness, were those players skilled", where the inversion is purely for emphasis. – BillJ Nov 11 '18 at 19:51

This is called locative inversion. The grammatical function of where is as a relativizer: it introduces the relative clause Rich food and wine were ∅ in abundance. (∅ represents the place where a locative complement would appear in a main clause; if you don't count the relativizer as a pronoun, a "dummy pronoun" is missing from all relative clauses)

Under locative inversion, the locative complement and the subject of a verb (often the copula) have inverted order. So you get ∅ were rich food and wine in abundance.

  • It looks like subject-auxiliary inversion to me, where the subject of the relative clause ("rich food and wine") and the aux verb ("were") have switched places, presumably for some special effect. – BillJ Nov 11 '18 at 17:36
  • @BillJ surely the two types of inversion are related, but when a clause has only one verb, I wouldn't call that verb an auxiliary verb. Locative inversion can be treated as distinct from the use of auxiliaries because it occurs with verbs which are not used as locatives: e.g., Down came the wall. – jlovegren Nov 11 '18 at 18:55
  • ** I mean to say ...which are not used as auxiliaries. – jlovegren Nov 11 '18 at 19:04
  • In my experience, inversion involving a location is called subject-dependent inversion: "A bowl of fruit was on her desk ~ On her desk was a bowl of fruit". In this example the subject "a bowl of fruit" and the location "on her desk" are switched. It's widely accepted that "be" is always an auxiliary verb, even when it's the only verb in the clause. – BillJ Nov 11 '18 at 19:20
  • I think there's more to this than meets the eye. As Fagin says in "Oliver!", "I'm reviewing the situation!" – BillJ Nov 11 '18 at 19:42

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