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The opening sentence to The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien reads,

In a hole in the ground there lived [verb] a hobbit [subject].

I wonder if there are accepted stylistic purposes for such a structure. When is it natural, and when is it unnatural?

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    I think it's a literary thing. It may be ok in a book, but might be considered unusual in everyday speech. Jan 3, 2013 at 23:30
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    It's a syntactic thing. The rule is called There-Insertion, and it's governed by a lot of verbs. It replaces the subject with a dummy there and moves the former subject to a position after the verb. It's used for subjects that are new information, rather than old, which is the norm with subjects. New information is best placed at the end of a sentence. Jan 3, 2013 at 23:48
  • @JohnLawler You can do it with here, too, although not so often as with there, I hazard.
    – tchrist
    Jan 3, 2013 at 23:58
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    @tchrist: No, this isn't the locative there; this is different. There's a man here to see you. But not the other way round. Also, adverbs don't raise, but dummy there does: There/*Here is said by many to be some truth to it. Jan 4, 2013 at 0:29

11 Answers 11

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Tales traditionally begin with a slight delay – usually a formula like “so heisst es” or “Once upon a time” or even “Wance upon a time, an’ ’twas nayther my time nor your time, but ’twas somebody’s time” – which takes a grip on the audience and provides them a cue to become quiet and attentive before the first event or character is introduced. Tolkien knew this as well as anybody: he was famous for the resounding “Hwæt!” with which he opened his Oxford lectures on Beowulf.

He was, moreover, an accomplished poet in traditional metres; and it’s hard to imagine that that crafty decelerando from the urgent anapaests to solemn iambs transforming in mid-flight into trochees was anything but a deliberate device to throw the emphasis onto the final word, hobbit.

˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘

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It's an issue of fluidity and aesthetics.

If you rewrite the sentence,

"A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground."

it does not sound nearly as pretty, does it?

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This is called subject–verb inversion, and is done for a variety of reasons. The referenced Wikipedia article mentions four sorts:

  1. Locative inversion
  2. Directive inversion
  3. Copular inversion
  4. Quotation inversion

This one is locative inversion, because the sentences starts with a location specification, a “where” phrase. This is completely common in English.

  • At the back of the closet stood a secret door.

  • Down the street came the ice cream truck.

I once made a study of the inversions in Tolkien (whom you have quoted above without attribution), and it is a distinctive style choice in some cases, especially in the copular inversion. Furthermore, the inversions vary in number and type depending on whether you are looking at The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings.

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    This isn't an inversion though. It's just the product of there insertion. Dec 11, 2015 at 14:13
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    Considering that this is the highest-upvoted answer, I think you ought to do something to address the fact that, as @Araucaria mentions, it’s misleading: there is no inversion in the sentence quoted at all. There would be if there were no there, but there is; and there-insertion does not participate in subject-verb inversion (“In a hole in the ground lived there a hobbit” is not grammatical). Jun 26, 2019 at 18:45
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Are you suggesting that the subject of lived is there not a hobbit?
    – tchrist
    Jun 26, 2019 at 18:49
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    @tchrist Yes, absolutely; it’s a dummy preliminary subject, but it is this dummy, not the logical subject, which fulfils the syntactic role of subject. (See also Araucaria’s comment under Jascol’s answer and John’s comment to you under the question.) Jun 26, 2019 at 19:13
  • Subject inversion is covered at Thought Co. thoughtco.com/fronting-in-grammar-1690875.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 15 at 17:15
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I think it adds drama or style and is best suited for the stage or page. Could also be used to preserve effect in translation of foreign works, "Thus Spake Zarathustra..." in German: "Also sprach Zarathustra"

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  • +1, yes, and in Italian: “Cosi' parlo' Zaratustra”.
    – user19148
    Jan 4, 2013 at 0:17
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English is primarily ordered SVO , Subject Verb Object, or more accurately primarily right branching, -primarily-. English is not as fluid in word order as more inflected languages like Latin (which, whatever your Latin teacher might say, is primarily SOV, just not as primarily as English).

That said, even outside of poetry and other literature, there is some slight room for word order variety. The communicative purpose in English (as I surmise in other languages) is for emphasis. Even if something is grammatically the subject, one mat want to emphasize the object or even give some suspense as to the subject or verb.

Surely 'John gives the book to Mary' means something very different from 'Mary gives John to the book'. But one can introduce things in a different order but maintaining the ostensible roles.

It was given to Mary by John, the book it was.

(yes a bit stilted but there it is)

Whether stylish or not, I've heard such variations are characteristic of Irish English, where the substrate of Irish Gaelic has VSO word order. I don't know if there's a causal relationship but it is an observation.

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    “Here comes the bus!” is hardly poetry nor literature.
    – tchrist
    Jan 3, 2013 at 23:56
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    @tchrist: but "Here comes the sun" can be musical... May 27, 2013 at 18:47
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In a hole in the ground there lived [verb] a hobbit [subject].


The prepositional phrase "in a hole in the ground" functions as adverb of place (where).

This is the normal or usual way of writing this type of sentence: "A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground."

The subject sentence is written in the format adverb-verb-subject. Writers resort to this format, perhaps as a matter of style, to put variety to their work by doing away from the usual subject-verb-adverb. Others do this for emphasis or to direct the attention of their readers to a particular part of the sentence.

The subject sentence is then just an inverted form of the sentence following the format adverb-verb-subject. However, the "there" in the OP may be omitted without adversely affecting the sentence or the thought that it is trying to convey, to wit:

In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.

If "there" had to be used, there should have been a comma before it. I read here (Commas and Introductory Elements) that "When a prepositional phrase expands to more than three words, say, or becomes connected to yet another prepositional phrase, the use of a comma will depend on the writer's sense of the rhythm and flow of the sentence." [emphasis mine]

My sense of rhythm tells me that it should be written with a comma to separate the phrase from the main clause, "there lived a hobbit." and to prepare the reader to what's to come next. Thus,

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.

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Professor John Lawler said in a comment:

It's a syntactic thing. The rule is called There-Insertion, and it's governed by a lot of verbs. It replaces the subject with a dummy there and moves the former subject to a position after the verb. It's used for subjects that are new information, rather than old, which is the norm with subjects. New information is best placed at the end of a sentence.

And he added in a follow-up comment:

No, this isn't the locative there; this is different. There's a man here to see you. But not the other way round. Also, adverbs don't raise, but dummy there does: There/*Here is said by many to be some truth to it.


06.1 There-Insertion: [verbs which govern]:

accumulate add amble appear arise arrive ascend assemble await awake awaken beat begin belch blaze boom break bubble build burst cascade chatter chime climb cling coexist come confront correspond crawl create creep cross crouch cut dance dangle dart dawn decay depend derive descend develop die disappear discern discover display doze drift drop dwell echo elapse emanate emerge enact engrave ensue enter evolve exist exude fall fester find flap flare flash flee flicker float flow flutter fly follow gallop gleam glimmer glisten glitter glue go grow gush hang happen head hear hide hobble hook hop hover hurtle idle imprint inscribe issue jump kneel labor lay lean leap lie live loom lounge lurk march materialize meander mount occur open overspread paint pass perch persist pile pin place plod plop plunge prance predominate preside prevail project protrude puff radiate reach reign remain reside resound rest reverberate revolve ride ring rise roam roll rumble run rush sail scatter scintillate scrawl see seize settle shelter shimmer shine show shriek shuffle sing sit skip sleep slouch smolder sound sparkle speed spill sprawl spread squat stack stagger stamp stand staple steal stem step straddle straggle strap stray stream stretch stride stroll strut supervene surge survive suspend sweep swim swing take tattoo tick toil tower trot trudge tumble turn twinkle twist understand vanish wait walk wander want weave wind work write writhe

[added as a community wiki as I've found the link John gives above (way above) corrupt].

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In 2016 Anna Zoe Hearn wrote a column for the Center for Teaching and Learning titled “The Last Shall Be First”. She cited Roy Peter Clarck’s “Writing Tools”:

“Pay attention to where you put your words in each sentence! A simple rule is to put the words that carry the most meaning at the end of your sentences.

Roy Peter Clark explains why this works in Writing Tools,* where he advises us that “for any sentence, the period acts as a stop sign. That slight pause in reading magnifies the final word.” That means the last word in every sentence stands out because there is a mental pause right after it. When chosen carefully, the last word in a sentence can provide a bridge to the next sentence, emphasize meaning, and even create a liveliness of tone. Clark calls this “emphatic word order,” which is a small edit for a writer, but a huge improvement for the written piece.”

In this question, Tolkien’s first sentence uses all familiar words until that last one, his creation, the characters of his book: Hobbits.
Putting that new word last empowers it.

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If we are ignoring the 'in a hole in the ground' part and just discussing

There lived a hobbit.

Then I would say that this is fairly common in English when asking someone to think of something new. It is a way to introduce something new into the conversation. At the start of a book is a perfect example.

The simplest example is when you want to tell me that something exists;

There is a ghost called Caspar.
There are a lot of new gadgets.

In fact, you can't write this;

A ghost called Caspar is.
A lot of new gadgets are.

So 'to be', without an object, always works this way.

Other verbs can do it, too, but it does seem harder to come up with conversational examples. I think verbs which indicate existence suit it best: to be, to live, to appear.

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In disagreement with all the other answers.

I would argue that the quote is, in fact, in the correct English word order SVO.

In the OP's analysis the sentence was broken down as follows:

In a hole in the ground there lived [verb] a hobbit [subject].

However, this is wrong. It should be:

In a hole in the ground [PP - subject] there lived [VP - verb] a hobbit [NP - object].

(PP = prepositional phrase, VP = verb phrase, NP = noun phrase)

While a relatively unusual/rare construction, prepositional phrases, especially when referring to time or space, can function as the subject of the sentence. This is what you are seeing here.

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  • Kind of correct, but kind of wonky. You need to replace the word object with the word complement. Secondly, the Subject of the sentence is the word there, not the PP in a hole in the ground. Dec 11, 2015 at 14:18
  • Just wondering - it's been a while since I've done any trees(!) - how have you come to the conclusion that there is the subject?
    – Jascol
    Dec 11, 2015 at 17:25
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    Well, there's loads of evidence, but the most straightforward is that if you turn it into a question it's the word there that inverts with the auxiliary to form the question: "In that hole in the ground, [did] [there] live a hobbit?". Similarly, it's the word there that forms the question tag: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, didn't there" Dec 11, 2015 at 21:41
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It's an example of poetic diction. The specific form here is Inversion (of subject and object). Poetry is usually language that calls attention to itself. In prose, it's often used to call attention to something, for example, heightened emotion.

Here, it is used to call attention to the beginning of the story. Compare this with another famous opening line from Melville's Moby Dick:

Call me Ishmael.

In normal prose this would be:

You can call me Ishmael.

Or

I am called Ishmael.

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