When intonation affects word order

Can intonation constrain how syntax determines word order?  Jackendoff (2002) suggests that it can.

As examples, he cites sentences (1), (1a), (2) and (2a). Normally, English syntax insists that the direct object precedes a time adverb, as in (1). The reverse order, as in (1a) is unacceptable.

(1) John bought a computer yesterday.
(1a) *John bought yesterday a computer.

The asterisk * conventionally show that a sentence is ungrammatical.

But if the object is very long and the time adverb is short, the reverse order is far more acceptable, as shown in (2) and (2a).

(2) [John bought yesterday] [several expensive pieces of hardware that he’s been dreaming about for months].
(2a) ?*[John bought] [several expensive pieces of hardware that he’s been dreaming about for months] [yesterday].

The square brackets in (2) and (2a) enclose intonational phrases that form a single unit. The symbol ?* shows that the sentence is of doubtful acceptability.

Jackendoff comments that English has some intonational preferences and that the order in (2) meets those conditions much better than the order in (2a) does:

  • intonational phrase are of equal length.
  • the longest intonational phrase is at the end.

An in-between example

Let’s look at another example. In (3) and (3a), the object is longer than in (1) but shorter (and less complex) than in (2). Both orders ((3) and (3a)) seem equally acceptable to me. I would be more likely to say (3) to emphasise the object but more likely to say (3a) to emphasise the timing.  

(3) [John bought yesterday] [several expensive pieces of hardware].
(3a) [John bought] [several expensive pieces of hardware] [yesterday].

In fact, I think Jackendoff goes too far in labelling (1a, repeated below) as unacceptable. I agree that (1) is the normal unmarked word order. But I might use (1a) in some instances, for example to put particular emphasis on the direct object (a computer).

(1a) *John bought yesterday a computer.

Word order and editing

Examples (2b) and (2, repeated below) illustrate another point about word order. (2b) is another possible word order for sentences like this. In fact, it is possibly more common than (2) and certainly more common than (2a).

(2b) [John bought] [several expensive pieces of hardware] [yesterday] [that he’s been dreaming about for months].
(2) [John bought yesterday] [several expensive pieces of hardware that he’s been dreaming about for months].

(2b) splits the phrase [several expensive pieces of hardware that he’s been dreaming about for months] into 2 components:

  • the noun phrase [several expensive pieces of hardware]: placed before [yesterday]
  • the relative clause [that he’s been dreaming about for months]: placed after [yesterday]
    Some linguists use the term extraposition to describe placing part of a sentence in a place where it doesn’t normally go. Some use the term Heavy NP shift (NP for noun phrase) for one type of extraposition that places a heavy (long or complex) noun phase at the end of a sentence.

Splitting that phrase as in in (2b) does a better job of meeting the intonational preferences of English.

Helping the reader

But (2) does a better job than (2b) in a different respect. I think (2) is easier for readers to process, precisely because (2b) splits the single syntactic phrase [several expensive pieces of hardware that he’s been dreaming about for months] into 2 components:

  • the noun phrase [several expensive pieces of hardware]
  • a relative clause modifying that noun phrase. That relative clause is [that he’s been dreaming about for months].

So, for the last few years, when I have been editing my own writing and other people’s writing I have tended to write more sentences like (2) than like (2b).

Keeping nouns together with phrases that modify them

(2b) illustrates a more general point I have made before: it is often clearer to keep nouns together with phrases that modify them. Sometimes, writers can choose whether to place a phrase immediately after the noun it modifies or later in the sentence.

Often, writers tend to place such modifying phrases later in the sentence if the phase is heavy (long) or if the writer wants to stress it. But, in other cases, it can be best to place the modifying phrase immediately after the noun. Consider examples (4) and (4a)

(4) Writers sometimes [use synonymous words] [within the same document] [referring to the same procedure].
(4a) Writers sometimes use [within the same document] [synonymous words referring to the same procedure].

Here, the phrase [referring to the same procedure] modifies the noun phrase [synonymous words]. (4a) is easier to read because it lets readers see [synonymous words referring to the same procedure] as a single uninterrupted sequence.

There are ways to make the structure even clearer:

  • inserting a pair of commas (4b)
  • moving ‘within the same document’ to the front of the sentence (4c)

(4b) Writers sometimes use, within the same document, synonymous words referring to the same procedure.
(4c) Within a single document, writers sometimes use synonymous words referring to the same procedure.

My original discussion of keeping nouns together with phrases that modify them is at https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/04/writing-english-to-help-second-language-readers/
I also give there several other tips on writing more clearly, particularly to help readers who have English as a second language.

Reference

Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Ray Jackendoff (2002)

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