Preposing and postposing

As writers and speakers there are many ways in which we can present information to readers or hearers by using different word orders and sentence patterns to highlight different aspects of meaning. This is often referred to as information structuring.

There are many ways we can highlight information. Here we will look at two important ones:

  • preposing – moving elements to an earlier position in the clause
  • postposing – moving elements to a later position in the clause

Look at the word order used in the examples of preposing below. Can you see a common pattern that they share?

  1. Twenty-four hours it had taken. [W2F-013 #3]
  2. Maybe Thursday I could take off. [S1A-039 #27]
  3. Well that bit I can understand. [S1B-070 #120]

In each example, the word order has been changed. A grammatical element that would usually occur later in the clause has been preposed (shifted to an earlier position). Or, looking at the written form, we might say it has been moved to the left. Preposing the element gives it more prominence in the clause.

In each of the examples below, the usual word order would be Subject + Predicator (verb) + Direct Object (shown in red italics):

  1. [It] [had taken] [twenty-four hours].
  2. [I] [could take] [Thursday] off.
  3. Well [I] [can understand] [that bit].

In the preposed versions, the Direct Object has been moved to a position before the Subject, for example:

  • It had taken twenty-four hours.Twenty-four hours it had taken.

This sort of preposing usually depends on some awareness of context. In the case of each of these examples, the elements that have been preposed relate to something that has gone before in a conversation. Example 2 illustrates this well:

  • Maybe I’ll take the afternoon off ... I can’t take Friday afternoon off. Maybe Thursday I could take off. [S1A-039 #25–27]

Here the speaker is talking about possible afternoons to take off. The preposed element Thursday links back to the earlier mention of Friday afternoon and contrasts with it.

In many examples, the effect of preposing an element is to present it as the topic of the clause – what the clause is about. This is because there is a strong tendency for topic elements to come at the start of the clause. Another term sometimes used for this kind of preposing is topicalisation. Consider the following example:

  • I don’t eat many sweet things. I don’t like cheesecake. But icecream I really like.

Here icecream is preposed. It is the topic of the clause, and links back to the earlier mentions of sweet things and cheesecake.

As you might expect, postposing works in the opposite direction, shifting grammatical elements to a later position (or to the right) in a clause. This is often done as a means of controlling the processing of information in a clause.

A common technique is called heavy noun phrase shift. This involves shunting a long NP (noun phrase) to the end of a clause in order to allow a different grammatical unit to be ‘processed’ by the audience first. Take a look at the example on the next screen.

  • He lays bare the mechanisms that construct a narrative whose secondary revisions are attempts to deny the very desire which it expresses, a desire which is nonetheless readable by the analyst who knows how to unscramble the code of the dream unconscious, where persons are interchangeable, the time is always the present, where positives may signify negatives and vice versa. [W2A-002 #66]

In the normal word order, the Direct Object would come immediately after the verb, and the Object Complement (the adjective bare) would appear at the end of the clause. That order works well when the Direct Object is a short NP: He lays [these mechanisms] bare.

But in our original example the Direct Object NP, [the mechanisms that construct ...], is so long that it would be very difficult to follow the clause’s meaning if it were left in the usual order. Try it and see!

Here’s another example:

  • While we were in Strasbourg recently, you mentioned to me the invitation you had received to speak at one of the series of Criminal Justice Conferences being arranged in England[W1B-027 #3]

Here too, we can compare the normal order when the Direct Object is a short NP: While we were in Strasbourg recently, you mentioned the invitation to me. Here the Direct Object immediately follows the verb, and the prepositional phrase to me (functioning as an Adverbial) comes at the end of the clause.

But in our original example, the very long NP functioning as Direct Object, marked in red italics, has been moved to the end. This makes the sentence easier to follow.

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