A little more on quotative inversion

mollymooly comments on my posting on quotation sentences:

My intuitions disagree with your statements that 2 is neutral stylistically, and that 3 sounds journalistic. For me, 1 is the only version that sounds neutral in speech; 3 is better than 2 not just in journalism but e.g. in narrative fiction, where the subject is a noun phrase rather than a pronoun. (With pronoun subject 3 is literary and 2 is neutral.)

This comment touches on several factors I didn’t discuss in the original posting. The whole topic is very complicated, but I’ll explore some of these factors a bit further here.

The numbered sentence types are as follows:

1 SUBJECT-SAY-QUOTE: Kim said, “I will go”

2 QUOTE-SUBJECT-SAY: ”I will go”, Kim said

3 QUOTE-SAY-SUBJECT: ”I will go”, said Kim

(4 SAY-SUBJECT-QUOTE: Said Kim, “I will go”)

I’ll talk here only about types 1-3, concentrating on the contrast between 2 and 3.

First, on type 3, with “quotative inversion”: I’m away from my sources on these things, but I’m sure that type 3 is rare in speech, which is why I characterized it as “journalistic” in tone. But mollymooly is right that it also appears in narrative fiction. Its special virtue is that it allows the writer to postpone long and complex subjects to the end of the sentence.

As it happens, there’s been some discussion on Language Log of an apparent aversion on the part of the New Yorker to quotative inversion, even when it would be a good thing. Chris Potts opened the discussion here and here, with awkward sentences that would have been much improved by quotative inversion. Mark Liberman followed by noting

It’s interesting that a linguistically-arbitrary stylistic rule — the New Yorker’s (conjectural) ban on quotative inversion — may be forcing fine writers into these awkward constructions. This is an object lesson in the perils of trying to improve prose style by legislative fiat.

Somewhat later, Geoff Pullum added yet another New Yorker sentence of type 2 rather than 3, even though the subject is long and complex:

“We are world champions at lawmaking,” Christine Ockrent, who has anchored the evening news on two channels, run the weekly L’Express, and, as she says, “seen everything,” told me a few days after the law was signed.

But this one differs considerably from the earlier examples, for instance this one from Potts:

“I would hope that, based on the President’s judicial nominations so far, you will see him appoint Justices more in line with a conservative judicial philosophy,” Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group funded by the Reverend Pat Robertson, says.

The Sekulow example has the verb, says, marooned at the end of the sentence , while the verb in the Okrent example, told, is only the first word of a substantial VP. In any case, tell doesn’t allow quotative inversion, so if you’re going to front the quotation, type 2 is the only game in town.

In other contexts, as mollymooly points out, type 2 is neutral and 3 is literary. This is so when the subject is pronominal: “‘I’m leaving’, she said” vs. “‘I’m leaving’, said she” (with accent required on she in the latter).

In any case, the “weight” of the subject and whether it’s a pronoun or not are relevant factors.

Another factor, which I alluded to very briefly in my earlier posting, is the discourse status of the three pieces of these sentences — a topic that simply can’t be treated by looking at examples out of context. I suspect that some of the differences in judgments between mollymooly and me have to do with the implicit contexts we’re supplying, but this isn’t a matter I’m prepared to deal with right now. And of course our varieties might simply differ; remember that there are, apparently, people at the New Yorker who are not at all fond of quotative inversion.

One Response to “A little more on quotative inversion”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Type 3 is the standard in Russian. I have a colleague who insists that, in translation, all these 3s be converted into 2s, because (he says) type 3 isn’t “natural” English. I haven’t felt it worth arguing over (he doesn’t mark it done, just gives notes), but I will be sending him these posts. At the very least, it will save his students a lecture.

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