December 28, 2004

Here comes the accusative

Seth Kanter, author of Ordinary Wolves, on NPR's Morning Edition, 12/28/04:

People are used to these stories of Alaska that are romantic and beautiful, and flowing wilderness, and here comes me with, y'know, an assault rifle and a jug of R&R.

Note the bold accusative. And note that a nominative, as in here come I, just won't cut it.

The English construction with fronted motional adverbial -- Along came Jones, There goes the neighborhood, Into the valley of death rode the four hundred -- has been studied for a long time. One of its little peculiarities is that along with front placement of the adverbial goes inversion of main verb and subject. Uninverted examples are possible but usually marked: Jones came along 'Jones arrived', There the neighborhood goes, Into the valley of death the four hundred rode. The preference for inversion is at least in part metrical: inversion yields an alternating accent pattern on constituents, with the main accent on the final constituent, which is focused.

When the subject is a personal pronoun, however, the uninverted pattern is hugely preferred: Along he came, There it goes, Into the valley of death they rode. Again, the preference is at least in part metrical: personal pronouns are normally unaccented, so that the uninverted pattern has an alternating accent pattern on its constituents. With unaccented personal pronouns, the inverted pattern is unacceptable: *Along came hĕ, *There goes ĭt, *Into the valley of death rode thĕy.

Now, you'd think that this could be easily fixed, just by putting an accent on the inverted personal pronoun. Accented it is generally iffy, so I'll put it aside, but even the other pronouns don't sound great: ??Along came hé, ??Into the valley of death rode théy. What to do, what to do? Especially if you want the pronoun in final, focus position.

Well, this is where we came in, with the use of an accusative pronoun in the inverted construction: Here comes mé. Similarly, Along came hím, Into the valley of death rode thém. The third-person examples are much improved if the pronouns are clearly deictic rather than anaphoric; the first-person examples are already deictic, of course.

An incidental point: once we have accusative subjects, the third-person singular verb form comes in here comes me is just what we'd expect. English verbs in finite clauses agree with nominative subjects, but default to third-person singular otherwise; this sort of defaulting is very well known in other languages, and can be seen elsewhere in English (either it's Poor me is going to suffer for this or you can't say it at all; but certainly *Poor me am going to suffer for this is just out, as, for that matter, is *Poor I am going to suffer for this).

Ok, but what licenses accusative subjects? Putting aside some well-known complexities like coordinate subjects and also putting aside a slew of normative prescriptions, the basic rule for nominative/accusative choice in English is: nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise. This rule has to be understood literally: only subjects of finite clauses; things understood, or interpreted, as subjects of such clauses don't count. So free-standing pronouns are accusative, even when they're interpreted as subjects: Who did that? Me. On the other hand, the subjects of "present subjunctive" clauses, which are finite but nevertheless have base-form, rather than finite, verbs, are still nominative: I demand that she be chair

This rule would, however, predict nominative case in the inverted motion examples, and agreeing (rather than default) verb forms would go along with that: *Here come I. Oops.

(Notice the contrast between this inversion construction and the celebrated Subject-Auxiliary Inversion (SAI), which always has nominative subjects (and they are accented): Kim would object, as would I, *Kim would object, as would me.)

I can see two ways of describing what's going on here. One way is just to say that the inverted motion construction (or constructions) has accusative subjects. Accusative case is a stipulation, as it apparently is in the construction that poor me is an exemplar of. Stipulations happen, after all.

Another way is to analyze the inverted motion construction as having two parts, in a kind of setup/payoff paratactic arrangement also seen in some other constructions: Here's the problem: the frammis and The issue is: the virus and even What bothers me (is): their passivity. That is, the inverted motion construction has two immediate constituents, a setup consisting of a motional adverbial followed by a motion verb, and a phrase serving as the payoff. So long as the payoff phrase is not actually a subject (even though it's interpreted as the subject), the basic case rule would predict accusative case.

Yes, it's speculative, and it needs some filling out (just what is the grammatical function of the payoff?). But it's not entirely crazy.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 28, 2004 06:01 PM