English Word Order: VS?

I saw the strangest syntax today – a VS ordering in English from the pen of John Piper and it was a question. I wouldn’t have know about it if I had not seen the Gender Blog’s cross posting of it.

Come on, dads, have some courage. Just say, “Over my dead body are you going to wrestle a girl.” Of course, they will call you prudish. But everything in you knows better.

Just say, “Over my dead body are you…”??? When I first read it, I thought it was going to end with a question mark. But it did.

I had to find out how common this was, so I searched “over my dead body are you” in quotes on Google (RESULTS).

Results 110 of about 378 for “Over my dead body are you”. (0.27 seconds)

This compares to:

Results 110 of about 1,880 for “Over my dead body you are”. (0.67 seconds)

Honestly, I was surprised to see that many hits. But it looks like many were links to Piper’s post and others actually are questions:

Businessworld – Newspapers Are Not Dead

When you took over Pearson you were quoted as saying “the FT would be sold over my dead body”. Are you likely to consider a sale of the FT now?…

But there are really ones too beyond Piper’s quote. One of the few others on the first page of hits ironically was a grammar test of English idioms:

Answers: English Slang Idioms (151) / Usage of hair, out, over

Over my dead body are you going to spend the last of our money on something like that,” George’s girlfriend informed him.

This last one make me nervous. The idiom they’re teaching is, of course, “over my dead body,” but I am quite concerned about this non-standard word order being taught to ESL students – it seems that is who the test is for.

10 thoughts on “English Word Order: VS?

    1. 161 hits – thanks Thomas – though there are a few that still get Piper’s quote and again plenty of separate sentences.

      Interestingly, if you do the search:

      “Over my dead body are you” -wrestle -Piper

      you get 188 hits.

  1. It may be a little idiomatic, it may not be suitable for formal composition, but I don’t see much of a problem with it as English. In fact, I don’t see how else to make that sentence a single, non-question statement than by the are you word-order:

    “Over my dead body you are going to wrestle a girl” is too neutral a statement.

    Another possible alternative, “Over my dead body! You are going to wrestle a girl?” breaks up the thought, changes it slightly (see below) and makes it a question.

    In fact, thinking about it, it seems as though we use similar constructions rather regularly to integrate an exclamation into a sentence:

    “Like hell am I going to put up with that.” = “Like hell! I am not going to put up with that.”

    Personally, I think the syntactic inflexibility of English is greatly exaggerated; then again I’m a huge fan of Milton. In any case, this seems to be pretty standard for the construction, even if it’s a rare (and colloquial) construction.

    1. “Over my dead body you are going to wrestle a girl” is too neutral a statement.

      You’re kidding, right?

      I’m seriously curious about how you think one can begin a “neutral statement” with the phrase, “over my dead body.”

      It may sound fine to you. And yes, I agree there is only one interpretation possible, BUT it is still incredibly non-standard English. That’s perfectly evident from Google.

      Your “like hell” example is more common and closer to be standard English than Piper’s words, though I would think that the contraction “I’m” would be even more common than “am I.” Actually, I think the contraction would be more common in both cases.

      I never said that English is syntactically inflexible and I never said this particular syntactic construction was incorrect. Obviously it happens. All I said was that its non-standard, which can hardly be debated. As for Milton. Poetry in general is completely different than prose.

  2. I suspect that this word order is a foreign import. For example I have seen it regularly in the writing of a Norwegian man I correspond with (in otherwise excellent English) on an Internet group. This word order is required in German and presumably also in Norwegian – that is, the verb must always be the second element in a sentence and so if anything else comes first the subject goes after the verb. I wonder if people in Minnesota, with its large population of immigrants from northern Europe, actually tend to speak like this, and it has been picked up by John Piper, and immigrant from North Carolina I think.

    1. I wonder if people in Minnesota, with its large population of immigrants from northern Europe, actually tend to speak like this, and it has been picked up by John Piper, and immigrant from North Carolina I think.

      If Norther European languages have influenced word order for Minnesotans, its minimal and generally not noticeable. I don’t remember noticing it during the 14 years that I lived in Minnesota. But that might simply be because typically the subject is first.

      Generally, they’re more well known for their incredibly pure vowels and their strange tendency to pronounce one syllable words ending in “ag” with the IPA vowel [e] – its really strange: [fleg] [beg] = flag bag.

  3. It’s perfectly good English, and I’m certainly not influenced by US word usage! Probably found in Old English, as it has a rather Germanic look to me.

    1. Roger, whether it was good English or not was never a question. Good English is simply English that communicates accurately and this sentence does.

      All I said was that its obscure, which Google shows rather clearly. Typically, obscure also means non-standard.

      That’s my only claim.

  4. How do you define “accurately?” It seems like there are a lot of different ways to say something that could be understood accurately, but most would not call all of those ways “good English.” I know a language isn’t defined by a grammar book, but it still seems like there is a general understanding of correct and improper ways of saying something even if they all are understood accurately.

  5. Davis, I’m struggling to respond. Good point, it is possible to be understood without being grammatical. What if I said, “easily and accurately”? Typically, ungrammatical constructions, even if understandable, require slightly more processing time on the part of the listener/reader.

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