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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

Chapter Five - Unusual Word Order and Other Syntactic Quirks in Poetry


A striking feature of most western poetry until recently, and one that confuses many readers, has been its peculiarities of word order. In Greek and Latin, grammatical endings or inflections usually made clear what case a noun or adjective was in, so poets could shuffle them around in the wildest ways, as we will see later, and still make sense to their sophisticated audience. English and most modern European languages are far less inflected than their ancient ancestors – English least of all – so it is word order that tells us which noun is the subject, which the object, and which adjective goes with which noun. Nonetheless, poets in these languages have taken many liberties with syntax, sometimes to emphasize certain words or phrases, sometimes to withhold a word for dramatic effect, and sometimes just to make it easier to fit words into the meter or rhyme scheme. Because spoken Greek, despite the freedom its inflections gave it, still had normal patterns of phrases and clauses, these dislocations were given a generic name by the Greeks, ὑπέρβατον (hyperbaton), meaning “overstepping,” and there were several other terms for particular kinds of oversteppings. When we read English poetry, it is not always clear, however, if what sounds to our 21st-century ears like a transposition or postponement is a poet’s artificial hyperbaton or a feature of the spoken language of the poet’s time.