Editors can learn how to place a direct object noun phrase within a sentence based on noun-phrase length and verb type.
When you are editing a sentence, in which order should you present the direct object noun phrase (NP) and a postverbal prepositional phrase (PP)? This two-part article presents research exploring factors influencing the shift of the direct object NP to the end of the sentence.
THE RESEARCH: PART 1—The Effect of Noun Phrase Length on Noun Phrase Shift
The writers of “Phrasal Ordering Constraints in Sentence Production: Phrase Length and Verb Disposition in Heavy-NP Shift” explore how the length of a direct object NP influences the ordering of the direct object NP and a postverbal PP. Consider these two examples (the second is from George Orwell’s Animal Farm) presented by researchers Lynne M.Stallings and Maryellen C.MacDonald from the University of Southern California and Padraig G. O’Seaghdha from Lehigh University:
Example 1: Snowball had found an old green tablecloth of Mrs. Jones’s in the harness-room.
Example 2: Snowball had found in the harness-room an old green tablecloth of Mrs. Jones’s.
In the first example, the direct object NP (an old green tablecloth of Mrs. Jones’s) is presented before the postverbal PP (in the harness-room). In the second example, the order is switched, and the direct object NP is shifted to the end of the sentence.
The researchers recruited 48 undergraduate native speakers of English to construct sentences from a subject and verb, a direct object NP, and a postverbal PP. The researchers then analyzed the order that participants chose for the direct object NP and the postverbal PP. Results indicated that the longer the direct object NP, the more frequently it was shifted to the end of the sentence after the postverbal PP. Specifically, longer direct object NPs appeared four times more frequently at the end of sentences than shorter direct object NPs.
The researchers also recruited 48 other undergraduate native speakers of English to read sentences that varied the order of the direct object NP and the postverbal PP and then rate how natural the sentences seemed. The participants perceived sentences with long direct object NPs as more natural when the direct object NP was shifted to the end of the sentence.
THE IMPLICATIONS: PART 1—The Effect of Noun Phrase Length on Noun Phrase Shift
This article gives editors a more detailed look at how to edit the order of direct object NPs and postverbal PP. The results indicate that both writers and readers prefer to shift longer direct object NPs to the end of the sentence, after postverbal PPs.
Knowing this permits an editor to make recommendations to authors to make their writing sound more natural—prepositional phrases within a verb phrase should typically be presented first in a sentence with a longer direct object NP.
THE RESEARCH: PART 2—The Effect of Verb Type on Noun Phrase Shift
Given their review of literature, the researchers determined to analyze the effect of verb interaction on phrasal order. Their guiding hypothesis was that “individual verbs carry with them information on the history of their participation in shifted structures and this history influences the likelihood of their allowing heavy-NP shift” (a “heavy-NP shift” refers to the shifting of long direct object NPs to the end of the sentence).
In this article, the researchers examine two types of verbs:
NP-only: NP-only verbs take on either a short NP as a direct object (e.g., Bill explained the minutes of the meeting) or a sentential complement in the form of relative clauses as a direct object (e.g., Bill explained that the concept is difficult).
NP/S: NP-S verbs that can take on only direct object NPs (e.g., Bill released the minutes of the meeting). Note that in this last example, the verb release cannot take on a sentential complement (e.g., the sentence “Bill released that the concept is difficult” is not coherent).
The researchers observe that sentential complements associated with NP/S verbs almost always shift, as in the following example presented by the researchers (396):
Basic position: Mary said that Bill would sing in a loud voice.
Shifted position: Mary said in a loud voice that Bill would sing.
The authors wanted to test whether NP/S verbs have a tendency to cause shifting in other instances, and they looked specifically at NP shifting. They did so by looking at these same verbs but with a NP object (e.g., Bill explained the difficult concept in the meeting) instead of a sentential complement object (e.g., Bill explained that Suzy would be presenting the difficult concept in the meeting). They compared these verbs with the verbs that cannot take sentential complements. The hypothesis they had was that the verbs that can take relative clauses would cause more shifting of the direct object NPs to the end of the sentence than verbs that cannot take relative clauses. This would provide evidence for the transferability of shifting in one situation (relative clauses) to another (NP phrases).
Recall the same sentence-construction experiment mentioned in The Research: Part 1 in which 48 undergraduate native speakers of English were asked to construct sentences from a subject and verb, a direct object NP, and a postverbal PP. In this experiment, half the verbs the participants saw were NP/S and the other half were NP-only. The researchers found that NP/S verbs caused twice as much NP shifting (taking into account both long and short NPs) than NP-only verbs.
THE IMPLICATIONS: PART 2—The Effect of Verb Type on Noun Phrase Shift
Every editor needs to consider the organization of phrases within a sentence. This research indicates that authorship can be analyzed at the phrasal level, and authors’ phrasal order may be influenced by the type of verbs that they use. Therefore, by analyzing the verb of a sentence, writing may be improved by addressing the role of a verb’s limitations or extent.
In the editorial process, knowledge that some verbs influence shifting more than others can help you clear up confusion. Phrasal shift occurs naturally in speech and this research successfully identified how sentence composition relates to organizational patterns in writing. The findings of this research inform authors, editors, and readers that NP/S verbs may be expected to cause more shifting than NP/s verbs. In each instance, the contribution a verb adds to the order of phrases may be managed at the composition and editorial stages.
So the next time you see explained (NP/S) in a sentence with a long NP (e.g., Bill explained that Suzy would be presenting the difficult concept in the meeting), be sure to check whether the NP needs to be shifted to the end of the sentence (e.g., Bill explained in the meeting that Suzy would be presenting the difficult concept).
To learn about additional factors that might affect phrase ordering, and to review additional results including the recall of research participants of sentences based on these factors, read the full article:
Stallings, Lynne M., Maryellen C. MacDonald, and Padraig G. O’Seaghdha. 1998. “Phrasal Ordering Constraints in Sentence Production: Phrase Length and Verb Disposition in Heavy-NP Shift.” Journal of Memory and Language 39 (3): 392–417. https://doi.org/10.1006/jmla.1998.2586.
—Matthew Lee Tyler, Brady Davis, and Matthew Baker, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY DALE BROOKS
Find more research
Read Kjanela Fawcett’s Editing Research article to learn more about editors’ revision processes in “Back to the Basics: The Process of Professional Editing.”
Read Zhipeng (Nick) Huang’s (2011) senior essay to learn more about heavy noun phrase shift: “Too Heavy to Move: An analysis of Heavy Noun Phrase Shift and Related Phenomena.” Yale University. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a312/81a3bc63a3f5216107acdd235b17286ee4d8.pdf.
For more details about noun phrase shifting and heavy noun phrase shift, read John P. Kimball’s (1975) book: Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 4. New York: Academic Press. https://www.worldcat.org/title/syntax-and-semantics-vol-4/oclc/751192780?referer=di&ht=edition.
To learn more about how NP shift, read Adrian Staub, Charles Clifton Jr, and Lyn Frazier’s (2006) article: “Heavy NP Shift is the Parser’s Last Resort: Evidence from Eye Movements.” Journal of Memory and Language 54 (3): 389–406. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2005.12.002.
To learn more about verb type and its effects on sentence structure, check out Timothy Collemon’s (2009) article: “Verb Disposition in Argument Structure Alternations: A Corpus Study of the Dative Alternation in Dutch.” Language Sciences 31 (5): 593–611. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2008.01.001.