Snowing now, is it?

· by joe · Read in about 3 min · (605 Words)

My wife sent me an email. It conveyed words to the effect:

It is snowing!

I replied:

Is it now

We make a point of sending each other grammatically ambigious emails.

And that made me realise that in the sentence

“Now it is snowing”

has at least two levels of word-order to contend with.

There’s:

  • “⟨it is⟩ ⟨snowing now⟩” vs “⟨snowing now⟩ ⟨it is⟩”
  • “⟨now⟩ ⟨it is snowing⟩” vs “⟨it is snowing⟩ ⟨now⟩”

Naturally I turned to my computer and asked it to show me all of the possible permutations:

=> (clojure.pprint/pprint (map (partial clojure.string/join " ")
                               (clojure.math.combinatorics/permutations
                                 ["now" "it" "is" "snowing"])))

("now it is snowing" "now it snowing is" "now is it snowing"

 "now is snowing it" "now snowing it is" "now snowing is it"

 "it now is snowing" "it now snowing is" "it is now snowing"

 "it is snowing now" "it snowing now is" "it snowing is now"

 "is now it snowing" "is now snowing it" "is it now snowing"

 "is it snowing now" "is snowing now it" "is snowing it now"

 "snowing now it is" "snowing now is it" "snowing it now is"

 "snowing it is now" "snowing is now it" "snowing is it now")

Most of these seem to make sense as sentences, some with greater clarity than others. My wife has just completed her MA in linguistics (with a focus on syntax). She has spent a year challenging me with sentences and asking me whether or not they are grammatical. I have been confronted with sentences like:

John intended to give the book to the children, and give the books to them he did on each other’s birthdays.

I’m quite liberal with language so I don’t think I’m the best person to ask these kinds of questions. I also grew up with Victorian hymns and the King James Bible so I’m a bit more tolerant of more archaic word-orders. I’ve classified each sentence into how it is interpreted, if at all, as a question or an answer, or neither, or both. I’ve also rated the clarity against Standard English. You may disagree.

Sentence Question or Statement Clarity
1 now it is snowing Statement Clear
2 now it snowing is Statement Archaic
3 now is it snowing Either Requires prosodic context
4 now is snowing it
5 now snowing it is Statement Archaic
6 now snowing is it Statement Archaic
7 it now is snowing Statement Awkward
8 it now snowing is Statement Archaic
9 it is now snowing Statement Clear
10 it is snowing now Statement Clear
11 it snowing now is Statement Archaic
12 it snowing is now Statement Archaic
13 is now it snowing Question Archaic
14 is now snowing it
15 is it now snowing Question Clear
16 is it snowing now Question Clear
17 is snowing now it
18 is snowing it now
19 snowing now it is Statement Archaic
20 snowing now is it Question Clear, sarcastic
21 snowing it now is Statement Archaic
22 snowing it is now
23 snowing is now it
24 snowing is it now Question Clear, sarcastic

I make that 75% of all possible word-orders can be understood (30% if you don’t make a bit of an effort to understand or aren’t a native speaker). Five are ‘perfect’ Standard English, i.e. none is better than the other.

One word-order could be a question or a statement depending on how it is said. Two are vernacular forms for sarcastic (or something like it), and they both start with a verb and end with a tag question, ‘now’ being used in a non-temporal sense.

I wish I had a more interesting conclusion.

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