More on the centrifuge

The last few weeks I was totally absorbed by the Olympic Games, which accounted for the absence of new posts on this blog. Now I would like to go back to a topic we discussed earlier. In A natural centrifuge in English, we took a look at the general tendency in English to delay a heavy element until the end of the sentence. In the article, we looked at examples which apparently merely exchange the positions of two elements,

1. This house has a broken window.
2. This house has a window broken by a fallen tree nearby.

but the tendency is actually more profound than this.

Consider the following sentences:

3a. Details of a secret plan to finance the rebels have emerged.
4a. A man who claims to be the culprit has come forward.

In each of these sentences, there is a rather long and complex nominal subject. In 3a, details has a prepositional complement of a secret plan, which is further specified by to finance the rebels. In 4a, a man is modified by a relative clause who claims to be the culprit. They are sometimes felt to be too cumbersome because the subjects are too heavy to appear in the beginning of a sentence.

One might imagine placing the entire subject in 3a or 4a at the end of the sentence to solve the problem:

3b. *Have emerged details of a secret plan to finance the rebels.
4b. *Has come forward a man who claims to be the culprit.

However, this obviously does not work because English demands an overt subject before the main verb. Neither 3b or 4b can satisfy this requirement because there is nothing before the main verb. Therefore an alternative strategy has to be used to get away with the clumsiness of 3a and 4a. This is done by extracting only a portion of the subject and move it to the end, and leaving the nominal head word behind in the front.

3c. Details have emerged of a secret plan to finance the rebels.
4c. A man has come forward who claims to be the culprit.

When you come to think of it, this operation, called extraposition, is rather peculiar, because it breaks a nominal phrase into two separate, non-adjacent parts.

Even so, this operation in English is not unique. In German, a closely related language, relative clauses are bound by similar restrictions. The German rule of thumb is to place the relative clause at the end of the sentence when there is only one word following the clause if you put it in the normal order.

For example, in 5a, the relative clause das einen Ring gewann is put immediately after the head word das Mädchen, which is the normal order for relative clauses. But in 5b, the usual order when a German actually utters this sentence, the relative clause is moved to the end.

5a. Das Mädchen, das einen Ring gewann, lachte.
The girl who won a ring laughed
5b. Das Mädchen lachte, das einen Ring gewann.
The girl laughed who won a ring

Note that the movement is not possible when there is more than one word following the relative clause if it is put in the normal order.

6a. Diese Frau, die dort steht, ist meine Mutter.
That woman who is standing there is my mother
6b. *Diese Frau is meine Mutter, die dort steht.