The phrases "the fire, the firefighters extinguished" and "the firefighters, the fire extinguished" both follow the same pattern, switching the place of the words, but without switching the arguments of the verb.

Both mean "the firefighters extinguished the fire," because that's just what firefighters do.

Does that mean that the subject and the object are being chosen pragmatically from the topic and focus? As opposed to syntactically?

  • 1
    No, assuming you're correct that that's what these phrases mean (unless one can hear them one can't tell), if they mean the same thing and vary regularly in word order, then they are related by the regularity of their variation. I.e, they're part of an alternation or transform. No subjects or objects are involved because these are not sentences.
    – jlawler
    May 30 '19 at 21:30
  • @jlawler I'm sorry. I don't understand how can they not be sentences if they contain a verb and mean the same thing as the paraphrased sentence. I thought left-dislocation implied topicalization in English, and assuming that, the topic would be filling the subject role for the verb. And if that wasn't because of syntax, it must've been because of pragmatics. But it seems everything I thought was wrong. May 30 '19 at 21:45
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    @OdraEncoded The incorrect premise is that those sentences all mean the same thing. An SVO sentence can't directly be rearranged OSV or SOV in English. The interpretation would then be with an elided "that": "The fire (that) the firefighters extinguished" -- a relative clause. Instead, the usual strategy for left-dislocation is clefting: "It was the fire that the firefighters extinguished" or "It was the firefighters who extinguished the fire". Those two do have the same semantic content as "The firefighters extinguished the fire", and as you observe, different pragmatic values. May 30 '19 at 22:59
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    It would be helpful if you could cite real world usage. It would be ambiguous to say "The fire the troops set into motion", so it's proscribed. It sounds like poetic verse, maybe, but very archaic. It can be found in German I'm sure, where topic is the usual explanation for Mir wird kalt "I am getting cold", literally "Me becomes cold", where there's no nominative subject at all, as far I can tell, though rarely Mir wird Angst [und Bange]" shows that the object *Angst is the grammatical subject and the verb hence inflected for 3rd p. Yet Angst looks to be a superlative of adjective eng
    – vectory
    Jun 1 '19 at 10:37
  • I think the left dislocation in your sentences does imply topicalization and that we do try to understand the left-dislocated element as the subject, but that your sentences do not mean the same thing and this shows that we are not free to chose the subject pragmatically. I have no problem with [as for] the fire, the firefighters extinguished [it] (with your intended meaning), but...
    – user23078
    Jun 1 '19 at 11:23

It's pragmatic to say my Dog is instead of The dog of me is or I have a dog that is, because it avoids competing syntactic positions, e.g. the two finite verbs in "The dog I own is" or the disagreement between the person of pronoun and verb "[The dog of] me is". The topic can become the subject, e.g. mine, which even shows noun morphology in German mein Hund ~ meiner.

We also see "Good luck with [...]" omitting the subject and verb, You have.

With the firefighters it's readily obvious that the fire fighters extinguished is ambiguous to the firefighters extinguished _. In effect, your variant shows an unusual elision of the fully qualified sentence "The fire, that the firefighters fought, was extinguished, when the firefighters extinguished it". In German subordinate clauses word order is regularly inverted, ending with the verb, "... als die Feuerwehr das Feuer löschte". While this order also takes possesive pronouns als die Feuerwehr Ihr Feuer "their fire", it is proscribed vehemently to say der/dem Hund sein Herrchen "NOM/DAT the dog Gen. its owner". Instead des Hundes Herrchen, or Hundebesitzer for short, is preferred, "GEN the dog's NOM owner" or dog owner. The genitive -s is rare in German (frequently replaced with a dativ construction der Besitzer von dem Hund), and in English easily confused with the plural; The German plural feminine genitive is likewise ambiguous over nominative, die Frauen, der Frauen, thus constructions like Der Katzenbesitzer "the cat owner, the cats owner, the cat's owner, the cats' owner" are opaque.

Consequently it seems informative to assume that firefighter is a backformation, from a possessive marker 's that was interpreted as plural and dropped by analogy to singular inflection. Hence, the firefighters extinguished shows topicallization, and your the fire, the fire, fighters extinguished shows a proscribed redundancy. Since German likewise shows no binding morpheme in Feuerwehrmänner, this phenomenon in compound nouns may go back at least to Proto-Germanic, if it is not a latter parallel development.

This answer is focused on a very specific example, because topicallization is usually constrained to the subject, in English.

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