Noam Chomsky postulated that language development was parameterised – that there were certain switches in our brain that could be turned on or off when, as babies, we developed language skills. One such switch is verb order. In English most unmarked sentences are SVO – subject, verb, object. For example:

John (subject) likes (verb) chocolate (object).

In other languages, such as Japanese and German, SOV is the norm. (In fact, about three quarters of languages use the SOV ordering.)

Less common is VSO, which is used in formal Arabic and in certain forms of Welsh. For example, “Lloyd spoke Welsh” is:

Siaradodd (verb “to be”, past tense) Lloyd (subject) y Gymraeg (object)

And even rarer is OVS, though it is used in Hixkaryana and Klingon (the former language is spoken only by a few hundred tribes people in a village on the banks of a tributary to the Amazon in Brazil; the later by a multitude of nerds and geeks with more time than sense).

Another switch is the need for a sentence to have a subject. In English a subject is obligatory – even if it’s completely meaningless:

“It’s raining”

To what, exactly, does it refer?

In many other languages the need for a subject is discretionary where the subject is either apparent from the context, or simply non-existent.

I was therefore a little surprised, after a little digging, to find that the existential it is so prominent in the first lines of novels. For example:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
– Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, 1984

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
– Paul Auster, City of Glass

It was like so, but wasn’t.
– Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

It was the day my grandmother exploded.
– Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road

It was a pleasure to burn.
– Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

It was love at first sight.
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
– William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

and, of course, the classic:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
– Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

And finally, what I consider the most arresting first line of a novel ever:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers


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