As a feature of figure-ground organization, there is inherent flexibility in how the figure is aligned with the ground. In light of evidence that permits a ground to precede a figure in the flow of information, it is appropriate to view this patterning happening in discourse and to ask how it enhances or disrupts communication. Recall Chen’s model of Ground-before-Figure:
“There are times when a speaker wants her hearer to locate and/or pay attention to an entity (figure) in a location (ground), but the hearer does not know the existence of that figure in the ground. So the speaker presents the ground first by anchoring it with a landmark that is established most often in the previous linguistic context and sometimes in the discourse context. This order of figure/ground presentation invites the hearer to search the ground in order to locate and/or to focus on the figure.” [48, Chen, 2003] (Italics in original)
In light of Chen’s definition, consider this interchange in 1809 between two characters: Thomasina (age 13), and her tutor Septimus, (age 17) in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia:
Thomasina: Septimus, do you think God is a Newtonian?
Septimus: An Etonian? Almost certainly, I’m afraid. We must ask your brother to make it his first enquiry.
Thomasina: No, Septimus, a Newtonian. Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?
Thomasina: I have not said yet.
Septimus: ‘If everything from the furthest planet to the smallest atom of our brain acts according to Newton’s law of motion, what becomes of free will?’
Septimus: God’s will.
Septimus: Very well.
Thomasina: If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.
Septimus: (Pause) Yes. (Pause.) Yes, as far as I know, you are the first person to have thought of this.
Thomasina wants Septimus to consider whether or not what she is about to say has ever been thought of before. Rather than burdening Septimus with a heavily preposed tag question, she presents first the question and intends to immediately follow the question with her assertion. This initial question cataphorically references the assertion she is yet to make. Septimus, not recognizing the attempt at conserving cognitive energy interprets the cataphora as anaphora and proceeds to respond according to his construal of anaphora.
Thomasina’s goal is to invite Septimus to search the ground by accessing the question frame (that content questions have some marker which indicates interrogativity plus some content that is unsolved for whatever is indicated by interrogativity). Septimus is not yet aware of the existence of the figure (the content in question) within the ground (the framing of the question). The confusion between the construed referent of the deictic “this” in “Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?” results from the differences in anchoring the deictic: Septimus anchors it anaphorically, which Thomasina intends to be anchored as cataphora, noted by her exclamation “I have not said yet.”
Chen, Rong (2003) English inversion, a ground-before-figure construction, Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter
Stoppard, Tom (1994) Arcadia, Faber and Faber