Advanced Grammar: Inversions

Some stuff about inversions in English that you might find useful.

Inversions in English

What is an inversion? In general, an "inversion" is a changed order of things. If X usually comes before Y, the inverted order will be Y first, then X. When looking at the grammar of the English language we see inversions for instance in the normal order of the subject and the verb in a sentence. To explain what an inversion is in English, first think of a simple sentence like: "Graffiti is ugly." In sentences like this the subject (graffiti) must come before the verb (is). This is the normal order. The most common example of the inverted order of the subject and the verb is seen in questions such as: "Is graffiti ugly?" The English language often uses this kind of inversion to make a question, but this is not the only time that the normal order of the subject and the verb in a sentence is inverted.

In the ECPE grammar section there will be a few questions where you have to spot the correct order of the words. Sometimes an inversion is needed; sometimes not.

1 Questions and sentences that might look like questions

The ECPE grammar section might try to trick you with a sentence that might look like a question when it isn't.

They are bound to ask us _____.

  1. if has been cancelled the order
  2. why the order was cancelled
  3. why did we cancel the order
  4. the reason to be cancelled the order

We need "why" to complete this sentence but option c is wrong because this sentence is not a question (so we don't want the inverted verb-subject word order). The correct answer is b.

Don't be caught out by longer questions that have the inversion in an initial phrase such as: "Could you tell me..." "Would you mind..." etc. If there is an inversion at the beginning like this, there won't be another inversion in the main part of the sentence. For example:

Would you be so kind as to tell me where the money is? (Not "...where is the money")

And don't be caught out by sentences used to make enquiries that are not really questions.

"I wonder if you could tell me when the next train to Houston is due." (Not "...when is the next train to Houston due")

2 Inversions with "so", "neither" and "nor"

When "so", "neither" and "nor" are used to make short agreements they are followed by an inversion.

"I am not into hip hop."
"Neither am I."
(Or: "Nor am I.")

"I am fond of flamenco dancing."
"So am I."

Or they can be used in the following way (also including an inversion).

Jennifer buys only organic fruit and vegetables, and so does Hugh.
They don't mind the higher prices, and neither do we.
(Or: ...nor do we.)

3 Inversions after negative adverbials

There are some words and phrases that function as adverbials that sometimes need an inversion. Look at these two sentences.

Bob rarely speaks to himself.
Rarely does Bob speak to himself.

The adverb here is "rarely". If it comes after the subject, there is no inversion (as in the first sentence), but if it comes before the subject, we need an inversion. The word order is inverted and in the case of the sentence about Bob we use the auxilliary verb "does" in the same way we do in questions (although this isn't a question).

The sentence with the inversion sounds more formal or more literary, and sentences like this are less common in ordinary conversation.

Here are some examples with other phrases used in the same way.

Seldom does Bob get invited to parties. (seldom = rarely)
Never have we seen such a breathtaking view.
At no time did the prisoner look as if he might confess.
Not only is she a great dancer but she is also an amazing mathematician.
Not until she took up rock climbing did she overcome her fear of heights.
Under no circumstances* will prisoners be allowed to give interviews to the media.
Little** did she realize that her grandmother was really a wolf.

* This is used to describe rules for which there are no exceptions. The alternative without the inversion is: Prisoners will not be allowed to give interviews to the media under any circumstances.

** This means that the girl didn't realize at all that her grandmother was really a wolf.

N.B. Remember that no inversion is possible if the adverbial doesn't come before the subject. Compare the following sentences with the corresponding sentences above.

She is not only a great dancer but she is also an amazing mathematician.
It was not until Effie left Brooklyn that she realized how attached she had become to the place.

The following three are used to describe an event that happened immediately after another.

Hardly had he stepped outside when it started to rain.
Scarcely had he stepped outside when it started to rain.
No sooner had he stepped outside than it started to rain.

Note that the past perfect tense is used to describe the event that happened first.

The following sentences with "only" include inversions. Note that it is not always the first verb that is inverted.

Only after he arrived at the airport did he look for his passport.
Only if you look through this dark glass will you be able to see the spots on the sun.
We accepted the invitation. Only later did we suspect it might be a trap.
Only by threatening extreme physical violence was the teacher able to control the class.

Note that there is no inversion when "only" is used in the following way.

Only Fiona knew the answer to the question.

3 Conditionals with inversions

In conditional (hypothetical) sentences we can sometimes drop "if" and use an inversion.

Should you see Nigel, give him my regards.
Were I in your shoes, I would make a formal complaint.
Had I known it was her birthday, I would have bought her a gift.

Note that "should", "were" and "had" are the only verbs that can be inverted in this way. (And "were" is also used with he, she and it.)

4 Inversions with "as"

Elisabeth was too shy to dance, as was Gerald.
She decided to leave early, as did Gerald.

In these sentences "as" indicates the similarity between two things.

5 Inversions with "so" and "such"

So excited were they that they couldn't sit still.
Such was their excitement that they began to jump up and down.

Note that "so" is followed by an adjective and "such" can be replaced by "so great" (So great was their excitement that...).

6 Inversions after adjectives

A few very literary sentences begin with an adjective and include an inversion.

Blessed are the children who are still unaware of what the future holds.
Gone* are the days when I could have been happy.

* Here the past participle is used like an adjective.

However there is no inversion in the following sentence.

Strange as it may seem, we were sorry to leave in the end.

Test your ability to spot inversions in English with our online quiz.

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