Inversion

Inversion happens in English when we put the verb before the subject, that is, we reverse the normal word order of a structure (subject + verb). In normal everyday English it is used:

  • In questions (that’s the most common!)

He has studied  for his exams but  has he studied enough?

He went to the cinema but who did he go with?

  • With so or neither/nor

She will find a job soon and so will I.

– “I can’t drive a car yet”. – Neither can I.”

but inversion can also be used in other situations, especially for emphasis, dramatic purpose or formality.

After certain adverbs/adverb phrases

Certain adverbs and adverb phrases, mostly with a restrictive or negative sense, can for emphasis (or in literary contexts) be placed first in a sentence or clause and are then followed by the inverted (i.e. interrogative) form of the verb.

At no time
Hardly/Barely/Scarcely  …when
Hardly ever/Seldom
In/Under no circumstances
Little
Neither/nor
Never/Never before
No sooner …than
* Not since/until/till
Not only
Nowhere
So/Such
On no account/Not on any account
* Only after
*
Only by
* Only when

____________________________
No way   (informal)

Examples:

I had never before been asked to accept a bribe.
Never before had I been asked to accept a bribe.

They not only rob you, they smash everything too.
 Not only do they rob you, they smash everything too.

‘He didn’t realize that he had lost it till he got home.
 Not till he got home did he realize that he had lost it.

This switch must not be touched on any account.
 On no account/Not on any account must this switch be touched.

* Note that in the following expressions (not since, not until, only after, only by, only when) the inversion comes in the second part of the sentence:

I didn’t really believe John was safe until I saw him with my own eyes.
Not until I saw John with my own eyes did I really believe he was safe.
Not until did I see John with…

Lucy hadn’t had such a wonderful time since she left college.
Not since
Lucy left college had she had such a wonderful time.

I understood why Lucy wanted to live there only after I’d seen her flat.
Only after I’d seen her flat did I understand why she wanted to live there.

Only when we’d all arrived home did I feel calm.

Only by working extremely hard could we afford to eat.

 

Inversion with conditionals

Sometimes if can be replaced with an inversion in conditionals (revise the section “Formal style” in conditionals).

If I had known that you were going to…
Had I known/strong> you were going to

If I was/were in his shoes, …
 
Were I in his shoes, …

If you should require anything … (formal)
Should you require anything… 

Inverson with ‘here’ and ‘there’

Inversion can happen after here, and after there when it is as an adverb of place. We can use a main verb without an auxiliary verb or modal verb:

Here comes James. At last!

Here’s the news!

I opened the door and there stood Michael, bleeding profusely.

She looked out and there was Michael, bleeding heavily.

Inversion with ‘little’

Little is used in a negative sense in inversions. Little did they know, for example, means “they didn’t know”:

Little did they know that he had stolen all of their money. (They didn’t know he had stolen all of their money)

Little did he know that they would never meet again. (He didn’t know that they would never meet again.)

Little did he understand the situation.

Little have I read concerning nanotechnology.

Little was I aware that she was in town.