One of the first things you learn when you start learning English is the word order in sentences. The subject comes before the verb:
The subject comes
Then, you learn that question word order is different. Usually, the auxiliary verb comes before the subject. This is called INVERSION because we invert the subject and auxiliary verb.
Question word order:
Have you ever swum with sharks? Why are people afraid of them? What do you think? Will we ever overcome our fear of sharks?
have you ?
are people ?
do you ?
will we ?
We can use Inversion in sentences which are not questions:
Only by swimming with sharks will we overcome our fear of them.
Rarely have I seen such a weird lipstick advertisement!
You can continue with your English studies and never use Inversion in sentences. That’s perfectly okay. However, if you are preparing for a Cambridge or IELTS exam or other exams or situations where you need to demonstrate an extensive use of English, you will be expected to know about Inversion.
Let’s start with why and when. After all, if you don’t know why we use Inversion, you won’t know when to use it.
WHY & WHEN do we use INVERSION?
Inversion is mainly used for EMPHASIS. The expressions used (never, rarely, no sooner, only then, etc.) have much more impact when used at the beginning of a sentence than the more common pronoun subject, especially as most of them are negative.
Negatives are more dramatic. Consider negative contractions: don’t, won’t, can’t, haven’t, etc. They usually have strong stress in English whilst positive contractions: I’m, he’ll, she’s, we’ve, I’d, etc. usually have weak stress.
INVERSION is used
1. to emphasize the uniqueness of an event,
2. to stress how quickly something happened after something else had been completed,
3. to clarify a situation, and
4. to sound more formal.
INVERSION is also used:
5. after clauses beginning with ‘nor’.
Compare the Inversion examples below with the standard sentence examples. Try to imagine how much easier it would be for the speaker to stress words like: Never … Rarely … Not until … (than: I … We … People … When)
1. to emphasize the uniqueness of an event
Never have I been so relieved to see anyone in my life!
I have never been so relieved to see anyone in my life.
‘Rarely does someone simply return to “business as usual” after seeing a Matt Church presentation’.
People rarely return to “business as usual” after seeing a Matt Church presentation.
Seldom am I impressed with
I am seldom impressed with
Hollywood celebrities seldom impress me.
2. to stress how quickly something happened after something else had been completed
Scarcely had I finished cooking when the guests arrived.
I had scarcely finished cooking when the guests arrived.
No sooner had we started the meal than someone knocked at the door.
We started the meal and immediately someone knocked at the door.
As soon as we started the meal, someone knocked at the door.
Barely had I served dessert when everyone started checking their phones!
When I served dessert, everyone started checking their phones.
As soon as I served dessert, everyone started checking their phones.
Can you detect the sense of exasperation that the speakers in the Inversion examples feel? The emphasis is on the timing more than the subject.
3. to clarify a situation
Note how the sentences with Inversion have a sense of urgency whilst the standard sentences are more casual.
Only after she won the gold medal in the 400-metre dash did Cathy realise the enormous pressure she’d been under.
It was only after she won the 400-metre dash that Cathy realised the enormous pressure she’d been under.
On our trip to Milan, Italy we saw fantastic Green Buildings. Only then did we realise that cities could be environmentally responsible and resource-efficient!
It was only when we saw the Green Buildings in Milan that we realised that cities could be environmentally responsible and resource-efficient!
Little was Henry aware of the damage caused by his thoughtless actions.
Henry was not aware of the damage caused by his thoughtless actions.
4. to sound more formal
Had I known you were in town, I would have invited you!
If I had known you were in town, I would have invited you!
Had they understood your situation, they might have helped you.
If they had understood your situation, they might have helped you.
5. after clauses beginning with ‘nor’
I don’t believe in scarcity, nor do I believe that the grass is greener on the other side.
I don’t believe in scarcity and I don’t believe that the grass is greener on the other side.
I haven’t been to Japan, nor do I expect to visit there in the near future.
I haven’t been to Japan and I don’t expect to visit there in the near future.
HOW do we use INVERSION?
…… to be continued.
This post is quite long enough! I will continue in a future post. Meanwhile, you can try to get used to the Inversion examples I’ve given above before I explain the rules and structures.
I have found a song Never Ever by ‘All Saints’ which features the lines:
Never ever have I ever felt so low …
Never ever have I ever felt so sad …
Never ever have I had to find …
I suggest that you listen to the song until these clauses are locked into your long-term memory! It won’t take long. There is a lot of repetition. Click here for the YouTube video.
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