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 English Grammar for ESL learners 


(verb before the subject)

Inversion means putting the verb before the subject.
It is a literary technique in which the normal order of words is reversed, generally for emphasis or special effect.
It makes a sentence sound striking or unusual. It also sounds quite formal.

Sentences with inversion are less common in everyday English.
In a sentence with no special effect or emphasis, the normal order of words is retained.

Example 1 : I have never seen such a beautiful rose.
Example 2 : Never have I seen such a beautiful rose.

In example 2 inversion is used to emphasise the fact that in your whole lifetime you have not seen such a beautiful rose.

It is sometimes difficult to remember when inversion is or can be used. Here are some guidelines and examples to help you.

In normal everyday English, inversion is used :
  • To make questions : Does he?   Can you?
  • After 'so', 'neither', 'nor' :  So do I, neither do I, nor do I.
In written English, as well as in a very formal style, inversion can be used in the following cases :
  • After negative adverbial expressions  :
    • Under no circumstances can we accept credit cards.
    • In no way can he be held responsible.
    • At no time did she say she would come.
    • At no point was the price mentioned.
    • Not until I heard my name did I believe I had won the race.

  • After adverbial expressions of place :
    • Round the corner came the postman.
    • On the doorstep was a bunch of flowers.

  • After 'seldom', 'rarely', 'never', and 'little':
    • Seldom have I seen such a beautiful view.
    • Rarely did he pay anyone a compliment.
    • Never had I felt  so happy.
    • Little did he imagine how dangerous it would be.

  • After 'hardly', 'scarcely', 'barely', 'no sooner', when one thing happens after another.
    • Hardly had I begun to speak when I was interrupted.
    • Scarcely had we started our meal when the phone rang.
    • Barely had they finished the match when the rain started to fall.
    • No sooner had I arrived than they all started to argue.

    • - Note that hardly, scarcely and barely are followed by when.
      - No sooner is followed by than.

  • After adverbial expressions beginning with 'only' and 'not only' :
    • Only after the meeting did I realize the importance of the subject.
    • Only when the plane landed safely did he calm down.
    • Not only was the car slow, it was also very uncomfortable.

  • Conditionals with inversions
    In conditional sentences we can sometimes replace the 'if' with an inversion:
    • If I had known it would be so difficult I would never have enrolled.
    • Had I known it would be so difficult I would never have enrolled.

  • After exclamations with 'here' and 'there' :
    • Here comes the winner!
    • There goes all our money!

Try an ExerciseExercise 1    Exercise 2

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Please note that British English spelling is used on this website.

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