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Inversion – rules and exercises for advanced level

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Sunday, 05 November 2017
To be married were the couple. To be married were the couple. Image created by Prostooleh - Freepik

Subject-verb inversion is a feature of English common in formal or literary styles where the subject of a sentence follows the verb rather than the reverse. This section explains the rules that govern the various forms of subject-verb inversion. It includes subject-auxiliary inversion where the verb being moved is an auxiliary verb.

Unlike inversion to form questions (e.g. “Jim has become a priest” which becomes “Has Jim become a priest?”), these forms of subject-verb inversion do not change the meaning of the sentences.

After the overview of the rules, there are some simple exercises for practice. This online grammar lesson is suitable for advanced-level students of English.

Inversion after adverbial phrases of direction and place

This type of inversion features verbs of a directive or locative nature, e.g. "drive" or "sit".

To illustrate a directive verb, observe the following sentences: "the car drove around the corner". This can be inverted to, "Around the corner drove the car".

An example of an inversion of a sentence featuring a locative verb, instead, is found in the following sentences: "the penguin sat in the armchair". This can be inverted to, "In the armchair sat the penguin". Note that inversion does not work with a weak definite pronoun; for example, "In the armchair sat it" is incorrect.

A final form of subject-verb inversion involves sentences that feature "to be". For example:

"The couple were to be married" can be inverted to "To be married were the couple."

Inversion in conditional sentences

The following sentences illustrate subject-auxiliary verb inversion in conditional sentences:

"If the biscuit had remained in one piece..." can be inverted to, "Had the biscuit remained in one piece..."

"If he were here..." can be inverted to, "Were he here..."

"If you should arrive..." can be inverted to, "Should you arrive..."

Note that the conjunction 'if' is deleted when inversion takes place.

Inversion in comparisons with 'as' and 'than'

Here are some examples of the inversion of the subject and auxiliary verb in comparative sentences:

"Sally is not as tall as Megawoman is" can be inverted to, "Sally is not as tall as is Megawoman".

Similarly, "Bill ate more biscuits than Jim did" can be inverted to, "Bill ate more biscuits than did Jim".

Finally, "Graham can eat twice as many crackers as Harriet can" can be inverted to "Graham can eat twice as many crackers as can Harriet."

Inversion after negative adverbials

When the auxiliary verb is preceded by negation, such as 'no', 'never' or 'not', then it can undergo inversion. An example would be:

"Nigel will never surrender", which can be inverted to, "Never will Nigel surrender".

Here are some more sentences with negative adverbs and inversion:

"No sooner had we opened the box than the lights dimmed and Terry appeared."

"Only then did I realise why Sheila had stolen my socks."

"Only in this way could Jasper persuade the child to eat its Spam."

"On no account should you open the box."

"Not only does he wear a cravat but he also tap dances."

"Little did he realise that Terry was hiding in the cupboard."

Inversion after "so + adjective...that" and "such + be...that" constructions

Sentences involving the anaphoric particles 'so' and 'such' can also undergo inversion.

Here is an example of a sentence involving 'so': "We felt so full that we became angered by the sight of quiche". This can be inverted to, "So full did we feel that we became angered by the sight of quiche".

The following is an example of a sentence containing 'such': "It was such a hot day that Margaret decided ice cream was her only option". Once it has undergone inversion this becomes, "Such a hot day was it that Margaret decided ice cream was her only option".

Another example is, "The race was becoming such a farce that Bill decided not to participate.” This can be inverted to "Such a farce was the race becoming that Bill decided not to participate."

Inversion after statements of agreement starting 'so', neither' or 'nor'

In these cases, the subject-auxiliary inversion occurs in a statement that agrees with a preceding statement.

For agreement with a positive statement, the sentence or statement featuring inversion typically begins with 'so'. Here is an example: "I am going to eat a pickled egg. So is Margaret."

For agreement with a negative statement, the statement with inversion begins with 'neither' or 'nor'. The following sentence illustrates this: "I am not going to help Stan to burn down the Post Office and neither/nor should you."

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