Inversion in English Grammar: the complete guide to what it is and why, when and how it’s used

Puesto que esta lección trata un tema avanzado de gramática inglesa, está escrita en inglés.

You may have heard of a grammatical term or structure called Inversion in English. You may have read about it, seen a video on it or had a lesson on it, but perhaps you don’t quite understand what it is, why it is used or when it is used.

This is a topic I have been helping a number of my Language Coaching clients master over the past year or so. It is very useful in allowing them to emphasise specific points in meetings, emails or presentations.

In this lesson for more advanced non-native speakers of English, I will answer these questions:

  • What is Inversion in English? What does the term mean?
  • Why is Inversion used?  What is the purpose of using Inversion?
  • When is Inversion used?  What are the words, phrases and expressions that trigger the use of Inversion In English?
  • How is Inversion in English used? Lots of practical examples showing how to use inversion in English

What is Inversion in English?

Inversion in English Grammar is when the subject and positive auxiliary verb are inverted, i.e. change places, in a sentence so that structurally, the sentence looks like a question.

For example:

“Normal” sentence: I have never been so insulted!

“Inverted” sentence: Never have I been so insulted!

You can see that in the second sentence the subject I and the auxiliary verb have have been inverted, hence the name Inversion in English.  

Additionally, the word never has moved to the beginning of the sentence and it is this that actually causes the inversion.

Inversion with the Present Simple and Past Simple

Note that in the present simple and past simple tenses, we don’t usually use the auxiliary verbs do, does and did in positive sentences so when inversion is applied, we need to introduce the auxiliary verb as though we were forming a question rather than actually inverting anything.

For example:

“Normal” sentence: He rarely works on the weekends.

“Inverted” sentence: Rarely does he work on the weekends.

Instead of “inversion, does is introduced in the second sentence to form what may appear at first glance to be a question –  “does he work” – but what is in fact classified as “inversion”.

Why is Inversion in English used?

The purpose of Inversion in English is to give more emphasis to what you are saying or writing.  

By moving the word, phrase or expression – in the above examples, never and rarely – to the beginning of the sentence, there is more focus on that term.  In speaking, we tend to stress that first word, phrase or expression more, for example:

“NEVER have I been so insulted!”

[Capital letters used to indicate stronger intonation or a raised voice.]

This can be very useful when you want to emphasise a particular point in a meeting, presentation or email.

When is Inversion in English used?

We need to apply inversion in English when we start a sentence with a particular word, phrase or expression which is often, but not always, negative in meaning.  These words, phrases and expressions include:

  • Neither and nor
  • Negative adverbs of frequency
  • Expressions or phrases starting with NOT
  • Expressions or phrases containing NO
  • Expressions or phrases starting with ONLY
  • Little, so and such

We will also take a look at how inversion can be used with some conditional sentences to increase the emphasis of what is being transmitted.

How is Inversion in English used?

The best way to show how Inversion in English is used is through examples.

Examples of Inversion in English

Examples of Inversion using NEITHER

You will be familiar with seeing inversion with neither from your early English classes when you learned “short answers”. 

For example:

A: I don’t like that idea.
B: Neither do I.

You may not have realised it at the time but this was your first experience of inversion in English.

However, we can also use neithertampoco in Spanish – with complete sentences.

Think of how tampoco is used in Spanish.  It can be placed at the end or at the beginning of the sentence.

No estoy seguro de que sea la mejor manera de hacerlo tampoco
Tampoco estoy seguro de que sea la mejor manera de hacerlo.

I always tell my clients that the easiest way to express tampoco in English is to use either at the end of the sentence:

I’m not sure that it’s the best way to do it either.

However, if we want to be more emphatic, we can use neither at the beginning of the sentence and apply inversion:

Neither am I sure that it’s the best way to do it.

Examples of Inversion using NOR

When tampoco is used to negate the second negative clause or sentence, nor is used instead of neither.

[To learn more about the use of nor for tampoco, read TAMPOCO EN INGLES]

For example:

They didn’t send us the information on time, nor did they call us to let us know it would be late.

Examples of Inversion using Negative Adverbs of Frequency

Adverbs of frequency are those words that describe how often – the frequency with which – something is done and are typically placed before the main verb in a sentence.  

However, adverbs of frequency with a negative meaning or connotation can be placed at the beginning of the sentence for more emphasis.  

The two examples at the beginning of this lesson are two good examples of this:

Never have I been so insulted!

Rarely does he work on the weekends.

In addition to never and rarely, other examples of negative adverbs of frequency would include:

  • Hardly / Barely  (apenas)
  • Hardly ever  (casi nunca)
  • Seldom  (rara vez – less commonly used than rarely)

Examples:

Hardly / Barely had we sat down when the first speaker began.  

Hardly ever do we give presentations to the whole company.

Examples of Inversion using expressions starting with NOT

Expressions starting with not which trigger inversion include:

  • not only
  • not for one moment
  • not until
  • not since

Examples:

Not only   No solamente
  • Not only is commonly used with but alsoNo solamente …… sino también

Not only did he get a promotion, but he also got a pay rise of fifty percent.

Not for one moment  Ni por un momento

Not for one moment did we think we would achieve so much.

Not until & Not since

In Spanish, sentences aren’t usually started with no hasta or no desde.  Therefore, in order to use not until and not since with inversion, you really do need to be thinking in English.

Note that with these two expressions, inversion happens in the second clause

Not until I see it will I believe it.

Not since he was twenty years old have I seen him so happy.

Examples of Inversion using expressions containing NO

Expressions containing no which trigger inversion include:

  • on no account  (bajo ningún concepto)
  • under no circumstances   (bajo ninguna circunstancia)
  • at no time  (en ningún momento)
  • in no way  (de ninguna manera)
  • no sooner (apenas; en cuanto)

Examples

On no account must we allow that to happen.

Under no circumstances would we accept those conditions.

At no time did I say that.

In no way did he mean to imply that you were being malicious.

No sooner had* we arrived than the meeting started.
* for sentences in the past, the past perfect (had + past participle) is used

Examples of Inversion using expressions starting with ONLY

Expressions starting with only which trigger inversion include:

Group 1:

  • only later
  • only with
  • only then
  • only now
  • only in

Group 2:

  • only if
  • only when
  • only once
  • only after

I have divided these expressions starting with only into two groups.

  • After those expressions in group 1, inversion happens immediately after the expression
  • After those expressions in group 2, inversion happens in the second clause and not immediately after the expression

Group 1 Examples 

Only later did I find out what he really meant.

Only with this tool can we accurately track the data.

Only then did they realise it was a mistake.

Only now am I able to accept the result.

Only in this country would things be so badly organised.

Group 2 Examples 

Only if I hit the targets will I get a bonus.

Only when he realised how serious it was did he decide to take action.

Only once we have analysed the situation will we be able to discuss possible solutions.

Only after he finished his speech was he able to relax.

Examples of Inversion using expressions with LITTLE, SO and SUCH

  • Little  (poco)
  • So + adjective  (tan)
  • Such  (tal)

These are less commonly used in day-to-day English but still worth taking a look at.

Examples

Little did he know that he had just started the business that would make him a millionaire.

So stressful was his job that he often felt like quitting.

Such was the damage to his reputation that it was impossible for him to get another job in the sector.

Examples of Inversion in Conditional Sentences

Inversion in English can be used with 3rd Conditional Sentences when the subject and had can be inverted to replace if:

For example:

If we had known that, we would have made a different decision.

Had we known that, we would have made a different decision.

Inversion in English can also be used with 2nd Conditional Sentences with were when the subject and were can be inverted to replace if:

If it were necessary, we would already be doing it.

Were it necessary, we would already be doing it.

Summary

So there you have a very detailed explanation of:

  • What Inversion is 
  • Why Inversion is used
  • When Inversionis used
  • How Inversion is used

Practice

Now let’s give you an opportunity to put this into practice.  Convert the following “normal” sentences into “emphatic” sentences by placing the appropriate negative word or phrase at the beginning of the sentence and using inversion.  

For example:

I have never seen him so happy.

Never have I seen him so happy.

The answers can be found below.

1. He won’t admit his mistake either.

2. They hardly ever discuss these issues with us.

3. We won’t only celebrate the win, but we’ll also have a day off.

4. We can’t let them do that under any circumstances.

5. She can only see the light at the end of the tunnel now.

6. They will only help us if there’s something in it for them.

7. John was so tired that he fell asleep at his desk.

8. She doesn’t know that we’ve arranged a surprise.  [use little]

9. If he had called us to tell us the meeting had been cancelled, we could’ve avoided making the trip.

1. Neither will he admit his mistake.

2. Hardly ever do they discuss these issues with us.

3. Not only will we celebrate the win, but we’ll also have a day off.

4. Under no circumstances can we let them do that.

5. Only now can she see the light at the end of the tunnel.

6. Only if there’s something in it for them will they help us.

7. So tired was John that he fell asleep at his desk.

8. Little does she know that we’ve arranged a surprise.

9. Had he called us to tell us the meeting had been cancelled, we could’ve avoided making the trip.

I hope you now have a clear understanding of why, when and how to use Inversion in English.

If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.

5 Responses to Inversion in English Grammar: the complete guide to what it is and why, when and how it’s used

  1. Hello, Gareth! I’ve skimmed the post and found it brilliant and very comprehensive. For me, INVERSION IN ENGLISH GRAMMAR is elegance in speaking. Used to the simplicity of structures and the informal omission of subjects and auxiliaries, I think inversion is a more elaborate and elegant structure that gives a certain category to the speaker. One doubt, Gareth… in the sentence…

    Hardly / Barely had we sat down WHEN the first speaker began. …
    You can also see…

    Hardly / Barely had we sat down THEN the first speaker began.
    Congratulations for this great post and thank you very much for making our English more complete.
    Best Regards, Gareth!!!

  2. Hello again Gareth. I’ve just finished looking at your great post. I’ll comment some things in Spanish in case it is of interest to my colleagues. I may be wrong and that’s why I come to you.

    Una importante es
    As soon as—— no sooner

    No sooner did he leave university when (than) he found a job

    También con expresiones adverbiales de lugar podría darse la inversión
    The keys were on The table
    On the table were the keys

    O por ej
    The sun comes here
    Invirtiendo
    Here comes the sun

    John stood there
    Con inversión
    There stood John

    Con las condicionales de Segundo tipo con were también puede darse la inversión

    If I were you, I wouldn’t do that
    Con inversión
    Were I you, I wouldn’t do that

    O con should
    If you should have any problems, let me know
    Con inversión
    Should you have any problems, let me know

    También se ve en el estilo directo
    “She is great”, stated tom
    En vez de
    “She is beautiful”, Tom stated
    No se si estoy en lo cierto, Gareth. Un gran saludo

    • I’m impressed with your knowledge on this topic! It sounds too easy, but it takes a lot of effort to put it into practice, especially in speech!

    • Hi Isi,

      Thank you for both your comments and for indicating further uses of inversion.

      No sooner
      Thank you for pointing this out as I’d forgotten this one. I have now included an example with this.

      Note that when used in the past, no sooner is followed by the past perfect and not the past simple. It is also followed by than and not when.

      No sooner had he left university than he found a job.

      2nd Conditional Sentences with WERE
      I’d also missed this one and have now added it. Thank you.

      Conditional Sentences with SHOULD
      This isn’t really inversion. Should is simply used instead of if to add emphasis to a conditional sentence or make it a little more formal.
      If you require any further information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

      Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

      Here + come/comes
      Here come / Here comes is reasonably common, and not just with The Beatles song Here come the sun. For example:
      Here comes John.
      Here come the reinforcements.

      However, it’s less commonly used in conversation with other verbs – see below literary use.

      Literary Use
      The other examples you have given are used more in literature rather than spoken in conversation as they generally sound more poetic.

      For example, in novels after speech it’s very common to see the name of the person preceded by the verb, e.g. stated John / said John / asked John / mentioned John / exclaimed John / shouted John / cried John, etc.

      And nobody, except perhaps Yoda from Star Wars, would say something like On the table were the keys. In conversation The keys were on the table sounds much more natural.

      Thank you again for your contribution.

      Gareth

      • Great, Gareth. It’s a huge privilege to have your help and thank you for sharing your valuable knowledge with us. A real pleasure. Best regards…

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