In English, the traditional word order of a statement is subject + verb. Never do we change the order except when asking a question. Or do we?
If you listened closely, you may have noticed that my statement beginning with the word “never” failed to follow the usual order. I put the auxiliary verb “do” before the subject “we” and the main verb “change” after the subject. Using this word order in statements is called “inversion.”
We use inversion to add emphasis to statements and variety to our writing. Inversion can “make[s] our sentence[s] sound surprising or striking or unusual,” writes Seonaid Beckwich. She is founder of the website Perfect-English-Grammar.com.
But inversion is not for everyday speech. English speakers use it in formal statements, and most often in writing, such as in essays and works of literature. And, it is only done with some words and phrases.
There are more than 15 types of inversion, but only some are used in academic writing. Today we will show you how to use a few types. When used the right way, inversion can strengthen points and make your writing more memorable. Another reason for learning inversion is that examples appear on the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language.
How inversion works
Getting word order right in inversion is important. So let’s start there. There are two ideas worth remembering:
The first is that many types of inversion use the auxiliary verb + subject + main verb word order. Auxiliary verbs – such as be, do and have -- are verbs that help form a verb tense, mood or voice of main verbs.
The second is that inversion usually puts the thing we want to emphasize at the beginning of the sentence. One example might be the adverb “never” in my earlier statement.
One type of inversion common both in academic writing and on the TOEFL is starting a statement with the past participle.
In this inversion, the word order is past participle + BE + the subject. Listen to the following reading about television viewership in the United States. Then try to find the inversion.
Gone are the days when American families would gather around a television program at its scheduled time. Today’s viewers want to watch their programs on-demand. And, they often binge-watch whole series, whether on cable TV or the Internet.
Did you find the inversion? It begins with the word “Gone.” But that statement has more than one clause in it, which is very common in English. “Gone are the days” is the main clause.
The other is a relative clause: “when American families would gather around a television program at its scheduled time.”
Notice that the relative clause does not use inversion. That is important. Often, statements that use inversion contain more than one clause and only one of the clauses contains inversion.
You will also notice that there was only one inversion in the example. Inversion is something that you should avoid overusing.
Now, let’s move to inversions involving a negative word or phrase. These are very common in essay writing and on the TOEFL. For these, the negative word or term almost always begins the statement. Think back to my statement with the negative adverb “Never.”
In addition to “never,” you can use inversion with the negative adverbs “rarely,” “seldom,” “hardly” and “scarcely.”
Listen to the following sentence, a factual statement one might find in an essay:
Punishment is rarely severe for attackers who are found guilty.
It is a well-written statement that does not use inversion. But if we wanted to note how rare it is for attackers to be punished severely, we could move the negative adverb “rarely.” Listen for the inversion in this reworded statement:
Rarely is punishment severe for attackers who are found guilty.
Putting “rarely” first makes the point more striking.
Notice also that there are two clauses in this statement, and the relative clause “who are found guilty” does not use inversion.
In addition to negative adverbs, there are also many negative phrases that use inversion. Some examples are phrases like “not only…but also,” (and) “not until” and “not since.” Unlike for negative adverbs, which can go anywhere in a sentence, for some negative phrases, inversion is a requirement, not a choice.
Now, let’s look at “not only…but also.” It often uses inversion, but that is only required when the “not only” part begins the statement.
Using “Not only…but also” shows that something has more than one quality or has done more than one action, where the action or quality after “but also” is especially notable.
In academic writing, this phrase can be effective for making an argument. Here’s an example in a persuasive essay about automobiles:
There are a number of advantages to owning a hybrid car. Not only do hybrids run cleaner than gasoline, but they also have better gas mileage. And those are just the environmental benefits. Other benefits, such as tax credits and a higher resale value, are financial.
The statement with “not only…but also” uses inversion in the first clause, “Not only do hybrids run cleaner than gasoline.” And it follows the auxiliary verb + subject + main verb construction. The negative phrase “not only” appears first, followed by “do,” then the subject “hybrid cars,” then the main verb “run.”
In the second clause, which has “but also,” there is no inversion. This is the structure to follow when using inversion for “not only…but also.”
Something to note about the wording: The word “also” can be left out completely or replaced with “too” at the end of the statement.
Using inversion can be difficult for English learners. But it is useful in adding emphasis and variety to academic writing.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
emphasis – n. a forceful quality in the way something is said or written
auxiliary verb – n. a verb that is used with another verb to show the verb's tense, to form a question
variety – n. the quality or state of having or including many different things
formal – adj. suitable for serious or official speech and writing
mood – n. a quality that creates a particular feeling
viewership – n. the audience for a particular television program or channel
binge-watch – v. watch multiple episodes of a television program in rapid succession
clause – n. a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb
hybrid – adj. something that is formed by combining two or more things