Inversion

(Download this explanation in PDF here.)

We use inversion in several different situations in English. Inversion just means putting the verb before the subject. We usually do it in question forms:

  • Normal sentence: You are tired. (The subject is 'you'. It's before the verb 'are'.)
  • Question form: Are you tired? (The verb 'are' is before the subject 'you'. They have changed places. This is called inversion.)
In most English verb tenses, when we want to use inversion, we just move the verb to before the subject. If there's more than one verb, because a verb tense has auxiliary verbs for example, we move the first verb.

With two verb tenses where we just change the places of the verb and subject:
  • Present simple with 'be': am I / are you / is he
  • Past simple with 'be': were you / was she
With other verbs tenses, we change the place of the subject and the auxiliary verb (the first auxiliary verb if there is more than one). We don't move the other parts of the verb:
  • Present continuous: am I going / are you going
  • Past continuous: was he going / were they going
  • Present perfect: have we gone / has she gone
  • Present perfect continuous: has she been going / have they been going
  • Past perfect: had you gone
  • Past perfect continuous: had he been going
  • Future simple: will they go
  • Future continuous: will you be going
  • Future perfect: will they have gone
  • Future perfect continuous: will she have been going
  • Modal verbs: should I go / would you go
There are two tenses where we need to add 'do / does / did' to make the question form. We also need to change the main verb back to the infinitive. This is usually still called inversion.
  • Present simple with any verb except 'be' (add 'do' or 'does'): do you go / does he go
  • Past simple with any verb except 'be' (add 'did'): did we go / did they go
When do we use inversion? Of course, we use inversion in questions. You can read more about this here. But we also sometimes use inversion in other cases, when we are not making a question.

1: When we use a negative adverb or adverb phrase at the beginning of the sentence.

Usually, we put the expression at the beginning of the sentence to emphasise what we're saying. It makes our sentence sound surprising or striking or unusual. It also sounds quite formal. If you don't want to give this impression, you can put the negative expression later in the sentence in the normal way:
  • Seldom have I seen such beautiful work.
    ('Seldom' is at the beginning, so we use inversion. This sentence emphasizes what beautiful work it is.)
  • I have seldom seen such beautiful work.
    ('Seldom' is in the normal place, so we don't use inversion. This is a normal sentence with no special emphasis.)
Here are some negative adverbs and adverb phrases that we often use with inversion:
HardlyHardly had I got into bed when the telephone rang.
NeverNever had she seen such a beautiful sight before.
SeldomSeldom do we see such an amazing display of dance.
RarelyRarely will you hear such beautiful music.
Only thenOnly then did I understand why the tragedy had happened.
Not only ... butNot only does he love chocolate and sweets but he also smokes.
No soonerNo sooner had we arrived home than the police rang the doorbell.
ScarcelyScarcely had I got off the bus when it crashed into the back of a car.
Only laterOnly later did she really think about the situation.
NowhereNowhere have I ever had such bad service.
LittleLittle did he know!
Only in this wayOnly in this way could John earn enough money to survive.
In no wayIn no way do I agree with what you're saying.
On no accountOn no account should you do anything without asking me first.
In the following expressions, the inversion comes in the second part of the sentence:
Not untilNot until I saw John with my own eyes did I really believe he was safe.
Not sinceNot since Lucy left college had she had such a wonderful time.
Only afterOnly after I'd seen her flat did I understand why she wanted to live there.
Only whenOnly when we'd all arrived home did I feel calm.
Only byOnly by working extremely hard could we afford to eat.
We only use inversion when the adverb modifies the whole phrase and not when it modifies the noun: Hardly anyone passed the exam. (No inversion.)

2: We can use inversion instead of 'if' in conditionals with 'had' 'were' and 'should'. This is quite formal:
  • Normal conditional: If I had been there, this problem wouldn't have happened.
  • Conditional with inversion: Had I been there, this problem wouldn't have happened.
  • Normal conditional: If we had arrived sooner, we could have prevented this tragedy!
  • Conditional with inversion: Had we arrived sooner, we could have prevented this tragedy!
3: We can use inversion if we put an adverbial expression of place at the beginning on the sentence. This is also quite formal or literary:
  • On the table was all the money we had lost. (Normal sentence: All the money we had lost was on the table.)
  • Round the corner came the knights. (Normal sentence: The knights came round the corner.)
4: We can use inversion after 'so + adjective...that':
  • So beautiful was the girl that nobody could talk of anything else. (Normal sentence: the girl was so beautiful that nobody could talk of anything else.)
  • So delicious was the food that we ate every last bite. (Normal sentence: the food was so delicious that we ate every last bite.)
Try an exercise about inversion here.