You mostly use inversion in English for questions
Inversion is when you place the verb before the subject. We use this type of inversion in question forms using the verb to be, modal and auxiliary verbs.
Inversion simply means changing the word order from the subject and then the verb to the opposite.
For example, you are happy becomes, are you happy? Or, I can help you, changes to, can I help you?
It is very easy grammar. But we can also use inversion in a sentence when it is not a question, which is not quite as simple.
When can you use inversion in a sentence?
There are many ways to use inversion. It usually depends on certain words that you use to start a sentence.
Most often, these are words that have a negative sense or indicate a time reference. It can also be used to change a conditional into a more formal form of register.
You probably use some inversion in your writing, but you might not recognise what it is and how to control it.
Here are some of the basic forms with examples to help you understand and use inversion correctly.
1. Negative adverbial phrases
Inversion is often possible when we start a sentence with a negative adverb or adverb phrase such as rarely, seldom or never.
Rarely will you hear classical music on the radio now.
Seldom do you see such a fantastic circus performance.
Never had she seen such a beautiful dancer before.
Hardly had I got out of the door when my telephone rang.
Scarcely had we left the store when a speeding car crashed through the front window.
But if you move the adverb to later in the sentence, it becomes a typical subject-verb sentence.
You will rarely hear classical music on the radio now.
You seldom see such a fantastic circus performance.
She had never seen such a beautiful dancer before.
I had hardly got out of the door when my telephone rang.
We had scarcely left the store when a speeding car crashed through the front window.
If you use an online grammar checker, it will sometimes tell you to correct inverted sentences by adding a question mark.
You should take care to check these misleading corrections. Use your grammar knowledge to decide if you wrote a question or an inversion.
2. Time references
Expressions such as no sooner, only later and only then can use the inversion form.
No sooner had we arrived home than an annoying salesman came knocking at our door. (Notice the use of than in this clause.)
Only later did she realise what she had done.
Only then did he learn the real cause of the accident.
Look at these following examples with time references. But notice how the inversion happens in the second clause of the sentence
Not until I saw Chris did I really believe he was okay.
Not since I left university had I been to such a party.
Only after I’d inspected the apartment did I understand why no one wanted to rent it.
Only when my kids arrive home safely do I feel at ease.
3. With some conditionals
Inversion is most often used with the third conditional, which is sometimes called the hypothetical past conditional. The second conditional can also use it.
When we make the change, the word if is removed, and the sentence becomes much more formal.
Normal conditional – If I‘d known you were coming, I’d have baked a cake.
With inversion – Had I known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.
Normal conditional – If you‘d been more careful, this accident wouldn’t have happened.
With inversion – Had you been more careful, this accident would never have happened.
Normal conditional – If the government were to increase the tax rate, there would be protests in the street.
With inversion – Were the government to increase the tax rate, there would be protests in the street.
Normal conditional – If you should hear any news, please let me know as soon as possible.
With inversion – Should you hear any news, please let me know as soon as possible.
When you remove, if, from a conditional, it makes it more formal. So it is often written or said without contractions.
4. Certain phrases
I am sure you dislike grammar rules that say, in certain circumstances.
Well, this is one of them. There are certain words and phrases that can use inversion. Here are some of the most common.
Not only … but. – Not only does he love beer and wine, but he also doesn’t exercise.
Only in this way. – Only in this way could Henry make enough money to buy a new car.
On no account. – On no account should you change anything without asking the manager.
So/such … that. – So bad was the flood that we had to leave our house.
So/such … that. – Such was the force of the wind that our roof was torn off.
Two very common words that creat inversion are nowhere and little because both of them have a negative sense.
Little did we know!
Little could she have known that her company would go bankrupt.
Nowhere have I ever experienced such bad service in a restaurant.
Nowhere had I ever been treated like that!
You can also move an adverbial phrase to the beginning of a sentence. It is used mostly in formal or literary writing.
With inversion – On the table in front of the croupier was the stack of chips we had lost.
Normal sentence – The stack of chips we had lost was on the table in front of the croupier.
With inversion – Around the corner came the Ferrari as it roared its motor.
Normal sentence – The Ferrari came around the corner as it roared its motor.
You might only use the inversion grammar form in statement sentences in writing or speaking occasionally.
But it is helpful to know how to construct it correctly and to use it to add more formality when you need to do so.
You can also use it to add emphasis to specific sentences. This aspect could be useful in article or fiction writing from time to time.
Related reading: What is the Subjunctive Mood in English?