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Inversion of Subjects and Verbs

The subject of a verb normally precedes the verb in statements in English. However, in a number of constructions, the subject follows the verb (or the first verb if there is more than one).

Notice that in some of the constructions described below, you not only have to invert the subject and the verb, but you also have to bring in an auxiliary verb to precede the subject. This is yet another use of auxiliary verbs.

As in other cases, if there is no other auxiliary verb to use, then do is brought in as the auxiliary.

Inversion with Verbs of Saying and Thinking

When you are reporting direct speech (that is, the exact words that someone is saying or thinking), the subject of the verb of saying or thinking may follow the verb if it is a noun or noun phrase:

  • ‘What are you doing here?’ asked the woman.
  • ‘That’s all the money I have,’ said Tom.
  • ‘Stop that noise at once,’ shouted the teacher.
  • ‘We never dressed like that when I was a girl,’ snapped Cranny.
  • ‘Please help me,’ pleaded the girl.
  • ‘I rather liked him,’ murmured Winston.

It is equally correct not to invert the subject and the verb:

  • ‘But that’s not true!’ the girl protested.
  • ‘Murder is more difficult in real life than in books,’ Geoffrey said with a smile.
  • ‘There’s another problem to consider,’ the man continued.

If the verb has an object, do not invert the subject and verb:

  • ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ their mother warned them.

If the subject is a pronoun, there is no inversion of the subject and the verb:

  • I don’t understand what you mean,’ I said.
  • ‘Give me that back,’ she hissed at him.
  • ‘What are you doing in there?’ she asked.
  • ‘And for my next trick,’ he continued, ‘I need someone’s watch.’
  • ‘Don’t worry,’ he added. ‘Nothing will happen to it.’

Inversion with here is …, there are …, etc

After here … and there …, if the subject is a noun or noun phrase, then it follows the verb:

  • Here are the correct answers.
  • Here’s a dollar for your trouble.
  • There will be a meeting to discuss this matter early next week.
  • Here comes your dad now.
  • There is no excuse for such bad behaviour.
  • There goes your bus now. You’ve missed it.
  • There are your gloves on the table.

But if the subject of the verb is a pronoun, there is no inversion:

  • Here he comes now.
  • There they are on the table.

Inversion after so, neither, etc

The subject follows the verb in expressions such as so do I, so does John, so did we, etc:

  • ‘We went swimming this afternoon.’
  • ‘So did we.’
  • ‘I don’t like tomatoes.’
  • ‘Neither do I.’

The verb do in these constructions is the auxiliary verb do, not the lexical verb.

Another word that triggers inversion and the insertion of an auxiliary verb is nor:

  • I don’t know what happened to the money.
  • Nor does anyone else in this office.
  • I’ve never been to China, nor has my wife.
  • We saw nothing of the accident, nor did we hear anything about it till much later.
  • She wasn’t born in Singapore, nor was her husband.

Inversion in Conditional Clauses without if

Conditional clauses usually begin with the word if:

  • If you do that, Mother will be very angry.
  • If I had known then what I know now, I would never have helped her.
  • If she were my daughter, I wouldn’t tolerate her behaviour for a moment.

However, if a conditional clause includes the verbs had, should or subjunctive were, it may be formed without if and with the subject following the first verb:

  • Had I known thewhat I know now, I wouldn’t have helped her.
  • Were she my daughter, I wouldn’t tolerate her behaviour for a moment.
  • Had we seen the menu, we might have decided to eat in some other restaurant.
  • There are other things we could have done during our visit, had we planned the trip more carefully.
  • Should she ask you where I am, tell her you haven’t seen me.
  • Should you ever need any help, just give me a call.
  • Were she to ask me for advice, I would certainly tell her what I thought.
  • Were I to die tomorrow, I would be happy to have known you even for just one day.

The constructions with subject-verb inversion are a little more formal than those with if, but are used in everyday language nevertheless.

Inversion after Negative Words in Initial Position in the Sentence

Inversion of the subject and the verb is required when certain negative adverbs, such as never and nowhere, and adverbs that have a broadly negative meaning, such as hardly, little, only, rarely, scarcely and seldom, come before the subject in the sentence. For example, instead of:

  • I have never seen such a thing before.
  • Crime rarely pays.
  • We had hardly started our meal before the phone rang.

You could say:

  • Never have I seen such a thing before.
  • Rarely does crime panowadays.
  • Hardly had we started our meal than the phone rang.

And similarly, you could say:

  • Little did I know what she was intending to do.
  • Never have I heard such a load of rubbish.
  • Nowhere is an honest man to be found these days.
  • Seldom do I gea good night’s sleep these days.
  • Scarcely had she finished speaking when there came a furious knocking at the front door.

The above examples are rather literary, but there are others that are quite normal in everyday language:

  • No way is she a friend of mine.
  • Under no circumstances are you to touch that paint until it’s dry.

Not only at the beginning of a sentence also causes inversion of the following subject and verb:

  • Not only is travelling by train cheaper than air travel, it also lets you see more of the country.

Inversion after Adverbs of Place and Direction

When an adverb of place or direction (such as down, in, off, out) or an adverbial phrase describing place or direction comes before the verb in a sentence, then if the subject of the verb is a noun or noun phrase it follows the verb:

  • Off went the girls to find their grandmother.
  • The car stopped and out jumped four policemen.
  • Along came Mrs. Brown, carrying a heavy bag of shopping.
  • Down came the rain in torrents.
  • In the house next door lived a very strange woman.
  • At the top of the hill stood a ruined castle.

But here again, if the subject is a pronoun, there is no inversion – the subject comes before the verb:

  • Off they went, singing and laughing.
  • You’re covered in mud! Into the bath you go at once.
  • On and on they walked.

Inversion after a Word or Phrase that is being Emphasized

When an adjective or adverb or an adjectival or adverbial phrase is emphasized by being put in front of the verb at the beginning of the sentence, the subject of the verb follows the verb:

  • So unlikely was her story that it had to be true.
  • Great was their suffering in those days.
  • So strange did he look that we thought he was quite mad. And equally odd was his behaviour.
  • Often did I wander over these very hills in my childhood.

This construction is used mostly in formal and literary English. It is not normally used in everyday spoken language.

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