Monday, May 14, 2018

Grammar: Inversion

Please read the first two paragraphs from Grammar: The Subjunctive by way of introduction to this series of blog posts regarding grammar.

Inversion is yet another grammatical construction that shows a more advanced knowledge of the English language. It usually appears in grammar textbooks the year before and during which a candidate is set to sit a B2-level examination (IELTS 5.5-6.5, FCE, ECCE, MSU-CELC, ESB, LRN) but more often than not is not very well grasped by students, making it a rarely tested item at this level. 

If candidates are likely to encounter a single question which tests inversion on a B2 test, meaning that they are not expected to have mastered it, they are most certainly expected to have learnt it well enough at C2 level to not only recognize it in a sentence, but use it as well in both the oral component of the test and as part of any writing task they are required to produce.

What is Inversion?

Inversion is simply a switch in word order in a sentence of subject and verb when it is preceded by certain words. Like the subjunctive, students need to learn these words or phrases that introduce this grammatical construct.

never (before)
hardly (ever) ...
scarcely ... when
so / such
to such a degree
at no time
no sooner ... than

in no way
under no circumstances
on no account
by no means
under no condition
no longer
not (even) once
not only … (but also)
neither / nor
only in this way
only then
Inversion in the main clause
only after
only later
only by
only if
only in this way
only when
only then 
not until

How is it formed?

When we have inversion, the subject and verb are switched around, and so the verb comes before the subject. 

When a sentence has a helping verb (auxiliary verb), that helping verb switches places with the subject.

When a sentence has only one main verb, a helping verb is added and placed in front of the subject. The main verb then follows that subject. This means that if the main verb would normally have been in the present simple tense, you need to insert "do" or "does". If the main verb would have been in the simple past tense, then "did" is inserted.

In certain cases, a sentence is split into two parts: the main clause and the subsidiary clause, or the main sentence you want to express as well as minor, secondary phrase which you add to the main sentence.

The words and phrases in the table above in the first and second columns introduce inversion immediately after, while the ones in the right-hand column produce subsidiary clauses and inversion therefore occurs in the main clause.

Let's see what this means in practice.

Inversion words are in blue
Verbs are underlined
Subjects are in bold

Immediate inversion

inversion word/phrase  + verb  + subject  (+ rest of the sentence)


inversion word / phrase  +  helping verb  +  subject  +  main verb   (+ rest of the sentence)
  • Never before had I seen such a wonderful landscape. 
(Past Perfect Simple tense. The helping verb "had" and the subject "I" switch places.)

  • Rarely are these rules adhered to in this region. 
(Present Simple with the verb "to be" in the plural because of the plural subject "these rules" that follows. The verb "to be" doesn't take a helping verb, so we switch it directly with the subject)

  • Scarcely did she walk into the room when everyone stopped talking. 
(Past Simple is used to express a past finished action, so the helping verb "did" is added in front of the subject "she")

  • No sooner does she walk into the room than everyone stops talking.
(Present Simple, third person used because we are expressing a habitual situation: "does" is placed before "she") 

  • Under no circumstances is he allowed to enter the building without a pass.
(Present Simple with "to be" again but in third person singular this time. No helping verb is needed because we are dealing with the verb "to be" once more) 

  • Not only have they been lying to you, but they've been spreading rumors blackening your good name as well.
(Present Perfect Continuous tense used, with "have" as helping verb to the subject "they")

Inversion in the main clause

inversion word/phrase  + subject  + verb (+ rest of subsidiary clause), verb  + subject  (+ rest of main clause)


inversion word/phrase  + subject  + verb (+ rest of subsidiary clause), helping verb  + subject  + main verb (+ rest of main clause)

  • Only after he had picked up the papers he needed from the office, did he drive to school to see his kids perform at the pageant.
The main clause is "He drove to school to see his kids perform at the pageant." The subsidiary clause, ie. the first part of the sentence, introduces a previous action that needed to be fulfilled before he could go to see his kids' performance. We have a past perfect simple in the first part of this sentence (because that is the past action that happened first before the man drove to school) without inversion. 

  •  Only by winning the match will we prove to them that we're better.
The main clause is "We will prove to them that we're better." The subject "we" and helping verb "will" are inverted. 

  •  Not until they had seen the results did they phone their parents.

Tip for Exam Takers

Whether it's the IELTS or any B2 or C2 exam you've signed up to take, make sure to learn one phrase to use with inversion correctly in the writing and speaking components. The one that fits best in all situations, in my opinion, is "not only ... but" due to the fact that it adds a new bit of information like "also" or "in addition" would. The difference with "not only" is that it combines the new piece of information to a previous one, joining your two sentences into one and making it slightly more complex, which is better.

Instead of:
First of all, the school needs to upgrade its computer facilities. In addition to this, the library requires new books and journals.
You create a more complicated sentence:
The school needs not only to upgrade its computer facilities, but acquire new books and journals for the library.
As you can see, with inversion short and choppy sentences that sound almost robotic become more concise and flow better stylistically. For this reason, examiners will award points for conciseness, the use of various techniques to connect ideas, and your attempt to employ more advanced sentence structures.

Other cases of inversion

a) inverted conditionals 

  • Should you see her before I do, give her my regards. (Type 1 Conditional)
  • Were they in your shoes, they'd act immediately. (Type 2 Conditional)
  • Had we known you were coming, we would have prepared our homemade specialty. (Type 3 Conditional)

b) nor, neither, so

  • I didn't go to the party and neither did Jessica.
  • "I don't enjoy the theater at all." - "Nor do I!"
  • My best friend ran in the marathon last Saturday and so did his cousin.

c) as

  • George loves to read mystery stories as does his brother Mike.
  • There is evidence that the accused bullied the victim as vigorously as did other classmates.

d) adverbs of place / time + to be / verb of movement (stand, sit, come)

  • Here is where the body was found.
  • Last year was when schools were closed down due to severe weather conditions.
  • Opposite our house stood a statue of immense beauty.
  • Then, all of a sudden, there came a storm, the force of which took everyone by surprise.

e) so + adjective + be ... that 

  • So severe was the thunderstorm that several trees were uprooted.
f)  such + be ... that
  • Such is the state of affairs that nothing can be done. 

If you have any questions, add them in the comment box below.

Don't forget to check out the list of grammar points you need to be familiar with before taking a B2-level test and a C2-level test.

Find more grammar help here.


  1. Had I not been clever, would have I not understood it.

    1. Thanks for adding a comment! I'd just like to point out that what you wrote is an inverted conditional, which means you inverted the words "I" and "had" at the beginning of the sentence instead of using the word "if". But with inverted conditionals you don't have another inversion in the main clause (what you wrote after the comma) by placing a verb before the subject of that clause. The correct way to say what you said is "Had I not been clever, I would not have understood it."


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