Subject + Verb + object is the common structure in most English sentences, is it not? Well, most of the time it is, yes, however, what happens if we want to emphasise what we are saying? How can we do that? We can do it using subject inversion or auxiliary inversion.
For example, in the following phrase:
- “I never went to the shop”.
“I” = subject. “Never” = adverb of frequency. “Went” = verb. “The shop” = object. As a result, we have a perfectly normal sentence, however, if you wanted to emphasise the aforementioned phrase, you could do so by using auxiliary inversion.
- “Never did I go to the shop”.
Subject inversion uses the following structure
Adverb / adverbial phrase + auxiliary verb + subject.
• Never had I seen her in my life.
• No sooner had she seen me than she greeted me.
“Never” = adverb. “Have” = auxiliary verb. “you” = subject.
- “Never have you met such an interesting person”.
In the above sentence, subject inversion is being applied. Without subject inversion / auxiliary inversion, the sentence would read:
- “You have never met such an interesting person”.
Common adverbs of subject inversion
• Never, seldom, little, hardly, only, rarely…
Common adverbial phrases
• On no account, no sooner, only later, in no way…
You can use subject inversion when you use adverbs or adverbial phrases in your sentences.
Let’s take the following sentence for example:
- “I hardly knew how to swim”.
Now, let’s emphasise the above phrase:
- “Hardly did I know how to swim”.
Remember, in the first sentence (with no emphasis) “knew” is the past simple of “know” and is a normal verb, therefore, to apply auxiliary inversion normal verbs such as know require an auxiliary verb to form auxiliary inversion.
Because “knew” is in the past tense, we need to use the past simple of “do” (did) + the infinitive “to know” to keep the structure in the past.
“Hardly” = adverb. “Did” = auxiliary verb. “I” = subject. (this is the subject inversion).
Therefore, to say “hardly did I know how to swim” is much more emphatic than to say, “I hardly knew how to swim”. You needn’t use auxiliary inversion all the time, but only when you feel the need to emphasise what you’re saying.
Some examples of subject inversion
Let’s take a look at some examples using subject inversion with adverbial phrases.
When you use adverbial phrases such as: on no account, no sooner, only later, in no way… the same rule applies because the adverbial phrase will be used instead of just the adverb.
• “On no account will we be able to go on holiday this summer”.
• “No sooner had I seen her when she disappeared”.
• “Only later can Daniel see you”.
• “In no way must you talk badly”.
In the above sentences, the adverbial phrases, auxiliary verbs, and subjects are highlighted. The structure is:
Adverbial phrase + verb (auxiliary verb) + Subject.
Subject inversion is being used to emphasise the above phrases. Adverbial phrases such as: only later, in no way etc., are very popular when using auxiliary inversion.
Fixed phrases in Subject Inversion
It is also worth mentioning that there are certain, fixed adverbial phrases in which the auxiliary inversion must not come in the first phrase, but in the second phrase. So, let’s take a quick look.
• Only by, only after, not until, only when and not since.
The first phrase is in bold. The second phrase in which you have the subject inversion is non-bold.
• Only by finding the time will you get your work done.
• Only after reading that book could I have a clear understanding.
• Not until he discovered the issue was he able to do something about it.
• Only when we are able to leave the house should we look for a nice bar.
• Not since I arrived at the office had I realised I forgot to bring my laptop.
When using the adverbial phrases: only by, only after, not until, only when and not since the auxiliary inversion must come in the second phrase and not in the first phrase.
For example, it would be incorrect to say the following
• Only by finding the time you will get your work done. ×
• Only after reading that book I could have a clear understanding. ×
• Not until he discovered the issue he was able to do something about it. ×
• Only when we are able to leave the house we should look for a nice bar. ×
• Not since I arrived at the office I had realised I forgot to bring my laptop. ×
All of the above sentences are incorrect because the auxiliary verb and the subject are not inverted. The auxiliary verb must come before the subject when using the fixed adverbial phrases only by, only after, not until, only when and not since.