Sunday, January 23, 2011

Making sense of negative inversion. Hopefully!

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Winston Churchill, in tribute to the fighter-pilots of the Battle of Britain
This is one of the best-known examples of negative inversion in the English Language. And if you're into effective speaking, you'll also notice an example of tripling.
Certificate exams often have a question concerning inversion with negative adverbials, often simply referred to as negative inversion. Students can have problems with these constructions, and for this reason at least one teacher (see link at the end) has publicly wondered if it's worth all the bother, especially as you can speak perfect English without ever using a negative inversion.
But we all like a challenge, don't we? Both you as a student and me as a teacher, so let's have a shot at mastering the little bugger, by taking it nice and slowly. It's only a technique after all; there's no interpretation involved, it's not like choosing verb tenses for example. If you can ask a question, you can do negative inversion. Well, more or less.
There's quite a lot to get through, so get yourself a nice cup of coffee, and when you're sitting comfortably, we'll begin.
If you just want some practice without a lesson, you can try these practice exercises.
The good news is that you already know how to use inversion. In fact you probably use it every time you speak English. It involves changing the word order of a sentence. Does that sound familiar?

1. Inversion in questions

Read about David and ask questions to go with the answers that follow them. Use the pronoun he for David:
Have you heard the news? David has changed his job.
Why his job? (use Present Perfect)
Because he wanted better promotion pospects.
Where now?
He is working at ABC plc.
When his new job?
He started last week.
What have you inverted (changed their order)?
Which tense forms did you have to add an auxiliary verb to?

2. Negative and restrictive adverbials

It's the same idea with negative inversions. By adverbial I mean an adverb or adverb phrase. By restrictive we mean it has a sense of limiting, for example - only. First look at these sentences and identify the negative or restrictive adverbials. 'Copy and paste' them into the boxes, then check.
1.I have never heard such nonsense in all my life.
2.He'd hardly entered the room, than the lights went out.
3.He little realised the danger that he faced.
4.I found out only then that she was cheating me. (two words)

3. Inversion with negative and restrictive adverbials

Now do it yourself. Start the sentences with the negative adverbials, then do the inversion as you did before with the questions, except that where the wh- (question) word was before, you now have an adverbial.
1. I have never heard such nonsense in all my life.
such nonsense in all my life.
2. He had hardly entered the room, than the lights went out.
the room, than the lights went out.
3. He little realised the danger that he faced.
the danger that he faced.
4. I found out only then that that she was cheating me..
that she was cheating me.

4. Why, when and how do we use negative inversion?

  1. Shifting the emphasis - We use these constructions when we want to emphasise the negative adverbial by putting it at the beginning of the sentence. In English this is the most important part of the sentence.
  2. Dramatic effect - These constructions are often used to give dramatic effect.This is more likely to be done in formal language, especially in creative writing. But see 'no way', and 'not for nothing' below.
  3. Effect on word order - Because word order in the sentence is of absolute importance in English, we have to do something different to signal to the listener or reader that this doesn't work like a normal SVO sentence - hence the inversion, which is mandatory.
  4. Avoiding inversion - In spoken language, instead of using inversion, we usually use stress or a different way of phrasing to emphasise the negative or restrictive element of what we are saying.

5. And that's really all there is to it?

Well nearly. But look at these sentences. Do they all look OK? Use your instinct and mark the sentences 'OK' or 'Strange', then check.
1.Never have I heard such bad language.
2.Never have I been to England.
3.Hardly do I know him.
4.Hardly had he entered the room when he was jumped on.
5.Little did he realise the danger that he faced.
6.Nowhere can I see him.
In fact we can't just make negative inversions willy-nilly. Negative inversions are only used with certain patterns, but luckily the adverbials fall handily into a few groups each sharing a similar pattern.
Two of those 'strange' examples, by the way, were taken from a 'grammar' website suggesting that these were model examples. So let's now look at these patterns.
Practice Exercises - general principles
  1. Unless told otherwise, start each sentence with a capital letter and finish with a full stop, but don't add any other punctuation.
  2. Remember that when there is more than one auxiliary verb, only the first one is inverted. Any others stay with the main verb.
  3. If you 'copy and paste', be careful not add any extra spaces; the program needs you to be exactly right: it's not very clever.
  4. You can check your answers at any time - click on Check
  5. Clicking the clue buttons ? will give you the next word, but try not to use them unless you get really stuck.
  6. If you want to empty all the boxes and start again, click on the Clear button.

Pattern 1. Negative inversion with adverbs of frequency.

Look at these sentences, and answer the questions
Never have I tasted such a delicious meal
Rarely can a young chef have had success so young.
Hardly ever has a competition been won so early on in the game.
Seldom has a simple omelette tasted better.
1. What aspect (tense forms) do they use?
2. What structures come after the verb in these examples? Complete these alternatives.
1.... (a) + adjective + noun
2.... + adjective / adverb
3.... a adjective (e.g. better)
Practice 1 Following these rules, make a new sentence using negative inversion from each sentence below.
1.I had never felt so insulted.
2.A young pianist will rarely have been given such an accolade.
3.A young writer's second novel has seldom been more eagerly awaited.
4.The premiere of a new work will hardly ever have been so warmly applauded.
Note: this pattern with a perfect tense and so / such or a comparative is probably the most common pattern in British English. All the examples in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, for instance, follow this pattern.
But you can also sometimes see sentences beginning, for example, 'Seldom do ...' or 'Rarely will ...' (or vice versa) plus a normal verb phrase; Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary has this example: 'Seldom do we receive any apology when mistakes are made.'

Pattern 2. Negative inversion with adverbs of time meaning 'only just' or 'immediately after'.

Look at these sentences:
No sooner had he finished dinner, than she walked through the door.
Scarcely had I got out of bed, when the doorbell rang.
Barely had she passed her degree, when she was offered a job.
Hardly had we landed, when all hell let loose.
Now answer these questions (use lower case / small letters only):
1.What tense is used in the first clause (part)?
2.What tense is used in the second clause (part)?
3.What word is used to link the two clauses:
with no sooner ...
with scarcely, barely and hardly
Practice 2 Following these rules, make one new sentence using negative inversion from each pair of sentences below, using the prompts given. Remember about tenses. Start with a capital letter and finish with a full stop, and add a comma after the first clause as in the examples above.
1.I left the house. It started to rain. (No sooner / than)
2.We got the new car home. It broke down. (Scarcely / when)
3.He started to speak. People started to boo him. (Barely / when)
4.She arrived. She was surrounded by admirers. (Hardly / when)
Note: with hardly, scarcely and barely, we usually use when. We can also use 'before': Hardly had we landed, before all hell let loose.
But with no sooner ..., we always use than. See link below to usage discussion in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

Pattern 3 - Inversion with Little ...

Look at these sentences
Little does he know what the boss has in store for him.
Little did she realise what a stupid remark she had made.
Little did we suspect that we would never see each other again.
In these constructions, little + verb of cognition such as imagine, know, realise, suspect, understand, (usually in Present Simple or Past Simple) means something like have no idea, as in:
He has no idea (doesn't know) what the boss has in store for him.
She had no idea (didn't realise) what a stupid remark she had made.
We had no idea (didn't suspect) that we would never see each other again.
We usually only use little with this meaning in the inverted form. We are unlikely to say, for example:
He little knows what the boss has in store for him.
Practice 3 Make new sentences starting with 'Little' from the sentences below, using the same format as in the examples above. Start with a capital letter and finish with a full stop, but don't add any other punctuation.
1.He doesn't understand what he is up against.
2.They can't imagine what a hornet's nest they've stirred up.
3.She didn't suspect that she was about to be made redundant.
4.They didn't know what we all knew.
Note: one usually very reliable website ( gives this example:
Little have I read concerning nanotechnology.
But I have to say that this doesn't sound at all natural to me. Every other example I can find uses present or past simple, and one of the verbs listed above. Although I can imagine can / could being used with imagine.
This is confirmed by Google Ngram Viewer, where the use of 'Little did he' far outweighs that of 'Little could he' or 'Little had he'. See link below. It also shows, that in books at least, it seems to be used in Past Simple a lot more than in Present Simple, and is usually followed by a clause beginning with that.
As an aside, it is quite interesting that, according to Ngram, 'Little did he/she' starting with a capital letter, is fast replacing 'little did he/she' starting with a small letter. Could this be due to writers moving away from using semicolons to using full stops and starting new sentences, I wonder? It's just a thought.

Pattern 4a - Inversion with Only + time expression

Look at these sentences:
Only then did the truth dawn on me.
Only the next day did I fully understand what had happened.
Only when I met Susannah did I find true happiness.
Only once you've read the book will you see what I'm talking about.
Only after I had seen her picture in the newspaper did I realise who she was.
Note 1: these constructions are usually about the past, but they can also be about the future (as in the fourth example), in which they use similar verb forms to conditionals.
Note 2: the time expression can be anything from a single adverb, as in the first example, to a full adverbial clause with its own verb, as in the last two. This can sometimes make it a bit difficult to work out where to split the sentence.
A bit of deconstruction. Let's take a fairly complex sentence and break it down into its component parts, and then put it back together as a negative inversion. Look at this sentence:
I only realised that they'd left their dog behind when I went back into the house after seeing them off.
Note that both the main part and the time expression each have two clauses. I did say fairly complex! Now answer the following questions.
1a.What is the main part (two clauses) without the time clause? (take away only)
Hint: this could be an independent sentence which would make sense on its own.
1b.Now invert 'I realised' (3 words)
1c.What is the second clause (the rest) of the main part? (what did I realise?)
2.Now enter the time clause (ignore 'only')
3. Now enter the whole inverted sentence (with a full stop):
Only + time expression + inverted verb phrase + the rest of the main part.
Practice 4a. Make inverted sentences from the sentences below, with the format: Only + adverbial of time + inversion + the rest. Remember to only use the clue buttons if you get stuck.
1.I only found out the truth much later.
2.He was only really happy when he was sailing his yacht.
3.I'll only know what to do once I've read the report.
4.He only got a job in IT after taking a course in computing.

Pattern 4b - Inversion with Only + other expressions

Only by bribing the porter did we manage to get a meal sent up to our room.
Only if you increase the discount can we possibly accept this deal.


In these examples in 4a and 4b, only means 'in no other situation or place'. When it is used with this meaning and begins the sentence, inversion must follow. But if it is used in the meaning of 'a limited number', we can begin a sentence with Only without using inversion:
Only five people turned up to the meeting yesterday.

Inversion with expressions with no, not, neither and nor

Pattern 5a - at no time / nowhere
At no time was I aware that we were being followed.
But Officer! Nowhere does it say that parking here is forbidden.
At no (other) time are the hills quite so beautiful.
Nowhere (else) can you see more beautiful sunsets.
The expression at no time is often used, as in the first example, with verbs of cognition - think, be aware, imagine etc. Nowhere is often used about (the lack of) information, with verbs like - say, tell, inform etc
In the second pair of examples, however, both expressions are used for making comparisons, and are often used like this with expressions with so or such, or of course a comparative.
Practice 5a Make new inverted sentences from these sentences, changing the adverbials to negative and putting them at the beginning of the sentences. Remember you will also have to change the verb to positive. We can't have no double negatives! [sic]
1.She didn't at any time realise to what extent he had been lying to her.
2.I haven't read anywhere that a degree is necessary for this job.
3.You can't get such a good pizza anywhere else.
4.The city is not so peaceful at any other time of the year.
Pattern 5b - on no account / under no circumstances
On no account should the back door be left unlocked.
Under no circumstances may an employee accept a bribe.
On no account are the premises to be left unattended.
Under no circumstances will a refund given without a receipt.
These expressions are used to strongly express what is not allowed.
Practice 5b Make new inverted sentences from these sentences, changing the adverbials to negative and putting them at the beginning of the sentences.
1.Credit will not on any account be given.
2.Staff may not smoke on the job under any circumstances.
3.Security cards are not under any circumstances to be lent to non-staff.
4.Staff should not on any account give out a colleague's phone number.

Pattern 5c - expressions with not

Note that when these statements refer to the future, they use verb forms similar to 1st and 2nd Conditionals.
not until
Not until much later did he find out the truth.
Not until long after he had left university did he really know what he wanted to do in life.
not for
Not for a million pounds will I marry that woman after what she did to me!
Not for all the tea in China would I take that job. Idiom
not even if
Not even if they paid me triple would I work the weekend of our wedding anniversary. It's more than my life's worth.
Practice 5c Make new inverted sentences from these sentences, starting with 'Not'. Remember to change the verb to positive if necessary.
1.We can't give you a refund until we've heard from the insurance people.
2.I didn't like Shakespeare until I saw Branagh's Henry V.
3.I wouldn't miss this match for the world.
4.I wouldn't eat at that restaurant again even if you dragged me there.

Pattern 5d - not only ... (but)(also)

Not only do I think he's a liar, but I also think he's dishonest.
Not only is she intelligent, she's also incredibly attractive. Not only am I right this time, I'm always right.
This construction links two independent clauses, both of which would make sense on their own. Note that while the first clause is inverted, the second uses normal word order. The but and the also are both optional.

Pattern 5e - neither ... nor

Neither do I believe a word he says, nor do I trust him an inch.
Note that uniquely in this construction, both parts are inverted.
For the technically minded, the paired constructions in 5d and 5e, as well as no sooner ... than in Pattern 2, are known as correlating conjunctions. The clauses in each part should be 'parallel', that is, of equal length and grammatical form.

Pattern 5f - not for nothing

Davis scored twice and set up two other goals. Not for nothing was he named Man of the Match.
Helen Mirren's performance as 'The Queen' was absolutely flawless. Not for nothing was she awarded both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
This phrase means 'for good reasons'. It is usually used when talking about people's reputations, achievements etc. It usually follows a sentence which gives an example of why this comment is justified.
I think we do use this in informal language, the 'Not for nothing' sentence sometimes being used in reply to what someone else has said:
A: Have you heard? Pete's just brought in another three corporate accounts.
B: Yeah. Not for nothing was he named Salesman of the Year.

Pattern 5g - no way

No way am I going to get this finished tonight.
Unlike other negative inversions, which are usually only used in formal contexts, especially in writing, no way is very informal and is used mainly in speech. It is often used on its own:
'Are you going to get this finished tonight?' - 'No way (José)!'
To avoid having to use inversion we sometimes put 'There's' before it, but the inverted version has greater dramatic effect.
There's no way I'm going to get this finished tonight.
Practice 5d, 5e, 5f, 5g Make new inverted sentences from these sentences, starting with 'Not, Neither or No'. Remember to change the verb to positive if necessary. In the first two use a comma to separate the clauses.
1.He plays the piano and he is also an accomplished violinist. (use but)
2.She doesn't smoke and she doesn't drink.
3.There are good reasons why 2008 was called the year of crisis.
4.I'm not going to eat these insects, whatever you say. No way.

Printer friendly post

You can make a teacher copy with answers by clicking on 'Show All'. Make sure you 'Clear All' before printing student copies. I strongly recommend doing a Print Preview first. You might want to change your margins and you won't all the blank pages at the end. For the exercises you will need Pages 2-14 (at 100%)

Follow up exercises

I think that'll do for today. You can get more practice here.


Did you finish all the exercises? Was the lesson useful? Was it interesting? Too difficult / too easy? Please let me know in the Comments section below.

Links - Grammar

Links - Miscellaneous

Links - Google Ngram Viewer

Links - YouTube


  1. Wow, I am suprised that no one has commented on this. Never have I found a such detailed description of Negative Inversion on the Internet (and if you have found one, tell me).

    Thank you,


  2. Thanks for the comment. Polseguera (see links) has a fairly comprehensive list of examples, including other forms of inversion, such as inverted conditionals. But as far as I know, this is the only place that takes students through it all stage by stage, with interactive exercises.

    Incidentally, this and its companion page of exercises, are the most visited pages on this blog.

  3. Wow, I just loved this.

    Not only am I confident about using negative inversions, but I also added this blog as my favorite. Great work!

    There's something wrong in one 'check' practice. (Practice 5c).

    "Not even even if".

    Other than that, this is altogether a great piece of reference!


  4. Oops! Thanks for that; it should be OK now. And thanks for your kind comments and for favouriting (if that's a word) my blog. It makes it all worth while. And I notice that both you and Pedro Gonzalez have put it into practice.

  5. Hi Will,

    I am writing an essay on negative adverbial inversions and I would like to reference some of your analysis work here. Could you please provide me with some citation information? (I think you can see me email address now)

  6. Hi Adam,

    This isn't an academic work, and I have no particular qualifications, so I've never really thought about citation information.

    But I'm flattered that you want to reference it, and I imagine you just give the webpage address as shown in your browser. This might not sound very authoritative, but then, I'm not an authority, just an ordinary TEFL teacher with a blog.

    All the best,

  7. Great explanations! I really loved it :)

  8. Thank you for creating this post

  9. Thanks for this. As you said, you don't need this to speak perfect English, but my student's doing an exam in this, so I have to teach it. Have a good day from sunny Madagascar to cold Warsaw.
    Sam Beeton

  10. A thoroughly enjoyable and comprehensive guide to a potentially tricky subject