Definition and Examples of Inversion in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In English grammar, inversion is a reversal of normal word order, especially the placement of a verb ahead of the subject (subject-verb inversion). The rhetorical term for inversion is hyperbaton. Also called stylistic inversion and locative inversion.

Questions in English are usually characterized by an inversion of the subject and the first verb in the verb phrase.

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

From the Latin, "turn"

Examples and Observations

  • "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
    (J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit, 1937)
  • "What they talked of all evening long, no one remembered next day."
    (Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, 1957)
  • "Not until the seventeenth century did the fork appear in England."
    (Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
  • "There on the tiny stoop sat Pecola in a light red sweater and blue cotton dress."
    (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970)
  • "There in the dusty light from the one small window on shelves of roughsawed pine stood a collection of fruitjars and bottles with ground glass stoppers and old apothecary jars all bearing antique octagon labels edged in red upon which in Echols' neat script were listed contents and dates."
    (Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing. Random House, 1994)
  • "Not in the legions
    Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
    In ills to top Macbeth."
    (William Shakespeare, Macbeth)
  • "Half an hour later came another inquiry as to tugs. Later came a message from the Irene, telling of the lifting of the fog."
    (The New York Times, April 7, 1911)
  • "There's a lady wants to see you. Miss Peters her name is."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh, 1915)
  • "The man who first saw that it was possible to found a European empire on the ruins of the Mogul monarchy was Dupleix."
    (Thomas Macaulay)
  • "Also arrested were eight other suspects who allegedly worked secretly for ETA while maintaining the appearance of normal lives, Rubalcaba said at a nationally-televised news conference in Madrid."
    (Al Goodman, "Nine ETA Bombing Suspects Arrested.", July 22, 2008)
  • The Preposed Element
    "In subject-dependent inversion the subject occurs in postponed position while some other dependent of the verb is preposed. A considerable range of elements may invert with the subject in this way . . . . In the great majority of cases the preposed element is a complement, usually of the verb be."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Subject-Verb Inversion
    "Subject-verb inversion normally is limited as follows:
    - The verb phrase consists of a single verb word, in the past or present tense.
    - The verb is an intransitive verb of position (be, stand, lie, etc.) or verb of motion (come, go, fall, etc.)
    - The topic element . . . is an adverbial of place or direction (e.g., down, here, to the right, away):
    [informal speech]
    Here's a pen, Brenda.
    Here comes McKenzie.
    Look, there are your friends.
    [more formal, literary]
    There, at the summit, stood the castle in its medieval splendour.
    Away went the car like a whirlwind.
    Slowly out of its hangar rolled the gigantic aircraft.
    The examples from [informal speech] give end-focus to the subject. In [literary style] the fronted topic is more useful in giving end-weight to a long subject."
    (Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik, A Communicative Grammar of English, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2002/2013)
  • Do-support 
    "[T]ypical verbs do not themselves permit inversion, but rather require what is traditionally called do-support (i.e. have inverted forms which require the use of the dummy auxiliary do): cf. (a) * Intends he to come?
    (b) Does he intend to come?
    (c) * Saw you the mayor?
    (d) Did you see the mayor?
    (e) * Plays he the piano?
    (f) * Does he play the piano? (Andrew Radford, Syntax: A Minimalist Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • The Natural Order?
    "Inversion is so common in English prose that it may be said to be quite as much in accordance with the genius of the language as any other figure; indeed, in many cases it may well be doubted whether there is any real inversion at all. Thus it may be quite as much the natural order to say, 'Blessed are the pure in heart,' as to say, 'The pure in heart are blessed.'"
    (James De Mille, The Elements of Rhetoric, 1878)

Pronunciation: in-VUR-zhun

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Inversion in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Inversion in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Inversion in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).