An ELT Glossary : Subject Verb Inversion

There are two types of subject-verb inversion in English :

1) Inversion of subject and main verb

  • This can happen with certain fronted adverbials...

Round the corner came a large procession.
Here's John now.
Down fell the rain!

...  Bur only under the following conditions :

a) The verb is an intransitive verb of position (be, lie, stand, sit etc) or of movement (come, go, fall, rise etc) or the copula BE.

b) The verb phrase consists of one word only (ie Down fell the rain but not *Down is falling the rain.

c) The topic of the phrase is a fronted adverbial of place or movement (In the examples : Round the corner, Here, Down

d) The subject is not a personal pronoun (ie Here's John now but Here he is now, not *Here is he now.)

In a-c note that the S-V inversion is optional unless the copula is used. ie Down the rain fell is also possible, but not * Here John is now

  • It can also happen optionally when direct speech is used. 
In direct speech, the subject and reporting verb may be inverted. Either of the following would be possible.
"Mistakes were made," admitted a company representative.
"Mistakes were made," a company representative admitted.

Again, there are certain conditions:
  • The reporting verb is in simple aspect (ie one word only) and is intransitive. This means that the following would not be used:
*"Mistakes were made," has admitted a company spokesman.

*"Mistakes were made," told us a company spokesman

  • Inversion is also  impossible when the subject is a pronoun. 

"Mistakes were made," she admitted, but not *"Mistakes were made,"  admitted she.


2) Inversion of subject and operator

This happens in a number of constructions in English :

a)  In question formation : 
Are you listening? / What did you say?

b) In exclamations : 
Wow, was he angry! / Am I hungry! / Did he look silly!

c) After negative or "limiting" adverbials : 
Under no circumstances should you tell David. / Only afterwards did they fully understand what had happened. / Little did he expect to see Jean there. /Hardly had I started talking when he interrupted me.

d) When so/neither/nor are used as substitute forms with the meaning of addition :
A : Jane lives in Eltham. B : Really? So does Malcolm. /  A : I haven't seen him for three days B : No, neither have I

e) As an alternative form to the "if" clause in some so-called "conditional" structures :
Had you told me, I wouldn't have gone / Should he arrive, call me. / Were he to agree, there'd be no problem

f) In tag questions : You're working tomorrow, aren't you? / So you've finally resigned, have you? / He can't do it, can he?

Further reading

My favourite ever grammar of English....