Uses of Inversion

Inversion of the subject and verb occurs in a number of contexts, in some cases being obligatory, and in other cases it’s a mark of good formal style. Inversion can be simple or complex. Simple inversion means that the subject and verb are inverted, whether the subject is a noun or pronoun. Complex inversion means that the subject and verb are inverted if the subject is a pronoun, but that if the subject is a noun, the corresponding pronoun must be supplied to make the inversion.

When inversion is obligatory:

Simple inversion occurs when a verb such as “she said”/”he thought” is given after some direct speech or thought. Note that the inversion is necessary even if only one or two words of the direct speech or thought have occurred:

  • “Pourquoi”, demanda-t-il, “n’êtes-vous pas resté chez Madame Gautier ?”
  • “Why,” he asked, “didn’t you stay with Mrs. Gautier?”
  • “J’aimerais vous parler”, dit Françoise.
  • “I’d like to speak to you,” said Françoise.

Similarly, if the form “it appears/seems” occurs part of the way through a sentence, simple inversion is required:

  • Il y a, paraît-il, un conflit.
  • There is, it appears, a conflict.
  • Lucille avait menti, semblait-il, lors du procès.
  • Lucille had lied, it seemed, during the trial

Complex inversion is necessary when any of the following adverbs or adverbial phrases are the first item in the clause or sentence. However, if they occur later in the clause or sentence, the word order is unchanged.

  • aussi – and so
  • du moins – at least
  • à peine – scarcely
  • peut-être – perhaps
  • sans doute – probably/doubtless
  • toujours – nonetheless
  • Sans doute aimeriez-vous voir la maison ?
  • Vous aimeriez sans doute voir la maison ?
  • You would probably like to see the house?

With peut-être and à peine, inversion may be replaced by que + standard declarative word order. This construction is common in informal speech writing:

  • Peut-être qu’il a oublié notre rendez-vous. (informal)
  • Perhaps he’s forgotten our meeting.
  • A peine que j’ai reçu la nouvelle, mon frère m’a téléphoné. (informal)
  • I’d scarcely received the news when my brother called me.

When inversion is optional:

The following adverbs and adverbial phrases are commonly followed by complex inversion when they are the first item in the clause or sentence. However, the inversion is not obligatory:

  • ainsi – thus
  • (et) encore – even so
  • rarement – rarely
  • en vain/vainement – in vain
  • Ainsi la vedette a-t-elle annoncé sa retraite.
  • Ainsi, la vedette a annoncé sa retraite.
  • And so/Thus the star has announced her retirement.

After the relative pronouns que, ce que, dont, ce dont, où, simple inversion may occur when the subject is a noun (not a pronoun). This use of inversion tends to occur in formal style when the subject is substantially longer than the verb:

  • Je citai l’exemple du village où habitait mon grand-père maternel. (formal)
  • I gave the example of the village where my maternal grandfather was living.

Similarly, simple inversion may be used in the second half of a comparison (after que), especially when the subject is longer than the verb:

  • Ce produit est plus toxique que ne l’a dit le ministère de la santé. (formal)
  • This product is more toxic than the ministry of health has said.

Take care, everyone, and have a great week!

A bientôt !



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