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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter III. Airs and Graces

INVERSION



OF all the types of inversion used by modern writers, there is perhaps not one that could not be shown to exist in older English. Ordinary modern usage, however, has retained those forms only in which ancient authority combines with practical convenience; and not all of those. To set aside the verdict of time in this respect is to be archaic. Before using inversion, therefore, the novice should ask himself two questions: is there any solid, practical reason (ornamental reasons will not do) for tampering with the normal order of subject and verb? and does the inversion sound natural?

Throughout this section it must be borne in mind that in all questions of right and wrong inversion the final appeal is not to history, but to the reader's perception: what sounds right to most modern ears is right for modern purposes. When, under balance inversion, we speak of a true and a false principle, we do not mean to imply that the 'true' principle was, historically, the origin of this kind of inversion, or that the 'false' is a mistaken analogy from it: all that is meant is that if we examine a collection of instances, those that sound natural will prove to be based upon the 'true' principle, and those that do not on the 'false'.


  1. Exclamatory inversion.

    This may be regarded as an abbreviated form of exclamation, as if the word 'How' had dropped out at the beginning, and a note of exclamation at the end. The inverted order, which is normal in the complete exclamation, sounds natural also in the abbreviated form. The requirements for this kind of inversion are these: (1) The intention must be genuinely exclamatory, so that the full form of exclamation could be substituted without extravagance. (2) The word placed first must be that which would bear the chief emphasis in the uninverted form. It should be observed that this is the only kind of inversion in which the emphatic word, as such, stands at the beginning.

    Our first three examples satisfy these conditions, and are unobjectionable. The fourth does not: we could not substitute 'With what difficulty...!'; nor are the first words emphatic; the emphasis is on 'conceive'. Yet the inversion is inoffensive, being in fact not exclamatory at all, but a licensed extension of negative inversion, which is treated below.

    Bitterly did I regret the perverse, superstitious folly that had induced me to neglect so obvious a precaution.

    But in these later times, with so many disillusions, with fresh problems confronting science as it advances, rare must be the spirit of faith with which Haeckel regards his work.—Times.

    Gladly would he now have consented to the terms...

    With difficulty can I conceive of a mental condition in which...

    Exclamatory inversion, like everything else that is exclamatory, should of course be used sparingly.


  2. Balance inversion.

    The following are familiar and legitimate types:


    First an our list stands the question of local option.

    On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    To this cause may be attributed...

    Among the guests were A, B, C,...Z.


    We give the name of 'balance' to this kind of inversion because, although the writer, in inverting the sentence, may not be distinctly conscious of rectifying its balance, the fact that it was ill-balanced before is the true cause of inversion. It is a mistake to say that the words placed first in the above examples are so placed for the sake of emphasis; that is a very common impression, and is responsible for many unlawful inversions. It is not emphasis that is given to these words, it is protection; they are placed there to protect them from being virtually annihilated, as they would have been if left at the end. Look at the last of our examples: how can we call the words 'Among the guests were' emphatic, or say that they were placed there for emphasis? They are essential words, they show the connexion, nor could the sentence be a sentence without them; but they are as unemphatic as words could well be.—Why, then (it may be asked), are they put at the beginning? is not this an emphatic position? and does not any unusual position give emphasis?—No: it gives not emphasis but prominence, which is another thing.

    Put the sentence back into its original form, and we shall see why inversion was desirable. 'A, B, C, D, E, F...Z were among the guests.' Observe how miserably the sentence tails off; it has no balance. By inverting it, we introduce several improvements. First, we give prominence to the unemphatic predicate, and enable it to discharge its humble office, that of a sign-post, indicating the connexion with what has gone before. Secondly, by giving prominence to the predicate, we give balance to the sentence, which before was top-heavy. Thirdly, we give prominence to the subject, by placing it in an unusual position.

    Next take the 'local option' sentence. Are the words 'First on our list' emphatic? Not if the inverter knows his business. How did it run originally? 'The question of local option stands first on our list.' These words might be meant to tell us either of two things: what stood first on the list, or where local option stood. If the inversion is right, they are meant to tell us what stood first. If the other had been meant, then 'First on the list' would have been emphatic, and the writer would have left it in its place; but as it is not emphatic, and the other words are, the sentence is top-heavy; he therefore inverts it, thus balancing the sentence, and placing the unemphatic words in a prominent position, where they continue to be unemphatic, but are sure to be noticed. In spoken language, the relative importance of the different parts of a sentence can be indicated merely by the inflexion of the voice; but the balance of the sentence is best maintained, even then, by means of inversion.

    It is the same with the other examples. If we restore the St. Matthew quotation to the uninverted form, again we have an answer to either of two questions: What is the basis of the law? and What is the importance of these two commandments? Obviously it is meant as an answer to the latter, and therefore the words that convey that answer are the emphatic words; the others are not emphatic, but merely essential to the connexion; the general importance of the 'two commandments', as forming the subject-matter of the whole context, does not in the slightest degree affect their relation to the other words in this particular sentence.

    It follows from what has been said that true balance inversion is employed not for the sake of impressiveness, but with the purely negative object of avoiding a bad balance. The data required for its justification are (i) An emphatic subject, carrying in itself the point of the sentence. (ii) Unemphatic 'sign-post' words, essential to the connexion, standing originally at the end of the sentence, and there felt to be inadequately placed. The results of the inversion must be (iii) That the sign-post stands at the beginning, (iv) That the subject stands absolutely at the end.

    When these four conditions are fulfilled, the inversion, far from being objectionable, may tend greatly to vigour and lucidity. It is liable, of course, to be overdone, but there are several ways of avoiding that: sometimes it is possible to place the sign-post at the beginning without inversion; or the uninverted sentence may be reconstructed, so that the subject no longer carries the emphasis; and, as often as not, a sentence of which the accentuation is theoretically doubtful may in practice be left to the reader's discernment.

    One occasional limitation remains to be mentioned, before we proceed to instances. It applies to those sentences only that have a compound verb: if the compound verb cannot be represented simply by its auxiliary component, the inversion may have to be abandoned, on account of the clumsiness of compound verbs in the middle of an inverted sentence; for to carry the other component to the end would be to violate our fourth rule. Take the type sentence 'To these causes may be attributed...', and first let the subject be 'our disasters'. The clumsiness of the verb is then distinctly felt; and 'To these causes may our disasters be attributed' is ugly enough to show the importance of the rule it violates. But next let the subject be 'every one of the disasters that have come upon us'. This time the inversion is satisfactory; whence we conclude that if the verb is compound, the subject must be long as well as emphatic, or the inversion will not do.

    On the answer to this question depends entirely every decision concerning the goodness or badness of conduct.—Spencer.

    Just as, after contact, some molecules of a mass of food are absorbed by the part touched, and excite the act of prehension, so are absorbed such of its molecules as, spreading through the water, reach the organism.—Spencer.


    These are both formed on the right principle, but the second suffers from the awkwardness of the auxiliary.

    Still more when considered in the concrete than when considered in the abstract do the views of Hobbes and his disciples prove to be inconsistent.—Spencer.


    Here we have neither the data that justify balance inversion, nor the results that should follow from it. It is due to the false principle of 'emphasis' dealt with below in d. and reads as awkwardly as such inversions usually read. The sentence is, no doubt, cumbrous in the uninverted form; but it wants reconstruction, not inversion.

    Much deeper down than the history of the human race must we go to find the beginnings of these connections.—Spencer.


    Wrong again, for the same reasons, but not with the same excuse; for the original form is unobjectionable. The emphasis is not on the problem (to find...), but on the clue to it (much deeper down), which, being emphatic, can maintain its position at the end of the sentence. The compound verb is only a secondary objection: we do not mend matters much by substituting lie for must we go to find.

    You say he is selfish. Well, so is every one.
    You say he is selfish. Well, so is every one selfish.


    So is every one is a correct inversion: so is too weak to stand at the end, and at the beginning it is a good enough sign-post to tell us that selfishness is going to be defended. But so is every one selfish is wrong: for if selfish is repeated at all, it is repeated with rhetorical effect, and is strong enough to take care of itself. Our second rule is thus violated; and so is our fourth—the subject does not come at the end.

    All three methods had their charm. So may have Mr. Yeats's notion of...—Times.


    This time, the compound verb is fatal. 'So, perhaps, has...' would do.

    The arrival of the Hartmanns created no little excitement in the Falconet family, both among the sons and the daughters. Especially was there no lack of speculation as to the character and appearance of Miss Hartmann.—Beaconsfield.


    Right or wrong in principle, this does not read comfortably; but that may seem to be due to the cumbrous phrase 'was there no lack of', which for practical purposes is a compound verb. That difficulty we can remove without disturbing the accentuation of the sentence: 'Especially numerous were the speculations as to the character of Miss Hartmann'. This resembles in form our old type 'Among the guests were...', but with the important difference that 'especially numerous' is emphatic, and can therefore stand at the end. The inversion is rather explained than justified by the still stronger emphasis on 'Miss Hartmann'. Sentences in which both subject and predicate are independently emphatic should be avoided, quite apart from the question of inversion: italics are more or less necessary to secure the inferior emphasis, and italics are a confession of weakness.

    Somewhat lightened was the provincial panic by this proof that the murderer had not condescended to sneak into the country, or to abandon for a moment, under any motion of caution or fear, the great metropolitan castra stativa of gigantic crime seated for ever on the Thames.—De Quincey (the italics are his).


    Not a happy attempt. We notice, for one thing, that the subject does not come at the end; the inversion is not complete. Let us complete it. To do so, we must convey our huge sign-post to the beginning: 'By this proof ... Thames, was somewhat lightened the provincial panic.' Worse than ever; is the compound verb to blame? Remove it, and see: 'In consequence of this proof ... Thames, subsided in some degree the provincial panic'. This is not much better. There is another and a worse flaw: condition number one is not satisfied; we want 'an emphatic subject that carries in itself the point of the sentence'. Now we must not assume that because 'provincial' is italicized, therefore the subject (however emphatic) carries in itself the point of the sentence. What is that point? what imaginary question does the sentence answer? Can it be meant to answer the question 'What limitations were there upon the comfort derived from the intelligence that the murderer was still in London?'? No; that question could not be asked; we have not yet been told that any comfort at all was derived. The question it answers is 'What effect did this intelligence produce upon the general panic?'. This question can be asked; for the reader evidently knows that a panic had prevailed, and that the intelligence had come. If, then, we are to use balance inversion, we must so reconstruct the sentence that the words containing the essential answer to this question become the subject; we must change 'somewhat lightened' into 'some alleviation'. 'From this proof ... Thames, resulted some alleviation of the provincial panic.' That is the best that inversion will do for us; it is not quite satisfactory, and the reason is that the sentence is made to do too much. When the essential point is subject to an emphatic limitation (an unemphatic one like 'somewhat' does not matter), the limitation ought to be conveyed in a separate sentence; otherwise the sentence is overworked, and either shirks its work, with the result of obscurity, or protests by means of italics. We ought therefore to have: 'From ... resulted some alleviation of the general panic; this, however, was confined to the provinces'. But, except for this incidental fault, the sentence can be mended without inversion: 'By this proof ... Thames, the provincial panic was somewhat lightened'.

  3. Inversion in syntactic clauses.

    In clauses introduced by as, than, or a relative (pronoun or adverb), we have only a special case of balance inversion. They differ from the instances considered above in this important respect, that their relation to the preceding words is no longer paratactic, but syntactic, with the result that the sign-post indicating this relation is necessarily placed at the beginning. This will be seen from a comparison of the paratactic and syntactic forms in the following pairs of examples:

    He was quick-tempered: so are most Irishmen. (Paratactic.)
    He was quick-tempered, as are most Irishmen. (Syntactic.)
    Several difficulties now arose: among them was...
    Several difficulties now arose, among which was...


    Now in each of these sentences there are the same inducements to inversion in the syntactic form as in the paratactic; and added to these is the necessity for placing the sign-post at the beginning. We might expect, therefore, that inversion of syntactic clauses would be particularly common. But (i) We have already seen that inversion does not necessarily follow from the fact that the sign-post is placed at the beginning. And (ii) The verb in as and than clauses will probably, from the nature of the case, be the same as in the preceding clause. If it is in the same mood and tense, it can usually be omitted, unless effective repetition is required, in which case it will go to the end: a change of mood or tense, on the other hand, will often be marked by an auxiliary (itself perhaps compound), which again will usually preclude inversion.

    The result is this:


    1. Relative clauses, uninfluenced by the position of the sign-post, remain subject to precisely the same conditions as the corresponding paratactic sentences. Thus 'Among whom were...' is right, just as 'Among the guests were...' was right; 'Among which would I mention...' is of course impossible, because the subject does not carry the point; and 'To which may be attributed...' is right or wrong, according as the subject is or is not long enough to balance the compound verb.

    2. Inversion of an as or than clause, having become unusual for the reason mentioned above, is almost certain to look either archaic or clumsy; clumsy when the reason for it is apparent, archaic when it is not. The practical rule is this: if you cannot omit the verb, put it at the end; and if you can neither omit it nor put it at the end, reconstruct the sentence.

      The German government was as anxious to upset M. Delcassé as have been his bitterest opponents in France.—Times.


      The verb is preserved to avoid ambiguity. But it should go to the end, especially as it is compound.

      Relishing humour more than does any other people, the Americans could not be seriously angry.—Bryce.


      Ambiguity cannot fairly be pleaded here; the verb should be omitted.

      If France remains as firm as did England at that time, she will probably have as much reason as had England to congratulate herself.—Times.


      Either 'as England did', or, since the parallel is significant, 'as England then remained'. Also, 'as England had'.

      St. Paul's writings are as full of apparent paradoxes as sometimes seems the Sermon on the Mount.—Spectator.


      The verb must be retained, for the sake of sometimes; but it should go to the end.

      But he has performed as have few, if any, in offices similar to his the larger, benigner functions of an Ambassador.—Times.


      'As few ... have performed them.'

      Her impropriety was no more improper than is the natural instinct of a bird or animal improper.—E. F. Benson.


      This is like the case considered in b. 'so is every one selfish'. If improper is repeated with rhetorical effect, there is no need of inversion: if not, it should be left out.

      There had been from time to time a good deal of interest over Mrs. Emsworth's career, the sort of interest which does more for a time in filling a theatre than would acting of a finer quality than hers have done.—E. F. Benson.


      Either 'would have done' at the end, or (perhaps better) no verb at all.

      All must join with me in the hope you express—that ... as also must all hope that some good will come of...—Times.


      Like the indiscriminate use of while, this ungainly as connexion is popular with slovenly writers, and is always aggravated by inversion. 'All, too, must hope...'


  4. Negative inversion, and false 'emphasis' inversion.

    The connexion here suggested between certain forms of inversion must be taken to represent, not by any means the historical order of development, with which we are not directly concerned, but the order in which a modern writer may be supposed, more or less unconsciously, to adopt them. Starting from an isolated case of necessary inversion, we proceed to extensions of it that seem natural and are sanctioned by modern usage; and from these to other extensions, based probably on a misunderstanding, and producing in modern writers the effect of archaism.

    Nor, except when used in conjunction with neither, always stands first; and if the subject appears at all, the sentence is always inverted. This requires no illustration.

    On the analogy of nor, many other negative words and phrases are thrown to the beginning of the sentence, and again inversion is the result.

    Never had the Cardinal's policy been more triumphantly vindicated.

    Nowhere is this so noticeable as in the South of France.

    In no case can such a course be justified merely by success.

    Systems, neither of which can be regarded as philosophically established, but neither of which can we consent to surrender.—Balfour.

    Two sorts of judgments, neither of which can be deduced from the other, and of neither of which can any proof be given.—Balfour.


    It is at this stage that misconception creeps in. Most of these negative phrases are in themselves emphatic; and from their being placed first (really on the analogy of nor) comes the mistaken idea that they derive emphasis from their position. This paves the way for wholesale inversion: any words, other than the subject, are placed at the beginning; and this not always in order to emphasize the words so placed, but merely to give an impressive effect to the whole. The various steps are marked by the instances that follow. In the first two, inversion may be on the analogy of negatives, or may be designed for emphasis; in the third, emphasis is clearly the motive; and in the rest we have mere impressiveness—not to say mere mannerism.

    With difficulty could he be persuaded...

    Disputes were rife in both cases, but in both cases have the disputes been arranged.—Times.

    Almost unanimously do Americans assume that...-Times.

    They hardly resembled real ships, so twisted and burnt were the funnels and superstructure; rather did they resemble the ghosts of a long departed squadron...—Times.

    His love of romantic literature was as far as possible from that of a mind which only feeds on romantic excitements. Rather was it that of one who was so moulded...—Hutton.

    There is nothing to show that the Asclepiads took any prominent share in the work of founding anatomy, physiology, zoology, and botany. Rather do these seem to have sprung from the early philosophers.—Huxley.

    His works were ordered to be burnt by the common hangman. Yet was the multitude still true to him.—Macaulay.

    Henry Fox, or nobody, could weather the storm which was about to burst. Yet was he a person to whom the court, even in that extremity, was unwilling to have recourse.—Macaulay.

    A book of 'levities and gravities', it would seem from the author's dedication, is this set of twelve essays, named after the twelve months.—Westminster Gazette.

    The set epistolary pieces, one might say, were discharged before the day of Elia. Yet is there certainly no general diminution of sparkle or interest...—Times.

    Futile were the endeavor to trace back to Pheidias' varied originals, as we are tempted to do, many of the later statues...—L. M. Mitchell.

    Inevitably critical was the attitude that he adopted towards religion... Odious to him were, on the one hand,...—Journal of Education.

    Finely conceived is this poem, and not less admirable in execution.—Westminster Gazette.

    'The Rainbow and the Rose', by E. Nisbet, is a little book that will not disappoint those who know the writer's 'Lays and Legends'. Facile and musical, sincere and spontaneous, are these lyrics.—Westminster Gazette.

    Then to the resident Medical Officer at the Brompton Hospital for Consumption far an authoritative opinion on the subject went the enquirer.—Westminster Gazette.


    In view of the rapidly increasing tendency to causeless inversion of all kinds, it is far from certain that this last is intentional satire.

  5. Miscellaneous.


    1. In narrated dialogue, the demand for variations of 'he said', &c., excuse considerable freedom in the matter of inversion. One or two points, however, may be noticed.

      When the subject is a personal pronoun, say is perhaps the only verb with which inversion is advisable. 'Said I, he, they', and 'retorted Jones': but not 'enquired I', 'rejoined he', 'suggested they'.

      Compound verbs, as usual, do not lend themselves to inversion:

      'I won't plot anything extra against Tom,' had said Isaac.—M. Maartens.

      'At any rate, then,' may rejoin our critic, 'it is clearly useless...'—Spencer.

      'I am the lover of a queen,' had often sung the steward in his pantry below.—R. Elliot.

      'The cook and the steward are always quarrelling, it is quite unbearable,' had explained Mrs. Tuggy to the chief mate.—R. Elliot.


      Inverted said at the beginning is one of the first pitfalls that await the novice who affects sprightliness. It is tolerable, if anywhere, only in light playful verse.

      Said a friend to me the other day, 'I should like to be able to run well across country, but have never taken part in a paper-chase, for I have always been beaten so easily when trying a hundred yards or so against my acquaintances...'—S. Thomas.

      Mr. Takahira and Count Cassini continue to exchange repartees through friends or through the public press. Said the Japanese Minister yesterday evening:—Times.

      It is inferred here officially and unofficially that neutral rights are unlikely to suffer from any derangement in Morocco to which England is a consenting party. Said a Minister:—'American interests are not large enough in Morocco to induce us to...'—Times.


      With verbs other than said, this form of inversion is still more decidedly a thing to be left to the poets. 'Appears Verona'; 'Rose a nurse of ninety years'; but not

      Comes a new translation ... in four neat olive-green volumes.—Journal of Education.


    2. The inverted conditionals should, had, could, would, were, did, being recommended by brevity and a certain neatness, are all more or less licensed by modern usage. It is worth while, however, to name them in what seems to be their order of merit. Should I, from its frequency, is without taint of archaism; but could and would, and, in a less degree, had, are apt to betray their archaic character by the addition of but ('would he but consent'); and were and did are felt to be slightly out of date, even without this hint.

      I should be, therefore, worse than a fool, did I object.—Scott.

      Did space allow, I could give you startling proof of this.—Times.


    3. Always, after performing inversion of any kind, the novice should go his rounds, and see that all is shipshape. For want of this precaution, a writer who was no novice, particularly in the matter of inversion, produces such curiosities as these:

      Be this a difference of inertia, of bulk or of form, matters not to the argument.—Spencer.

      It is true that, disagreeing with M. Comte, though I do, in all those fundamental views that are peculiar to him, I agree with him in sundry minor views.—Spencer.


      We shall venture on removing the comma before 'though'; but must leave it to connoisseurs in inversion to decide between the rival attractions of 'disagree with M. Comte though I do' and 'disagreeing ... though I am'. 'Though I do', in spite of the commas, can scarcely be meant to be parenthetic; that would give (by resolution of the participle) 'though I disagree with M. Comte, though I do,...'


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