Advanced Business Writing
Style and Sophistication

Inversion

The standard S~V~O~i sentence format is appropriate for informing the reader. When we want the reader to pay careful attention to something, we have reason to move parts of the sentence around. Consider when the real topic of a sentence is in the object:

No one could have predicted a reaction like that.

There is nothing wrong with that sentence. Especially when it's placed at the end of a paragraph and you wanted to emphasize that topic. It works:

{paragraph ...} No one could have predicted a reaction like that.

But what about when you want to start a paragraph and at the same time emphasize that topic? The solution can be inversion:

A reaction like that no one could have predicted. {... paragraph}

As you can see, the word inversion is a fancy way of saying switching places.

The most common inversion is the switching of a subject with an auxiliary verb to turn a statement into a question:

Lu will call.

Will Lu call?

This works for an auxiliary verb like will. It does not work for a verb that is not an auxiliary verb:

Ann stayed.

Stayed Ann?
[incorrect grammar]

The subject-auxiliary inversion is required by rules of grammar for sentences that ask questions (interrogatives).

Other subject-auxiliary inversions are allowed for emphasis or stylistic choice.

Inversion to emphasize a condition within a subordinate clause

If Lee had not recommended the purchase, we would be stuck without a printer.

Had Lee not recommended the purchase, we would be stuck without a printer.
[more forceful]

Inversion to provide an alternative version of a comparison

Women spent more time in social activities than men did.
[okay]

Women spent more time in social activities than did men.
[okay, inverted, a bit more sophisticated]

Inversion to add negative force

Amy will never share that.

Never will Amy share that.
[allowed, forceful, but awkward]

Amy will share that at no time.
[okay, but awkward]

At no time will Amy share that.
[allowed, forceful]

But! There is an exception. When the phrase you bring to the front of a sentence already has a negation in it, you should be very careful about inverting a subject and an auxiliary verb:

She was surprised when nothing happened.

When nothing happened, was she surprised.
[awkward]

The confusing thing about this is that people sometimes talk that way, as in:

When nothing happened—Was she surprised!

That is tolerated English, when spoken by people who feel no overwhelming compulsion to use accepted grammar. In your writing at work, you should stick with what is deemed correct and clear. So, if you do need to emphasize nothing happening, you write:

When nothing happened, she was surprised.
[no s-a inversion]

Inversion for effect

Do you know what this would cost?
[straightforward question]

Do you have any idea what this would cost?
[wordy question]

Have you any idea what this would cost?
[inverted, varied interpretations]

Interpretation 1: "My wording wasn't clear, was it? Sorry. I was just playing with words. Do you know what this would cost?"

Interpretation 2: "I'm from the UK, not the USA. This is how we speak here. Correctly, that is to say. So, I repeat, have you any idea what this would cost?"

Interpretation 3: "You really think you have any idea what this costs? I doubt it. You'll be surprised when you find out the truth."

These interpretations can be intended by the writer or assumed by the reader. Tread carefully!

Lesson: Inversion
Module: Style and Sophistication
Course: Advanced Business Writing