Author Topic: When is sentence inversion a matter of grammar or style?  (Read 10389 times)

Joe Carillo

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When is sentence inversion a matter of grammar or style?
« on: January 14, 2017, 12:27:46 AM »
The first week of January 2017 found me so preoccupied with coming up with a little 2016 yearend online folio of personal and general-interest essays that I’ve written over the past 13 years, so I thought of leaving for the back-burner for just a few days my reply to these very interesting grammar questions posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by member Justine Aragones:

“Sir, can you please explain the use of ‘did’ and ‘should’ in the sentences below?

“(1) ‘Little did Senator De Lima realize that trying to appease and reason with news hounds would sink her deeper and deeper into the pit.’

“(2) ‘Not only did I want to look at them, I wanted to act like them.’

“(3) ‘Should you need any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.’

“Was the positioning of ‘did’ and ‘should’ in the three sentences above a matter of style or grammar?

“What about the use of ‘should’ in the sentence below, which I think does not follow the rule of  applying that modal?

“(4) ‘She is extremely proud of her diamond and shows it to everyone who comes by and everyone is surprised that such old ignorant woman should possess a valuable jewel.’”

When I went back to Justine’s Forum posting to answer these questions, however, I was pleasantry surprised that they have already been answered by another Forum member, Michael E. Galario, a former high school English teacher and active Forum member. Mike has previously answered some questions in the Forum for me and I always found his work very competent and instructive.

I am therefore presenting Mike’s answers to Justine’s grammar questions here with my full concurrence. By way of credit, I’d like to add that Sentence 1 above is a quote from Cito Beltran’s column “CTalk” in the August 22, 2016 issue of the Philippine Star.

Here’s Michael’s reply to Justine with some annotations of mine:

As we all know, most English sentences follow the normal word order in which the subject precedes the verb and its complement. However, some sentence constructions structurally call for the inversion of this word order.

Sentences 1 and 2 follow the rule that if a negative word or expression such as “little,” “not only,” “rarely,” “scarcely,” “never,” or “hardly” begins a sentence, then the helping verb “do” should precede the subject, which is then followed by the main verb. This is why in Sentence 1, in particular, “little” comes before the helping verb “did,” followed by the subject “Senator De Lima” and then the main verb immediately thereafter. The same rule applies to a conditional statement like Sentence 3, where the conditional auxiliary “should” moves up front of the sentence before the subject “you” and the main verb “need.”

To answer your first question, the positioning of the auxiliaries “did” and “should” in Sentences 1, 2, and 3 is a matter of grammar—not of style—called for by the sentence inversion. This isn’t always the case though. In the inverted sentence “At the park he plays,” for example, the inversion is for stylistic purposes, perhaps for tonality or narrative flair. Its normal form is, of course, “He plays at the park.”

As to the auxiliary “should” in Sentence 4, it’s meant to denote not obligation, conditionality, propriety, or expediency but the surprise or disbelief of observers that the woman could own that valuable jewel despite her advanced age and low social station.

Finally, I’d just like to add that inverted sentences can give expositions and narratives much-welcome variety and punch when used in a sea of normal-order sentences. Consider these two sentence orders: normal, “Her behavior could be explained in no other way,” and inverted, “In no other way could her behavior be explained.”

Feel the strong emotional tug in the latter?

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its January 14, 2017 issue, © 2017 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.