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Not being a native speaker and suffering semantic satiation from overthinking this, I'd like to ask this probably overly simple question.

Not once would he...

uses reversal for negation and means "he wouldn't even once..."

Not once he would...

is litotes for "He would frequently..."

Is that correct or did I mess up? If I did mess up, how to correctly express the two meanings?

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The preposed negative phrase not once requires subject-auxiliary inversion. That's all. – John Lawler Oct 27 '12 at 23:02
For native English speakers, the normal "litotes" form of the original would be "Not infrequently he would...". The actual word "once" would only be used for this sense in something like "More than once he would...", but I'm not sure that qualifies as litotes. Switching the order of he would/would he is irrelevant to the concept OP is asking about. – FumbleFingers Oct 28 '12 at 1:41
No one suffers from satiation: suffering from semantic fatigue. – Kris Oct 28 '12 at 7:21
Obviously, you did mess up. – Kris Oct 28 '12 at 7:23
This inversion of subject and verb also happens with "only" and "seldom". "Seldom have we seen such a question as this." "Only on stackexchange would so many people answer." – Michael Hardy Oct 28 '12 at 19:09
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Actually, whether the "not once" construct means "never" or "several times" might depend on the rest of the sentence – not just the order of "he would" or "would he". For example, there's nothing wrong with:

Not once would he strike out, but three times that game.

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If you start with a certain kind of negative, you have to invert the auxiliary:

  • Not often does he come this way.
  • Never would we call them after eight o’clock.
  • Seldom do the bells ring so long as they did that day.
  • Hardly had he put on his boots when his seat gave way.
  • Never shall I pass this way again.
  • Rarely do we see the likes of them in these parts.

Or, as taken from a particular Tale:

  • Not until then did they notice that Gandalf was missing.
  • No sooner did Tom see Balin come into the light than he gave an awful howl.
  • Nothing wholesome could they see growing in the woods, only funguses and herbs with pale leaves and unpleasant smell.
  • Not for a long while did they stop, and by that time they must have been right down in the very mountain’s heart.
  • Not in a thousand years should I forget the ways of this palace.
  • Never again will I have dealings with any wizard or his friends.
  • Never before had any man mounted him, but I took him and I tamed him, and so speedily he bore me that I reached the Shire when Frodo was on the Barrow-downs, though I set out from Rohan only when he set out from Hobbiton.
  • No folk could they see, nor hear any feet upon the paths; but there were many voices, about them, and in the air above.
  • Not once did they feel the sense of present evil that had assailed them before the attack in the dell.
  • ‘Seldom in my life has any boat come out of the North, and the Orcs prowl on the east-shore,’ said Boromir.
  • Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.
  • ‘Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall,’ said Aragorn.
  • Seldom has any lord of Rohan received three such guests.
  • No counsel have I to give to those that despair.
  • Never again shall it be said, Gandalf, that you come only with grief!
  • Not yet does my road lie southward to your bright streams.
  • Seldom had he remembered it on the road, until they came to Morgul Vale, and never had he used it for fear of its revealing light.
  • Never yet had any fly escaped from Shelob’s webs, and the greater now was her rage and hunger.
  • Hardly had Sam hidden the light of the star-glass when she came.
  • Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelargir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships.
  • Not in half a thousand years have they forgotten their grievance that the lords of Gondor gave the Mark to Eorl the Young and made alliance with him.
  • No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.
  • Never shall that line fail, though the years may lengthen beyond count.
  • Not too soon came their aid to the Rohirrim; for fortune had turned against Éomer, and his fury had betrayed him.
  • Not for naught does Mordor fear him.
  • Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault.
  • ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.
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"Not once he would" is not a familiar construction in English. I think it would be expressed "Frequently he would..." or something similar.

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This is a rule I've often thought about in English as a native speaker. It is my observation that whenever an "effective negation," however it is worded, occurs first in a sentence or phrase, then the subject and verb must be inverted (with an auxiliary do if necessary in modern English) in order to maintain the sense of the meaning. Examples:

Never in a million years would I say anything like that.
Rarely does it snow here like it did that year.
... nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; ...
Under no circumstances is that acceptable.

For a "partial" negation, only a positive meaning is possible without the inversion:

Rarely, it snows here like it did that year.

This is to emphasize that it does snow, albeit rarely, rather than to deny that it snows more than rarely, as in the previous example.

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This is a conjugation of noun/verb with adjective/adverb, where an existential or auxiliary verb is used to facilitate the conjugation.

(BTW, my use of the term "conjugation" is more mathematical/biochemical than "grammatical" - forming a compatible pair between noun/verb and adjective/adverb):

The construct is due to the inverse conjugation:

  1. {adverb} {existential verb} {adverbial subject} {predicate}

  2. {adjective} {existential verb} {noun} {predicate}

  3. {adverb} {auxiliary verb} {adverbial subject} {predicate}

  4. {adjectival phrase} {auxiliary verb} {noun} {predicate}

Whereas the normal conjugation is of the form;

  1. {adverb} {existential verb} {adverbial subject} {predicate}

  2. {noun predicate} {existential verb} {adjective}

  3. {adverbial subject} {auxiliary verb} {adverb} {predicate}

  4. {noun} {auxiliary verb} {adjectival phrase} {predicate}

3a. {adverbial subject} {auxiliary verb} {predicate} {adverb}


  • Inversion 2: {Strait} {is} {the path that leads to life}.

  • Normal: {The path that leads to life} {is} {strait}.

  • Inversion 2: {Worthy} {is} {the lamb of truth}.

  • Normal: {The lamb pf truth} {is} {worthy}.

  • Inversion 2: {Blessed} {are} {the geek}, for they shall inherit the world-wide-web.

  • Normal: {The geek} {are} {blessed}, for they shall inherit the world-wide-web.

  • Inversion 2: {Frequent} {is} {the train to Boston}.

  • Normal: {The train to Boston} {is} {frequent}.

  • Inversion 3: {Frequently} {does} {he go to work before seven}.

  • Normal form 3, optional aux verb dropped: {He} {frequently} {goes} to work before seven.

  • Normal form 3a, optional aux verb dropped: {He} {goes} to work before seven {frequently}.

  • Inversion 3: {Normally} {goes} {he} to work but before seven.

  • Normal form 3: {He} {normally} {goes} to work but before seven.

  • Normal form 3a: {He} {goes} to work, but before seven, {normally}.

  • Inversion 3: {Never} {has} {he} {gone to work before seven}.

  • Normal form 3: {He} {has} {never} {gone to work before seven}.

  • Inversion 3: {But once} {has} {he} {answered the door bell}.

  • Normal form 3: {He} {has} {but once} {answered the door bell}.

  • Normal form 3a: {He} {has} {answered the door bell} {but once}.

  • Inversion 3: {Not once} {has he} {answered the door bell}.

  • Normal form 3: {He has} {not once} {answered the door bell}.

  • Inversion 1: {Neither} {is} {there} the necessity to be excited over such triviality.

  • Normal: {There} {is} {neither} the necessity to be excited over such triviality.

  • Inversion 1: {Neither} {is} {he} going to her, {nor} {is} {she} coming to him.

  • Normal form 1 does not precisely deliver the original intent of the inversion and therefore not possible:
    {He} {is} {neither} going to her, {nor} coming to him.

  • The following attempt at normal form 1 is nonsensical :
    {He} {is} {neither} going to her, {she} {is} {nor} coming to him.

  • Inversion 4: {Greater love} {has} {no man} than his giving up his life for his friends.

  • Normal: {No man} {has} {greater love} than his giving up his life for his friends.

  • Inversion 3: {Seldom} {has} {the bell} rung twice.

  • Normal form 3: {The bell} {has} {seldom} rung twice.

  • Inversion 3: {Seldom} {would} {he} {ring the bell twice}.

  • Normal form 3: {He} {would} {seldom} {ring the bell twice}.

  • Inversion 3: {Not once} {would} {he} {ring the bell twice}.

  • Normal form 3: {He} {would} {not once} {ring the bell twice}.

  • Normal form 3a is ambiguous and should not be used:
    {He} {would} {ring the bell twice} {not once}.

  • Inversion 3: {Not once} {but would} {he} {kiss her}.

  • Normal form 3 that mitigates the previous ambiguous case:
    {He} {would but} {not once} {kiss her}.

  • Inversion 3: {Not just once} {would} {he} {but kiss her}.

  • Normal form 3 that mitigates the previous ambiguous case:
    {He} {would} {not just once} {but kiss her}.

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