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I was reading about subject predicate inversion

inverted word-order... is also used in clauses introduced by a negative or restrictive clause element. In the following example, the initial element Not only is negative and is followed by inverted word order: could congress declare...

(12) Not only could (v) Congress (S) declare (V) war but the states were forbidden to engage in it without the consent of Congress.

I am struggling to intuitively apply this.

Can someone explain the rule? E.g. the former sounds wrong, but perhaps the latter inversion does less damage. Maybe not.

Is the sentence Not all my cigs lit a candidate for inversion in the first place? And why or why not?

  • Not all my cigs lit -> Not all my lit cigs
  • Not all my cigs lit burning straight -> Not all my lit cigs burning straight

Specifically could the phrase in bold be such an inversion (please ignore whether it is):

  • Not all your light tongues talking aloud / could be profound
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    No, you're not getting the point. If there is an adverb clause or phrase containing a negation that negates the whole sentence, and which appears at the beginning of the sentence, then you have to invert subject and auxiliary. Like At no time did I mention his interest, but not *At no time I mentioned his interest, nor *At no time I did mention his interest. – John Lawler Sep 30 '15 at 3:12
  • @JohnLawler It's not straighforwardly clear, just based on the information given, why this sentence isn't a candidate for inversion. – Araucaria Sep 30 '15 at 13:14
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    @Araucaria: The phenomenon is limited to adverbials, which can be fronted optionally. Light tongues is a noun phrase, and the subject of talking aloud. Subjects don't get fronted; they're already front. – John Lawler Sep 30 '15 at 17:11
  • @JohnLawler Ah, you posted that comment while I was writing my answer ... Shucks, could have saved myself some time! – Araucaria Oct 1 '15 at 11:06
  • i've not checked in for a few days, will read answers shortly - thank you for the edits and answers: i was expecting many downvotes !! – concerned Oct 1 '15 at 13:00
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  1. All my cigarettes lit
  2. Not all my cigarettes lit.

The first sentence is a positive polarity declarative sentence. The Subject of the sentence is the noun phrase all my cigarettes. In the second sentence the predeterminer all has been negated by the adverb not. This is comparable to the use of the adverb almost in Almost all my cigarettes lit. However, the effect of premodifying the word all with the word not is to negate the whole sentence. We can show that the whole sentence has taken on a negative polarity, by adding a question tag to the end of the question. Positive sentences take a negative tag by default, and negative sentences always take positive ones:

  • You liked the ice-cream, didn't you? (positive sentence, negative tag)
  • You didn't like the ice-cream, did you? (negative sentence, positive tag)
  • Not all my cigarettes lit, did they? (negative sentence, positive tag)

Now sentence (2) is entirely grammatical. There is no inversion required here at all. Now if there was an inversion here, what would it look like? The type of inversion cause by the pre-posing of negative adjuncts is Subject-auxiliary inversion. This is when the Subject of the sentence and the first auxiliary verb in the verb phrase change places:

  1. All my friends have been so happy.
  2. Never have all my friends been so happy.

Now in sentence (2) there is no auxiliary verb, which means that if we did want to carry out an inversion we would need to use the dummy auxiliary do. Now the Subject of the sentence is not cigarettes but as described above not all my cigarettes. This would give us:

  • *Did not all my cigarettes light.

Of course, grammatically what we have here is a question, an interrogative sentence. This is not all that surprising because questions, after all, also use Subject-auxiliary inversion. However, a question is not what we were after. As an attempt at a declarative sentence the example is ungrammatical.This is a clue as to why Subject-auxiliary inversion is not required here, or in fact, is actually ungrammatical.

Subject auxiliary inversion occurs when a negative ADJUNCT (read adverbial) in the clause gets moved to the front of the sentence. An adjunct in this sense is a phrase that is grammatically 'extra'. In other words it cannot be the Subject of the verb or one of its Complements. It cannot be a word or phrase inside the Subject or Complement either. In sentence (2), the word not is part of the Subject. For this reason the fact that it is at the front of the phrase doesn't engender any inversion. In contrast, the adverb never in sentence (4) is a proper Adjunct. It is not part of the Subject. For this reason, Subject-auxiliary version is required. Notice that when this occurs, it is obligatory, not optional. The following sentence is not grammatical in standard English:

  • *Never all my friends have been so happy. (ungrammatical)

The Original Poster's excerpt

The Original Poster asks about a specific excerpt from the poem Tree by My Window by Robert Frost:

Not all your light tongues talking aloud could be profound

This sentence has the same structure as Not all my cigarettes lit. The Subject of the clause is Not all your light tongues talking aloud. You will notice that this phrase comes before the auxiliary verb could. There is no Subject-auxiliary inversion here as we can see. The reason that the grammar won't allow an inversion here is that, as in the examples above, the adverb not is occurring within the noun phrase functioning as Subject. It is not an Adjunct in the clause structure.

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Let's quote the advice in its entirety rather than a snippet.

Inverted word-order in non-questions: After negative elements

The same inverted word-order as that found in yes/no questions is also used in clauses introduced by a negative or restrictive clause element. In the following example, the initial element Not only is negative and is followed by inverted word order: could congress declare...

(12) Not only could (v) Congress (S) declare (V) war but the states were forbidden to engage in it without the consent of Congress.

Further examples (with the initial negative element highlighted):

(13) Never before have human rights been so fully and completely violated.

(14) On no account must the moisture level raise above 7 or 8 per cent.

(15) Not until the end of the hour-long conversation did the President get to the point.

You ask,

“Is the sentence Not all my cigs lit a candidate for inversion in the first place? And why or why not?”

The answer is yes. The reason being that any sentence can be inverted. Why couldn't it be?

But … before we get to a demonstration with your sentence let's choose a different sentence because when you put lit in front of cigs it can function as an adjective and that's confusing the issue. (The issue is further confused because I can't tell if you actually want to start out with the sentence My cigs lit or even All my cigs lit rather than Not all my cigs lit.

Take Not all the birds played tennis.

Now clearly you can't say * Not all the played birds tennis.

That is never a construction in English. Similarly Not all my lit cigs could never be a construction in English if lit is a verb.

You will notice that all the inversions in the example use an auxiliary verb, as in the could before the small (v). Namely could, have, must, did.

In fact, the section before the one you quoted from your link goes into that.

You could invert your sentence like so: A tragedy! Never before this ill-fated day had (v) all my cigs (S) not lit (V). Note the not moved.

Incidentally. Not all is neither a negative nor restrictive clause element. It's a quantifier. It gives an indication of quantity. How many? Not all, that's how many. If it is your intention to invert All my cigs lit or simply My cigs lit then you might end up with something like Not until I found my zippo did (all) my cigs light. (The tense has not changed, it's a mere trick of the light.) The Robert Frost quote

Not all your light tongues talking aloud / could be profound

is not apposite because light is being used here as an adjective -- not a verb -- and not all is, as we have seen, a quantifier.

IANAGM (I am not a grammar monkey) -- Usual health warnings apply.

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This is not an expert answer.

"Not only Congress could declare war" would have a different meaning. In this case, 'not only' would relate to 'Congress', and say that 'Congress' was not the only entity that could perform the verb 'declare'. This sentence would be marginally grammatical, you should say "It was not only Congress that could declare war". However, the positive counterpart--"Only Congress could declare war"--would be entirely grammatical.

"Not only could Congress declare war", on the other hand, is ambiguous on its own. It could mean "Not only could Congress declare war, but it could bring it to an end too." OR "Not only could Congress declare war, but the states were forbidden…" etc. Basically, 'not only could' focuses on the capability (the 'couldness') of Congress--either to say it was not the only capability of Congress, or to contrast it to the capability of others. There are two possible positive counterparts to this sentence, either "Congress could only declare war" or something like "Congress was not the only entity that could declare war."<< note that 'not' and 'only' have an entirely different relationship here. 'Only' here is an adjective to 'entity'.

If you want to intuitively apply this stuff, rather than trying to work from a thoroughly complicated set of rules, I'd say you need to consider the meaning of the sentence, and the alternative meanings that result from moving the components around. Essentially, inverting or not inverting word order implies different original statements with different original word order.

Note: "Not all my cigs have lit"--HOWEVER--"Never have all my cigs lit". It's not as simple as just having an auxiliary verb there or not.

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