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Can anyone please tell me why we don't use inversion after "only a few years ago"?

Today I was doing one of the CPE exercises from Side and Wellman and I encountered the following sentence :

"Only a few years ago the herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs."

My question is, why don't we use inversion here after "only a few years" as I have always been taught that, after "only + when or the specific time" we use inversion.

"Only when Mohegan scouts led them through the woods did the settlers stand much of a chance."

Is that not true ? I have already checked plenty of sentences in COCA none of which used inversion. Why ?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 5 '17 at 12:43
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+50

The presenting question asks about this grammatical sentence
[I'll return to the bracketed expressions below]

  • [Only a few years ago] the herring gull [more often than not] remained close to the sea.

because of a rule which was not applied, even though

I have always been taught that, after "only + when or the specific time" we use inversion.

That is, in technical terms ("inversion" is a general term; this is one specific inversion rule), when an adverbial phrase of time, place, or circumstance occurs at the beginning of the sentence, subject-auxiliary inversion may occur, provided the appropriate conditions are met.

So the question is really about why this sentence (where this inversion rule has been applied)

  • *Only a few years ago did the herring gull more often than not remain close to the sea.

is ungrammatical.

And the reason is because the appropriate conditions for the rule are not met. Basically, this kind of inversion is a negative phenomenon -- if the preposed adverbial negates the whole sentence, then inversion is required, not just allowed. For instance,

  • Never have I seen such a thing

is grammatical, while

  • *Never I have seen such a thing

is not, because the whole clause I have seen such a thing is negated by the never.
The sentence has exactly the same meaning as

  • I have never seen such a thing

But in the presenting example, the phrase only a few years ago does not negate the sentence.
Indeed, it means the same as the phrase a few years ago; one can be substituted for the other

  • [A few years ago] the herring gull [more often than not] remained close to the sea.

with no difference in meaning at all. Only is just a way of expressing the speaker's surprise at how short a time it has been. Similar remarks apply to not long ago, another fixed phrase that also contains a negative but does not negate the sentence. These phrases are self-contained, and one can substitute ten years ago without changing meaning. In this phrase only doesn't negate anything, and so the phrase can go just as well at the end of the sentence as the front.

  • The herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea only a few years ago.
  • The herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea not many years ago.

Similar remarks apply as well to the not in more often than not, another closed idiom containing an overt negative that doesn't negate anything and merely muddies the waters. Stylistically, this sentence is a mess; but it is grammatical.

As a semanticist might say, the negative trigger only has narrow scope in this phrase (like the not in more often than not), and therefore there is no negation of the clause itself. Thus, subject-auxiliary inversion can't occur with this preposed phrase.

Executive summary: The rule you "have always been taught" is wrong. The rule should have mentioned negation of the clause. Instead it gave one instance and generalized it, incorrectly.
This is typical of English grammar rules that people "have always been taught". Sorry about that.

As for references, here is one of the first published accounts of this phenomenon.

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    The real answer, explained much better than I would have. – Peter Shor May 26 '17 at 14:52
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    @wavemode I don't understand how this answer reaches the point you mention -- that "Only a few years ago" and "Only when Mohegan scouts led them through the woods" are not grammatically equivalent. Does "Only when Mohegan scouts led them through the woods" negate the clause "The settlers did stand much of a chance."? – Chaim May 26 '17 at 16:18
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    @Chaim: The settlers did not stand much of a chance except when Mohegan scouts led them through the woods. But it's not true that the herring gull nested on cliffs except only a few years ago. That's the kind of negation negation this answer is talking about. v – Peter Shor May 26 '17 at 16:31
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    I agree with your answer. There are nice examples like "For no money, Trump would dance naked" and "For no money would Trump dance naked". But I think there is something else going on too with only. I think that the inversion occurs because the positive version of the proposition is not asserted as true. So compare "Only after considering all the implications, people should take risky actions" and "Only after considering all the implications should people take risky actions". The first one there is definitely saying that people should not take risky actions without thinking about them first, – Araucaria May 27 '17 at 10:28
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    Thank you for your answer, I hope it helped the OP as much as it did for me. – Mari-Lou A May 28 '17 at 16:29
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Inversion is the reversal of the normal word order in a sentence or phrase. There are two types of inversion:

Subject-verb inversion, where the subject and the main verb switch positions and the word order becomes verb + subject: On the top of the hill stood an old oak tree.

Subject-auxiliary inversion, where the subject and the auxiliary switch positions and the word order becomes auxiliary + subject (+ verb): Hardly had I arrived home when my phone rang.

Source: http://www.grammaring.com/what-is-inversion

You seem to be asking about subject-auxiliary inversion, which here depends on the use and importance of 'only'.

The way 'only' is used in your second sentence does indeed make it a case for subject-auxiliary inversion. Here 'only' is used together with 'when', and implies conditionality: the 'subject-first' form of this sentence would be

The settlers stood much of a chance only when Mohegan scouts led them through the woods.

The first part of the sentence is dependent on the second through "only when" -- for the settlers to stand much of a chance (1st part) it was necessary (signified by the use of 'only when') that the scouts lead them through the woods (second part of the sentence.)

'Only' is integral to this sentence and you cannot rewrite the sentence omitting 'only.' Therefore when rewriting this sentence to begin with 'only', subject-auxiliary inversion must be applied and the auxiliary 'did' needs to be introduced:

Only when Mohegan scouts led them through the woods did the settlers stand much of a chance.

This is a typical example of subject-auxiliary inversion.

HOWEVER, the use of 'only' is very different in your first sentence:

Only a few years ago the herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs.

The herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs... (when?) ...only a few years ago.

'Only' is not applied to the subject (herring gull) here but merely to 'a few years ago', so as to emphasise that it was only a short period of time in the past. 'Only' does not impose any conditionality or dependency between 'the habits of the nesting gull' and 'a few years ago' -- moreover 'only' is not indispensable to this sentence: you can omit it, rewriting the sentence as "a few years ago, the herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs." So this sentence is not a case for subject-auxiliary inversion.

In short, subject-auxiliary inversion is applied to your second sentence but not to your first because (the use and significance of 'only' being very different in both sentences) only the second sentence is a suitable case for applying subject-auxiliary inversion.

NOW CONSIDER THIS SLIGHT (invented) VARIATION:

The herring gull began to remain close to the sea and nest on cliffs only a few years ago.

Meaning: this is a new trend as far as the herring gull's nesting habits are concerned. When did it begin? Only a few years ago.

The herring gull only began to remain close to the sea and nest on cliffs a few years ago.

It was only a few years ago that the herring gull began to remain close to the sea and nest on cliffs.

That changes the whole sense and significance of 'only' because 'only' now creates a conditional link between 'the nesting habits of the herring gull' and 'a few years ago.' Only has now become integral to the sentence because you cannot omit 'only' without changing the meaning of the sentence. Therefore this sentence has now become a case for subject-auxiliary inversion and when rewriting it to begin with 'only', the auxiliary 'did' must be added:

Only a few years ago did the herring gull begin to remain close to the sea and nest on cliffs.


I acknowledge that it was the excellent answers earlier provided here by Josh and John Lawler which helped me to better understand the conditions for applying subject-auxiliary inversion, and allowed me to re-edit this into a more coherent answer.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 5 '17 at 12:43
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Here is the original sentence as you found it in your book:

Sentence A: Only a few years ago the herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs.

Your question was: Why don't we use inversion here after "only a few years"?

Consider Sentence B, with inversion:

Sentence B: Only a few years ago did the herring gull, more often than not, remain close to the sea and nest on cliffs.

I've put some optional commas in, to make it easier to read.

This sentence is acceptable, although it is perhaps kind of wordy with the "more often than not."


Now, perhaps you'd like to know what the slight difference is between A and B. I will construct some situations in which these sentences might occur. (This is total fantasy. I'm not a biologist or naturalist and I never heard of the herring gull before. I will use the BBC's The Best of Natural History, Saving Species podcast as a model. To get the full flavor, you have to read it with a Julia Child cadence, i.e. lots of oomph.)

Situation A: Today I will be visiting Irvingshire, where local naturalist, Morris Davenport, will be our guide, to visit a small coastal island where the herring gull is building up a population in a new habitat. Only a few years ago, the herring gull, more often than not, remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs. Recently, however the species has been expanding its natural range to include the small coastal islands, where the herring gull's food source is no longer limited to the herring.

Situation B: Today I will be visiting Evanshire, where local ornithologist, Pamela MacKenzie, will be our guide, to learn about the herring gull's recent change of habitat. Historically, this charming bird lived happily on small islands off the coast. But when weasels were accidentally introduced to the islands, the herring gull population plummeted due to predation. Fortunately, the herring gull did not go extinct. Some enterprising members of this species figured out that they could also live comfortably on the high coastal cliffs overlooking the islands, where there were few natural predators, and the cliff-dwelling herring gull population soared. But last year, the weasels were culled from the islands, and the herring gull returned to its historical habitat. Only a few years ago did the herring gull, more often than not, remain close to the sea and nest on cliffs. Now it can be found in growing numbers on the coastal islands that were its original home.

Edit:

A list of situations that allow inversion is given at http://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/inversion.html. Here are some of the examples:

Only then...

Only later...

Continuing the pattern, I will propose:

Only earlier...

Only a few years ago...

  • +1 for understanding what the OP is asking about, i.e. Only a few years ago did the herring gull, remain... Can you explain why that construction is not obligatory compared to: Only when the weasels were culled, did the herring gull stay near the coast and nested on cliffs. – Mari-Lou A May 26 '17 at 5:00
  • Very nice example of how OP's original sentence and its rather unusual variation (applying inversion) can both be used, and each very appropriately, in the same passage! – English Student May 26 '17 at 5:49
  • @Mari-LouA - I think you mean *and nest on cliffs." I made the same little mistake at first too and didn't catch it until my final proofread. // You're asking why the sentence doesn't have to be inverted? This might sound stupid, but my first reaction is, because it seems to work just fine without inversion. Maybe I'm not understanding what you're asking. – aparente001 May 26 '17 at 18:34
  • @aparente001 double posting happens because I have to correct errors in comments manually (copy and repost) after 5 minutes. Now I have deleted that comment and summarised it here: if OP asks "why can't it be inverted?" I would reply, "why should it be?" OP being a learner can ask any possible question, but not all of them are relevant to the grammatical situation, which we can try to teach OP rather than try to answer an inadvertently illogical question. – English Student May 27 '17 at 0:12
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    In case you're interested, I found the original citation. I had asked the OP but as you can see they kept rather silent. The original line, on page 161 is the following A surprisingly .......... (5) years ago the herring gull more often than .......... (6) remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs. Now many .......... (7) nest can be found on buildings in coastal .......... (8) and inland on bogs and lakes. As you can tell, there is no inversion here, the answers to (5), (6), (7) were few, not, and a – Mari-Lou A May 28 '17 at 16:24
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  • 'Only a few years ago' the herring gull more often than not remained close to the sea and nested on cliffs.

  • Only when Mohegan scouts led them through the woods, did the settlers stand much of a chance.

The linguistic phenomenon reflected in the second is one of inversion or, more precisely, inversion of helping verbs, modals or even 'invited-dummy-do' This is done especially when we like to emphasize or lay stress on a situation at the exclusion of all else. Thus it's common in such sentences that put negative adverbs to the fore (hardly, never, seldom, only then, only later, only in this way etc). Please note some of these though seemingly positive are in reality just the opposite.

In the expressions​, as noted below, inversion comes in the second part of the sentence.

  • Only after
  • Only when
  • Not until
  • Not since
  • Only by

Our second example is a case in point. But perfect-english-grammar.com advises what is to be seen such adverbs should modify the whole phrase/clause, not a particular noun/ verb. In our first example misnomer of a preposition, "ago" does the trick. Though a preposition, it is used after the phrase it links to the sentence. 'Ago' reduces​ the phrase, "only a few years" to just an ordinary adverb of place and derides it of incisive pungent nature characterised in negative adverbs. It modifies the verb "remained"

In explaining material from Vince_Inversion_Emphasis_S.pdf has been referred to as well.

  • Thank you! Your answer was in fact the correct answer from the start, but we could not understand it because this whole rule was unfamiliar until it was explained with many examples by first Josh and then John Lawler -- so I have upvoted your answer. – English Student May 27 '17 at 0:19
  • @John Lawler thank you so much for your help ! :) – Kortleeu May 27 '17 at 12:34
  • Thank you all. But for John Lawlar,fate of my answer would have been disastrous. I often wonder whether I am Dr. Watson of Arthur Conan Doyle's description of whom Holmes jokingly remarked, " You are not by yourself luminous, but you the conductor of light." English Student, I appreciate your sportsman spirit. I tip my hat to you. – Barid Baran Acharya May 27 '17 at 17:57
  • @BaridBaranAcharya I am humbled by my own ignorance, the wise man said -- it is sad but true that we cannot recognize the merit of something that we do not understand in the first place & we also tend to ignore it.None of us having understood the rule until first Josh and then John Lawler explained it in greater detail, and with examples, your correct answer was absolutely not comprehended and therefore initially ignored by many of us, and even downvoted by some unknown but brilliant members! Somebody should help me redress their heavy-handed error by reversing the remaining unfair downvote. – English Student May 28 '17 at 0:14
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Subect-verb inversion is a part of English grammar that comes from French. It occurs because the original French expressions were easier to say that way, and has persisted in English as a convention. There are general principles, but no inviolable rules.

I am basing what follows on Chapter 6 of Grevisse, le bon usage, specifically the 12th edition reset by Andre Goose and published in 1988. Grevisse is highly regarded as a grammarian, and his examples of the evolution in French written grammar cover some 12 centuries, starting with the Serments de Strasbourg (842 AD), the first important religious texts written in French as opposed to Latin. The Norman Conquest of England took place in 1066, so the French of this period had strong influence on the language spoken in England. It continues to influence English as it is spoken internationally at the present time.

In Grevisse Part 2, Chapter 6, Particularites de divers types de phrases, Section 1 deals with the special cases of declarative sentences (la phrase enonciative). The inversion of subject-verb into verb-subject is the main topic in most of the examples. There are 5 subsections covering 10 pages in 8 point type, which is far too much to translate here. However, subsection (paragraph) 379 deals with inversion after placing seul (only) and similar expressions at the beginning of a sentence.

Grevisse makes two important points:

First, French has its roots in Latin, where the endings on the words indicate their grammatical sense (subject, object, etc.). In early French the order of words could be freely arranged. As the language evolved, the order of the words took on more importance, although the older forms remained in literary writing, legal writing, and so on. Note that these are important to a governing class and can endure for some time.

Second, in later French the use of inversion is largely at the discretion of the writer. It allows the writer to use position, rhythm, intonation or association with known expressions as a way to convey his or her meaning. The term pas obligatoire (not required) appears quite often in Grevisse's discussion of when inversion is needed.

English and French have evolved differently. If you're looking for a general rule to apply in writing English as a second language, I would suggest following Grevisse's example and treat these expressions as special cases. There are some principles, but they're not infallible. In many situations, you can rephrase your expression without an auxiliary verb like "did", and it will sound just fine.

Note: in my original example, I used never (jamais) as an example of an initial advective, which is actually one of the forms that doesn't come from the French. Had I looked in Grevisse before making my original post, I would have used something else.

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    It's French????? Searching in Google books, I find hundreds of sentences with Jamais il n'avait ... and only a handful with Jamais n'avait-il ... And exactly one sentence with Jamais n'arrive-t-il ..., from 1812. I don't think it's from French. – Peter Shor May 26 '17 at 16:37
  • Exactly my point! The influence of French on English was strongest after the Norman Conquest, but declined over the years. These days the influence is more the other way. – Global Charm May 26 '17 at 20:21
  • It seems that French doesn't usually use inversion with ne jamais today. Do you have any evidence that it ever did? – Peter Shor May 27 '17 at 15:27
  • In Old French the ordering of words was very flexible. However, when I looked this up in Grevisse I found many better examples. It was a mistake on my part to use jamais. Thanks to your comment, I revised my post completely. – Global Charm May 28 '17 at 21:49

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