In the following sentence, the inversion structure has been used because of "then" or does it have another reason?

The first moving pictures were simple "shadow shows" or " shadow plays". Then came the magic lantern which projected painted glass slides on to a screen.

Actually this was a test in our country's university entrance exam:

The first moving pictures were simple "shadow shows" or " shadow plays". ............... projected painted glass slides on to a screen.

  1. Then came the magic lantern which
  2. Then the magic lanterns came that
  3. the magic lanterns then came to be
  4. the magic lanterns then came and was

I looked the answer in the answer sheet and it was the first one. I just wanted to know " do we use the inversion structure after "then"?

  • 1
    Welcome to EL&U...please source your quote. Jun 13, 2022 at 17:10
  • thank you - OK - done
    – Mahdi
    Jun 13, 2022 at 17:35
  • With come in a historical metaphor, any time phrase allows inversion: After that, Earlier ... Jun 13, 2022 at 18:42
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with answer 2. Magic lantern and magic lanterns are both perfectly fine. The inversion is optional, and this is one of the cases where either that or which can be used. Jun 14, 2022 at 11:51
  • @PeterShor I think the OP has missed a comma there. If there were lots of magic laterns and this was the magic lantern that projected xyz then that would be fine. But that's not what those sentences mean. I think it's actually meant to be Then came the magic lantern, which Jun 14, 2022 at 19:40

1 Answer 1


Subject-verb inversion following a fronting adverb/adjective e.g. "Long was the road to her heart but dearly did I love her." (Greybeard 2022) was a common practice in Old English which maintained the verb as the second element. It remained common in Middle and early Modern English as an option.

Except for poetic/literary use, the practice dwindled after the 18th century and is now restricted to chiefly locative and existential adverbs, negative adverbs and some fronting prepositional phrases (but not clauses)

  • There (existential adv.) are lions in Africa
  • Here/there (locative adv.) are the scissors.
  • In the garden (locative adv. pp) grew roses and cherry trees. (mildly emphatic: somewhat poetic/formal)
  • Never (mildly emphatic: temporal negative adv.) had he seen such a sight. (somewhat poetic/formal)
  • Nowhere (mildly emphatic: locative negative adv.) was he to be found (somewhat poetic/formal)

Temporal adverbs (e.g. then, in the morning, on Tuesdays, etc) are currently rarely used with inversion (obviously, other than in interrogatives) and, when they do, they often give a strong poetic flavour.

However, your example, Then came the magic lantern which projected painted glass slides on to a screen is one of the few temporal contexts where constant use has maintained a natural feel to the construction, as it has an emphatic quality (Compare "Only then did I realise that the gun had been loaded." / "Then I realised that the gun had been loaded.")

It is hard to resist telling students to avoid inversion after fronting modifiers as there is only guidance - no rules - and eventually they will become familiar with what sounds normal and what sounds like an overblown 18th century poet.

Random Idea English has a good guide to fronting and inversion.

  • Taking your examples as (1-5). In (1), there is no inversion. (2-3) are indeed examples of locative/subject-dependent inversion. (4-5) are different, and involve subject-auxiliary inversion, which is a very different thing! Jun 14, 2022 at 16:07
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. In (1), there is no inversion. I do hope you are not suggesting that "there" is, in some weird way, a subject... or there are "special rules"... (4-5) are different Are you suggesting that "never", and "nowhere" are not adverbs or that "had he" or "was he" are not inversions?
    – Greybeard
    Jun 14, 2022 at 16:36
  • "Had he" in "Never had he seen such a sight" is an example of SAI and is different to the subject-dependent locative inversion seen in (2-3). Just for starters, the latter is entirely optional and is a matter of style and information packaging. The former is mandatory, and not using SAI there would be ungrammatical. Compare: Roses and cherry trees grew in the garden. (fine) and *Nowhere he was to be found (ungrammatical). If (1) is locative inversion, what's the uninverted form? Jun 14, 2022 at 16:54
  • Thanks: You will note that "Never had he seen such a sight" is revertable: "He had never seen such a sight" and "Nowhere was he to be found" -> "He was to be found nowhere."
    – Greybeard
    Jun 14, 2022 at 17:13
  • @Greybeard , thank you very much for your explanation. it was great. Can you tell why other choices are incorrect, for example choice 2, is it because of using "that" or another thing?
    – Mahdi
    Jun 14, 2022 at 17:15

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