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Inversion in “only [adverb] have they”

Is there some rule governing the following, or similar, subject-auxiliary inversions (*"Rarely they do see the light of day", *"Never I have been so insulted")?

In fancy sit-down restaurants, you can order a large meal and halfway through the main course, take a little dead cockroach or a piece of glass out of your pocket and place it deftly on the plate. Jump up astonished and summon the headwaiter. "Never have I been so insulted. I could have been poisoned" you scream slapping down the napkin. You can refuse to pay and leave, or let the waiter talk you into having a brand new meal on the house for this terrible inconvenience. (link)

Rarely do they see the light of day; it's generally judged to be in no one's commercial interest that they should. Just occasionally, however, like a seemingly dormant volcano, they explode into the open. (link)

  • 1
    This is in no way a duplicate of the linked-to question. This is clear because fronting with only in identical situations to the ones given by the OP clearly DOESN'T cause inversion: "Only have I been so insulted" (wrong) "Only do they see the light of day" (very, very wrong). This needs reopening. Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 1:12

2 Answers 2


Subject-Auxiliary Inversion with Adverb-Fronting is simply a Negative Polarity Item (NPI).

‘NPI’ is a term applied to lexical items, fixed phrases, or syntactic construction types that demonstrate unusual behavior around negation. NPIs might be words or phrases that occur only in negative-polarity contexts (fathom, in weeks) or have an idiomatic sense in such contexts (not too bright, drink a drop); or they might have a lexical affordance that only functions in such contexts (need/dare (not) reply); or a specific syntactic rule might be sensitive to negation, like Subject-Auxiliary Inversion with Adverb Fronting.

Subject-Auxiliary Inversion is OK with a fronted adverb that is a Negative Trigger. E.g, ever and frequently are not negative, but never is; hence:

  • *Ever have I seen such a thing.
  • *Frequently have I seen such a thing.
  • Never have I seen such a thing.

Details of this and related constructions are available here.

  • Can you explain exactly why OP's "*Never I have been so insulted" is not valid, whereas "Never the twain shall meet" is okay? Is it just that the latter is a "fossilised" archaic form? Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 21:07
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    Subject-verb inversion is normally obligatory with a preposed negative adverb. Yes, I think Never the twain shall meet is a frozen form, so all bets are off. Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 21:21
  • Is Tolkien's usage [Théoden: "Simbelmynë. Ever has it grown on the tombs of my forebears."] [LOTR] archaic or an example of dramatic licence? Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 6:57

Yes, there is such a rule, though it is not completely reliable. When a sentence starts with certain words that are both stressed and strongly limiting or negative, inversion is normally applied in (educated) writing, though not universally so. It expresses a certain rhetorical force. In casual writing, I believe it is less common. Usually words and phrases like never, no...ever, rarely, no sooner, only, barely, scarcely, seldom are involved. It is perhaps safer to look up a list of words that have this effect than apply it to a category, if you're not sure, because it doesn't work for all such words.

Never had she met a man like Socrates.

In no place but Athens had she ever known true happiness, and so there she stayed.

In few other places had she ever been happy.

Rarely are such bonds formed.

No sooner had he married Xanthippe than her scourging tongue became manifest.

Only in her did he find an opponent who could wear him down with words.

Not only could she be voluble, but also scathing, when she so chose.

Barely had he left the house when she would scream and call him back to finish chores.

And scarcely had he finished one chore when she would make him do another.

Seldom did he arrive on time.

This inversion probably has something to do with pragmatic focus laid on the limiting or negating phrase; cf. ordinary focal inversion as in this is Octavian, and him I have adopted as my son.

There is also a broad, vague relation between negations and questions in English and other languages that may have something to do with this construction; consider how do-support is needed with questions and negations but not positive statements. But this connection is weak and speculative.

  • I think there's a "rule" that adverbs of frequency such as rarely, never, seldom, etc. tend to go before the verb. But that doesn't mean it's normally acceptable to splice a [pro]noun between the adverb and the verb. Of course, the main rule is "rules are meant to be broken", so we accept things like "Never the twain shall meet". Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 19:31
  • @FumbleFingers: Uh, sorry, but that rule has nothing to do with this. Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 20:57
  • "nothing to do with this"? How do you explain the fact that "Never the twain shall meet" (noun between adverb and verb) is just acceptable as "Never shall the twain meet" (normal positioning)? Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 21:03
  • If the exception proves the rule, do two exceptions prove there never was a rule? Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 21:29
  • @FumbleFingers: Certainly, that part is relevant; but your rule about general placement of adverbs of frequency—this is about the inversion of subject and verb. Adverbs expressing frequency can go after the verb in many cases: I see her often, I talk to her occasionally, I will never love her. As to never the twain shall meet, that probably pre-dates the time when the rule about never etc. became firmly established. Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 21:39

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