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Definition and Examples of Inversion

Inversion is a literary device which consists in the inverse placement of the grammatical structure of words in a sentence.

A typical case of inversion is when words take unexpected shift against its normal syntactic order; which is a deviation from the conventional subject, verb, object word order. It may also be a movement of a modifier into an unexpected position in the sentence.

For example, it may be correct to assert:

“Tonight we shall go and see the movie”

Now to create an inversion with this statement, we can twist it this way:

“Tonight the movie we shall go and see”

It may be appropriate to state that inversion belongs both to the sound and the sense. It belongs to the sound, because by transposing the natural and grammatical order of the words, arrangements may be formed more agreeable to the ear than could otherwise be obtained. It is connected with the sense, because by suspending the appearance of some capital word or circumstance, curiosity may be excited, and artfully prolonged, till the conclusion of the period discloses the mystery, and impresses the sense deeper on the mind.

Features of Inversion

  1. Inversion elicits emphasis as the unexpected placement of words naturally brings focus on them. Positioning a word into an early or late placement often creates emphasis; then emphasis is still greater because the ordering mildly violates the reader’s expectations.
  2. Inversion may put words in an order that creates an attractive rhythm.
  3. Inversion may compress a meaning into fewer words.
  4. Inversion sometimes causes the full meaning of a sentence to become clear only late in its progress; this bit of suspense makes the finish more climactic when it arrives.

Common cases of inversion occur where:

The adjective takes shift to appear after the noun it qualifies:

“The man angry”

The verb may appear before its subject:

“greets the lady”

And likewise a noun coming before its preposition:

“freedom against”.

Examples of Inversion

A.  Placing the object first.

  1. I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the public, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy.

    — (Johnson, Letter to James MacPherson)

  2. In this very passage four sets of words come in at least slightly unexpected places that make them more emphatic: “still,” “for this opinion,” “here,” and “your rage.”

Notice how each of these movements strengthens the ends of the phrases involved. Compare the rhythm, for example, of “I still think it an imposture” and “I think it an imposture still”.

Moving the little word “still” to the finish causes the sentence to end with a stressed syllable. Apart from its rhymthmic effects, moving “still” to the end emphasizes the word because it arrives late.

In the second sentence, compare the endings of “which I dare you to refute here,” which Johnson might have used, and the actual “which I here dare you to refute.”

This time moving the little word earlier is the strengthening step, since it leaves behind a strong word—the verb, and the upshot of the sentence—at the end. This ordering also gives the phrase a lightly iambic rhythm (ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum).

In the last sentence, inverting “your rage” and “I defy” adds some life to both phrases; they would lie flatter if Johnson had used ordinary sentence structure. The ordering also has a more substantive advantage. The sentences in the passage generally create the feeling of a duel; they all are about oppositions between “I” and “my” vs “you” and “yours”. The inversion at the end causes the parting shot to be “I defy” rather than “your rage”. It gives the speaker the last word.

  1. “What effects a daily increasing familiarity with the scaffold, and with death upon it, wrought in France in the Great Revolution, everybody knows.”

    — (Dickens, Capital Punishment).

  2. This passage from Dickens illustrates another frequent consequence of inversion. Normal English word order gives the reader early notice of what a sentence is going to mean: the subject and verb usually come near the start, leaving the remainder of the sentence to convey details. The line that Dickens wrote unfolds differently.

The principal subject and verb do not arrive until the last two words; a sentence of this kind—one that is grammatically incomplete until the end, and whose full meaning may not appear until then—is called periodic. Sentences that make their meaning clear as they go along, and that might have been stopped at various points in their progress without grammatical objection, are called loose.

A loose style tends to be easier to follow, of course, because it makes fewer demands on the reader’s attention; when reading a periodic sentence, you have to keep the early words in mind until their significance is finally cleared up by the last ones.

Indeed, speakers of English are so used to loose sentences that they tend to be baffled when they first meet languages like German or Latin where the verb often comes at the end. How inconvenient not to know what the point of a sentence will be until it is done!

But as many of the examples we have witnessed, there are advantages to the delay. The suspense about what the sentence will say creates energy that may be released in emphatic and satisfying fashion at the finish.

B.  Moving a prepositional phrase to an early position.

  1. In life but few of them would have helped the whale, I ween, if peradventure he had needed it; but upon the banquet of his funeral they most piously do pounce.
  2. Moving “upon the banquet of his funeral” to the front of the second clause keeps it parallel with the first one, which, in a very mild inversion, puts the modifier (in life) early.

It also allows the sentence to end with “they most piously do pounce”, which is a stronger finish— culminating with action, with a stressed syllable, and with a bit of exploding alliteration at the same time. Ending with “his funeral” would have lost those advantages.

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  • References
    • Matthew of Vendôme (1980); The art of versification. Translated by Aubrey E. Galyon, Iowa State University Press. p. 29.

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