Sunday, January 9, 2011

Subject-Verb Inversion & Subject-operator Inversion--Difference Explained

There are many people who are not aware of the difference between subject-verb inversion and subject-operator inversion .They freely interchange these expression! But the difference between the two is a real one and it is worth maintaining , too.

I will first explain subject- operator inversion .What is an operator? It is a term used in modern grammar to denote the auxiliary verb , or if there is more than one auxiliary, the first auxiliary verb . Thus in the sentence :

Rama is reading a book .

is is the operator

In the sentence:

Rama will have been learning English for five years by 2012.

will is the operator as it is the first auxiliary in a row of three auxiliaries .

The different forms of the lexical verb be like is , are , am ,was, were etc come under the grammatical category of operators .

The dummy auxiliary do is used as an operator in interrogative and negative sentences when the tense of the verb is simple present tense or simple past tense .

What is Subject- Operator Inversion?

When subject and operator are switched in a sentence , it is called subject-operator inversion . You may have noticed it in interrogative sentences like :

Do you speak English?
Is he still sleeping?
Are you going to bed so early?

What a convenient method to change statements into questions!

There is another use of bubject-operator inversion which often puzzles foreign learners of English . This use of inversion is seen when a sentence element , usually an adverb of frequency is fronted . The fronted element carries tonic stress ,and this gives a peculiar rhythmic twist to the sentence . The operator that follows the fronted word ( like often, rarely never , seldom etc) carries very light stress, being an auxiliary verb , and the subject that follows it carries a much higher degree of stress .

Of course , one could give prominence to a frequency adverb by giving it tonic stress in its normal position in the sentence . But then, the coming together of two stressed words would disrupt the smooth flow of the sentence . Fronting , followed by subject-operator inversion solves this problem! Remember, rhythm is the fundamental feature of any natural language and the syntax of Enflish ( the arrangement of sentence elements) is best explained in terms of English speech thythm which is stress- based and not quantity- based as Latin languages .

Look at the following examples

He has never come late for work .
Never has he come late for work .

I have often seen him accompanying her to the temple .
Often have I seen him accompanying her to the temple .

We rarely see good films these days
Rarely do we see good films these days .

What is Subject -Verb Inversion?

Subject - verb inversion happens when the speaker wants to give thematic-fronting to a phrase in the sentence This results in the subject taking a position after the verb .


An ancient temple stands on the top of this hill

On the top of this hill stands an ancient temple .

The enemy force marched into the town .

Into the town marched the enemy force .

Remember, the phrase which is given thematic-fronting is often an adverbial realized as a prepositional phrase .

Sentences with the structure subject+ verb+ complement undergo subject- verb inversion when the complement is given thematic-fronting


The ways of God are strange .
Strange are the ways of God .

NB:Subject-verb inversion happens not in all cases of thematic- fronting .It is often seen in sentences with the structure SVA and SVC. Thematic- fronting occurs when the speaker fronts a phrase or word that is uppermost in his or her mind .

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  1. thank you so much.form France

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  3. great explanation, clear, simple and new
    From Tunisia

    1. Thank you for your comment .


  4. thanks sir for your explanation. but i'm still confused about what an operator is. in your explanation "an operator denotes the auxiliary verb . and in Subject- Operator Inversion, it can be noticed it in interrogative sentences especially yes-no question like "Do you speak English?". so my question is "how about Wh- question"? does it implied in Subject- Operator Inversion or not? please your explanation, because now, i'm studying about inversion and i'm still confused about them. thanks before for your answer

  5. In the sentence What do you nlike most? WHAT is an interrogative pronoun , ,YOU is the subject and DO is the dummy auxiliary or operator . The dummy auxiliary do ensures subject- operator inversion Subject -operator inversion is a feature of all types of questions in English , whether it is yes-no question or information question . However, when the interrogative pronoun introducing the question is the subject of the question there is no inversion .Example, What inspired you to become a poet ? WHAT is the suject of the verb and therefore subject-operator inversion is not necessary .

    I hope your confusion is over .

    Prof. V.P.Rajappan

  6. Thank you sir it's clear enough. but once more sir, in the sentence "Here is the boy." IS is an operator or not? and in the sentence what is the definition of the entire predicator or verb phrase in the subject verb inversion or full inversion?

  7. The verb BE is capable of acting both as an operator and a lexical verb . In the sentence "Here is the boy " we can see subject-operator inversion . This is caused by the fronting of the adverbial HERE . When some adverbs / adverbials are fronted suject-operator inversin is obligatory . Adverbs like little , much , under no circumstances etc always cause subject- operator inversion when they are fronted .Example : Little does he know about classical literature . .

  8. In the second sentence I think it should be "these expressions". Elsewhere, there is a typing mistake - "thythm" was typed instead of "rhythm"!