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Inverted Syntax: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Inverted Syntax?
  • 1:20 How Inverted Syntax Works
  • 2:29 Common Uses of…
  • 3:34 Common Uses of…
  • 4:45 Common Uses of…
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diedra Taylor

Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.

This lesson explains what inverted syntax is and how it is used in speech and writing. Although it can be used as a literary device, such as in poetry, you will discover that you already use it in everyday language, including exclamations and questions.

What Is Inverted Syntax?

What comes to mind when you think about Yoda, the beloved mentor in the Star Wars universe? Is it his diminutive size? His greenish skin? Or is it his liberal interpretation of the English language? Did you know there is actually a name for what Yoda does with his speech? It's called inverted syntax, and it actually has specific purposes in speech and writing.

English sentences are made up of three basic components: subject (S), verb (V), and object (O). The subject of the sentence is the 'who' or the 'what'; it partakes in the action. The verb is the action word and the object is the thing that receives the action.

Take, for example, this sentence: Mary baked a pie. 'Mary' is the subject of the sentence. She is one who performed the action. 'Baked' is the verb; it indicates an action. 'Pie' is the object of the sentence because it receives the action. It was baked.

Most English sentences are arranged in the SVO pattern, creating sentences like 'Mary baked a pie.' However, we have the ability to manipulate syntax to a certain extent, creating what is known as inverted syntax, and helping us to speak like Yoda whenever we wish.

How Inverted Syntax Works

Think of a sentence as Neapolitan ice cream. The different parts of the sentence each have their own flavor: strawberry for the subject, vanilla for the verb, chocolate for the object. When you put them together in the normal SVO sentence pattern, they create a tub of Neapolitan ice cream: vanilla ice cream sandwiched between strawberry and chocolate. However, when you invert the flavors by moving chocolate so that strawberry is now in the middle, you change the way the flavors appear. You still have the same content, but it's presented differently.

Inverted syntax works the same way. When you invert a sentence, you present the information in a different manner. Take the example sentence again: Mary baked a pie. Remember, that's written in the normal SVO sentence pattern, or in terms of ice cream, strawberry, then vanilla, then chocolate. To invert the sentence, simply move the object (the chocolate ice cream) to the front. The new sentence should read: A pie Mary baked. The resulting sentence is arranged in OSV order, or chocolate, then strawberry, then vanilla.

Common Uses of Inverted Syntax: Questions

Inversion is most commonly used for forming questions or exclamations. One way to form a question is with subject-auxiliary inversion. You take the auxiliary verb (e.g. be, can, have, will) and place it in front of the subject.

Imagine that your mom tells you to clean your room. You, perhaps a bit reluctantly, obey. When you're done, you go find your mom and tell her, 'I have cleaned my room.' However, fifteen minutes later, your mom forgets you told her your room is clean, and she asks you, 'Have you cleaned your room?' In both sentences, 'have' is the auxiliary verb, but its placement in the sentences differs. In your statement, 'I have cleaned my room,' the auxiliary verb (have) is after the subject (I). In your mom's question, 'have' comes before the subject (you), creating an inversion.

Here are some further examples of subject-auxiliary inversion:

  1. Jen has read this book.
    Has Jen read this book?
  2. He is happy.
    Is he happy?

Common Uses of Inverted Syntax: Exclamations

Exclamations can also be formed with inverted syntax. Exclamations do not have to be inverted; they can be formed in the standard SVO order. However, the meaning of the sentence stays the same when this order is inverted to OSV. Because the word order draws attention to itself, it is useful for making more dramatic phrases. Typically, the words 'what' or 'how' must precede inverted exclamations.

Here are some examples that show common uses of inverted syntax for exclamations:

1. That is a beautiful dog!
What a beautiful dog that is!

2. This is difficult!
How difficult this is!

Inversion can even indicate sarcasm in an exclamation. Let's look at this example:

3. You are a fine friend.
A fine friend you are!

The first one would most likely be read literally, but in the second sentence, it is clear that the person is not such a fine friend. However, if you read the second sentence like Yoda, it comes across completely sincere: 'A fine friend, you are!'

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