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I stumbled on this sentence in a book called "Going Solo", but it doesn't look grammatically correct to me:

Only once did I see any elephant.

Please explain to me how does it work.

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    I think it's called fronting (with do-support). The basic sentence is I saw an elephant only once (note that your use of any is non-idiomatic here), and if you want to move the (adverbial) element only once to the front, you'd often include do-support for the main verb see. But note that Only once I saw an elephant is also syntactically valid - it's just idiomatically unlikely in most contexts. But so is your example (they're both stilted / poetic ways of speaking). Dec 19, 2016 at 15:56
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    Can you please give us some more context? As it is, we don't have much to go on.
    – Catija
    Dec 19, 2016 at 16:50
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    An old answer of mine should be helpful: ell.stackexchange.com/a/101644/3281. (An example sentence: Only after two billion years did the first cell emerge.) Dec 19, 2016 at 16:58
  • @FumbleFingers If the watcher had seen several elephant on one occasion, surely he/she might legitimately say: Only once did I see any elephant. Dec 19, 2016 at 17:37
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    @FumbleFingers I reopened it, but it's still not clear to me whether they're asking about any elephant (which I agree is interesting) or the fronting of a phrase with only and accompanying subject–auxiliary inversion (I saw an elephant only onceOnly once did I see an elephant), so maybe you could talk about both in your answer.
    – user230
    Dec 21, 2016 at 19:54

1 Answer 1

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From my initial comment to the answer, I think it's called fronting (with do-support). That's because I assume the basic sentence is I saw an elephant - converted to I did see an elephant, and modified by adverbial only once, which would more naturally occur at the end. But most likely that's not what confuses OP - native speakers might find the construction a little "poetic", but it's very specifically the any elephant usage that might cause many of us to do a double-take.

I initially assumed that OP's usage there should have been either singular an elephant or plural any elephants. Because this is a learners' site, I mistakenly ignored the possibility that it was a relatively uncommon use of a zero-plural noun form. But after looking at the actual source, it's clear the writer has perfectly good command of English, so it's not a mistake.

Many "biological category" nouns in English can take the zero-plural form. For some (deer, sheep, cod) this is effectively the only credible plural today. For others, such as fish / fishes, the "regular" plural is either archaic, or restricted to "scientific" references to multiple types of different fish.

But OP's citation is in fact a valid (but declining) zero plural, similar to a herd of deer, a herd of sheep, etc. It's primarily associated with contexts where the animal/s is/are thought of collectively as a type of game to be hunted (hopefully, in order to be photographed today), or livestock to be cared for.


I found this on hatmandu.net (where 'base plural only' = 'always uses zero plural form')

Eric Partridge (of Usage and Abusage fame) regards this as a snobbish usage by big-game hunters; and further that the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) includes deer, moose, sheep, bison, salmon, grouse, pike, trout, fish, swine as ‘base plural only’, then elk, quail and reindeer as ‘base or regular plural’, and elephant, giraffe, lion, partridge and pheasant as ‘base plural restricted’.

My advice to learners would be to avoid "optional" zero-plural forms completely. Even though some native speakers would recognize a herd of elephant as valid, not everyone will. And if you use the form indiscriminately you might end up producing, say, a herd of horse (which I don't think anyone would accept).

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  • This answer is extremely technical, and I can barely understand it myself. I find it hard to believe that's it would be useful to a learner. Dec 21, 2016 at 22:41
  • @David: I suppose the bottom line for native speakers is Would you expect the plural elephants in OP's cited text? Or more specifically for learners, Why are at least some native speakers happy with 'apparently singular' elephant? To which my answer is approximately They have their reasons, but you don't really want to know. Stick to regular plurals where they're available. Dec 22, 2016 at 14:16

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