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I noticed on Google an inversion sentence structure of this form:

book source
Very, very few times will the buyer's first offer be exactly at the seller's bottom price.

Could this be sloppy writing? Would this:

Very, very few times the buyer's first offer will be exactly at the seller's bottom price.

be better?

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2 Answers 2

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When negative phrases are fronted (moved to the front of a clause), we typically apply subject-auxiliary inversion (the subject and auxiliary verb switch places).

In your example the negative phrase is "very, very few times", meaning "almost no". The word few in this phrase is a special type of negative word, in technical terms called an approximate negator (because "few" is "close to zero").

Take a look at these example from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), page 95:

1a. He found not one of them useful.
1b. Not one of them did he find useful.

The first example has the negative phrase not one of them in its basic position inside the clause. In the second example, we've moved it to the front of the sentence. Since it's negative, we apply subject-auxiliary inversion. (And since we didn't have an auxiliary in 1a, we've added the dummy auxiliary do to make inversion possible.)

2a. Somewhere he mentions my book.
2b. Nowhere does he mention my book.

In this pair of examples, we can see somewhere moved to the front without inversion. This is fine, as somewhere is positive. But nowhere is negative, so in 2b we've used inversion.

So no, you should not change the book's sentence. It's just fine the way it is.

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  • +1 It's not just negative phrases that are treated this way, though; see my answer. May 25, 2014 at 2:47
  • Inversion is used for a lot of reasons besides this, of course! And in many cases it's optional. But I think the fronted negative is a specific trigger: "Nowhere he mentions my book!" is stranger than the inverted version.
    – user230
    May 25, 2014 at 2:57
  • It suddenly occurs to me that there may be a prosodic component here, too. The preferred stress pattern seems to be ++ 0 + 0, with tone falling from the ++ to the +; "rarely do we" see 3+-syllable words fronted this way. "Infrequently do we" just doesn't cut the mustard. ... and OP's example, "very very few times will the", is ++ 0 + 0 ++ 0 + 0. May 25, 2014 at 3:17
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This construction emphasizes an adverbial or BE complement by moving it to the head of the sentence followed by Subject/Auxiliary inversion.

The construction is not so common as it once was*, but it is not yet rare or obsolete. My impression is that today it is almost exclusively a literary use, employed mostly with adverbials and adjectivals of frequency or quantity:

Many were the days I spent on my grandfather's farm.
Often since then have I regretted my action.
Rarely do we see such strength coupled with such grace.

* See, for example, this Google Ngram

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  • Could it be that inversion is less common with positive phrases than negative phrases?
    – meatie
    May 25, 2014 at 5:48
  • @meatie: yes, it is. See Ngram. May 25, 2014 at 13:24

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