I've known you both since you were little, but little did I imagine it would come to this.

The section that seems bizarre to me is here:

but little did I imagine

the rest is fine but this part appears to be wrong to me. Can you explain the tense or structure used here?

  • 1
    It's simple inversion.
    – Void
    May 23 at 17:36
  • 1
    Syntactically and semantically your text is fine, but unless it's deliberate / facetious, the repetition of little here (with significantly different meanings and syntax) is just awkward / clumsy (it's stylistically weak). Better by far to switch the second instance to some alternative: I've known you both since you were little, but I hardly imagined it would come to this. May 23 at 18:08
  • 1
    An antanaclasis (i.e., the repetition of "little" here) isn't "awkward" or "clumsy" and most certainly isn't "stylistically weak." To the contrary, it's a literary device and makes it stylistically strong. The many, many literary devices and rhetorical schemes that exist are so named and listed because they are stylistically strong, because they are techniques are structures writers often use to add meaning or create more compelling writing for the reader. May 26 at 19:05

The second "little" creates an antanaclasis, a type of literary device, with the first "little," which is being used in accordance with one of its definitions as an adjective. The second "little" in this sentence is being used in accordance with one of its other definitions, one as an adverb, specifically an adverb that modifies the verb "did...know," that means:


  1. not at all (used before a verb):
    He little knows what awaits him.

With that in mind, that coordinate clause essentially reads:

"...but not at all did I imagine it would come to this.

  • not at all did I imagine isn't actually idiomatic. Your dictionary fragment is misleading, in that it implies not at all can be used before the verb in the same way as little (and that seems to be what you have mistakenly assumed). But in practice, we rarely if ever use not at all like that. It normally only occurs before past participle verb forms, as in I'm not at all bothered by that. May 23 at 18:11
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers The dictionary definition is not exactly misleading, it states exactly what the meaning in this context is. Whether that’s idiomatic or not is no concern of the dictionary, and in fact you generally cannot reliably produce idiomatic sentences by substituting dictionary definitions of words in place of those words in an otherwise idiomatic sentence (no matter what language it is). May 24 at 1:44
  • @AustinHemmelgarn: Perhaps I didn't express myself well. What I meant was that 14 not at all (used before a verb): as presented in the text of this answer gives the impression that the sequence not at all can be used before the verb - which misleading impression is then further encouraged by the final observation that OP's text "essentially reads: ...but not at all did I imagine... That observation is perfectly "acceptable and true" from my native speaker perspective, but learners should note that it's unidiomatic to put not at all before the verb "did" there. May 24 at 16:11
  • @FumbleFingers- "Not at all did" is NOT "unidiomatic." I say it all the time. Consider this quote from Postcolonial Perspectives on Women Writers from Africa (2003) by Dawn Bentley: "No, not at all did she crave, from those pale and powerful people, awareness." Or this one from Narrative Fiction: An Introduction and Anthology (1993) by Kelley Griffith: "Not at all did those champions so carefully chosen from his comrades leap up to stand by their leader." Or this one from Latin American Philosphy (2004) by Susana Nuccetelli, et al.: "Not at all did they end their humility." May 26 at 18:48

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