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I have encountered the following sentence in a class:

little did I know such a person in my life

Somehow it sounds "off" to me. I can't exactly pinpoint the reason why it is that way but I am positive it does not sound OK. In terms of grammar though I could not find anything the matter with it. (Trigger word + auxiliary verb + subject + main verb ... - pretty typical) when I change "a person" to "this person" the sentence sounds much less "weird" if it makes any sense.

I know that other alternatives such as

never have I known such a person in my life

are also possible but I'm not interested in the alternatives, rather I would like to know if the first sentence is grammatical.

Edit: one of the comments suggests that "little did I know" should be reserved for "facts". is that correct? could you direct me to websites where I can find more information on the meaning and usage of words that trigger an inversion?

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    We use 'little did I/he/she/they know' about a fact, not a person. It is used about an important fact that was unknown by a person or persons at some relevant time, but discovered later. When I drove the car onto the highway, little did I know that the brakes did not work. Little did I know that my husband was having an affair with a woman in his office Dec 10, 2021 at 21:20
  • Is there a universally accepted grammar rule that states "little ..." should be reserved for facts? could you direct me to some sources where I could get more information on the meaning and use cases of words such as "little" that "trigger" an inversion?
    – Fermichem
    Dec 10, 2021 at 21:23
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    The inversion "little did I know" is fine, but something about "little did I know such a person in my life" sounds wrong to me. I think this is because even the "standard" version "I knew such a person in my life" doesn't sound right. What do you mean by "in my life"?
    – stangdon
    Dec 10, 2021 at 21:29
  • @stangdon I don't know what the speaker meant by it. This isn't something I would say. but I guess he meant he's never known/met/encountered such a person in his life. are you suggesting that the sentence is going to sound OK / be grammatically Ok if we were to remove "in my life" ?
    – Fermichem
    Dec 10, 2021 at 21:31
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    @Fermichem The whole sentence is very strange, and I think either it was not written by a native speaker, or it was a native speaker trying to write in what they thought was a "fancy" way (and getting it wrong). Little did I know means something like "I was not aware (but I discovered later)" like Michael Woke Harvey says. But "I was not aware of such a person (but I discovered later)" does not make much sense, with or without "in my life". I think they might have meant "Never had I known such a person in my life."
    – stangdon
    Dec 10, 2021 at 21:50

2 Answers 2

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The phrases that allow this sort of inversion are all negative polarity items, and usually adverbial in nature; for example never, neither, scarcely, on no account. However, not all words and phrases that meet that description can be used in this way.

Little in this sense is a negative polarity item, but it seems to me that it can only be used with a limited range of verbs. Searching the iWeb corpus for "little [DO] [WORD] [VERB]", I get hits for only two verbs: 15177 with "know" and 364 with "realize".

Running the same search in the COCA corpus there is a longer list of verbs (know, realize, suspect, expect, think, understand, imagine, dream, anticipate, and some more that have only one instance each - some of these single examples do not seem natural to me). Of the 1217 hits, 1105 have the verb know, and 79 realize. That leaves only 33 instances of all other verbs together.

It appears, therefore, that little is used in this way only with verbs of mental states: knowing, expecting, imagining. I think it's best regarded as an idiom.

(Note that know in the sense of your example is not a mental state, but a social relationship).

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  • +1 for 'it seems to me that it can only be used with a limited range of verbs.' - Q.What will your team at Acme Janitorial Services do now that you have won the lottery? A. Little do I care! Dec 10, 2021 at 23:25
  • Care is in fact one of the verbs that occurs just once in my dataset from the COCA corpus, @MichaelWokeHarvey. I just got fed up listing them, and decided to stop when I got down to single examples.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 10, 2021 at 23:48
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little did I know such a person in my life

Is this a complete quote or merely a snippet?

  1. Little did I know such a person in my life.

I ask because, on it's own, sentence (1) feels awkward as (without further context) it seems to be incorrectly using a common expression.


The big problem is that "Little did [I] know..." is an expression generally used to highlight a situation where [I] believe/assume one thing, but am proven wrong in light of new information or a more omniscient viewpoint. (This is why/how 'facts' come into play in your comments section.)

It is probably best understood as part of a loose phrasal template, "[X, but...] little did [Y] know... [that Z]."

And, although the assumed situation [X] can often be omitted (simply implied from context), the actual situation [Z] should always be clearly understandable.


So, the main problem with (1) is that it feels like an incorrect use of the above common expression; I'll try to illustrate exactly why with the following examples:

  1. Little did she know her mother hated coffee.
  2. Little did she know her mother.

Here, in (2) we have a situation that correctly fits the template. It is implied that the daughter assumed her mother likes or loves coffee, but some more omniscient viewpoint knows that her mother actually hates it. Why would this occur? Who knows! Maybe meeting up for coffee was the only way for an estranged mother to start to reconnect with her daughter? Maybe the mother owns a cafe but secretly hates the stuff? It could be anything, but no matter what the particulars of the story are, the sentence itself clearly states that "the mother hated coffee" and "the daughter thought the opposite".

In (3) we have an incomplete fit to the template. What is the actual state of affairs versus what has been incorrectly assumed? What information about the mother did the daughter incorrectly assume? This is the same incompleteness that is felt in (1) for "such a person in my life"; what about "such a person in my life" is incorrectly assumed?


  1. Never have I known such a person in my life.

This sentence feels completely different, because it is no longer accidentally lining up with the "little did I know..." expression, and so the reader no longer expects to find a plot twist! If we assume that this is what the author of (1) was intending to convey, then a better choice would be:

  1. Rarely have I known such a person in my life.

Using 'rarely' as the qualifier instead of little lets us sidestep the common "little did I know..." expression entirely, while still showing that this kind of occurrence happens more-than-never but less-than-normal. And the "have known" present perfect form is good because people generally continue "to know" one another, whereas the "did know" past tense form seems to imply that the relationship stopped at some earlier point.


Lastly, there might be some very weird corner-cases where (1) could work, but those situations will typically involve some amount of poetic license and require great care in one's cadence to avoid falling into the the trap of being misunderstood as the "little did I know..." phrase. One such example might be:

  1. Little did I know John Doe. But what I do know is that...

The above could work as the beginning of a eulogy or something along those lines, where the meaning is essentially "I knew little of John Doe" rearranged for poetic effect.

A clear statement like (5) should in general be much more preferable to something like (6) which would require very specific timing and cadence to properly avoid the "little did I know..." misunderstanding.

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