When using conditionals:

Had I seen him, I would've told him.

When using emphasis:

Rarely did we arrive on time.

Is inversion always considered formal when speaking or writing?

  • 1
    There's quite a difference in register, I think, between "Had I seen..." and "Rarely did we...".The latter would sound stilted in most casual conversations, but the former is widely used. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 3:30
  • Interesting. They almost overlap.
    – Schwale
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 4:11
  • @TRomano It's interesting that you say that, since my reaction was the opposite. I can't imagine hearing the first example in conversation, while using inversion for emphasis sounds perfectly natural to me.
    – Era
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 15:46
  • @Era: I don't think it's just my "ear" here. The inversion of the "Rarely were we" variety is considerably more rarified than "We were rarely.." but both forms of the hypothetical (If I had known, Had I known) are almost on a par with each other. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 15:55
  • 1
    @TRomano I disagree with your assessment. First, you are looking at literary usage, not verbal usage. Second, I would certainly expect the more emphatic form to be much rarer. If it were the norm, it would not be emphatic. It would be stilted indeed if someone used this construction in every other sentence, but if someone said it it would not faze me. On the other hand, had I seen him would be jarring for me to hear in casual conversation, and to me sounds stilted even in writing. More to the point, though, is that you need more evidence that your interpretation of the data is valid.
    – Era
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 16:06

1 Answer 1


The inversion is mainly used for emphasis, whether it is in the form of (auxiliary verb +subject) after certain words or expressions such as:
a) Rarely do we see any tourists in this part of the country.

b) Never have we heard such an interesting speech.

Or weather it is a conditional sentence:

a) Had you listened to my advice, you would have passed the exam. (There are other structures, not need to be mentioned here)

These structures are used in formal English, according to grammar books, but are also heard in everyday conversations.

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