2

Only through dire circumstance had they discovered that he was also the dragon Kotrialstrasz. - In Warcraft: War of the Ancients #1

So why is the word "had" put in that position in the sentence or can it be put after "they"?

Thank you.

1
  • 1
    It's called subject-auxiliary inversion, and in this case it's use is licensed by the presence of "only through dire circumstances", which is called "introductory negative" (Quirk et al, 1984, Unit 3.24) Jan 18 '16 at 14:34
1

Only through dire circumstance had they discovered that he was also the dragon Kotrialstrasz.

The meaning of the sentence:

They managed to discover that he was also the dragon Kotrialstrasz. But they managed to do that only through dire circumstance.


  1. They had discovered a dragon. (Subject - Auxiliary - Verb - Object)
  2. Had they discovered a dragon? (Auxiliary - Subject - Verb - Object)
  3. Only through dire circumstance had they discovered a dragon (ASVO)
  4. They had discovered a dragon only through dire circumstance (SAVO)

Sentence 1 has the standard word order (SAVO). They is Subject, had is an Auxiliary, discovered is a Verb, and dragon is an Object.

In sentence 2 we have Subject-Auxiliary inversion, because it's a question.

Sentence 3 is not a question, but it begins with a phrase of "negative meaning": "Only through dire circumstances". This also allows us to invert the word order.

If instead of this phrase we would use a phrase with no negative meaning, it would be better to retain the standard word order (SVO):

On Monday morning they had discovered a dragon. (Subject - Auxiliary - Verb - Object)

"On Monday morning" is an adverbial phrase with a non-negative meaning, so it would look weird with inversion:

On Monday morning had they discovered a dragon. (WRONG!)

If we add "Only", we will make the meaning of the phrase negative, and we'll have to invert the auxiliary verb and the subject:

Only on Monday morning had they discovered a dragon. (OKAY)

But if we move this "negative phrase" from its fronted position, we'll switch back to the standard declarative sentence word order:

They had discovered a dragon only on Monday morning.


References:

  • Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Unit 18.24, "Subject-Operator Inversion".

Some other examples (in italics) of fronted negatives licensing the inversion (in bold):

Least of all is it possible to discuss this issue at this late hour.

At no time must you allow this candle to burn out.

In this way alone could he achieve success.

Not a single question did he answer during the interrogation.

3
  • 1
    +1 But this might be more useful to learners if you gave examples of other fronted negatives which coerce inversion. Jan 18 '16 at 14:59
  • So, how can I understand this sentence? As you said, it is not a question so that can we understand this as normal?
    – vietphi
    Jan 18 '16 at 15:03
  • @vietphi - I've added a short explanation of the sentence to my answer. Jan 18 '16 at 15:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.