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Inversion - Uses of French Inversion

In French, the normal order of words is subject (noun or pronoun) + verb: Il doit. Inversion is when the normal word order is inverted to verb + subject and, in the case of a pronoun being inverted, joined by a hyphen: Doit-il. There are a number of different uses of inversion.

I. Interrogation - Inversion is commonly used to ask questions.
Mangeons-nous de la salade ? Are we eating salad?
A-t-il un ami à la banque ?*
Does he have a friend at the bank?
II. Incidental clauses - Inversion is required when using a short clause to offset speech or thought.
A. Direct speech - Verbs like to say, to ask, and to think that set off direct speech.
« Je vois, dit-il, que c'était une bonne idée ».* "I see," he says, "that it was a good idea."
« Avez-vous un stylo ? » a-t-elle demandé. "Do you have a pen?" she asked.
B. Remarks, thoughts - Verbs like to appear and to seem used to set off remarks or thoughts.
Ils ont, paraît-il, d'autres choses à faire. They have, it appears, other things to do.
Anne était, me semble-t-il, assez nerveuse.
Anne was, it seems to me, rather nervous.
III. Adverbs and adverbial phrases - When found at the beginning of a clause, inversion varies according to the specific adverb.
A. Required inversion - After à peine, aussi, du moins, rarement, toujours (only with être), and vainement
Toujours est-il qu'elles doivent lire ces articles. Nevertheless, they need to read these articles./
The fact remains that they need to.../
Be that as it may, they still need to...
C'est cher ; du moins fait-il du bon travail. It's expensive, (but) at least he does good work.
B. Inversion or que - Must use one or the other after combien + adverb, peut-être, and sans doute
Sans doute avez-vous faim/
Sans doute que vous avez faim.
Of course you must be hungry.
Peut-être étudient-ils à la bibliothèque/
Peut-être qu'ils étudient à la bibliothèque.
Maybe they're studying at the library.
C. Optional inversion - After the adverbs ainsi, en vain, and (et) encore
Ainsi a-t-elle trouvé son chien/
Ainsi elle a trouvé son chien.
That's how she found her dog.
En vain ont-ils cherché son portefeuille/
En vain ils ont cherché son portefeuille.
In vain, they searched for his wallet.
IV. Miscellaneous - Inversion is optional in the following structures:
A. Relative pronouns - When a noun phrase follows a relative pronoun.
Voici le livre dont dépendent mes amis Luc et Michel./
Voici le livre dont mes amis Luc et Michel dépendent.
Here's the book upon which my friends depend.
Here's the book that my friends depend on.
Ce qu'ont fait les enfants de Sylvie est terrible./
Ce que les enfants de Sylvie ont fait est terrible.
What Sylvie's kids did is terrible.
B. Comparisons - After the que in a comparison, especially with a noun phrase.
Il est plus beau que n'avait pensé la sœur de Lise./*
Il est plus beau que la sœur de Lise n'avait pensé.
He is more handsome than Lise's sister had thought.
C'est moins cher que n'ont dit les étudiants de M. Sibek./
C'est moins cher que les étudiants de M. Sibek n'ont dit.
It's cheaper than Mr. Sibek's students said.
C. Emphasis - Subject and verb may be inverted to emphasize the subject (rare)
Sonnent les cloches./
Les cloches sonnent.
The bells are ringing.
A été indiquée la prononciation des mots difficiles./
La prononciation des mots difficiles a été indiquée.
The pronunciation of difficult words has been indicated.
* Notes
1. Third person singular - If the verb ends in a vowel, t- must be placed between the verb and pronoun for euphony.
Parle-t-on allemand ici ? Does anyone speak German here?
Peut-être a-t-il trouvé mon sac à dos. Maybe he found my backpack.
2. Incidental clauses and French punctuation
3. Optional inversion - Generally speaking, use inversion for formality, avoid it for familiarity (see I, III B, III C, and IV, above).
4. Ne explétif - The ne used in comparisons (IV B)
5. Pronouns only - Normally only pronouns can be inverted. When the subject is a noun, you must add a pronoun for the inversion.**
Est-ce possible ? Ce projet, est-ce possible ?
À peine est-il arrivé... À peine mon frère est-il arrivé...
** Exceptions: In the following cases, a noun may be inverted, but the inversion is not joined by a hyphen.
a. In direct speech (II A): If the verb is in the present tense, the noun/name and verb can be inverted.
« Je vois, dit Jacques, que c'était une bonne idée ». "I see," Jacques says, "that it was a good idea."
b. For formality (IV): noun clauses may be inverted to make the sentence more formal.
6. Liaisons are required between inverted subjects and verbs.


Word Order with Inversion     More Word Order

Hyphens and dashes     Grammar Glossary


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