Inversion

Inversion - French word order
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L’inversion

The normal word order in French and English is subject + verb, as in vous êtes – you are. Both languages also have what is known as inversion, where the verb and subject pronoun switch places, resulting in êtes-vous – are you. In English, inversion is used only to ask questions, but in French it has several different purposes.

  Particularities of French Inversion

In French, a hyphen is required between the inverted verb-subject:

vous savez > savez-vous
il est > est-il

When a verb ending in a vowel precedes il, elle, or on, t- must be added for euphony:

il a > a-t-il
elle parle > parle-t-elle
on écoute > écoute-t-on

Inversion with je is possible, though rare and subject to certain conditions:

j’ai > ai-je
je parle > parlé-je

Asking Questions

French inversion is most commonly used to ask questions.

Êtes-vous prêt ?   Are you ready?
Sait-elle la réponse ?   Does she know the answer?

Incidental Clauses

Inversion sets off verbs that report direct speech or comments.

« Je sais, dit-elle, que tu as menti ».   "I know," she said, "that you lied."
Elle est partie, paraît-il.   Apparently she left.
Il y a un problème, me semble-t-il.   There seems to be a problem.

 Informally, you can use que instead – see Informal pronouns, "Extra que."

Adverbs and Adverbial Phrases

Several adverbs must be followed by inversion when they’re used at the beginning of a clause.

  • à peine
  • à plus forte raison
  • du moins
  • (et) encore (when restrictive: "even so, even then")
  • encore moins
  • pour le moins
  • rarement
  • toujours (when the verb is être)
  • tout au plus
  • vainement
À peine sommes-nous arrivés qu’il a téléphoné.   We’d scarcely arrived when he called.
Toujours est-il que vous devez l’essayer.   Be that as it may, you need to try.
Nevertheless, you need to try.
The fact remains that you need to try.

Optional Inversion

In a number of constructions, inversion is optional.

Adverbs

After peut-être, sans doute, and the exclamative combien, you need either inversion or the word que.

Peut-être avez-vous sommeil.
Peut-être que vous avez sommeil.
  Perhaps you’re tired.
Sans doute ont-ils oublié.
Sans doute qu’ils ont oublié.
  Of course they’ve forgotten.
Combien d’argent avons-nous perdu !
Combien d’argent que nous avons perdu !
  We lost so much money!

After three adverbs, inversion is completely optional.

  • ainsi
  • aussi (bien)
  • en vain
Ainsi ont-ils perdu.
Ainsi ils ont perdu.
  Thus they lost.
En vain avons-nous crié au secours.
En vain nous avons crié au secours.
  We shouted for help in vain.

  Notes

  • When inversion is optional, both choices are equally correct, but inversion is somewhat more formal.
  • Just as liaisons are required between subject pronouns + verbs, they are required between inverted verbs + subject pronouns.
  • Now that you understand inversion with pronouns, go on to part 2: Inversion with nouns.

 Related Lessons

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French inversion

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4 Responses

  1. Karen 12 January 2018 / 13:04

    Can you add a section about how to do inversion with the negative, in present tense? My guess on the word order is “Pourquoi Marc n’a-t-il pas ses devoirs?” but I am not sure.