An inversion is usually done to emphasize a particular statement, way of thinking, or entire passage for the reader. Writers may want their readers to note what’s being said in one section of text more so than in another. Depending on how the literary device is used, it may make the sentence sound grammatically incorrect. For instance, rather than saying “Tomorrow we’ll go to the park,” one might invert the order and say, “Tomorrow to the park we’ll go” or “Tomorrow to the park go we.” Inversion is also known as anastrophe.
Definition of Inversion
Inversion is the reversal of words in a phrase or sentence. There are several different ways to accomplish this. One might put the adjective after the noun, the verb before the subject, or the noun before the preposition. Sometimes, inversion happens naturally. For example, when someone uses a sentence like “What a terrible turn of events.”
Sometimes, writers use inversion in meter. This is a far less common use of the definition, but it still applies. For example, one might say that a line of meter is inverted if it starts out in iambic pentameter (one unstressed and one stressed beat) and then changes to trochaic pentameter (one stressed and one unstressed beat). This can also be known as substitution.
Inversion can be used in short stories, poems, novels, prose poetry, plays, and more. It also appears in everyday speech. Often, people will change around the traditional pattern of a sentence in order to make their words sound a certain way. For example, when speaking about another person’s decision, someone might say, “A surprising decision you made there” rather than “You made a surprising decision there.” The first sounds more interesting and can make the speaker sound more distinguished if used in the right context.
One of the most famous examples comes from Star Wars and the character Yoda who uses inversion every time he speaks. For example, the famous line “Patience you must have, my young padawan” rather than “You must have patience, my young padawan.” The writers chose to give Yoda’s speech this feature in order to emphasize his wisdom and his alien nature in comparison to Luke’s own very human-seeming characteristics.
Examples of Inversion in Literature
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
‘Kubla Khan’ is one of Coleridge’s most famous poems. The opening five lines are commonly quoted in other literary works, film, and television. Here they are:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Rather than writing “Kubla Khan degreed a stately pleasure dome in Xanadu,” the poet uses inversion to change around the pattern. By putting “decree” at the end of line two it rhymes with “sea” at the end of line five, as well. The technique is used a few more times throughout the poem.
Explore Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry.
Frost’s love for the natural world usually came through quite clearly in his poetry. This poem is no exception. Its opening lines are as famous as those found in ‘Kubla Khan.’ They read:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Rather than writing “I think I know whose woods these are,” Frost changes the sentence around to make it sound more interesting and more poetic. Readers will also have an easier time remembering the line due to the metrical pattern creates.
Read more Robert Frost poems.
Adonais by Percy Bysshe Shelley
In this well-loved Shelley poem, readers can find a good example of inversion in the following lines.
Most musical of mourners, weep again!
Lament anew, Urania! He died,
Who was the Sire of an immortal strain,
Blind, old and lonely, when his country’s pride,
The priest, the slave and the liberticide,
Trampled and mock’d with many a loathed rite
Of lust and blood; he went, unterrified,
This passage can be found in stanza four. Here, the poet spends time alluding to the life and struggles of the poet, Milton. He mentions Milton’s blindness and the importance of his work. And does so by inverting the traditional order of the sentences. For instance, he says, “Most musical of mourners, weep again!” Rather than “weep again, most musical of mourners.” In line four of this excerpt, the poet writes, “Blind, old and lonely, when his country’s pride” he goes on to list out more features of John Milton, all out of order with the subject.
Discover Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Inversion?
Writers use inversion in order to emphasize certain parts of their sentences. This can be seen in the above examples, as well as in the example that explores Yoda’s speech. The natural flow of language is changed through the use of inversion. This might take the reader by surprise and make them think differently about a line. Or, it might make a normal-seeming sentence feel more poetic. In poetry, the technique is used in order to maintain rhyme schemes and metrical patterns. The writer might need the stress or a particular sound to occur in one part of the sentence and use inversion in order to achieve it.
Related Literary Terms
- Anastrophe: a literary technique in which a writer changes the normal order of words.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Iambic Pentameter: a very common way that lines of poetry are structured. Each line has five sets of two beats, the first is unstressed and the second is stressed.
- Antimetabole: the repetition of words, in reverse order, in successive clauses.
- Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.