Inversion in IELTS Writing

Inversion in IELTS Writing

If there is one sentence structure that IELTS students are obsessed with, it is inversion. But, as Nick said today “Not only do I hate inversion, but I wish the students would forget it!” Why? Because too many students attempt these sentences without really understanding how they work and, as a result, they make mistakes. Today, Nick and I take a deep dive into inversion in IELTS writing to show you not just how to form these sentences correctly, but also how to use them in the right context. Wish us luck!

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Inversion in IELTS Writing

Before we start the lesson today, I want to take a moment to discuss the importance of “use” and “context”. 99% of students seem to focus on how to “form” a particular grammar structure rather than how to learn when and where it can be used properly.

This is the probably a symptom of the way that English is taught in grammar books. Even the best course books (such as Murphy’s English Grammar in Use) focus more on the mechanics of making particular sentences rather than the context in which a sentence structure can be used. As a result, there are thousands of students who know that to make the past perfect, you need to use “had + past participle”, but very few who know exactly when the tense should be used beyond the basic description of “the past of the past”.

Of all the grammar points that I teach, inversion is the one that suffers most from the focus on form. Once students have mastered its complex form (which we shall look at in a moment), they are so happy and proud that they try to force it into their writing and speech much more often than they should.

The result is language that sounds unnatural

Kindly remember this as you complete today’s lesson. Try to focus as much on how each of the forms of inversion is used as much as how it is made. If you do that, you will have a much higher chance of using it well in your exam.

Looking for help with IELTS grammar? We have a dedicated 10-hour course that is specifically designed to show you the structures needed for a 7.0+ Why not watch the first lesson now?

What is inversion?

Inversion is a tool that speakers and writers can use to change the emphasis of their sentences. Essentially, it is taking the normal word order of a sentence and changing it to draw attention to particular words or phrases. Inversion is not the only way to do this in English (we also have cleft sentences that do the same thing) but it is probably the most formal and, therefore, the most suitable for IELTS writing.

When teaching inversion, most teachers start with sentences that use “not only”. Let’s take this pair of sentences for example:

  • Travelling by train is cheap. It is also environmentally friendly

If you wanted to emphasise that there are two good aspects to travelling by train, then joining them with “not only” would be ¬†a great way to do this

  • Travelling by train is not only cheap, but it is also environmentally friendly.

As you can see, what we have done here is add “not only” after the verb “to be” in the first clause¬†(it would go before any other verb), and the conjunction “but” between the clauses to create a nice compound sentence. This is a lovely sentence, but it is not an example of inversion. That is because, right now, no extra emphasis has been added to the sentence.¬†To do that, we would need to move “not only” to the start of the sentence:

  • Not only travelling by train is cheap, but it is also environmentally friendly.

Now, if moving the words “not only” to the start of the sentence was all you needed to do to create inversion then my life as a teacher would be an easy one. However, sadly, we call sentences that start with “not only” inversion for a reason. As you can see, now I have moved “not only” to the start of the sentence, it has turned red. Why? Well, once “not only” starts a sentence, must be followed by inversion. Or, more simply, what comes after “not only” must look like a question.

  • Not only is travelling by train¬†cheap, but it is also environmentally friendly.

Obviously, what we have here is NOT a question, but changing the word order so that it looks like one is what changes the emphasis of the sentence. In this case, we are saying that there is not just one positive but TWO to train travel.

If you are not a native speaker, you may not feel the difference in tone, but to a native speaker, what we now have is a very formal sentence that is very “strong” (it feels a bit like the writer is “shouting”).

One of the main criteria for being able to write good inversion sentences is knowing how to form questions correctly. For many English tenses, question forming is simply “inverting” the subject and verb i.e. swapping the position of a subject and auxiliary verb in a sentence:

  • Present continuous: You are running / Are you running?
  • Past continuous: He was¬†playing the¬†guitar. / Was he¬†playing the¬†guitar.
  • Present perfect: They have been to Spain. / Have they¬†been to Spain.
  • Past perfect: I had met them before. ¬†/ Had I met them before (I have a bad memory!)
  • Modal verbs:¬†We should go to dinner more often. / Should we go to dinner more often

The problem, though, is that you cannot use inversion when making questions in the present simple and past simple. This is because those tenses do not have an auxiliary verb. Think about it. You cannot make questions like this:

  • Present simple:¬†I run every day / Run I every day?
  • Past Simple: He went to the shop. / Went he to the shop?

Instead, we have to add auxiliary verbs to these sentences to help us making a question (do / does / did).

  • Present simple:¬†I run every day / Do¬†I¬†run¬†every day?
  • Present simple: She¬†runs every day / Does she run¬†every day?
  • Past Simple: He went to the shop. / Did he go to the shop?

In the same way, if you are going to making an inversion sentence using two present simple sentences, you will need to add ‘do” or “does” directly after “not only” to form the sentence correctly:

  1. People work harder from home. They often have a better work life balance.
  2. People not only work harder from home, but they often have a better work life balance. = compound sentence 
  3. Not only do people work harder from home, but they often have a better work life balance. = inversion sentence

So, maybe from this one example, you can see why so many students struggle when forming inversion and then why so many of them go crazy using it in EVERY essay once they get it right!. However, as I said before, these are strong sentences that are very formal, so they will not be suitable in every part of the exam. For example, they would never be right in an informal letter – you friend would think that you had gone mad! I personally think that they are best used

  1. in conclusions of To What Extent essays (to emphasise your two arguments in the summary)
  2. in letters of complaint (to emphasise two ways that you were unhappy with a service / product)

What others forms of inversion are there?

Using “not only” correctly at the start of a sentence is just one form of inversion. There are many more and each is used to change th emphasis of a sentence in a different way. In the podcast today, Nick will also look at

  1. Inversion to highlight immediacy (no sooner / hardly / scarcely)
  2. Inversion to highlight frequency (rarely / never)
  3. Inversion in third conditional sentences (Had I…)
  4. Inversion to highlight when something happened (Only when / Not until)

We discuss not only how to form each of the sentences (as they are all different) but also how and when you can use them accurately in the IELTS exam. After all, that really is what is most important. Remember, language is a tool which should be used to make your meaning as clear and accurate as possible. Inversion is a strong flavour and using it in the wrong place or too often can actually reduce the clarity of your message rather than enhancing it, so BE CAREFUL!

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