OK. We’re going to talk about negative adverbials in English.
But first, let’s start with Madonna and a line from her song “Into the Groove.”
So what’s happening here?
“Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free.”
Why did she say “can I feel” and not “I can feel”?
She’s not asking a question, so why the “can I …” question form?
Welcome to the world of negative adverbials in English, also known as negative inversions.
They’re so common that even ’80s Madonna used them.
But why does Madonna use one here?
Why doesn’t she just say, “I can only feel this free when I’m dancing”?
And the answer is that, when we use negative adverbials in English, we’re adding emphasis.
So, in Madonna’s case, she’s saying, “I can feel this free ONLY when I’m dancing. No other times. None!”
But that wouldn’t fit in the song.
There are actually lots of examples of negative adverbials in English, but today, we’re going to look at some of the most common and when we use them.
But first, let’s look at how to form inversions with negative adverbials.
How to form inversions with negative adverbials
To form inversions with negative adverbials, you start with an adverb (like “seldom” “rarely” or “never”) or an adverbial phrase (like “not once,” “only then” or “never before”).
Then, you add an inverted clause (like Madonna’s “can I feel this free”).
(Not sure how to invert? Don’t worry — we’re going to look at that later in the post.
Sometimes adverbials are just one word:
“Seldom do billionaires pay tax.”
Sometimes they’re two or more words:
“On no account must you push that button”
Sometimes, like with Madonna’s dancing example above, we add a whole clause to the adverbial.
“Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free.”
And sometimes, you need to add another clause after the inverted clause.
“Not only will you laugh, you’ll also cry.”*
*Technically speaking, this should read “but you’ll also cry,” but you’ll hear a lot of people using this adverbial without “but” — proper people like lawyers and academics and even English teachers like me!
But here’s some advice. Don’t worry too much about the different types of adverbial sentences here.
Because when you need to use them, you’ll know what to do.
That’s because, if you learn the adverbial phrases themselves (which we’re about to do), then you’ll know what to do with them — they’ll just come naturally.
When you say something in English (or any language), you need to think of the meaning first, right?
So, when you know what you want to say, it’ll be clear whether you need to add an extra clause (as Madonna did) or not.
For example, you just won’t be able to say “Not only was I late …” without absolutely needing to finish the thought with something like “… but I was also wearing my pyjamas.” It’s human nature to complete your thoughts.
In other words, your humanness will help you here, so don’t stress about the structures.
Just learn the phrases and the rest will come.
So, let’s learn the phrases!
But, before we do that, one more thing …
How to invert sentences
We need to know how to do the inversion, right?
If you feel comfortable with this, then feel free to skip to the list of adverbials.
If not, then don’t worry — this will be easy. I promise.
So, how do you invert a sentence?
It’s very simple — you invert a sentence by turning it from a statement to a question form.
Let’s look at Madonna’s example:
Statement: I can feel.
Question: Can I feel?
So, the inversion of “I can feel” is “can I feel.”
Inverting is pretty straight-forward, and usually all we have to do is swap the first two words:
|I’d been there before.||Had I been there before?||Never had I been there before.|
|That’s Ringo.||Is that Ringo?||No way is that Ringo!|
|Giuliana will help you.||Will Giuliana help you?||Only then will Giuliana help you.|
Just like making questions, right?
The only situation where this gets tricky is with verbs in the present simple and past simple tenses.
That’s when we need to add “do” or “does” for the present simple and “did” for the past simple.
|I feel happy.||Do I feel happy?||Only when I’m with you do I feel happy.|
|He knew she was a vampire.||Did he know she was a vampire?||Little did he know that she was a vampire.|
I mean — if you’re reading a post like this, then I’m sure you know how to make questions in English.
And if you know how to make questions in English, then you can make inversions, and that means you can use negative adverbials.
So, let’s look at some of the most common negative adverbials in English.
Common negative adverbials
We use negative adverbials to add emphasis.
We might be saying something like, “This is rare!” or “I’ve had enough of this!” or simply, “No! No! No! No! Don’t!”
Generally speaking, I find that negative adverbials fall under five broad categories or, if you prefer, five general messages.
So let’s check them out one by one.
Message 1: This doesn’t happen often
Seldom / rarely / hardly ever / never / not once
Some things just don’t happen often, right?
I mean, when was the last time you saw someone wearing a turban, but not as a costume?
It just doesn’t happen much!
Except in Vienna, for some reason.
Seriously, I was impressed by how fashionable turbans are there.
Anyway, back to the adverbials.
When we want to talk about how unusual something is, we can use these adverbials.
“Seldom do people wear turbans when they’re not in costume.”
“Rarely did he think about her while she was in the army.”
“Hardly ever does the town square look like this! It’s amazing!”
“Never have I seen such rudeness!”
“Not once have these giraffes had anything nice to eat.”
Message 2: Enough!
Never (again) / no longer
Sometimes, we want to say, “Enough is enough! I’m never doing this again!”
Or maybe we’re sad that something has finished, and we want to say, “I’m sad that this will no longer happen.”
That’s when these adverbials will come in handy.
Sometimes we use these adverbials to express regret:
“Never again will I look into his deep, brown eyes.”
“No longer will it be easy to just travel around Europe without a visa. Those days have gone for us.”
And sometimes we use them to express celebration:
“I finally quit that job! No longer will I have to put up with the most psychopathic boss in the world. Never again will I have to clear the snow in front of his house without gloves. No longer will I be shouted at for scratching my nose at work. I’m free!”
Message 3: NO! NO! NO! NO! Don’t!
No way / on no account / under no circumstances
Sometimes we just want to say “No!”
There are some things that just shouldn’t — no, CAN’T — happen.
And when we feel very strongly about it, we can emphasise how strongly we feel with these adverbials.
In other words, these adverbials simply mean “DEFINITELY NOT!”
This one’s a little informal.
And, because it’s informal, it can actually have a strong impact.
“No way am I getting in that box — I don’t care how much you pay me!”
“No way is Javid coming with you on your desert survival trip. He’s four years old!”
“No way are we queuing up again. We’ve already been waiting four hours! Just let us in!”
On no account / under no circumstances
These adverbials are a little on the formal side.
They still have a sense of urgency, but, because they’re a little more formal, they feel authoritative; if someone says this to you, you get the feeling they know what they’re talking about.
“On no account should you press that button.”
“Under no circumstances should the police be able to just walk into your home without a warrant.”
“On no account must you leave this room without locking the door.”
“Under no circumstances can your boss oblige you to work more than 45 hours a week. It’s in the contract.”
“On no account do you ask for more food. That’ll only cause problems.”
Extra interesting thing
As you may have noticed, when we use “on no account” and “under no circumstances” to mean “Don’t!” we almost always use “should” or “must.”
Message 4: This first, then this
Only (then) / never before
We often use negative adverbials to highlight when a change happens.
Perhaps we’re talking about a change from something not happening to something happening.
Or maybe it’s the opposite — something happens up to a certain point, then it stops.
Whichever way round, we can emphasise that point in time — the point of change — using negative adverbials.
This adverbial phrase is the classic example of what to say when you want to describe the point of change.
“She started complaining about a pain in both her legs. Only then did her doctor realise the situation might be more serious than they previously thought.”
“The sea had taken most of Bangladesh, and people were now going to Russia for their summer holidays. Only then did the world leaders decide that there might, maybe, be a problem and that they should definitely have some sort of meeting. Maybe sometime next year.”
This one is a little like “only then” but with a small difference.
Remember this structure?
When we say “only after,” we have to add a clause — just like Madonna.
Makes sense, right?
I mean, only after what?
We often use “only after” when we’ve forgotten something:
“Only after he’d spent two weeks and almost died three times did he reach the top and realise that he’d climbed the wrong mountain.”
We also use “only after” to create a condition:
“Only after you’ve finished your homework can you go out and hang out with your mates.”
“Only by” means “You can do it, but only this way.”
Notice that we need to add “verb + ing” after the adverbial.
“Only by working 24/7 did he manage to get his thesis done in time.”
“Only if” has a very similar meaning to “only by.”
With “only by,” you add “verb -ing.”
With “only if,” you add a full subject-verb clause.
“Only if you find the magic carrot can you enter the crystal castle.”
“Only if it doesn’t rain will we be able to finish the garden.”
This adverbial sometimes has a feeling of “Oh … NOW I understand!”
Like when suddenly realise that the man in the film was a ghost all that time.
It can also have a feeling of “It’s happening now, but it took so long.”
We can use this adverbial by itself:
“Only now can he hear her voice”
Or we can add a clause:
“Only now she’s got a coffee will she listen.”
“Only now I’m back home and with a roof over my head can I finally enjoy the rain.”
“Only now do I realise how hard it is to grow your own food.”
You want to go out and enjoy the sunny weather?
Sure! But there’s something you need to do first …
Notice that we have to add a clause to this adverbial.
“Not until you’ve finished the report about toilet paper sales in Belgium can you go out and enjoy the nice weather.”
“Not until they’d got a number one in the U.S. did the Beatles start touring the States.”
Only once / only when
This is similar to “only if”: it creates a condition, and then you describe what you can do when the condition is fulfilled.
And, as a result, we have to add a clause to this one, too.
And we find ourselves back with our Madonna sentence:
“Only once you have released your anger will you be a true Jedi.”
“Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free.”
I like this one.
Because it’s usually used to express outrage — to express shock!
When we use “never before,” we’re usually saying, “This was a completely new and crazy experience for me!”
And because this adverbial is usually used to talk about experience (or rather, lack of experience until now), we usually use this one with a perfect tense:
“Never before have I …” “Never before had she …” “Never before has Barry …”
“Never before have two singers as talented as this performed together.”
“Never before have I seen such rudeness!”
Message 5: There’s more!
Not only … but also
Sure, there’s only one adverbial in this category, but it’s so common that you totally need to know it.
And as you can see, it’s a bit different.
Not only do we add a clause after the adverbial …
… but we also use the phrase “but also” with it.
We use this adverbial to express surprise or enthusiasm.
It’s like we’re saying, “You can do this, AND you can do this TOO!”
You’re emphasising the extra thing.
“Not only did Barry arrive late again, but he also smelled very strongly of fish.”
“Not only can you choose which language to watch in, but you can also turn on subtitles in any language, too.”
“Not only will there be cake, but there’ll also be jugglers, clowns and giraffe tennis.”
Little did he know …
Finally, another category with one adverbial in it.
This is a very common phrase, so worth learning. Think of it as a fixed phrase.
Sometimes we really enjoy knowing things that other people don’t know.
This is especially exciting when watching films or TV series.
In the horror film when the couple is walking into the dark building in the middle of the forest, you’re thinking, “Little do they know that there’s a flesh-eating zombie in there!”
Or in the drama when the horrible rich businessman love interest is cheating on his wife and she’s found out, you’re thinking, “Go ahead. Eat that soup, Callum. Little do you know that she’s put poison in it!”
We use this phrase a lot in the past.
I mean, it’s easy to look back at the past and see where people went wrong.
Mistakes are much easier to see in retrospect — when looking back on them.
“Little did he know that his Bitcoin would be completely worthless in a week’s time.”
“Little did Sally know that she was about to make the biggest mistake of her life.”
It could also be for good things, too:
“Little did we know that we were about to become richer than we’d ever imagined.”
You made it! We’ve covered 20 negative adverbials and how to use them.
Now, let’s practise.
Can you invert these five sentences? If you can, write your answers in the comments, and I’ll reply to let you know how you did.
- We don’t often eat this much cake in one day. e.g. Rarely do we eat this much cake …
- I’m never going clubbing with Barry again — not after that night in Vegas.
- I’m not going out wearing these trousers — I’ll die of embarrassment.
- You can only have a cookie once you’ve finished your homework.
- She was two hours late for the meeting, and she was blind drunk.
- Bernard didn’t know that his cat had magical powers.
Also check out Adding Emphasis in English – 3 Advanced Tricks.