The term ‘subject-verb inversion’ designates a syntactic process that changes the order of the main constituents of a clause in such a way that subject and finite verb swap their places. The concept is generally applied to clauses with main constituent order SVO, meaning that the inverted order is VSO.
More specifically, the process has been diagnosed for main clause syntax chiefly in Germanic languages such as German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. In these languages, independent declarative clauses have main constituent order SVO, while yes-no interrogatives have main constituent order VSO. The latter order has been described by a transformation of subject-verb inversion taking declarative order as input and producing interrogative order as output. Descriptions that use the concept of subject-verb inversion are numerous; a random example is Haugen 1987:173.
For illustration, German will be used; any other of the languages mentioned would do as well. E1 shows a declarative sentence with subject, temporal adverbial and indirect object as main constituents besides the finite verb. E1.b and c show permutations of the order found in a, where the initial position is taken by verb dependents other than the subject.1
|“A phenomenon always corresponds to a word.”|
|“Does a phenomenon always correspond with a word?”|
E2 gives the interrogative versions of the sentences of E1. What is important is that the mapping of E1.a – c onto E2.a – c is biunique: each declarative version has an exact interrogative counterpart.
As is well-known, German independent declarative clauses have the finite verb in second position. This is true for E1.a – c, no matter what is in first position. It is also well-known that independent yes-no questions have the finite verb in first position. This again is true for all of E2.a – c no matter what the order of the other constituents is.
The relationship between E1.a and E2.a apparently illustrates subject-verb inversion. However, there is no inversion of subject and verb in the versions b and c. A close comparison of each of the sentences in E1 with its E2 counterpart reveals that the transformation that forms a yes-no interrogative on the basis of a declarative is very simple: put the finite verb into first position (i.e. before whatever starts the declarative clause2) and leave everything else untouched. That is, the transformation exclusively concerns the verb; it has nothing to do with the subject. The process in question is verb fronting, not “subject-verb inversion”.
The misunderstanding probably springs from a prejudice by which these Germanic languages have a basic constituent order where subject precedes verb in independent declarative sentences, like English. As is well-known, this is not so; the rule only requires the finite verb to be in second position. Thus, a misunderstanding concerning the rule at work in declarative clauses has produced a misunderstanding of the rule that forms interrogative clauses on their basis.
The above has been shown repeatedly in the specialized literature. An example is Lehmann 1973. The notion of subject-verb inversion is apparently ineradicable. It has no known denotation.
Haugen, Einar 1987, "Danish, Norwegian and Swedish." Comrie, Bernard (ed.), The world's major languages. London & Sidney: Croom Helm; 157-179.
Lehmann, Christian 1973, "Wortstellung in Fragesätzen." Seiler, Hansjakob (ed.), Linguistic workshop I. Vorarbeiten zu einem Universalienprojekt. München: Fink (Structura, 4); 20-53.
1 For this particular example sentence, the permutations are not synonymous because of different quantifier scope; but this does not affect the argument.
2 Some connectives like aber ‘but’ do not start the declarative clause, but precede it.