Season 2 Episode 16

Hello and welcome to Ethos English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. My goal is to help you expand your productive vocabulary so that you can become a more confident and fluent English speaker. Remember that you can access the full text version of the show at You’ll be prompted to sign up for my newsletter. I send it out once a month and it includes a Quizlet flashcard set covering all of the key vocabulary covered that month.

Today’s topic is making complex grammar easy. I’m going to illustrate my point by teaching a popular grammar structure for advanced learners known as inversion. A well-known example of this is the chunk “Little did I know that…”

First, I want to point out that, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing necessarily fancy, literary or difficult about inversion. But teachers do students a disservice by using “Little did I know that…” as the prime example of this grammar structure. 

This is a chunk common in anecdotes and storytelling used to say that someone did not know or think that something would happen or was true, as in the example: “Little did I know that the course of my life was about to change.” As you can see, it’s used to build a sense of suspense or anticipation for whatever it is you’re going to say next. The trouble is, in my experience students mistakenly conclude that “Little did I know” can be used in lieu of, that is, instead of, “I did not know.” and so they end up shoehorning it into all kinds of contexts in which it’s completely inappropriate. For instance, when a student was late for an exam he said to me “Little did I know that the exam started at 10 o’clock.”

So, a word to the wise, be careful with “Little did I know.” We’re going to look at some other everyday examples of it that you probably hear every day and don’t recognise as inversion.

Let’s start with expressions related to time, like only after/only then/only later.

Only after sending the email did I realise that I hadn’t included the attachment.
Only then did I realise that I hadn’t included the attachment.
Only later did I realise that I hadn’t included the attachment.

A convenient way of learning a grammar structure like this is by remembering it as a chunk, as in the following example:

Only after ____ did I realise that…
Only then did I realise that…
Only later did I realise that…

Other very common inversions occur with phrases that contain no or not as in “under no circumstances”, “not only (but also)” and “by no means”

Here are some easy to remember chunks:
Under no circumstances are you to… used to emphasise in a stern way what someone isn’t allowed to do
Under no circumstances are you to consume alcohol while at work.
Not only did I _____ but I also _______ … used to give examples, often of positive things. As in “Not only did I learn a lot from Sean’s latest episode, but I also enjoyed myself.” Or perhaps to talk about your accomplishments when in a job interview. as in “Not only did I hone my skills but I also made great friends.”
by no means: used to emphasise a negative statement
By no means is it certain that…
By no means is it certain that we’ll finish the project in time.

Only after ____ did I realise that…
Only then did I realise that…
Only later did I realise that…
Under no circumstances are you to
Not only did I _____ but I also ______
By no means is it certain that…

If you look up inversion in a grammar book, as I’ve done, you’ll see a much longer list of types of inversion. I’ve intentionally kept this list short as I wanted to focus on those uses which are part of everyday speech and which you likely hear on a regular basis and don’t notice.

By learning these chunks or sentence frames you’re far more likely to use these structures in your speaking and writing.

Let’s go over today’s vocabulary:

contrary to popular belief: used to say that something is true even though people believe the opposite

Contrary to popular belief, a desert can be very cold.

do someone a disservice: do something that harms something or someone

She has done a great disservice to her cause by suggesting that violence is justifiable.
in lieu of: (formal) instead of

The company is allowing workers to receive cash in lieu of vacation time.
shoehorn: force or compress into an insufficient space or period of time, the way a shoehorn helps you put on a pair of shoes more easily if they are tight and also, by extension, to force something where it doesn’t belong

Many students shoehorn irrelevant arguments into their essays.

a word to the wise: used when you are about to give a piece of advice or information to someone in an informal way

The store has a great cheese selection. But a word to the wise – their coffee is awful.

only then/only later did I realise that: a chunk used to emphasise that you realised something at a later time
not only did I ____ but I also ____: a chunk used to give examples, often of positive things such as accomplishments
by no means: not at all, used to emphasise a negative statement
By no means is it certain that…: It is not at all certain that…

Thanks for listening. Feel free to send me an email to and for more content follow me on Instagram at EthosEnglishWithSean. See you next week!

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