O Goireasan Akerbeltz
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I'm not sure why inversion seems to flummox so many people. Perhaps it's because not many courses teach the concept of modal verbs and expressions very well. Right, so here goes nothing!

Back up, what IS inversion?

Fair enough. So in a "normal" sentence, you have the normal word order of Gaelic, verb » subject » verbal noun » object. For example Tha mi a' ceannach biadh. But there are some types of sentence where is word orders is thrown around and you get something like Feumaidh mi biadh a cheannach, where the verb (feumaidh) is still at the front, followed by the subject (mi) but then we get the object and then the verbal noun, with some squishy particle in the middle or just lenition. That's inversion, the turning around of the "normal" word order. Hence the name.

Apart from understanding the mechanics, there's nothing about it really that's stranger or even hard. But before you'll agree with me, let's make sure we all know what a modal verb is. Just humour me, you'll see in a moment why that matters hugely.

Modal verbs and expressions

"Modal" is not a very intuitive or self-explanatory name but unfortunately, we're stuck with it...

A modal verb or construction contains a modal verb or expresses a modal concept. Don't frown, I'm getting there. Basically, modal concepts are expressions of wanting, being able to or having to do something. In English, they are mostly simple verbs: ought, must, should, could, want, desire, wish, love...

In Gaelic, there are some which are just simple verbs, like feum and faod. However, Gaelic mostly uses modal constructions that are roundabout ways of stating things like wanting, necessity, possibility, probability, or ability such as: bu toigh leam, tha agam ri, 's urrainn dhomh etc.

Just put that in your bio-neural RAM for now: modal verbs/constructions express wanting, being able to or having to do something.


Yes yes, I'm getting there, just setting the scene. To put it very simple, if your Gaelic sentence starts with a modal verb or expression, you have to change switch from verbal noun » object in terms of word order to object » infinitive particle » lenited verbal noun. There's a couple of special scenarios with that but that's basically it. All you have to do is train your brain that after a model verb/expression, you need the subject, immediately followed by the object.

tha mi a' ceannach leabhar vs feumaidh mi leabhar a cheannach
tha mi a' leughadh leabhar vs bu toigh leam leabhar a cheannach

Don't ask why. I love explaining the why but on this occasion, that just would not help at all. It's one of those things you just have to accept. Like why English doesn't have a pronoun for us-but-not-you.

Fortunately Gaelic puts the verb first so it's clear right away that your sentence is either modal or not, even before you reach the subject in many cases:

  • feumaidh - you already know this is going to be a modal sentence
  • am faod - same, two words in, you know it's going to be modal
  • tha agam - two words in, we know it's modal
  • b' fheudar - two words and we know it's modal
  • thèid agam - again, two words in and we know what it is.

In fact I'm struggling to think of a construction where it takes more than 2 words before you know it's a modal sentence. Either way, Gaelic makes it very clear very quickly that this is the case. All you then have to do is follow a grammatical schematic and that's it, basically. Not difficult as long as you can just accept that that's how Gaelic works. If not, then might I suggest French ;)

Can I see the specials menu?

Certainly. So the special cases I mentioned occur with the verbal nouns dol and bith (and in some dialects tighinn). Check out the section on what happens with these on this page.