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inversion in conditional sentences
Mr Smolin from Poland writes:
  Is it true that Hadn't it been for?...(as an alternative to Had it not been for?...) is incorrect?
 
 
Roger Woodham replies:
 
 
Had it not rained
 
Yes, it is correct that we cannot use a contracted negative form when we use inverted word order to express unreal or impossible condition in the past. Instead, we are obliged to use the full form of not:
 
Had it not rained last Saturday, we would've celebrated Tom's birthday with a barbecue in the garden.
 
Had you not refused my invitation, you would've had the best holiday ever.
 
Of course, had we used the more normal if-clause to express this conditional idea, the contracted negative form would have been the norm:
 
If only it hadn't rained last Saturday, we would've had a wonderful holiday in the garden.
 
If you hadn't been so stupid as to refuse my invitation, you could've travelled to see all the wonders of the world.
 
Note that we use these tense forms to talk about something that might have happened, but didn't:
 
If it had stayed fine, they would've celebrated the birthday in the garden.
 
If she had accepted the invitation, she would've seen all the wonders of the world.
 
Should you not wish to
 
Note that we can also use the inversion structure with should when we are talking about present and future conditions and, again, negative forms are not contracted:
 
Should you not wish to sign the contract, you must let them know before the end of June.
 
Should you change your mind about selling the car, I'd be happy to buy it from you.
 
Note that use of should here has nothing to do with obligation, but is simply an alternative to the present simple in the more normal if-clause:
 
If you don't want to go ahead and sign the contract, please try to let them know before the end of this month.
 
If you (do) change your mind about selling the car, I'd be happy to buy it from you.
 
Were we to have children
 
Finally, inversion is possible, though I think less common, with this form of the conditional when we are talking about the improbable future. Again negative forms are not contracted:
 
Were we to have children, we'd need to move to a bigger house.
 
Were she not my daughter, I'd have no hesitation in phoning the police.
 
The more normal if-clause is here quite straightforward:
 
If we were to have children, we'd certainly need to move to a larger house.
 
If she weren't my daughter, I'd have no hesitation in phoning the police and telling them about the crime that has been committed.
 
We use the inversion strategy when we want what we are saying to sound more carefully considered and it is also characteristic of more formal and literary styles.
 
 
In your example, Mr Smolin, we can also use the construction But for..., meaning Except for?, as an alternative to Had it not been for? or Were it not for?:
 
Had it not been for his foresight in ensuring everybody had lifejackets, everyone on board would have drowned.
 
But for his foresight, everyone on board the yacht would have drowned.
 
Were it not for your kindness, I'd still be living in that tiny bed-sit in the town centre.
 
But for your kindness, I'd still be stuck in that tiny flat in the town centre.
 
 
   
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