subject operator inversion - conditionals without if


I'm aware that in conditional sentences without the conjunction "if" an inverted structure may be possible, such as in,

Should you need more details, let me know

Had she known about it, she would have left

Were I in your place, I would be very happy

Were they to try, they would succeed

My current doubt is related to the "were" sentences. First of all, besides the simple infinitive structure, is it ever possible to use a perfect infinitive?

I read a posting in another forum with a sentence that confused me:

Were the police to have found out, I would have been in trouble

Is this sentence grammatically sound? It seems strange to me. Is it as good as "Had the police found out, ..."

My feeling was that the were-sentences with infinitives could only happen in the second conditional - "Were the police to find out, I would be in trouble" = "If the police were to find out, ..." - Does this mean exactly the same as "If the police found out, ..." ?

Isn't there often (usually / always ?) a kind of vaguely future connotation?

If I were to take up a new hobby, I might go into photography
(If one day I were going to take up / If one day I took up...)

It seems to me that the inverted structure is not possible in the third conditional, or when the 2nd conditional is a comment totally based on a present situation.

For instance,

* You didn't go, you didn't meet Bob
If you had gone, you would have met Bob
?? Were you to have gone,... ??

* He does not have dimples; he's still cute
If he had dimples, he would be even cuter
"Were he to have dimples, ..." .

Then again, I think we could say, "Were he to have a plastic surgery and gain some dimples, he'd..." = If one day he were going to have... = If one day he had...

Considering the issue of time, and trying to create a sentence where the inverted structure with "were" does not apply to the hypothetical future, I could only come up with the wordy, rather clumsy subterfuge of saying "were it not for the fact that", which in some situations may allow us to refer to the past, the present and the future.

Were it not for the fact that it rained, it would have been a perfect day

Were it not for the fact that he is too young, he would be the best candidate
(Were he not so young, / were he older, he'd be...)

Were it not for the fact that they will not hire more people, I doubt they would be able to finish the project
(Were they not to hire more people, ... / were they to keep the same number of people, ...)

In fact, though I've been trying to feel and understand the structure better, I'm still not very confident using it.

As usual, I'd be most grateful for any comments.

Original Post
Re-thinking what I said before, I wonder if my guess is correct - that the "were it not for the fact that" circumvention can be applied in every / almost every 2nd and 3rd conditional sentences, and in mixed conditional sentences where the if-clause is not a first conditional; never in simple 1st or zero conditional cases.

2nd conditional:

It would be easier to understand the topic if right now I weren't so pressed for time

Were it not for the fact that I am very pressed for time, it would be easier to understand the topic
(If I were not pressed / Were I not pressed ...)

If I took the day off tomorrow and continued ruminating, I might suddenly see things clearly

Were it not for the fact that I won't take the day off tomorrow, ...
(If I were to take / Were I to take the day off tomorrow...)

3rd conditional:

If I had been born in an English-speaking country, I might never have had this doubt

Were it not for the fact that I was not born in an English-speaking country,...(Had I been born / If I had been born,....)


I wouldn't be thinking about this if I hadn't seen a strange sentence some days ago

Were it not for the fact that I saw a strange sentence some days ago, I wouldn't be...
(Had I not seen / If I hadn't seen.... )

I might have gone crazy some days ago if I were not a calm person

Were it not for the fact that I am a calm person, I might have gone crazy some days ago
(Were I not a calm person / If I weren't a calm person....)

If had to give a class about this topic tomorrow, I would have stayed up all night long yesterday

Were it not for the fact that I will not give a class tomorrow, I would have stayed up....
(Were I to give a class about this topic tomorrow / If I were to give a class...)

For some reason I can't put my finger on, the inverted were-construction doesn't work in sentences such as:

If I had seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it

Were it not for the fact that I didn't see it with my own eyes , ...
(Had I seen it with my own eyes, ...)

... Maybe the reason it doesn't work is that the if-clause is of the "even-if" type...

Even if I had done more extensive research yesterday,
I might not have been able to clarify everything and I could still have the same doubts today

Were it not for the fact that I didn't do extensive research yesterday, ...
(Had I done more extensive research yesterday, I might still...)

Going back to the perfect infinitive possibility, quick Google searches return countless examples of "were I to have done", "were something to have happened", and so on. Still, the Internet is not always a source of good English; also, something in the construction seems rather odd to me.

I'm really not sure my understanding is right. Some parts seem to be missing, and there may well be other important considerations I'm failing to take into account. I guess I need to do more thinking!

Gisele, you've done a great deal of thinking about a very special and very rare kind of construction. I'll try to address your major points. Your first sentence, and the one you were in doubt about, is

Were the police to have found out, I would have been in trouble

This is a perfectly grammatical sentence, with its perfect infinitive "to have found out" indicating a "finding out" prior to the established past time frame of the situation. In other words, the scene is already in the past, and the conditional idea refers to a previous time.

The progression of the various forms from informal to hyperformal is the following:

1) If the police had found out... (standard version)

2) Had the police found out...

3) If the police were to have found out...

4) Were the police to have found out... (hyperformal version)

"Were the police to have found out" is, if I may say so, the most "baroque" version of the simple conditional "If the police had found out...."

Before going any further, let me offer a statement about the frequency of the inverted conditional constructions with "had,"and "were" (also "should," which I won't talk about here). On this point Biber et al.* state:

"In conditional clauses with had, were, and should, it is possible to mark the adverbial clause with subject-operator inversion, rather than use the subordinator if:

Had it not been for human kindness he would have ended up in a pork pie (NEWS)

Were he to deflect the challenge by dissolving parliament, it would confirm he had not properly learnt the lessons of April's disturbances (NEWS)

Should the patient be the person who had attended to the business and financial side of family life, then there will have to be a reversal of roles.

"Each of these three conditional clauses could be introduced with the subordinator if used with regular subject-operator order. " (pp.851-2)

They then give the frequency counts for the inverted forms vs. regular forms in four genres (registers):


"In all registers, conditionals with had and were are very rarely marked by subject-operator inversion...." (p. 852) (Note: Had and were were counted separately from should. MM)

The frequency statistics given for inverted had and were in three registers"”conversation, fiction, and academic writing"”are so low as to indicate that these forms hardly exist. The frequency of both forms in the register of news is only about five percent.

So the construction you're asking about is very rare indeed. Here, nevertheless, are a few examples from Google:

"”that is what that particular statement suggests is that there would be support were they to decide that this was not the best course of action to take. ... Records/2nd119th/04-11-00R2.doc

"” judicial expertise and one would think that it would reflect badly on themselves were they to agree that troops under their command had commited crimes. ...

"”and then once they come for medical treatment, the treatment is not as effective as it could have been were they to have come earlier (Tr. 7649-50). ... document?p_table=FEDERAL_REGISTER&p_id=16311

"”IQ) and neurocognitive development, thus indicating their testing methodologies could have detected mercury effects, were they to have occurred. ... oncompounds/mercury/2003/2003-0515myersetal.htm

"”But it's probably also worth pointing out that were you to have asked in the 1920s how the work on quantum mechanics would affect the world, I don't think people would have had much to say. science/july-dec03/string_11-04.html

You can see from these examples that the style is formal.

A sentence like "Were he to have plastic surgery..." is, as you surmise, about a hypothetical future action. (For some reason I don't know, it can't be used with a hypothetical present state, e.g. *"Were he to have dimples.") "Were I to have [drawn up a different contract..."] is about a hypothetical past. "Were he to have had dimples" is, at best, questionable.

You also ask about "Were it not for the fact that...." This is a separate issue. It talks about the existence of a fact, not about the existence of a situation or the performing of an action. It stands outside the basic two ideas in a conditional, one step removed.

It's important to note that in many cases, the phrase "the fact that" is redundant"”extra baggage. It should be avoided except where necessary for the meaning of the sentence. A conditional sentence can usually be created without resorting to "the fact that." If you do produce a conditional with "the fact that," you have to know that there is a time difference between these two conditional clauses:

Were it not for the fact that... = If it weren't for the fact that... ("now," hypothetical)

Had it not been for the fact that... = If it hadn't been for the fact that... ("then," hypothetical)

I hope that these thoughts have answered your concerns, Gisele. If you're still in doubt about something, please let me know.


*Biber, D. et al., Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999)

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