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I came across the following piece:

So sensible, indeed, was the President of the weakness of the excuse, that he sought to make a diversion in favor of the Crown by demanding of M. NICGOLEWSKI, one of the arraigned, "if the insurrection would not have been turned against Prussia had Russia been vanquished? "Not," replied the Pole, "unless the leaders of the insurrection had been recruits from a lunatic asylum." This retort had a striking effect on the audience, and so disconcerted the President that he at once adjourned the court. []

Anybody know whether "if the insurrection would not have been turned against Prussia had Russia been vanquished?" is grammatical?

My question arises from "would not have been turned" that I would replace with "hadn't been turned".

Sorry if the question is too basic for native English speakers!

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I didn't think this question was "too basic;" I thought it was well-presented. –  J.R. Jun 21 '12 at 0:23
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3 Answers

It's grammatical, therefore would not have been turned shouldn't be replaced with hadn't been turned. The punctuation, though, seems a bit strange.

if...vanquish is an interrogative (question) clause as object of demanded. The clause in turn contains a counterfactual conditional clause had Russia been vanquished and a main clause.

The whole interrogative can be thought of as coming from this original direct question:

The President asked: "If Russia had been vanquished, would the insurrection not have been turned against Prussia?"

Subject-auxiliary inversion for the conditional:

The President asked: "Had Russia been vanquished, would the insurrection not have been turned against Prussia?"

Bringing the conditional after the main clause:

The President asked: "Would the insurrection not have been turned against Prussia had Russia been vanquished?"

Turning into reported speech:

The President asked if/whether the insurrection would not have been turned against Prussia had Russia been vanquished.

Punctuation fix: I would use a period (.) instead of a question mark after vanquished in the reported speech clause. I would remove the single dangling double quote (") before if.

This was written in 1864. I wonder if the punctuation would have been perfectly fine then.

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It may be grammatical, but it is definitely unclear. Unfortunately I'm afraid your suggested alternative alters the intended meaning of the phrase (and also makes it a dangling clause). A better re-wording of the original question might instead be, "Would not the insurrection have been turned against Prussia had Russia been vanquished?"

(Of course, since this is a quote, I wouldn't feel at liberty to make such an edit, but grammatically I think it is less cumbersome.)

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"Would not" and "had not" (from your suggestion of "hadn't") do not have the same meaning. "Had not" means that, at some point in the past, the specified event was yet to occur. "Would not" means that the event never did occur, but the speaker is wondering if it might have, in the future, if events had gone differently.

In short, had refers to something that DID happen, and would refers to something that MIGHT happen/have happened.

A rewording of the original quote which might make more sense to you, but has the same meaning: "If Russia had been vanquished, wouldn't the insurrection have turned against Prussia?"

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