If a thing take place whereof the cause be not apparent, even though it be in accordance with nature, it appears wonderful. ...

Is it formal and valid English, or is it old style English, or is there a grammar or translation error? First, why not takes place instead of take place? Second, why not is not apparent instead of be not apparent?

(I am not sure if such questions are welcome in this platform. I am not a native English speaker. I am asking this question because I want to improve my English and because I encounter similar sentences occasionally. So I am not asking to translate it, but to explain the issue in general.)

The source of the above quotation is The Science of Mechanics by Ernst Mach (translated by T. J. McCormack, 6th ed. 1960, p. 13). The quotation is taken from Aristotle's Mechanical Problems (German trans. by Poselger, Hanover, 1881).

  • 1
    Don't you mean olde style grammar? – Jake Regier Jul 30 '15 at 16:37
  • 1
    @Jake Regier - That's a good joke for native speakers but might be confusing for learners! ('olde' is the old spelling for 'old') – chasly - supports Monica Jul 30 '15 at 16:40
  • 1
    @Catija: You don't think whereof the cause be not apparent is hopelessly archaic phrasing? – FumbleFingers Jul 30 '15 at 16:44
  • 2
    The verbs are in the subjunctive mood, used for conditions contrary to fact, where the speaker is expressing doubt, and a few other places. It appears today in a few frozen locutions ("Let it be.") or with the verb to be ("If I were a rich man, ...."), but rarely otherwise. – deadrat Jul 30 '15 at 16:45
  • 1
    @chaslyfromUK: I think you mean "one of the old spellings for 'old'." – Robusto Jul 30 '15 at 16:48

If a thing take place whereof the cause be not apparent, even though it be in accordance with nature, it appears wonderful. ...

  1. The grammar is correct.

  2. The language sounds as though it might have been written in the 17th century.

  3. "whereof" is used nowadays only in legal documents.

  4. 'If ... be' is an example of English subjunctive. This would only be seen in the most formal of writing these days.

Have a look at this Google ngram: whereof

  • @Solver - Did I say thereof? I can't spot it. If you want to look up subjunctive, a useful place to start would be to Google "if it be" subjunctive. Also you can Google "English subjunctive" – chasly - supports Monica Jul 30 '15 at 17:10
  • Because I'm actually curious, can you explain why "take" isn't "takes"? ... actually a comment on the question seems to show that the source material actually is "takes". – Catija Jul 30 '15 at 19:46
  • "If a thing take place ..." - again this is an old usage. Nowdays we would say, "If a thing should take place..." You can call this subjunctive or irrealis. – chasly - supports Monica Aug 2 '15 at 14:14

It seems to be a correct translation from old style English, it's hard to understand for native speakers too because it's not how we'd say things anymore.

A more modern way to say the same thing would be "If a thing takes place and the cause is not apparent, even though it's in accordance with nature, it appears to be wonderful".


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy