It is an excerpt from Capt. Robert Falcon Scott letter "To: my widow" which he wrote while dying in Antarctic:

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."

It seems that a complex structure of "Had we lived, I should have had a story to tell" exhibits nuances which the author wanted to express. Can anyone please explain what the phrase means and which nuances does it possess?

  • 3
    It means: "This adventure would have made a great story to tell in the bar a few years from now, except, oops, we died, so there is no one to tell it."
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 27, 2016 at 12:45
  • Related question, Speculative conditional: Why does it use the past tense or past perfect tense?.
    – user140086
    Feb 27, 2016 at 13:10
  • 3
    Is it just me... Or are we being asked a home work question? Feb 27, 2016 at 13:30
  • 1
    "Tale" is another term for "story". And he obviously can tell neither if he is dead. He's anticipating his death. What is it in particular that you can't comprehend??
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 27, 2016 at 14:13

2 Answers 2


"Had we lived" is the (literary) inversion that means the same as "if we had lived".

"I should have" is the form that careful writers of his generation (and later ones, but few today) would write, where today most would write "I would have" - 'shall' and 'should' were supposed to be used in place of 'will' and 'would' in the first person.

So an everyday version of that is "If we had lived, I would have had a story to tell ... "

"If .. had, ... would have ..." is what I gather EFL courses call the third conditional (though I had never heard the phrase until I started coming to this site) - counterfactual in the past.


The letter is "to my widow". It is to be read by her only in the event of his death. It was written when death seemed likely, and sadly he did die shortly after.

For this reason he writes as if he were already dead, which is rather unusual, because by the time his wife reads it, he will be.

The phrase

Had we lived

uses "lived" in the sense of "survived", rather than "been alive". It is a fairly unusual use of the word "lived".

"Had we lived" means "If we had survived".

Although obviously he was alive when he wrote it, he envisaged it being read after he had not survived the Antarctic trip.

In referring to the hardihood, endurance and courage of his companions, he modestly omits any mention of his own hardiness, endurance and courage. He leaves it to his wife to make any such inference.

  • 2
    In general you've got it right. But I might quibble about, "which is rather unusual..." I think in this case it's expected and might better be stated as: "... as if he were already dead, because by the time his wife reads it, he will be." Also, not too sure about the unusualness of this usage of lived: "My cousin just went into the hospital." "Oh? Is he gonna live?" Seems pretty usual to me.
    – Jim
    Feb 27, 2016 at 20:30

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