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This is from 'Landour Days' by Ruskin Bond where he dwells at length on writings by hand.

" A few years earlier, when Dickens and Balzac had submitted their hefty manuscripts in longhand, no one had objected. Had their handwriting been awful, their manuscripts would still have been read".

It is often found for unreal probabilities in a past event helping verbs like had, were and should are inverted or fronted to capture conditional " IF ". Under normal conditions with 'if' the structure is canonical.

  • If he had taken a little longer to get the load down, he might have been crushed under it.

Other examples:

  • Shoud you see Kate, say Hi from me.

  • Were I the Lord of Tatary, I would make my throne of beaten gold.

When and how did this sort of fronting of auxiliaries/ copular verbs come into being? Do they capture yes-no-polarity of interrogation embodied in IF particle.

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  • 3
    Your second sentence with Did is ungrammatical.
    – Jim
    Mar 22, 2018 at 2:37
  • Do you mean Balzac?
    – Zebrafish
    Mar 22, 2018 at 3:10
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    "Had he taken a little longer to get the load down, he might have been crushed under it" rather.
    – Kris
    Mar 22, 2018 at 6:52
  • Please let us know about your background efforts to find an answer to this interesting question, to help us help you.
    – Kris
    Mar 22, 2018 at 6:53
  • 1
    The counterfactual ("if") follows similar structure of inversion as an interrogative.
    – Kris
    Mar 22, 2018 at 6:56

1 Answer 1

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The relevant definition of "have" in the OED is:

In the protasis of a counterfactual conditional sentence, with inversion of subject and verb instead of an if-clause.

The past subjunctive of have as a main verb is sometimes similarly used; cf. quots. OE2 at sense 5b, 1550 at sense 5b, 1957 at sense 1a.

In quot. lOE in a hypothetical clause with concessive force (see never adv. 4a).

The late Old English quotation is:

Nan man ne dorste slean oðerne man, næfde he næfre swa mycel yfel gedon wið þone oðerne.

In the quote "næfde" is a contraction of the negative particle "ne" + had, "he" is obviously he, and "næfre" is never. So "næfde he næfre" is the relevant part of the sentence here.

This source translates the entire sentence as follows:

And no man dared kill another man, no matter what great evil he might have done the other.

Another quotation from the OED is this one from 1250:

Hefdich ȝare so idon, me stode betere þen me deð.
Old English homilies and homiletic treatises (Sawles warde, and Pe wohunge of Ure Lauerd: Ureisuns of Ure Louerd and of Ure Lefdi, &c.) of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries

In this quote, "hefdich" is a combination of had + ich (i.e. the personal pronoun I), "ȝare" is yore (meaning earlier), "idon" is done. I would translate the start of this quote as "had I done so earlier". (The full sentence, according to this source, can be translated as "if I had done so promptly, I would be in a better position".)


As for the reason why, I'm not sure. If I had to guess, I'd say it's because Old English had a pretty loose word order (I heard it's similar to modern-day German word order).

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  • 1
    Oh wait. The OP is expected to do that much homework, though.
    – Kris
    Mar 22, 2018 at 6:53
  • +1 for ye olde English. (but I'll be having nightmares not knowing how that last sentence ended. "If I had done so earlier... ")
    – S Conroy
    Aug 20, 2018 at 0:20
  • @SConroy After searching some more, I found a source that translates the entire sentence as "if I had done so promptly, I would be in a better position". So it looks like you'll be having different nightmares ;)
    – Laurel
    Aug 20, 2018 at 1:22

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