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In trying to use inversion with SHOULD to rewrite this sentence "because of the possibility of secondary devices - there were abandonned bags everywhere - arriving ambulance crews were kept back" I elaborate this new sentence "SHOULD SECONDARY DEVICES HAPPEN TO BE IN THE AREA - THERE WERE ABANDONNED BAGS EVERYWHERE - ARRIVING AMBULANCE CREWS WERE KEPT BACK". The question is my native English speaker friends say this sentence is perfectly correct but the grammar guides I have consulted say that SHOULD inversion is only possible when using first conditional sentences. I am very confused. Any ideas?

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    That won't work. 'Should' in your example would mean 'if there are' so the second part of the sentence would need some kind of future form e.g. 'arriving ambulance crews will be kept back'. But this also changes the meaning. In your 'should' sentence, it remains to be seen if there are secondary devices in the area. If there are -- if the condition transpires -- the ambulance crews will be kept back. But in your original sentence, keeping back the ambulance crews is a preventive action which takes place before anyone knows if there are secondary devices or not.
    – S Conroy
    Jan 19, 2020 at 11:40
  • Also, secondaries don't happen to be in the area - somebody put them there.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 19, 2020 at 14:03

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Your friends are wrong about the grammaticality of the sentence in capital letters.

You could rephrase the bolded sentence as: Should there have been the possibility of secondary devices, arriving ambulance crews would have been kept back. But the original is a factual statement, so a rephrasing with the should conditional changes the meaning.

I am interested to know why you want to use should here.

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  • This is an exercise of rewriting skills in an exam I am trying to do with my students of C2 level. The instructions say you must use SHOULD in the sentence. I reached that conclusion (your answer) too but then I thought there was no other possibility.
    – BeaLO
    Jan 19, 2020 at 11:40
  • @BeaLO. Thanks for the explanation. As well as the counterfactual that I suggest in my answer (so-called Conditional 3), there is also Type 1: Should there be the possibility of secondary devices - for example because there are abandoned bags everywhere - arriving ambulance crews will be kept back. But I don't think it's the best of sentences to practise should conversion.
    – Shoe
    Jan 19, 2020 at 11:51
  • Thanks for your answer Shoe. I actually begin to suspect that the exercise itself is wrong since there is no real possibility to rewrite the first sentence using SHOULD and still mantain the original meaning of possibility in the past (since it is factual) as you mention. Anyways, your suggestion seems quite a reasonable rephrasing. Thanks a lot.
    – BeaLO
    Jan 20, 2020 at 19:04
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the grammar guides I have consulted say that SHOULD inversion is only possible when using first conditional sentences.

"Should" inversion as in your sentence is just (a more formal) an alternative to "if" in the protasis . However, the verb in the main clause (apodosis) doesn't have to contain will/going to future form. In other words, the sentence doesn't have to fit the "first conditional" pattern : If X happens, Y will happen. The apodosis as often as not contains a directive. We can use the first conditional in a similar sentence:

Should there be baggage left in the area, the arriving ambulance crews will be kept back.

But we could issue a directive to those in charge of keeping the area clean, like:

Should there be incendiary devices in the area, the arriving ambulance crews are to be kept back.

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