Recently, I stumbled upon the excerpt below, and the last part confused me considerably. Although I generally understand the separate parts and the syntax of the sentence, I can't quite decode the overall meaning and semantics.

But Phil knew, God knows he knew, what it was to be a pariah, and he had loathed the world, should it loathe him first.

(From The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage)

I believe the author intended to state that he hated the world just to be the first to loathe between the world and himself, as a preemptive measure. However, I am not sure if I have understood the sentence correctly.

How would you describe the exact structure and meaning of this sentence?

1 Answer 1


[...] should it loathe him first

This is an example of should with inversion. This is semantically equal to,

"[...] if it (read: the world) should loathe him first.

I believe this implies that, because he was an outcast, the world hated him and as a result, he had hated the world. In other words, in the event that the world hated him, i.e., when he became an outcast, Phil had loathed the world as a result.

should modal verb (POSSIBILITY)

used when referring to a possible event in the future:

  • If anyone should ask for me, I'll be in the manager's office.
  • Should you (= if you) ever need anything, please don't hesitate to contact me.

(Collins dictionary)

Other examples with a similar structure:

Next Sunday, he will be sub goalie and is prepared to do duty again should his team need him.

He declined to comment on where the buses would move to should the depot be sold.

If you say that other people can use your material for commercial purposes, then you can't withdraw that permission should you change your mind.

(From Lexico)

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    Also, I would like to upvote your answer, but apparently I do not have enough reputation here. So, take my sincere gratitude for taking the time to answer!
    – Amir Baghi
    Feb 21, 2022 at 10:56
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    I'm not convinced that 'should it loathe him first' doesn't mean a pre-emptive stance, as OP suggests. 'Should' is extremely polysemous. I'd suggest as the intended meaning 'he had loathed the world, lest it should manifest its loathing towards him first.' Feb 21, 2022 at 11:46
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    @EdwinAshworth 'Lest' was the exact word that came to my mind when trying to decipher the meaning. But, I was not sure if 'should' can be interpreted as such. Do you have other examples of this specific 'should' usage in mind?
    – Amir Baghi
    Feb 21, 2022 at 11:57
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    @Justin Sure, I unaccepted your answer for now. However, please leave your answer here if possible, as the comments on your answer may help others in their own research.
    – Amir Baghi
    Feb 21, 2022 at 14:23
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    "Justin I agree, but neither do I see a justification for using 'should' here to mean 'he ... loathed the world because it first loathed him'. I'm fairly sure tchrist posted even more senses of one of the modals should/would here somewhere. I'll have a dig. Feb 21, 2022 at 14:35

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