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Conditional sentences not starting with “if”

What is the meaning of this sentence - "Were it not for the bodies there on the ground, it would have appeared to be a normal day at the oasis."?

Does it mean something like this - If the bodies were not there on the ground, it would have appeared to be a normal day at the oasis.

Can anyone also explain the structure of this sentence and example of some similar sentences?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Robusto, simchona Dec 29 '12 at 20:59

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  • Yes, it does mean exactly that. Not sure how to explain the grammar though. I also have troubles with constructions like "But for the bodies on the ground..." – Mr Lister Dec 29 '12 at 17:54
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    There are a whole bunch of questions duplicating yours. Did you look for them first? – tchrist Dec 29 '12 at 17:54
  • @tchrist I thought there would be, but I can't find a question addressing the idiom "were it not for". There's this on "If not for", but that's something of a stretch for a learner. – StoneyB Dec 29 '12 at 18:02
  • @StoneyB Related and probable duplicate of one or another of: english.stackexchange.com/q/95741 english.stackexchange.com/q/95943 english.stackexchange.com/q/1308 english.stackexchange.com/a/47276 english.stackexchange.com/q/20479 and doubtless many, many more. – tchrist Dec 29 '12 at 18:08
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    @tchrist It's not just the {whispering to avoid attracting John Lawler's attention} subjunctive here, it's the comparatively uncommon use of "for" with negatives, too, that I think is confusing OP. – StoneyB Dec 29 '12 at 18:18

There are two fairly uncommon uses at work in “Were it not for the bodies”.

  1. Were here is the irrealis or subjunctive form elicited by a condition-contrary-to-fact: as you say, “If the bodies were not there*, this being contradicted by the (implied) fact that the bodies were there. As the links which tchrist has supplied will tell you, with this use the verb may be placed at the head of the clause, where it carries the sense of if: “Were it not” = “If it were not”.

  2. For here is used in a sense, little seen now, approximately equivalent to “because of” — “My coat is the worse for wear”. It occurs somewhat more often with negative expressions such as but for or for lack of, or the case at hand, and indicates (according to OED 1) “the presence or operation of an obstacle or hindrance”.

The full sense of your phrase, then, is something like “If the bodies there on the ground had not prevented it, it would have appeared ... ”


I'm not happy about the mixing of tenses here. I'd prefer:

"Had it not been for the bodies there on the ground, it would have appeared to be a normal day at the oasis."

I think I'm picking up an echo of 'a normal day at the office', indicating a pun of sorts, but that's a different matter.

A sentence starting 'Were it not for' is:

Were it not for the tyre tracks in the sand, one could imagine that we were the first people to come here for centuries.

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    The ‘Cambridge Grammar of English’ (Carter and McCarthy) provides this example: ‘Were it not for help from a psychologist, she might have been a lot more unwell by now.’ Would you want to change that too? – Barrie England Dec 29 '12 at 18:13
  • @BarrieEngland I imagine that Ed is thinking there should be some sort of “balance of perfect-ness” in both clauses. As you rightly observe, that sort of thing doesn’t hold for this particular construction. Whether these is more to it in other situations is another question entirely. – tchrist Dec 29 '12 at 18:43

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