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Were it not for the grammar

Q: I’ve noticed what I take to be an instance of hypercorrection in this sentence: “Were it not for my grandfather, I would never be born.” I would say, “Had it not been for my grandfather, I would never have been born.” I feel in my grammar bones that the subjunctive is wrong here. I await your exegesis.

A: The opening clause of that sentence, “Were it not for my grandfather,” is grammatically equivalent to “If it were not for my grandfather” (we’ll explain why later). So the sentence is conditional, the kind that often begins with an “if” clause or the equivalent and continues with a “would” clause.

The only thing wrong with the sentence is the second clause, “I would never be born.” It should read, “I would never [or “not”] have been born.”

Because that clause refers to an event in the past—the speaker’s birth—the verb is in the conditional perfect tense (“would have been”), not the simple conditional (“would be”).

The simple conditional is used in a “would” clause that refers to the present or future: “Were it not for my grandfather’s money, I would be poor.” (We wrote about how to juggle tenses with “would” in 2011 and in 2015.)

As we said above, the first clause of that sentence is fine. “Were it not” is a rather formal way of beginning a conditional sentence, but it’s not wrong or “hypercorrect.” (As we wrote in 2009, hypercorrectness is making a mistake in an attempt to be ultra-correct.)

A less formal version would have begun with “If,” as in “If it weren’t for my grandfather.” But there are other options as well, like the one you suggest, “Had it not been for my grandfather,” as well as “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather.”

All four beginnings—(1) “Were it not,” (2) “If it were not,” (3) “Had it not been,” and (4) “If it hadn’t been”—are grammatically equivalent.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would describe all four as “remote conditionals.” These are conditional statements that pose a hypothetical situation (in this case, the nonexistence of a grandfather) that’s unlikely, impossible, or unreal.

Since the grandfather did in fact exist, making the condition unreal, the verb in that clause is in the subjunctive mood, a mood used to express hypothetical situations that are contrary to fact. (The classical example: “If I were king.”)

This accounts for the use of the subjunctive “were” instead of “was” in versions #1 and #2. (In 2014, we discussed this use of “were.”) But the subjunctive mood doesn’t alter verbs in perfect tenses, like the past perfect “had been” in versions #3 and #4.

Now, on to the issue we mentioned above—why the “if” versions (“If it were not,” “If it hadn’t been”) are equivalent to those without it (“Were it not,” “had it not been”). What happens grammatically when we swap one for the other?

To put it simply, we drop the “if” and switch the order of the following elements—the subject and its verb or auxiliary. Here’s how this works with our examples:

“If it were not” → “Were it not” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and verb “were”)

“If it hadn’t been” → “Had it not been” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and auxiliary “had”)

As the Cambridge Grammar explains this process, the “if” here is replaced with a “subject-auxiliary conversion.” The result is what the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, call an “inverted conditional.”

Here are a few of the examples they give of inverted conditionals (we’ll show only the relevant clauses):

“If that were to happen” → “Were that to happen”

“If he had seen the incident” → “Had he seen the incident”

“If I had had any inkling of this” → “Had I had any inkling of this”

One more characteristic of inverted conditionals: When they’re expressed in the negative, the negative element comes after the subject (“had he not seen”), instead of before (“had not he seen”).

This means that contractions aren’t used in inverted conditional statements. We say, “Had it not been for my grandfather” (not “Hadn’t it been”), and “Were it not for my grandfather” (not “Weren’t it”). The negative element follows the subject, “it.”

The Cambridge Grammar illustrates with the example “Had it not been for the weather,” noting that the contracted form (“Hadn’t it been for the weather”) isn’t normal English.

A final note before we leave the subject of remote conditional statements. The “if” clause (or equivalent) doesn’t have to include a verb. It could begin with “But for” or “If not for.”

So our original sentence, beginning “Were it not for my grandfather,” could have verbless versions as well: “But for my grandfather” and “If not for my grandfather.”

That last construction always reminds us of Bob Dylan’s If Not for You. And that gives us an excuse to share the original version of the song, which Dylan himself recently posted to the Internet.

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