From the book "Sapiens", on the page 142:

For many generations they were transmitted orally and would have lived on even had writing never been invented.

In the sentence above, it seems something is omitted. I don't get what it is and why. Please explain the structure of the above grammatically. After "and" there are 2 verbs and the sentence seems reversed , which I don't understand Thanks for your comment . In this context they refer to "the Hebrew Bible , The Greek Iliad ... " I can see the subject of "would have lived " is "they " Then what about the sentence " even had writing never been invented " . I assume this sentence means "even before writing had never been invented . " can you omit before ans that ,s why the sentence is reversed?

  • Could you please point us to exactly what it is you don't understand? Otherwise the question will probably be closed, since an exhaustive grammatical description of the entire sentence would be impossibly long and would be of little value to other visitors with the same problem you are having. Mar 21, 2017 at 13:03
  • The only thing that is "missing" is a subject for the sentence, which I assume is supplied in the previous sentence. I can tell from context that the sentence refers to stories/folktales which were passed down by "oral tradition" before writing.
    – mstorkson
    Mar 21, 2017 at 13:13
  • Thanks for your comment . In this context they refer to "the Hebrew Bible , The Greek Iliad ... " I can see the subject of "would have lived " is "they " Mar 21, 2017 at 13:59

1 Answer 1


There are a few things going on that make this sentence a little tricky to parse. (Also, as mstorkson points out in comments, the antecedent or subject that "they" refers to is unclear, but presumably in context that part makes sense.)

The first is that the pronoun they is omitted from the second part of the sentence. The author is saying two different things about the same subject in one sentence. In compound sentences like this, it's fairly common to leave out the subject the second time. You can read more about this kind of ellipsis in this ELL question and its answers.

There is also the slightly unusual phrasing even had writing... in the second part of the sentence. When you see (even) had X (verbed) you can usually re-write it as (even) if X had (verbed):

Even had I known = Even if I had known
Even had she not guessed = Even if she had not guessed
Had you been there = If you had been there

and so forth.

Finally, I might include a comma, to clearly separate the two parts of the sentence, but that's a style choice.

So we could very slightly re-write the sentence this way (changes in bold):

For many generations they [the Hebrew Bible, Greek Iliad, etc.] were transmitted orally, and they [those same works] would have lived on even if writing had never been invented.

  • Thanks for your detailed explanation. I clearly undersood it now . Mar 21, 2017 at 14:15

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