This is an excerpt using the expression 'if it were possible.' I would like to be able to use it in my composition in the future. But the rule that governs the use seems more than just a little complicated; it looks as though it is not a second conditional in its own sense.

  1. Could or should you use it with a non-conditional main clause?
  2. Should the main clause be in the past, as in the original, example sentence?
  3. Would 'if it were possible' collocate better with the comparative?
  4. Would 'if that were possible' be better, depending on the way sentence is structured?

Blue just smiled back, Gavin got down, Mr. Tisdale and I and Miss Edna froze in our positions in the tableau, the full silence fell again, and Junie raised the little pistol and called them to their marks once more.

Bang! And this time, if it were possible, Blue reached out to an even greater early lead. It was as if Gavin was so intimidated by what he knew was coming that he let himself be shamed all the more.

Source: Everybody's All-American by Frank Deford.

I rendered my own sentence:

[1] I started seeing the computer shutting down a few times a day. So I tried to fix it but I failed; it started acting up more crazily, if that were possible.

2 Answers 2

  1. Could or should you use it with a non-conditional main clause?

Yes, the phrase "if it/that were possible" would always need to be paired with a main clause, as it doesn't say anything meaningful on its own – you need a subject in the main clause to compare the possibility to.

To address the issue of mood from the comments, the phrase would probably most typically be used in the indicative mood, though I'm thinking it could be used with the subjunctive as well. It could not go with the imperative.

  1. Should the main clause be in the past, as in the original, example sentence?

It wouldn't necessarily need to. Consider this example where the main clause is in present tense as an example:

"Jim is such a jerk. He acts as though, if it were possible, he rules the world."

  1. Would 'if it were possible' collocate better with the comparative?

It does not necessarily need to be used with the comparative (see example sentence under #2 above). I am hesitant to really say that it's even used more often with the comparative, though the phrase does lend itself well to use with comparatives.

As for the use of "even" as mentioned in the comments, I think that's just coincidence that we've got a few example sentences in this post that all use "even." As I said, the phrase does lend itself well to comparatives, and "even" is often used with comparatives to add a little extra force to the comparison – for example, "even better," "even faster," or "even taller."

  1. Would 'if that were possible' be better, depending on the way sentence is structured?

Perhaps so! The position of the phrase to the main clause will likely dictate what sounds most natural to a native speaker. If the main clause comes first, "if that were possible" is likely more natural because we have a definite reference for "that" to refer to.

Contrast that with the case where the main clause comes second:

"I started seeing the computer shutting down a few times a day. So I tried to fix it but I failed; it started, if it were possible, acting up more crazily."

In this case, if we had replaced "it" with "that," a native speaker would potentially find the sentence confusing because we haven't defined what "that" is yet. "It" is not quite so specific a determiner, so we can use "it" before defining what "it" actually is.

. . .

As an aside, I would probably recommend revising the phrase "acting up more crazily" in your sentence. Either of the following would be a bit more natural:

  • it started acting up even more
  • it started acting even more crazily
  • In question 1, I wanted to know if the phrase should always be used with a non-conditional main clause because 'if it/that were possible' is a conditional 2 subordinate clause and it seems the main clause in Deford's example is a non-conditional one.
    – Sssamy
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 9:19
  • And in 3, I wanted to know if it's better with the comparative, whether it's 'it' or 'that.' Thanks, cjl750.
    – Sssamy
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 9:22
  • Regarding #1, I want to say the answer to your question is yes, but I'm hesitant because I'm not totally understanding what you mean by "non-conditional main clause." As far as my thinking goes, all main clauses are non-conditional, so the answer would be yes, but if you're saying "could it be used with a conditional main clause as well as a non-conditional one," then I'd probably need an example of what a conditional main clause is. Does that make sense?
    – cjl750
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 19:46
  • Editing the post in regards to #3, but let me know if I'm still not getting at what you meant. Let me know regarding #1, and I will edit again.
    – cjl750
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 19:47
  • 1
    Instead, you could maybe say something like "It's been raining so hard lately. The rain clouds seem, if it were possible, to stretch on into infinity." The difference there is that the clouds in actuality have to stop at some point, so by including "if it were possible," you acknowledge the hyperbole of clouds stretching to infinity. By contrast, torrential rain in your example sentence very well could be the case without hyperbole, so the phrase doesn't really work there. Make sense?
    – cjl750
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 15:44

I don't think there are any special rules for "if it/that were possible". Syntactically, it's just an if clause. What's special about it, at least in Frank Deford's sentence, is that it's not being used literally. He's using it as a figure of speech. If you understand how the figure of speech works, you'll be able to use common sense to decide when to use it and how to use it appropriately—that is, what else in the sentence, if anything, you need to vary to "agree" with it.

The word were is past subjunctive. With if, the past subjunctive literally means that the if clause is not assumed true; the sentence merely describes a consequence of a false hypothesis, like this:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Source: Well-known proverb.

The point of this proverb is that deducing happy consequences from a false premise is worthless. It expresses this by pointing out that if you accept the absurd premise that wishes are horses, then even very poor people (who can't afford horses) would be able to ride them. Sometimes people say this proverb to counter someone who's treating a fantasy as a feasible plan. "If we won the lottery, we wouldn't have to pay rent because we could buy our own house!" "Yeah, well, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride." The past subjunctive were evokes a feeling of entering into a hypothetical world rather than reality. People use it mainly to create a strong feeling of distance what the clause says and what they're claiming to be true.

Literally, Deford's sentence means that it's not possible that Blue could have gotten an even greater early lead than in the first race. It's like saying this:

And this time, if two plus two equaled five, then Blue reached out to an even greater early lead.

In other words, the literal meaning is that Blue could not have outrun Gavin even more than before; it's a consequence of an impossibility, like "beggars would ride". Literally, it doesn't make much sense: "If it were possible that Blue outran Gavin even more, then Blue outran Gavin even more."

Of course, that's not what Deford really means. He really just means this:

And this time, amazingly, Blue reached out to an even greater early lead.

Using "if it were possible" as a figure of speech here just conveys a certain kind of amazement or disbelief.

Normally in this kind of sentence with if, the main verb would be in the conditional mood: introduced by would, could, etc. But in this sentence, the main verb, reached, is in the indicative mood. That's because Deford doesn't really want you to treat the sentence as an absurd consequence of an impossible condition. The point is, Blue did get an even greater early lead. If Deford said would have reached, the reader would be confused. The reader would wonder if Deford might really only be talking hypothetically. The figure of speech would be spoiled if Deford treated the grammar too consistently.

That should give you some insight into how ordinary grammatical rules apply to this phrase—or don't apply. You have to reasonably bend the rules to keep the figure of speech comprehensible. It is, after all, just an extravagant way of saying amazingly. You can use it in any context at all where you want the peculiar "impossible-hypothesis-as-reality" sort of amazingness. You have to judge separately in each case how much the figure of speech diverges from ordinary usage, how likely it is to create confusion, and how or whether to adjust other grammatical elements to prevent that confusion. For example, here's a rather different figurative use of "if that were possible":

I knew the Duke of Newcastle to have extremely clean hands, maybe even too clean, if that were possible—for, after all the great offices which he had held for fifty years, he died £300,000 poorer than he was when he first came into them.

Source: Edited from a letter by Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Nov. 21, 1768.

The idea here is that the Duke of Newcastle was extremely honest ("clean hands"), maybe even too honest—if that concept made any sense, which it doesn't. But in a sense, the Duke was "too honest", because, rather than merely refraining from corruption, he actually seems to have lost money while he held high offices in government. It's figurative speech. Notice the contradiction between "I knew…" and "if that were possible": of course it's possible, or the author couldn't have known it to be true.

Regarding your own use of "if that were possible", I concur with cjl550 that the word that is appropriate because the fact pretended to be an impossibility has already been stated. People also say "if such were possible" and "if such a thing were possible". And I concur with cjl750 that it would be customary to include the word even before more, to agree with the idea that the previous craziness was already very bad—but it's not absolutely necessary. I think the figure of speech makes more sense, though, without the past subjunctive:

So I tried to fix it but I failed; it started acting up even more crazily, if that's possible.

The conceit of knowingly entertaining an absurd hypothesis doesn't work here, because the context hasn't provided a reason to think the hypothesis is so absurd. The level of craziness seen so far isn't comparable to wishes being horses or a person being too honest. Putting the hypothesis in the indicative mood here, "if that's possible", is more like wryly rolling your eyes as you're speaking rather than signaling dumbfounded amazement as in Deford's sentence. But even this weaker version of the figure of speech might be too strong for a computer acting up. We all know all too well that that's possible.

  • 1
    Great answer here as well, but +1 especially for the last paragraph that eloquently puts into words what I couldn't figure out how to say myself about why I just don't think the computer situation is that great of a use case for "if that were possible."
    – cjl750
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 14:34

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