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I am reading a book for English languages learners, Oliver Twist, and there are two parts that surprise me. Both have the same form. I have copied the text word for word:

But the magistrate sentenced him to three months in prison, with hard labour, and the boy would have been taken away to prison had it not been for the owner of the bookshop, who rushed into the office and at this point advanced towards the bench.

The second one:

The fellow touched his hat with a smile, expecting something for his trouble; but the old gentleman looked at him with and expression of dislike, and would have run away himself had not a police officer at that moment made his way through the crowd and seized Oliver by the collar.

I understand what it means but I'm surprised because there is no "if" before "had".

For example, why isn't it written "and would have run away himself if there had not a police officer" or something like this in the second part?

Please, could you explain this to me? I can't find a rule about that.

Thank you so much.

  • We have a couple of dozen question on this subject: they're tagged [conditional-constructions] and [inversion], and here's a list. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 9 '17 at 14:27
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In his book, Practical English Usage (261.5), Swan remarks that in literary and formal styles this is possible with certain auxiliary verbs: if is left out and had, for instance, is placed before the subject. If the rest of the sentence remains the same, the two are interchangeable except for the literary or formal overtones of the if-less version.

Furthermore, Swan adds that negatives aren't contracted in that case (had I not does not become hadn't I).

Let's take a look at the (somewhat abridged) examples from your question:

  1. ...and the boy would have been taken away to prison had it not been for the owner of the bookshop, who rushed...

The sentence above can be rephrased as follows:

...and the boy would have been taken away to prison if it hadn't been for the owner of the bookshop, who rushed...


  1. ...but the old gentleman looked at him with an expression of dislike, and would have run away himself had not a police officer at that moment made his way through the crowd and seized...

Again, we can rephrase the relevant parts in the following manner:

...but the old gentleman looked at him with an expression of dislike, and would have run away himself if a police officer at that moment hadn't made his way through the crowd and seized...

or

...but the old gentleman looked at him with an expression of dislike, and would have run away himself if a police officer hadn't at that moment made his way through the crowd and seized...

Note that in the rephrased sentences it was okay to use the contracted form, hadn't.

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