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In my book, it just told me about omitting "if" at the beginning of a sentence. Then what about "if" in the middle of a sentence?

Example:

  • I wouldn't do that if I were you.

  • I would have told you if I had known.

  • Please take a message if anyone should call.

Can I rephrase those sentences as follows:

  • I wouldn't do that were I you.

  • I would have told you had I known.

  • Please take a message should anyone call.

Do those make sense? And please let me know if I need commas, semicolons, or whatever. Thanks!

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  • 1
    The second and third are idiomatic, if rather formal. The first is not. May 31, 2021 at 12:49
  • 2
    I think the inversion is very "formal, starchy". And for learners, it's probably best avoided in all contexts, since there's no simple rule you can learn to make sure you don't end up using the construction to generate forms like the first example here (which is hopelessly non-idiomatic! :) May 31, 2021 at 14:27
  • You do need a comma before the inverted phrase, at least for the second example. Not for the third. The first could go either way.
    – randomhead
    May 31, 2021 at 16:00
  • "If I were you" is an idiomatic phrase used to give advice, and applying this inversion the meaning to "I wouldn't do that if I were in your situation", which is not necessarily giving advice, just an opinion. It does work for the other two examples, but as noted, it sounds highly formal, even pompous.
    – gotube
    Jun 1, 2021 at 4:15

1 Answer 1

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Yes, those make sense. They're called inverted conditionals.

Alternate constructions for hypothetical "if" clauses that omit "if" and employ either the subjunctive for pluperfect subjunctive calls for inverting the subject and the subjunctive verb, e.g.:

if I were you = were I you

if I had known = had I known

The "should" construction is a bit different because "should" replaces "if" and "were to" or "if," thus the main verb is the infinitive without "to," e.g.:

if I were to go = should I go

-or-

if I went = if I were to go = should I go

This is standard English. People use it all the time. While it sometimes can be more formal, there's nothing "starchy" or overly "formal" about the usage. You will very often hear people say things like, "Had I known you were going to bring a friend, I'd have fixed more food." Native English speakers wouldn't do any kind of double-take at that sentence's structure or have any kind of reaction to that sentence as being starchy or even that it's particularly formal. It's just standard language, not slang or informal.

By the way, since "should" can be used to mean "would" when the subject is "I" or "we," a usage that became increasingly less used throughout the 20th century such that it is rarely used anymore, you can find examples, particularly in writing that predates 1930, of people saying things like, "Should I have the time, I should like to go with you," meaning, "If I had the time, I'd like to go with you." Again, about the only place you'll hear or see a sentence like that nowadays is maybe on an episode of Downton Abbey, in a Jane Austen novel, or some other period piece, but I mention it because you may run into sentences like that in exactly such places.

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