I came across this quote and was intrigued by its grammar: "The soul would have no rainbow, had the eyes no tears"

At first glance, "had the eyes no tears" this seems like a type II conditional sentence being inverted (I can vaguely make out the conditional clause to mean "If the eyes had no tears"), therefore shouldn't the conditional clause be "Were the eyes to have no tears"?

Even if it were a mixed conditional sentence, the conditional clause would still be "Had the eyes had no tears", correct?

How and why is "had the eyes no tears" used here? I have never seen this of inversion being used ever before. Is it missing "if" (if i reordered it, would it be "The eyes had no tears")? Is it even correct? Any and all help is greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

  • 1
    It is not a mixed conditional; both tenses are the same. As you suggest, it means 'if the eyes had no tears'. This form of inversion is quite common. See this (sorry about the first example). Jan 3, 2022 at 13:21
  • @KateBunting your comment is contradictory. The link you provided was an example of an inverted type III conditional clause. If that were the case here, the sentence would constitute a mixed conditional as the main clause (the soul would have no rainbow) uses the present conditional (would have). My question was about how the conditional clause was inverted. Is it missing "if" (if i reordered it, would it be "The eyes had no tears")? Is it even correct? Please tell me the underlying grammar behind this. Thanks in advance! Jan 3, 2022 at 15:03

1 Answer 1


It is indeed fine, if a little literary (the inversion instead of "if"). You're right that it can be replaced with zero damage by "if the eyes had".

Notice that your proposed replacement, "were the eyes to have no tears", is grammatically identical in terms of the main verb: a past subjunctive. But "were to have" is more verbose, and the poetic tone of the quote leads to a preference for the concise "had".

Here are a few more natural examples:

Had he any sense, he would have come home long ago.

It would have been bad driving had the wind kept up.

Were she my queen, I would obey her.

Again, this is rather literary. In regular conversation you will find neither the inversion nor the subjunctive:

If she was my queen, I would obey her.

However, the inversion is so literary that even pedants will pass over it though they correct the subjunctive.

If she were my queen, I would obey her.

P.S. In archaic language, such as the King James Bible, this subjunctive is actually used for both the consequent and the antecedent. It shows that there is more than just the conditional for expressing irrealis mood.

Unless* the Lord had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence. (Psalm 94:17)

* Also an outdated sense of "unless", which in modern English would suggest that the Lord had not been the author's help!

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