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I always thought that the elliptical conditional clause "Had + Subject + past participle" is used only in counterfactual conditionals, e.g. :

Had Joe seen Mary, he would have fallen in love with her.

Recently, however, a number of native speakers said the boldfaced part in the following is okay:

We retreated to the car while Marco kept apologizing for the rudeness of the twins to our hosts, whose gazes were now anything but friendly, had they ever been.

I'm confused. The above is not a counterfactual sentence. Can "had + subject + past participle" be used in non-counterfactual conditional sentences? Do those native speakers (NS) have a poor grasp of conditionals?

For some examples of how NS find it okay in non-counterfactual conditionals, see Quora, and the reply by Mike Pattison.

Your sentence seems unnecessarily complicated, but your question is about choosing between two conditional clauses and on that basis alone, either is acceptable. Personally, I would have said “if ever they had been” as sounding perhaps more natural, but that’s possibly a distinction without a difference.

From The Free Dictionary Language forum, the reply by FounDit.

Yes, it's correct, but I'd say it's also very formal wording. It conveys the idea that the hosts never truly had friendly gazes, and they certainly were not at the point of leaving.

And https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/apologizing-for-the-rudeness-of-the-twins-to-our-hosts.3994987/ , see post #5, where Cagey says the sentence is "fine."

But then there is at least one native speaker who thinks the sentence in question is wrong:

See ELL, where Michael Harvey says, "It's wrong, it's bad. That's all. Replace with 'if they had ever been'" in the comments.

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    Natives of where? Twitterland? If you are learning English following some sort of book, I suggest you post on English Language Learners. It may not fit into your category, but "had they ever been SO" is recognizable to me as English usage.
    – David
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 10:20
  • @David Here, quora.com/… , see thre reply by Mike Pattison.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 11:21
  • @David and here, forum.thefreedictionary.com/… , see the reply by FounDit.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 11:22
  • @FumbleFingers My question is whether "had + Subject + past participle" as a condition is limited to counterfactuals.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 11:25
  • 2
    Here, I'd interpret this sentence as the speaker doubting whether their glances were ever friendly. And I'd say that this is close enough to a counterfactual that you can use the structure there. Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 12:16

2 Answers 2

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Ignoring any awkward or unnaturalness to the wording, if this is correct English:

  • Had they ever been friendly, our hosts' gazes were now anything but, as we retreated to the car while Marco kept apologizing for the rudeness of the twins.

Then the originally quoted inversion of it should be correct too:

We retreated to the car while Marco kept apologizing for the rudeness of the twins to our hosts, whose gazes were now anything but friendly, had they ever been.

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    I find the original sentence unacceptable, and Ray's recasting of it barely more acceptable.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 17:47
  • @ColinFine, as I said, "Ignoring any awkward or unnaturalness to the wording …". I'm claiming only that it is grammatically acceptable. Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 18:32
  • Maybe we could try to find established examples in literature to prove the "had they ever been" is correct. So far I haven't found any.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 23:40
  • @Apollyon, Google Ngram Viewer shows "had they ever been ." as quickly rising in use since 1980. But it's still only about 5% of the same phrase without the period. Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 0:06
  • @RayButterworth But those cases of "had they ever been" are not non-counterfactual conditional usages. We're investigating it as a non-counterfactual conditional, aren't we?
    – Apollyon
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 1:00
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The use of "Had + Subject + Past Participle" in English conditionals, particularly outside the classic counterfactual (unreal or hypothetical situations) contexts, can indeed seem confusing at first glance. Let's explore this with the structure you like.

Understanding the Structure: Counterfactual Conditionals: Typically, "Had + Subject + Past Participle" is used for situations that didn't happen but are being imagined. For example, "Had Joe seen Mary, he would have fallen in love with her" imagines a scenario that didn't occur.

Expanding Usage: Reflective or Speculative Use: The example you provided, "We retreated to the car...had they ever been," is a bit different. It uses the structure to reflect or speculate on the past in a nuanced way, almost like pondering aloud about the nature of the hosts' gazes. This isn't a classic conditional scenario but rather a reflective or rhetorical use of the structure.

Native Speaker Views: Diverse Opinions: As highlighted by your research, opinions among native speakers (and experts) vary. Some find it acceptable and a matter of stylistic choice, suggesting it's formal or literary. Others prefer a more straightforward construction like "if they had ever been," considering it clearer or more natural.

Key Points: Formality and Style: The use of "Had + Subject + Past Participle" in non-counterfactual sentences can be seen as formal or literary, adding a layer of sophistication or reflection to the sentence.

Context and Clarity: Whether this structure is appropriate may depend on the context and the desired clarity or effect in communication.

Conclusion: Yes, "Had + Subject + Past Participle" can be used outside strict counterfactual conditionals, particularly in reflective or speculative contexts. While some may debate its clarity or naturalness, it's a stylistic choice that can convey subtlety and depth in the right circumstances. Understanding and appreciating this flexibility can enrich your engagement with English, showcasing the language's breadth and depth.

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