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I have been reading a book and I came across a sentence which looks like it's lacking one word which mistakenly was not written during the printing of the book:

Though I lived and worked in the Third Reich during the first half of its brief life, watching at first hand Adolf Hitler consolidate his power as dictator of this great but baffling nation and then lead it off to war and conquest, this personal experience would not have led me to attempt to write this book had there not occurred at the end of World War II an event unique in history. This was the capture of most of the confidential archives of the German government and all its branches, including those of the Foreign Office, the Army and Navy, the National Socialist Party and Heinrich Himmler’s secret police.

The confusing part is the bold one. Given the next words, I think it lacks an if before had there not.

  • 3
    Sorry, you are not right. The sentence is fine. – Victor Bazarov Oct 3 '15 at 11:24
  • The sentence is a-okay. We can form sentences using these kinds of "had-constructions". – CowperKettle Oct 3 '15 at 11:25
  • Yes, it would be incomplete, if there were not words after it. Fortunately, there are. Not sure why you decided not to read them! – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 3 '15 at 17:23
  • As the answers have pointed out, there's nothing wrong with that construction. There is a comma splice earlier in the sentence though and this is generally regarded as bad style in English writing. – smithkm Oct 3 '15 at 20:23
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This is an example of subject-auxiliary inversion.

Subject-auxiliary inversion

We use the past perfect in the if-clauses of conditionals when we want to talk about something hypothetical in the past:

  • If you had been at the conference, you wouldn't have enjoyed it.

The word if here is important, because it shows us that this is a subordinate conditional clause. However, there is another way that we can show this. We can leave out the word if, and change the position of the Subject and the auxiliary verb, like you would for a question:

  • Had you been at the conference, you wouldn't have enjoyed it.

In the sentence above, the Subject you, and the auxiliary verb had have changed places. This inversion is enough to show that this is a conditional subordinate clause, so we don't use the word if here.

The Original Poster's example

The important section of the sentence is:

this personal experience would not have led me to attempt to write this book had there not occurred at the end of World War II an event unique in history.

In the Original Poster's example, the subordinate clause is at the end and the main clause is at the beginning. Let's swap them round so that they're easier to understand:

Had there not occurred at the end of World War II an event unique in history, this personal experience would not have led me to attempt to write this book.

The protasis (the subordinate clause), is the section in bold letters. It is an unusual sentence. It uses the same pronoun, there, which we find in existential sentences like:

  • There was an accident.

The writer has used a presentational construction. In presentational constructions we use the dummy pronoun there as the Subject and move the "semantic subject" to the end of the clause. This makes the sentence more dramatic. The listener has to wait right till the very end of the sentence to find out what the semantic subject is.

So in the Original Poster's example, the grammatical Subject of the sentence is the word there. The so-called semantic subject, the thing that we understand that "occurred", is an event unique in history.

The writer could have used the word if to make this sentence:

  • If there had not occurred, right at the end of world war II, an event unique in history ...

Instead they used Subject-auxiliary inversion. Notice that - as well as dropping the word if - the Subject, there, and the auxiliary, had, have also changed places:

  • Had there not occurred, right at the end of world war II, an event unique in history ...

Other conditionals

This kind of Subject-auxiliary inversion is also quite common in conditionals which use the modal verb should:

  • Should you see Bob, can you ask him to come and see me.

We also find it sometimes with other modal verbs, but this is very rare indeed:

  • Could he but only change the past, he would.
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  • Can you tell me whether we can have subject-auxiliary inversion with verb "could" in conditionals only with the "... but only..." construct, or without too? I'm asking specifically for when "could" has a present time reference, as in your example. – HeWhoMustBeNamed Mar 7 at 18:36
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The sentence is correct. Hypothetical clauses can be either introduced by if or written with an inversion of verb and subject: here are some simple examples and here is a more exhaustive rule

Now, in this case, I wouldn't have used it because it is not too common (and in fact you had never seen it before) and it is a very strange construction in an already complex sentence. Nevertheless, it is correct.

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  • 1
    "not too common" ... not too common nowadays. This was probably written about 60 years ago, and would be a familiar construction to contemporary readers. – Brian Drummond Oct 3 '15 at 16:42
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If we examine the last clause of the sentence:

..., this personal experience would not have led me to attempt to write this book had there not occurred at the end of World War II an event unique in history.

we can simplify it by dropping some words, turn it into

..., this experience would not have led me to write this book had there not occurred a unique event.

The part of this sentence fragment that begins with "had there not" is another clause (called "conditional") with its own subject ("event") and predicate ("had not occurred"). If we want to put the subject and the predicate in the "normal" order, then we need the 'if':

..., this experience would not have let me to write this book if a unique event had not occurred.

For more explanations on those look for "conditional clause inversion" on your favorite search engine.

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