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How has "if it weren't for" got the meaning of

use this when you would do something different if a particular situation did not exist now

(the definition of "if it weren't for" in LDOCE) ?


EDIT 18 NOV

If we take "it" as "the situation" and "for" as "because of" as suggested by athlonusm, "if it weren't for XXX" will mean "if the reason for it isn't XXX even though I know it is in reality". Then for example

If it weren't for music, world would be a dull place.

will mean

If the reason for it isn't music even though I know it is in reality, world would be a dull place.

It sounds illogical, doesn't it?

Since the answers posted so far are explaining mainly what the subjunctive mood is, I have to emphasize that I know the basic meaning and usage of subjunctive "were".


I wanted to show using the above example about music that its current meaning is beyond its literal meaning. I suppose that there is a historic reason for it to have the current meaning. I want to know that.

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  • 1
    This question does not belong to this site, see English language and Usage Stack Exchange.
    – CipherBot
    Nov 17, 2015 at 12:51
  • Read about "subjunctive 'were' " and irrealis conditions. Nov 17, 2015 at 12:59
  • @TRomano, my question is how "if it weren't for XXX" has got the meaning "if XXX didn't exist".
    – Aki
    Nov 17, 2015 at 15:53
  • @CipherBot, can I ask you why?
    – Aki
    Nov 18, 2015 at 1:13

3 Answers 3

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This is simply a subjunctive construction consisting of "if", "it," "were not", and "for".

One of the uses of the subjunctive is to deal with an irrealis situation - the things referred to are not happening as the speaker is talking.

If I were you, I would have noticed that.

It is recommended that he take two pills a day.

The public supports the motion that they be freed.

If it weren't for that mistake we might have finished the project on time.

John recommended that he try out for the team.

http://www.englishpage.com/minitutorials/subjunctive.html https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

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  • Are you suggesting that by simply putting the meanings of "if","it", subjunctive "were", "not" and "for" together we can get the meaning “if XXX did not exist”?
    – Aki
    Nov 18, 2015 at 4:41
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The preposition for can mean because of. If it weren't for just means that without intervention of the first thing mentioned in the if-clause, the second thing would have happened (or would happen). In other words, the second thing didn't happen (or isn't happening) because of the first thing.

If it wasn't for the ​life ​jacket, I would have ​drowned.

This sentence means that he didn't drown because of the life jacket.

If it weren't for him, I would probably be living on the streets.

This sentence means that if the man hadn't helped, the author would be living on the streets. The author isn't living on the streets because of the man, because of the man's help.

I'd keep a garden if it weren't for having too much to do.

This sentence means that if there weren't too much work to do to keep the garden, the author would keep the garden. The author isn't keeping the garden because of all the work he/she would have to do.


  1. Cambridge Dictionaries: for.
  2. The Free Dictionary: if it weren't for.
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Consider:

If my name were Aki, and we were both in the same room, and someone called out "Aki!", we would both turn around.

But my name is not Aki. The statement above refers to a hypothetical. It is in that sense that we say "were" refers to that which does not actually exist.

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