I read this sentence:

This covering up of pipes is all a mistake, they should be exposed everywhere, if necessary painted well and handsomely.

It uses a use of "if necessary" I have never seen before. I searched it up, but found no results. Don't we usually use "if necessary" by itself? I don't know how a past participle can be used after "if necessary".

I think the full version of the phrase should be something like

if (it is) necessary (to be) painted.

But is it a common usage? Is it grammatical? It was written in 19th century, so I don't know if this usage is still used.

The book is called The Devil In The White City, and it is said by Peter Chardon Brooks III in a letter (a real letter -- the book is non fiction).

  • What is the source? Specifically, who is saying this, and in what context. The tenses seem to be a bit messed up.
    – user3169
    Jul 24, 2016 at 16:47
  • @user3169 The book is called The Devil In The White City, and it is said by Peter Chardon Brooks III in a letter (a real letter -- the book is non fiction).
    – whitedevil
    Jul 24, 2016 at 16:49
  • OK, please add this info. to your question.
    – user3169
    Jul 24, 2016 at 17:02

1 Answer 1


This passage is from a letter in which a client instructs his architects about many details of the building he wants. It is a very long letter, and the client is setting down his ideas in a hurry, so he doesn't bother with minor details of punctuation and sentence structure. What he means would be more formally expressed something like this; I've highlighted my changes:

This covering up of pipes is all a mistake; they should be exposed everywhereif necessary painted well and handsomely.

In this context if necessary is an entirely acceptable and quite ordinary abbreviation of the phrase if it is necessary. As Brooks' comma (or my dash) indicates, this final phrase is a supplement inserted as a parenthetical qualification. If necessary indicates that the pipes should be painted only if that is necessary.

And painted here is not a past-tense verb but a past participle. You may read it either as an adjectival modifying pipes or as a second complement to passivizing be. The difference between those two readings is of interest only to formal grammarians.

  • @ColinFine Your reading, with and, was exactly my original thought; but then I reconsidered and decided that the whole last piece was supplemental. Jul 24, 2016 at 17:01
  • Thank you. I just have never seen "if necessary + ed" construction. Could you show me the grammatical structure behind it? Can I say something like "the building will be done everything it requires, if necessary covered with gold". I think something is elided...but I don't know what is.
    – whitedevil
    Jul 24, 2016 at 17:03
  • @whitedevil If necessary doesn't "construct" with the participle but with the phrase which the participle heads--you could just as well put it at the end: The pipes should be exposed--painted handsomely, if necessary. It's the same construction as "I'd like my bread toasted--buttered, if possible*. Jul 24, 2016 at 17:11
  • Thank you! That's where I was confused. I think a comma after if necessary would have been clearer, but it was written hurriedly :)
    – whitedevil
    Jul 24, 2016 at 17:12
  • @whitedevil I'm not a big fan of short comma parentheticals unless they're really necessary to avoid ambiguity or structure the train of thought. From what I see of his style I don't think Brooks would say this with comma intonation. It amounts to "If you think you have to you can paint it". Jul 24, 2016 at 17:15

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