88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1


Some English grammar structures are rarely found in coursebooks because they are quite unusual in English



Some English grammar structures are used much less commonly than others. Consider this example:

(a) Air quality is poor in large cities, there are so many motor vehicles.

This is a slightly informal variant of the familiar so/such … that … combination used to express a consequence (see 32. Expressing Consequences). With that combination, the sentence would be:

(b) There are so many motor vehicles in large cities that air quality is poor.

The essentials of the structure shown in (a) are two separate statements, each with a verb (in this case is … are), and a comma between them. In addition, the second statement must express a cause of what is said by the first, and must contain either so or such (depending on whether or not there is a following noun). Readers might like to try putting this new sentence into the same structure:

(c) Stars are such a distance away that they cannot be reached in a spaceship.

Rewritten in the less usual way, this becomes:

(d) Stars cannot be reached in a spaceship, they are such a distance away.

This post presents and analyses a number of other similarly unusual English grammar structures. More are in 159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2.



1. “But for”


But for the river, the enemy WOULD HAVE captured the town.

The underlined words mean “if the river had not been there”. But for thus means “if … had not existed” and hence corresponds to a condition with if (see also 159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2, #6). The implied verb will be in either the past perfect had tense (as here) or the past simple, depending on whether or not the main verb contains have. Here is an example where have is absent, so that the past simple tense is implied:

(e) Life WOULD be impossible on earth but for the atmosphere. (= … if the atmosphere did not exist).

Because but for is a preposition, it needs a noun or equivalent straight after it. As a result, verbs need either to have -ing (see 70. Gerunds) or to follow the fact that (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”), e.g. … but for the fact that IT HAS the atmosphere.


2. “Just because … does not mean”


Just because prices are high does not mean that sales will fall.

This structure is used for denying an expected consequence, and is thus different from the normal use of because (see 61. Since versus Because). It involves a highly unusual sentence subject: not a noun or noun equivalent (see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices), but a conjunction (just because) followed by its own separate subject and verb. Some speakers do add it (after high in the example above) but many do not. Note that just because is usually made into a subject like this only when the verb is does not mean (or a synonym); other verbs require a “proper” subject to be added.


3. Imperative Verb + “and” + Statement


Break the speed limit and a fine will have to be paid.

This sentence illustrates another alternative to a conditional with if: a verb in the “imperative” form, like break, linked by and to a following statement. Imperative verbs are examined in detail in the post 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing. The above sentence could be rephrased:

(f) If you break the speed limit, a fine will have to be paid.

Not every use of if can be replaced by an imperative verb. There must normally be an equivalence to the present simple or continuous tense.


4. “there to be”


The government want there to be more taxes.

Tax rises will cause there to be more poverty.

Saying there to be instead of there is/was seems strange, but follows the ordinary English grammar rule of changing a verb into the infinitive form (with to) after words that typically require one. The words want in the first sentence and cause in the second are the infinitive-requiring ones above (for others like them, see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1 and 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”).

When there is not present, verbs like these normally need a noun before the to verb. However, with there to be no noun is necessary because there is itself acting more like a noun than an adverb (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences).

Sometimes, instead of there to be, it is necessary to write there being, like this

(g) The need for safety involves there being a supervisor at the scene.

Of course, the reason for the -ing form here is a preceding verb (INVOLVE) which typically requires any following verb to have it.


5. Adjective/Adverb + “though”


Difficult though it is to exercise, doing so brings benefits.

Quickly though a gazelle can run, it cannot outpace a cheetah.

Conjunctions are normally the first word in their part of a sentence (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors). Though is perfectly possible in this position too (Though it is difficult to exercise, …), but it can just as easily come after an adjective or adverb in order to give it emphasis.


6. “Be it/Be they … or …”


Be it summer or winter, top athletes have to train.

The first underlined words here are equivalent to “whether it is” and hence carry the meaning of “makes no difference” (see 99. When to Use “whether … or …”). You can paraphrase whether … or … like this when it links two complements of the lone verb BE.

The resultant be is the rare form known as the “subjunctive” (for another example, see 118. Problems with Conditional “if”, #6). Its subject is the next word, the pronoun it above. Pronouns are typical here but not essential. Here is another example, this time with the plural they:

(h) Be they sweet or sour, apples make a delicious dessert.

After the subject of be comes its “complement”, a noun or adjective which identifies or describes the subject (See 8. Object-Dropping Errors). In the sentences above the complements are summer or winter and sweet or sour.


7. “With” + Noun + “-ing”


The war was waged by the army, with the air force staying at home.

This construction is also discussed in the post 3. Multi-Use Words. The second half of the sentence means “… while the air force stayed at home”; with hence means “while”.

If while is used instead of with, it has to be followed by a subject and ordinary verb (the air force stayed). This is because it is a conjunction (see 174. Eight Things to Know about Conjunctions). However, with is a preposition, after which verbs cannot be used in their ordinary form. This means that stayed must become staying, a participle describing air force. The possibility of paraphrasing prepositions with conjunctions is a common one in English – see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions.

An important aspect of this structure is its position at the end of the sentence. If you begin the sentence with the with part, you create the meaning of “because” instead of “while”: that the army waged the war because the air force stayed at home (see 72. Causal Prepositions). Starting with with is also different in that it allows the use of -ed participles as well as -ing ones, like this:

(i) With the work finished, the labourers started to drift away.

For a further point about with before an -ed participle, see 75. How to Avoid “Dangling” Participles.

8. “It is important” + Indirect Question


It is important which company lands the contract.

This surely means “It is an important matter which company lands the contract”, rather than “the company that lands the contract is an important one”. In other words, it stands not for company, but for which company lands the contract. The sentence is thus of the same kind as familiar ones starting with it and using to or -ing or that to add a second verb (see 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences), as in this example:

 (j) It is painful seeing/to see so much suffering.

The similarity between this and the sentence above is that both keep the same meaning when the second verb and its associated words (underlined) are moved to replace it at the start. Indirect question words like which are particularly similar to the linking word that. However, they are not as common, which is why I consider them “exotic”.  More about indirect question words is in the posts 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing and 105. Questions with a “to” Verb.

Note that the question word in this use of indirect questions cannot be paraphrased with a noun, as it can in other uses (see 185. Noun Synonyms of Question Words): you cannot say the company landing the project instead of the which question above.

A small number of other adjectives are commonly used instead of important, for example vital, essential, crucial, interesting, tricky, unresolved, unknown and perhaps urgent. Example sentences are:

(k) It is tricky where to go next.

(l) It is unknown who will be elected.


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