Submitted by Brus on September 25, 2011

“If I was” vs. “If I were”

“If I was the Prime Minister. ...” said Ed Miliband, British Labour party leader, today, Sunday 24th September 2011. Is this not how to phrase it if it remains a possibility that he was once Prime Minister, or if he is not sure if he was, or is reluctant to admit it? 

“If I were the Prime Minister, ...”, using the subjunctive mood of the verb, would suggest that he is not Prime minister but is about to tell us what he would do if he were the PM. If the subjunctive is now defunct in UK Labour politics, as I suspect, how did he continue to tell us what he would have done, if he were the PM, without using the subjunctive? “if I was the PM, I ~~~~~ ???” It cannot be done.

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If one wishes to teach "grammar" a little more directly, one can set a task like:
"A friend of mine says there are thirteen meaningful ways to join together the two sentences "Roses are red' and 'Violets are blue' : what are they and explain the differences in nuance". Good practical stuff not boring analysis and terminology.

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Often one does not need to teach grammar as such; just select a befitting topic to elicit it. For instance, to elicit "third" conditionals, topics like:-
"What effect did the British occupation have on India?"
"How has the Japanese occupation influence Korean education since WWII?"
or more directly:
"If the USA had successfully supported Chiang Dae Shur (ie chang kai shek) and the GuoMingTang, how would China be different today?"
It's not about learn grammar per se, it's about being able to use it.

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@Jasper - she's not against teaching grammar, but would prefer it through writing, not teaching a lot of (sometimes silly) rules before getting the students to write anything. And I think the author was mainly referring to stuff like parsing and diagramming, and being forced on people that weren't that interested.

Traditional grammar teaching in Britain up to the sixties was widely believed to stifle creativity, which as why it was ditched.

But there are always exceptions, and the fact that we comment on this forum probably means we are rather more interested in grammar than most people. Personally, I'm fascinated by the stuff - but real grammar, not all the stupid prescriptions and proscriptions (which she also mentions in her article) which often pass for grammar in writing schools. But best read the article yourself; the link is in my last-but-one comment.

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@Warsaw Will,

"The writer of that Atlantic article thinks that traditional grammar teaching has a negative effect on students, cramping their writing and generally pitting them off English."

Really? (I find that) The converse is actually true. Seriously, my writing style before I taught myself grammar had been above average to high; now that gap is far greater. I can write Proustian length sentences because of my knowledge of grammar. Knowing grammar actually improves someone's understanding of how to compose sentences, via the (basic) syntactical elements. This is even more highlighted when thinking about phrases and clauses.

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@jayles - I quite agree with you about terminology, and in class I use the least possible, except where it can make life easier. It's a bit different on my blog, but people come to that from choice. The only reason we teach grammar is to try and speed up the process of learning the language, not so that they learn about grammar per se. Also the grammar we teach is very much based on real natural English.

A much bigger problem is the way grammar is taught to native speakers. The writer of that Atlantic article thinks that traditional grammar teaching has a negative effect on students, cramping their writing and generally pitting them off English. Which is why, of course, it was ditched in Britain at the end of the 60s. The only thing is that they haven't really come up with anything to replace it that would be both helpful and interesting for school pupils. Personally I think a comparative approach has the best chances (dialect and standard - discussing the differences rather than knocking dialect use).

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@WW no offence intended, Geordie or Glaswegian both incomprehensible to me, but good English nevertheless.
In truth one's the grammar of one's natural English dialect is the one that makes most sense. If one is north-country saying "we was" and "she were", that's your natural grammar, and "standard" Englsh grammar is something you learn at school for writing.
However, ESOL is a different kettle of fish. For many ESOL students present perfect is a strange concept, just as the "definite/indefinite" conjugation in Hungarian is for me, and no amount of grammar exercises can make it automatic.
Again, in Korea (and Japan) they learn English grammar, grammar, grammar at school with very little practical result.
Equally in my experience, most students who reach an advanced level have worked through something like Murphy; and equally just working through Murphy does not per se make a student advanced: so grammar, grammar, grammar alone is not enough. I guess you know that already. Perhaps the real point is that it is quite rare for a Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai or Korean speaker to get to a CAE level. The gulf in concepts is just so wide. Ban Ki Moon is exceptional - Korean has tenses and so on but lacks "f", "v" and has the l/r issue and is SOV, and like Slav tongues lacks articles; moreover (as in Hungarian) generalizations are made in the singular even for countable nouns. It is the same for us trying to learn a tonal language like Thai, Vietnamese, Mandarin, or Cantonese. The gulf is huge.

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@jayles - I'll have you know that the 'purist' English spoken in Britain is said to be that of Inverness, so I'm not sure why you pick out the Scots for special attention; try understanding a Geordie after he's had a pint or two!

Yesterday was National Grammar Day in the US, and one or two people have been asking the same question as you.

http://www.arrantpedantry.com/2014/03/04/why-te...

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/20...

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De grammaticae eruditione: The first thing we would need to establish is what is the purpose of learning grammar; what are the aims, goals, and objectives? We can hardly determine this without discussing exactly who is doing the learning and why they need to, and what they need.
I would suggest that those least of all in need are native speakers - group one. There are some perhaps whose at home dialect (perhaps deeply Scottish or AAVE) is so far removed from what is the acceptable norm in business and at university that some work toward more standard writing is needed - group two. And my third group would be those who speak very little English at home - it is a second language. This would apply to perhaps 200 million "English speakers" in India and other erstwhile colonies including USA where my understanding is that perhaps a third of the pop is Hispanic speaking at home.
Plainly the first group (who already speak RP etc) have little need beyond punctuation. The second group may need more work. The third group and the rest of the world plainly need grammar as a crutch to get the word order, tenses and so on right. Even so I avoid grammar terminology as much as possible, as the purpose is to put together good English not to know the difference between a "voice" and a "mood", or indeed "indicative","imperative", subjunctive, optative, and all the other moods, unless that terminology is sine qua non for understanding. For example they don't need to know that "ago" is a postposition not a preposition, just put it after the noun not before.
That said, some grammar terminology is needed: Subject, Verb, Object, Past Present Future, Modal, auxiliary, Continuous - I have to teach them all, as they are all in the books and I need them anyway. One needs to remember that in languages such as Mandarin there are no tenses so they cannot learn them at school and have no awareness.
As to the usefulness of Latin grammar, well consider the sentence: I was given the book.
English is a quirky language and somehow we manage to have an object in a passive sentence, which is absolutely impossible in Latin and indeed other European languages. So how does Latin grammar help here? Again Slav languages do not have a past perfect, nor do they distinguish praeteritum irrealis and futurum irrealis. Should they learn latin grammar first or just get on with English?
Incidentally modals in English are, in terms of word roots, already a preterite - that is why there is no final 's', why 'must' is seemingly inconjugable.
What all this means is that there are no cast-iron grammar rules chiselled in stone. The whole thing is but a crutch, means to an end, and whatever means is justified if the end output is normal acceptable English. So in this case "was" or "were" or whatever will do.

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Don't worry about it, Jayles. No need for conturbation on your part. Your remarks at 6.05 pm please me greatly, as I am sure they do all of us.

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timor tui incomprehensionis ironiae meae conturbat me

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Indeed, Jayles. Quite so.

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cum essem parvulus loquebar ut parvulus sapiebam ut parvulus cogitabam ut parvulus tuncque didici linguam populi Romae factusque sum vir

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Lingua populi Romae lingua deorum semper non oblita atque non oblitanda saluatio omnibus ominbusque problemis humanis...

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Fortisan si omnes illi incolii...

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Fortisan si toti illi incolii olim apsumebent sui dies grammatica linguae latinis eruditione, omnibus minor tempora esset in vicis alii populi necare. An fortasse nos seniores in irreale praeterito habitant.

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Sundy,
you are too kind about my English. In fact, would you believe, my first language was Zulu, so there is a bit of doubt about whether or not I am a native speaker of English. No, I was never taught the English subjunctive by any English teacher. In Britain English teachers do not really teach English at all, but rather creative writing and poetry and drama and nice things like that. Grammar is not taught, as incredible though this may sound, it seen as elitist, I am told.
Now, where learning English properly is best done is in the Latin classroom, where that language is used primarily as a tool through which proper, grammatical English (or indeed German, French, Italian, whatever ...) may be studied. The study of modern languages is different: its purpose is to learn that other language. So those who study Latin even to a fairly elementary level understand grammar, including therefore the grammar of their own languages. And that is where I learned my grammar, and taught it. I am told by others that you can tell in less than a minute, from his speech patterns, if someone has learned Latin, and I take their word for it. I always assume everyone has learned it.
This forum has provided me with rich food for thought and entertainment beyond the limited linguistic playing fields of those happy schooldays, and I especially enjoy the fancy terms they have invented to keep us busy, my favourite today being Irrealis, the unreal past. Love the capital I ! Which institution cooked it up? Cambridge, I see. Latin, yes, good, but why the capital I? I'm an Oxford man myself, and we called it the unreal past. Well, we would have done, but actually we never spoke of it at all.

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Here's the excerpt from that Sesquiotica article:

"First of all, the restriction of which to nonrestrictive clauses is not a grammatical law; it is a stylistic recommendation and does not have to be followed, even in North America (let alone in Britain)."

Source: http://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/why-...

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@sundy,

But that's the thing: language is not always logical. Further, some people choose to use 'which' without a comma and some introductory prepositional phrases can be left without commas. I'm reminded of a post on Sesquiotica where one of the articles states that setting 'which' apart with commas is a stylistic issue. Sometimes, I feel that 'which' reads better without commas, although I don't do it out of, as you would call, the logic of language.

I think that pushing grammar to its limits is beneficial because it can reveal holes in that logic.

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@Brus - You rewrite my sentence by scattering a few commas around in it: "the subjunctive is the ultimate polish, which, once mastered, allows the user the right finally to claim that he has learned the language."

It's not just a few commas, it's the logic of the language and its structure.

I would be very surprised about the excellent level of your English writing if you are not a native speaker of English, but quite curious about the way you approach the subjunctive mood if you are a native speaker.

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@ Warsaw Will - If I'm not so sure about my course of action I'd use 'could, may' or 'might', but not 'would'

Agree that most people would do this, but not all, especially when accompanied with the if clause.

@ Warsaw Will - "If I won" (with real past meaning) show no such uncertainty.

Depends on what you would win, if it's a lottery, as the chance of winning is so slim, even when the if clause has the real past meaning, "If I won" does show some sort of uncertainty. But anyway, you still have a chance to win when if clause refers to the real past meaning, so it's not imaginary present.

@ Warsaw Will - I'm really only interested in how conditionals are used in everyday life, not weird and wonderful scenarios where the interpretation is stretched to the limit,...

That's why I disagree with the "I can't remember if I was the prime minister" scenario. The lottery winning context I thought of, is not that common in daily life, but not very weird and wonderful. So the difficulty for a teacher lies in how you would teach. This is extremely true when it comes to the subjunctive teaching in ESL. I find myself in good agreement with Brus in the fact that "the subjunctive is, as the conversation above indicates, complex and not to be covered in too much hurry"

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Sundy
You rewrite my sentence by scattering a few commas around in it: "the subjunctive is the ultimate polish, which, once mastered, allows the user the right finally to claim that he has learned the language."

You say "to be honest, it's a bit complicated sentence".

Yes. Is that a problem?

'A bit complicated' does not work well here as an adjective describing 'sentence', does it? "This sentence is a bit complicated" is fine.

I agree that matters such as the use of 'that' when you mean 'which' or even worse 'who/whom' need attention too, as of course do dozens of other fine points, but they need only a few lines each of explanation in a language course, whereas the subjunctive is, as the conversation above indicates, complex and not to be covered in too much hurry.

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@sundy - we'll have to agree to differ. On a particular occasion like this where there is a real possibility of winning, we'd normally use what in EFL and ESL teaching we call First conditional, with a present tense after if, and will (or an imperative or certain modals) in the result clause. If I'm not so sure about my course of action I'd use 'could, may' or 'might', but not 'would'. The only time I would use 'would' in the result clause of a real conditional is to be more polite - "If you're ready, would you follow me, please?" or if the verb in the if clause shows uncertainty, as in the conditional sentence I just wrote "I'm not so sure ...". "If I've won" or "If I won" (with real past meaning) show no such uncertainty.

However, as the possible number of conditional structures is unlimited it's probably theoretically possible to come up with any interpretation. I'm really only interested in how conditionals are used in everyday life, not weird and wonderful scenarios where the interpretation is stretched to the limit, so as they say on 'Dragon's Den', I'm afraid I'm out.

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@Brus - the subjunctive is the ultimate polish which once mastered allows the user the right finally to claim that he has learned the language.

In order to learn the language, it seems to me there is a lot more to master than the subjunctive, which includes the distinction between "that" and "which". Other than the questions asked in the last post, I would read the above sentence as:

"the subjunctive is the ultimate polish, which, once mastered, allows the user the right finally to claim that he has learned the language."

To be honest, it's a bit complicated sentence.

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Brus - the subjunctive is the ultimate polish which once mastered allows the user the right finally to claim that he has learned the language.

Should it be "which (is) once mastered"? Can you master a polish? Or the craft of polishing?

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@Sundy - Though I would have to agree that your interpretation works in your proposed context, but that's not an usual context.

Keep in mind that I have said this already.

If I say "If I was the prime minister, I'd change the law" to my colleagues tomorrow, how would they interpret? Sure, "If I was the prime minister" will be taken as imaginary assumption, which is far more common than your context.


@Brus - You allow that I could give (you) poor marks of English (sic), and indeed I I fear I must.

I don't really care about what you must do. But we are discussing the logic behind a language, not anything else.

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Sundy, you miss my point about the fact that there is at least one prime minister in our recent history who developed dementia and may well at times have not been aware that he (or indeed she) had once been prime minister, and at more lucid moments would be in a position to advise others that this honour had once been his, or hers. Telling people things which they must surely already know ("I used to be prime minister, you know") is perhaps a rather obvious consequence of dementia. To assert then that "if I was prime minister" is a possible open condition, one which the speaker does not feel able to assert is the case, nor not the case, but must let lie open, is a perfectly feasible possibility. Nothing weird about it, this unhappy condition happens to people, prime ministers included.

You allow that I could give (you) poor marks of English (sic), and indeed I I fear I must. But keep cracking away; the subjunctive is the ultimate polish which once mastered allows the user the right finally to claim that he has learned the language. Oh yes, and those pesky prepositions too.

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I meant:

would" works as well in 'If I won the lottery, I'd buy a new house', in which "would" implies that there is less possibility of buying a new house as other factors may come into play.

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@ Warsaw Will - Well, we would in British English at least. I know Americans don't use present perfect as much as us, but if it's a real condition, you'd (they'd) still use 'will' in the result clause.

I would think simple past tense also works here. When there has been no change to the situation since the time that the past tense indicates, simple past would mean the same as the present perfect. This is the reason why American tends to use simple past in many contexts where this condition is met.

"would" works as well in 'If I've won the lottery, I'd buy a new house', in which "would" implies that there is less possibility of buying a new house as other factors may come into play.


@ Warsaw Will - "Ideally, it would be perfect if we could create a subjunctive form of verb for every verb in English" - that would be to reverse history and go against what you were saying earlier.

Look at the last part of what I was saying: "which, however, would result in an unrealistic and unpractical situation, too many forms of verbs."

@ Warsaw Will - "If he managed to finish that report last night, we'll be able to get it to everyone today".

In a context where typing the report may need to be done by another person as "he" was only the report writer, "we'd be..." works, especially when typing may take some time.

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@sundy - " Ideally, it would be perfect if we could create a subjunctive form of verb for every verb in English" - that would be to reverse history and go against what you were saying earlier. In fact these forms do/did exist, but over the centuries they've been replaced by indicative forms. English has been gradually ridding itself of the subjunctive since it stopped being Anglo-Saxon. Present subjunctive - "It's vital that he be informed" is very rarely used in British English, for example, except in very formal writing. All we have left are a few vestiges - a few fixed phrases and 'were'.

So, no, it wouldn't be perfect; it would be totally artificial and totally unnecessary. The beauty of the English verb system is that each verb has a maximum of five inflections, for example - 'do, does, did, done, doing'. All the rest is done with auxiliaries.Why then go and complicate matters? We express doubt or indefiniteness etc in other ways. For example 'We're looking for someone who speaks French' - in Spanish that would need the subjunctive - but there's no reason why we have to have it in English.

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@sundy - 'If I won the lottery, I'd buy a new house' with present meaning describes a hypothetical condition. But you're talking about a specific occasion, so If I hadn't had a chance to check my ticket the previous night, I'd never say to my wife 'If I won the lottery, I'd buy a new house' but 'If I've won the lottery, I'll buy a new house'.

Well, we would in British English at least. I know Americans don't use present perfect as much as us, but if it's a real condition, you'd (they'd) still use 'will' in the result clause.

If + past simple + will is perfectly possible when talking about a real possibility on a specific occasion but when you don't know if the past condition has been fufilled - "If he managed to finish that report last night, we'll be able to get it to everyone today".

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@ Warsaw Will - My point, though, is that Unreal past (subjunctive, for those who prefer it) is exactly the same as Real Past for all verbs except one, and for only two persons of that one verb, 1st and 3rd singular of 'be'. I can see no logical reason why a different form is thought necessary for those two persons of one verb when we have absolutely no confusion in all other cases. It might sound more refined, but that's about all.


Yes, there is no logical reason that a different form is necessary for only two persons of that one verb, 1st and 3rd singular of 'be'. In Chinese, there are no such forms of verbs, only one fixed form for every verb. But subjunctive is a mood existing in every language, I guess. In Chinese, there are other words that explicitly propose an imaginary situation, something like " listen up: I am doing daydreaming now, I am the prime minister, I will change the law." Of course, these words are quite different in a sense that they can express different emotions or moods.

Humans have so much confusion in conversational communication in terms of the language itself. English works in its own way. Ideally, it would be perfect if we could create a subjunctive form of verb for every verb in English, which, however, would result in an unrealistic and unpractical situation, too many forms of verbs. The problem now is that the verb needs a form in a sentence in expressing subjunctive mood, which will definitely confuse with other forms of verbs such as past and future tenses. Luckily, the context where the conversation is taking place will resolve the ambiguity. That's why I would expect that even "I was you" would substitute "if I were you" in the future, as the assumption of "I am you " will be never truthful in our context of human's world.

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@sundy - I think you're confusing linguists and grammarians - grammar books written by linguists, for example the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), by Quirk and Greenbaum, and the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CaGEL), by Huddleston and Pullum, are entirely descriptive and allow both 'If I were prime minister' and 'If I was prime minister', both being what CaGEL calls Irrealis (i.e. Unreal past).

Linguistics is the study of language as it is, not language as how some people think it should be. That's the domain of the prescriptivists: people like Neville Gwynne. Modern linguistics is based almost entirely on corpora - computerised collections of real language, both written and spoken, such as the British National Corpus and COCA - The Corpus of Contemporary American English.

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@ Warsaw Will - "If I won the lottery, I'd buy a new house" - can you put a different interpretation on that?

Yes. Assume this context:

You were so tired and went to bed last night before the lottery winning numbers showed on TV. In the morning after you get out of bed, you hold your lottery ticket in hand, ticking it in front of your wife, saying:

"If I won the lottery, I'd buy a new house."

You are referring to the real past. But since your wife doesn't know you didn't have a chance to check the number as usual, she interprets "if I won the lottery" as to refer to the present, hence meaning an imaginary situation.

She then might say to you : "Don't keep daydreaming."

You further explain: "I didn't have a chance to check the number as I went to bed earlier last night. I still have a chance to win." So now she understands that "if won the lottery" means a real condition.

The context is a key.

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You go on the street and ask the ordinary people how they would feel if somebody says he /she can’t remember if he/she was the prime minister before. People would say: “it’s a bit wired. I would never forget if I was once the prime minister.” So when you say to, again, ordinary people that “if I was the prime minister,..” you would be taken as to mean an imaginary situation of being the prime minister.

Demotic usage based on their contexts determines the life of a language, eventually, not the contexts thought of by linguists in pure linguistics.

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@sundy - OK, I follow your example now, but I think you're stretching it a bit far. In fact what I'd say in that context is something like: "If he really did act like that, I'd throw him out if he came again."

However, I've realised that there is another possible interpretation of "If he acted like that at my party, I'd throw him out" and that is where we use would for repeated actions in the past, for example - "I used to live near my work and would walk to work every day"

So it would be possible to interpret "If he acted like that at my party, I'd throw him out" as "Whenever he acted like that, I used to throw him out". But as you say, context would usually help you.

So here's another one:

"If I won the lottery, I'd buy a new house" - can you put a different interpretation on that?

My point, though, is that Unreal past (subjunctive, for those who prefer it) is exactly the same as Real Past for all verbs except one, and for only two persons of that one verb, 1st and 3rd singular of 'be'. I can seen no logical reason why a different form is thought necessary for those two persons of one verb when we have absolutely no confusion in all other cases. It might sound more refined, but that's about all.

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@ Brus - "I used to be prime minister, you know".

Does this mean "I" can't remember I was prime minister? No, it just means that I am not the prime minister, but I used to be.

@ Brus - Well, Sundy, it may not be usual for someone to develop dementia but it happens.
Besides all that, the point under discussion is a linguistic one.

Putting the context in the language would make more sense than to discuss purely linguistic instances. I am emphasizing "purely" here.

Though I would have to agree that your interpretation works in your proposed context, but that's not an usual context. Why did some expressions in a language die out? One of the reasons is that there is a lack of contexts in life to fit in.

Trust me, "if I was you" will become more common as it means the same thing as "if I were you" since by no way, no mean, the assumption of "I am you" would become true.

@ Brus -On another linguistic point, what does this mean: "You are kind of trust your girl friend on that she wouldn’t do this ... "? You wrote it. No need to call the police, but it scores poor marks for English, I feel.

You could give me poor marks of English, but not poor marks of language and how a language works.

I wanted to edit my post after submission, but I couldn't. I may have to change it to "you kind of trust your girl friend that she wouldn’t do this ..."

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You say you would be very nervous if I were to say that “I accept it is possible that I was prime minister at one time, but I can't remember”.
You are evidently of a very delicate disposition. A past prime minister of Britain in the last fifty years did indeed develop dementia, in more lucid moments telling other people "I used to be prime minister, you know". Those to whom he confided this information did not report feeling nervous because of it. Nor did they call the police to take him to hospital for an overall medical checkup, as there was no need for one and in Britain the police are the wrong agency for this. As you point out you can’t forget if you were once the prime minister some time ago unless there is a medical problem, so this is not an usual context. Well, Sundy, it may not be usual for someone to develop dementia but it happens.
Besides all that, the point under discussion is a linguistic one.
On another linguistic point, what does this mean: "You are kind of trust your girl friend on that she wouldn’t do this ... "? You wrote it. No need to call the police, but it scores poor marks for English, I feel.

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@Warsaw Will - of course you're right, which is why, in EFL, we refer to this as the Unreal past. We only have to compare it with any other verb - 'If he acted like that at my party, I'd throw him out' - this can only be about an unreal event in the present / future - the 'would' in the result clause tells us that. If it was about the past, we'd use a past or present tense in the result clause, as in the cad example (which seems to be very popular in the States).

The context is very important in understanding the subjunctive sentences.

'If he acted like that at my party, I'd throw him out' - this can only be about an unreal event in the present / future - the 'would' in the result clause tells us that. If it was about the past, we'd use a past or present tense in the result clause, …

This may be not true depending on various context. First, this can be about the past as in this context:

You held a big party at your big home with dozens of people attending, where you were very busy all over the place, even without paying attention to your girl friend. Now the next day after the party, one of your best friends tells you that he saw your another friend was trying to impress your girl friend by chatting with her in a small room on the second floor. You are kind of trust your girl friend on that she wouldn’t do this which is seen as inappropriate at your party. But this is what your best friend is telling you, so you might think that your best friend was just mistaking another girl for your girl friend. You might say to your friend:

You might have mistaken another girl for my girl friend, but 'If he acted like that at my party, I'd throw him out' – “I’d “means the future here while 'If he acted like that at my party’ refers to the past, so the whole sense implies that if “he acted like that at my party” is to be proven, when I see him I would throw him out. Please note that “out” here has changed not to mean “my party”, instead, the surrounding where you would meet him when you throw him.

So we have to look at the context (scenario) in interpreting subjunctive sentences. Without doing this it would let the argument keep going and going forever.

@ Brus - No it isn't. It is easy and simple: I am informed (by anyone at all) that this national misfortune has occurred, and I as the speaker am declaring that it should not have been allowed (if indeed it was - the indicative mood of the verb "was" rather than "were" means it is treated by me as an open condition, which is to say that I accept it is possible that I was prime minister at one time, but I can't remember). If I wished to indicate disbelief in such a preposterous assertion I would use a closed conditional clause, denoted by the subjunctive form of the verb: "were".

I would be very nervous if you say that “I accept it is possible that I was prime minister at one time, but I can't remember”. Or if I am serious enough, I may call the police to take you to hospital for an overall medical checkup. You can’t forget if you were once the prime minister some time ago unless there is a medical problem. So this is not an usual context.

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Oh no! Looking back I learn that in August I said I would hold my counsel on the subject of the subjunctive. And now I've gone and raved on about it for a while. If only I were to have ...

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@sundy - of course you're right, which is why, in EFL, we refer to this as the Unreal past. We only have to compare it with any other verb - 'If he acted like that at my party, I'd throw him out' - this can only be about an unreal event in the present / future - the 'would' in the result clause tells us that. If it was about the past, we'd use a past or present tense in the result clause, as in the cad example (which seems to be very popular in the States).

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You quote me:

If I was the Prime Minister, I would change the law." This to me suggests that I am surprised and doubtful to hear that I was sometime in the past the Prime Minister, find it hard perhaps to believe that such an thing could have been allowed, and if it is true, would want someone to change the law, maybe to prevent such a calamity in the future.
The logic doesn’t stand. You are linking the assumption of being the Prime Minister in the past to the change of law which would be made to happen in the future. Who would the speaker be talking to? It’s hard and complicated to find such a context that would fit in here.

No it isn't. It is easy and simple: I am informed (by anyone at all) that this national misfortune has occurred, and I as the speaker am declaring that it should not have been allowed (if indeed it was - the indicative mood of the verb "was" rather than "were" means it is treated by me as an open condition, which is to say that I accept it is possible that I was prime minister at one time, but I can't remember). If I wished to indicate disbelief in such a preposterous assertion I would use a closed conditional clause, denoted by the subjunctive form of the verb: "were".

If I am ... means perhaps I am (present tense, open, indicative, conditional clause)
If I was ... means perhaps I was (past tense, open, indicative, conditional clause)
If I do ... means perhaps I shall do (future, open, indicative...
If I were ... means I am not (present, closed, subjunctive ...)
If I were to have been ... means I was not (past, closed, subjunctive ...)
If I were to do ... means I shall not do(future, closed, subjunctive ...)

Piece of cake, really. Twelve year old children learning Latin get a couple of lessons to master all this and cope perfectly well, including the Latin forms of the verbs. The logic stands then that I could assert to the world at large that if indeed I was PM, which I accept as a possibility, then I would wish whoever can do so to get the law changed.
Saying "I would change the law" when I have not the power to do so means that I am declaring that I wish someone would change the law, and that I would counsel, and indeed advocate this course of action. It does not suggest that I must necessarily play a part in this legislative tinkering, merely that I recommend it.

Where was I? What are we talking about again?

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@goofy
If I was the Prime Minister, I would change the law.
If I were the Prime Minister, I would change the law.
Don't both of these sentences refer to unreal present events? If I can't remember if I was Prime Minister, I would be talking about a past event. I might say:
If I had been the Prime Minister, I would have changed the law.
or
I can't remember if I was the Prime Minister.

It’s common sense that only the current Prime Minister would have the power to change the law, so the clause “if I was the Prime Minister” refers to the present, since there is no logical connection between being the former Prime Minister and changing the law if you are saying that you were Prime Minister before. But who is the Prime Minister is a fact, in this context, not the speaker, which is true without any subjective judgment, making “if I was the Prime Minister” is a counterfactual supposition. So in this context, “if I was the Prime Minister” and “if I were the Prime Minister” mean basically the same thing.

@Brus
If I was the Prime Minister, I would change the law." This to me suggests that I am surprised and doubtful to hear that I was sometime in the past the Prime Minister, find it hard perhaps to believe that such an thing could have been allowed, and if it is true, would want someone to change the law, maybe to prevent such a calamity in the future.
The logic doesn’t stand. You are linking the assumption of being the Prime Minister in the past to the change of law which would be made to happen in the future. Who would the speaker be talking to? It’s hard and complicated to find such a context that would fit in here.

(I have, of course, by the way, no particular prime minister in recent history in mind.)
"If I were the Prime Minister, ..." has a totally different meaning, that I want the law changed and if I could I would, but I can't so I shan't because I am in fact not the Prime Minister.
Which one do you mean?
@goofy
Your sentence "If I was a hopeless cad, I apologize" refers to a past event, so it's not the same context as my examples.
Would you ever use "if I was" in exactly the same context as "if I were"? Would you say this:
"If I was a hopeless cad, I would apologize."
"If I was a hopeless cad” could refer to a past event too, even in "If I was a hopeless cad, I would apologize". The reason behind is that whether or not you are a hopeless cad depends on the criteria of judgment of the person you are speaking to, involving subjective factor. This is not falling in the same category as being the Prime Minister.

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@alexandre - I think we all knew that 'if I were you' was an incomplete sentence, hence the three ellipsis dots in the original question.

And as for your second point, the one you want us to THINK TWICE about - if the person was present, why the 'if'? Why didn't they just collect the money - but the use of the modal 'would have' specifically tells us they didn't. This is what is variously known as a Third conditional, a past hypothetical conditional or a past counterfactual conditional.

'If I was you, I would have collected the money' means exactly the same as 'If I were you, I would have collected the money'. The question is whether the first one is grammatically correct, or whether we have to use the subjunctive 'were'. Virtually every modern grammar reference book, as well as most of the ESL/EFL world, thinks it is perfectly grammatical, although admittedly less formal.

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If I were you?? If someone goes speaking in that manner, it isn't a coplete,neither a correct sentence. But if the individual goes like "if I were the boy,I wouldn't........ . The person's making sense....
If I was you-: simply means the person was present/there when the incident or anything he wants to say took place....for example "if I was you, I would have collected the money....this is more correct...THINK TWICE after reading this. Follow me on twitter for more @abexklovac1..

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@Skeeter Lewis - You might well prefer "were", and that's fine. But I don't for one minute go for this confusion argument.

In the article linked to above, Professor Pullum points out that the average native speaker knows about 5,000 verbs, in all of which the subjunctive is exactly the same as the indicative. There is one exception, "be", which is only different in two persons, 1st and 3rd singular. Why should there be this confusion with these two instances when there is no confusion with the other 4999, or with 2nd person singular and plural and 1st and 3rd person plural of "be"?

By your argument we could say:
"If they were rich, they would buy a new house" - they can't remember if they were rich
"If I worked there, I'd resign" - I can't remember if I worked there
Why are "If I was" and "If she/he was" so different?

In any case, I sincerely doubt there were many people thinking that all three candidates had had a problem with memory loss :).

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" If I was the prime minister" suggests that he can't remember if he held that office. And I thought I had a short attention span.

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And another article, by Professor of linguistics, Geoffrey Pullum, at The Chronicle of Higher Education - http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/11...

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If anyone is still following this, there's an interesting blog post (relevant to the original question) by Jan Freeman, ex of the Boston Globe at her blog - http://throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com/20...

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Brus,

I think you mistook me for being part of your and Warsaw Will's argument. I was just commenting on the question. What I had stated, adding still, was in response to "once was Prime Minister". So I thought 'still' would belong there.

"If I were still the Prime Minister, I'd lower taxes."

I took it as he currently isn't the Prime Minister, and that if he were, he'd lower taxes.

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I was quoting Jasper:
"I'd simply add the word still:
"If I were still the Prime Minister, ..."

and Warsaw Will:
"All three candidates for prime minister at the last election, in other words the leaders of the three main UK parties, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg."

Historical point: Gordon Brown was the prime minister and leader of the Labour party and candidate for the job of staying in office, and was still the prime minister until the coalition came into being, ending the candidate and prime minister bits of that, and then the leader bit when he resigned from that position, allowing the election of Miliband. Worth mentioning all that to get the understanding of the language right:

Linguistic point: You can't make a conditional, Jasper, by inserting "still". Brown still was prime minister, so no "if "about it, and the others never had been, so could not use "still prime minister".

That's what I meant, W Will.

Now that Brown is not prime minister any more he can say "if I were still prime minister", followed by another subjunctive clause telling us what he would do, for instance. The others can't. because Cameron still is, and Clegg never was.

'Nuff said about subjunctives by me.

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Okay W Will, I go along with what you say. I dispute none of your latest message. It's possibly a bit like the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prof Dawkins (a well-known scientist and atheist in the UK) arguing different views about religion: they actually both hold exactly the same thinking if only they knew it, but are divided by the way in which the same words they both use have different meanings in each one's head. In other words we have been arguing over terminology. I have learned much from this conversation and appreciate it. Best wishes to you and all the denizens of those expat bars in Warsaw of whom you speak so warmly elsewhere. (My computer spellcheck doesn't like 'expat' but I don't pay attention to such 'authorities'. I see it doesn't like 'spellcheck' either!).

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second slip - il n'y a aucun problème not aucune

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A slip of the finger as usual - it's Varsovie, of course, not Varosovie.

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@Brus - All three candidates for prime minister at the last election, in other words the leaders of the three main UK parties, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. I suppose that 'none of them had been prime minister' is your little joke because they said 'was' instead of 'were'.

I'm afraid I misunderstood your meaning of 'main verb', as this is an expression which is usually used to denote the lexical verb as opposed to the auxiliary. So in 'I don't want to swim' - the main verb (in the usual meaning of the term) is of course 'want', but not to differentiate it from 'to swim', which is its complement, but from its auxiliary 'don't'. In 'I don't swim' swim is the main verb. I suggest you google 'main verb' and you'll see what I mean.

It's French dictionaries that call pouvoir and devoir auxiliaries, not me - http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/modal.

In your second last paragraph, you're nearly there. But the primary auxiliaries - do, be, have, (which aren't modals) are mainly used for tense and voice, whereas the modal auxiliaries are mainly used for modality. The exception being future tenses which use the modal will, sometimes in combination with the primary auxiliaries do and have - I will be seeing him tomorrow - I will have finished it by Friday.

Ça va, Houston, il n'y a aucune problème. A Varosovie non plus. I meant English modals weren't inflected, I didn't say French ones weren't, obviously they are. This is a site about the English language, so I assume when I say modal or subjunctive without further qualification, people will understand I'm talking about modals or the subjunctive in English.

'That was why we didn't have any need to make life hard for ourselves by talking of modals.' - but that's what every English grammar book under the sun calls them. And the only reason I started talking about modals was because you suggested, insisted even, that 'BOTH clauses are subjunctive' in hypothetical conditionals (your capitals). But I'm afraid this is tosh - 'If he were a bit less shifty, I would trust him more.' - 'If he had worked harder at school, he could have got into university.' - The result clause of a hypothetical conditional uses verbs with the modal auxiliaries 'would, would have, could, could have' etc. This is not the subjunctive. That's why I started talking about modals.

I'm afraid that one of the problems I find with this discussion is that you use terms your own way, not as they are generally understood in English grammar. When you talk of the subjunctive, I suspect you are thinking that the English equivalent of a French, Spanish or German sentence in the subjunctive is somehow subjunctive in English. But the subjunctive is not a feeling, it is a specific grammatical form, and its use in each of these languages is different from in English. - Il faut que je sache.- I need to know - Nous cherchons quelqu'un qui puisse commencer immédiatement - We're looking for somebody who can start immediately - Both sentences use the subjunctive in French, but neither do in English.

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or indeed none of them had been prime minister, surely? Did Gordon Brown say this? Or was it the candidates for Labour leader after GB resigned from that position?

I said pouvoir, devoir, vouloir are French verbs which inflect, which means they are "main" verbs, followed by an infinitive, a secondary, dependant verb. To call them modal is an interesting version. If you say "I want to swim" what are you doing ... wanting or swimming? I say wanting, so that is the main verb, not a subsidiary or secondary or dependant or modal verb. That's all. Their Latin, German ... equivalents do the same. That was why we didn't have any need to make life hard for ourselves by talking of modals.

Now that you have introduced to me the notion of these modals, I took the term to mean those words we need in English, for which Latin and French have no need as they are inflected, in order for us and German speakers to build up the expression of different tenses, voices and moods.

I quote you: 'modals have no person or number - they can occasionally express tense, or at least time'. You also say elsewhere today that devoir, vouloir, and pouvoir are modals. I say to this, 'Houston ... we have a problem'. Well, not Houston, Warsaw. I rest my case.

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Correction - I should have said modals have no person or number - they can occasionally express tense, or at least time.

@Jasper - the sentence I quoted was said by all three candidates before the British general election, at which time none of them were prime minister. And that's not a subjunctive were, but a plural were after none, another great arguing point.

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I'd simply add the word still:

"If I were still the Prime Minister, ..."

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@Brus - Thanks for visiting my website. I don't think I understand your first point. I clearly said that 'was' is indicative, but that 'were' for 1st and 3rd persons singular is subjunctive (all other past subjunctive forms are the same as indicative).

Unreal past - 'If I were prime minister, I would ...' - were for 1st and 3rd person singular here is usually accepted as being subjunctive (although I think the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language disagree - calling it irrealis). While 'If I was prime minister, I would ... 'is thought of as indicative, but both are talking about a hypothetical condition - which is why we call it the unreal past.

I talked about 'were to' in a different section. - 'were to' is a compound subjunctive form which is usually thought to be more tentative ('were to have been' is just another form of 'were to'). 'If I were to offer you ... ', is more tentative than 'If I offered you ...'. Go to Wikipedia and scroll down to Compound forms:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

I don't think I said that 'should' does the job of the subjunctive, I said that it was the British preference, because we prefer to avoid the subjunctive (see English Club, or any EFL website). You say - 'He recommends (that) the tablets should be taken after meals.' is wrong. But that is standard in British English, whereas 'He recommends (that) the tablets be taken after meals' is more standard in American English. Neither is more right nor wrong than the other. I think in your interpretations you are being far too literal. In its basic meaning 'should' is more or less interchangeable with 'ought to', but 'ought to' would not work in those examples.

Modals can have several different meanings and functions. Just look at how many functions 'would' has:

The past of will - This was the woman who would become his wife
In conditionals - If he came I would be very happy
To talk about someone's behaviour or habits - Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?
To talk about past habit - I used to live buy the seaside and every day I would go for a swim in the sea.
To complain about somebody's behaviour - I wish he would help more with the housework

And how can a modal verb be a main verb? It has no tense; it needs a main verb (aka lexical verb) in the bare infinitive to go with it. That's why it's called an auxiliary or helping verb. I'm not quite sure what you're saying about pouvoir and devoir. That they are not modal verbs but main verbs? They are definitely modal verbs - ''Pouvoir, devoir sont des auxiliaires modaux" (Le Robert Micro). In fact we probably got the expression modal auxiliary from French. The only difference between English and French is that English modals have no inflections. But they can be used in much the same way - Je dois partir - I must go - Elle ne peut (pas) venir avec nous - She can't come with us.

There are two types of auxiliary verb - the primary auxiliaries used to form tenses, and modals to add modality. The exceptions are future tenses which are formed with the modal verb 'will'.

am, is, are, was, were (for continuous tenses)
have, has, had (for perfect tenses)
do, does, did (for simple tenses)

can, could, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, ought to (modals - nothing to do with the verb be)

There are also a couple of semi-modals - need and dare -they can be used as standard verbs with a basic auxiliary - he doesn't need to do it - or as a modal - he needn't do it.

As for being 'my modals', they are just the same as any grammatical definition of modal verb in English. Please visit any grammar website - for example the University of Wisconsin Platteville (not ESL) has a very good glossary here, check out primary and modal auxiliaries:

http://homepages.uwp.edu/canary/grammar_text/gl...

I never said anything about modals being a mood, keep up! - As you say, English has three moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative. But certain modals, 'would' and 'could', do a very similar job to the conditional mood in French and Spanish. And what do you mean 'over your teaching career there were no modals'? - You never said 'can', 'could' etc -
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_verb
http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/englis...

The grammatical definition for modals and explanations of the subjunctive are no different for ESL than they are for native speakers studying grammar at American universities. These are standard grammatical terms. And the subjunctive in English is very limited. What I provided you with wasn't 'extra', it was the basics. If we can't agree on basic definitions, the rest is pretty meaningless. And if you don't accept what all the references I've given you say, descriptionist and prescriptivist alike, there's not a lot more I can say.

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Thanks, Warsaw Will. Jolly kind of yourself and Brus to take time to answer my questions. This is a really interesting topic though I'll admit to finding it slightly tricky to get the head around; however, persistence usually pays off in the end. Much obliged, people.

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She insists / proposes (that) he should pay for the meal is fine if she said "You should pay for the meal". But if she said "You pay for the meal, okay?" then she insists that he pays/pay for the meal. No 'should' about it.That's clearer than my earlier rambling stuff.

"He asks that we should be ready to leave at eight" is fine too, if he said "You should be ready at eight", but not if he said "I want you to be ready at eight".

I.e., if "should" is used in the original direct statement, then the reported, indirect statement uses it, not otherwise.

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W Will
thanks for all that very detailed information.
I must disagree on a number of points, but it is all very interesting.

First: I don't agree with your chart of indicative/subjunctive forms of 'be' in the past tense: was/were indicative, yes, but "were to have been" subjunctive, not was/were.

Next: I don't agree that 'should' does the job of subjunctive, so your examples:
She insists / proposes (that) he should pay for the meal - that is a statement: he should because it is his turn, or whatever, adding a new dimension to what is going on. If is just what she insists/proposes, then I would say either "She insists he pay, or pays, for the bill. Subjunctive or indicative mood here, all down to personal preference here, (so that's the third thing I disagree with you on, as personal choice is allowed - sometimes: see below with ref. to the Aeneid).

"He asks that we should be ready to leave at eight". No, he asks us to be ready, or asks that we be ready. 'Should' suggests some extra level of obligation, a new dimension not intended here.
"She requests that we should not make too much noise". No. She requests us not to make ...
He recommends (that) the tablets should be taken after meals. This is wrong but not so much so, if you accept an extra element of obligation, as in 'he's the doc and he says if you don't then there may be a bad consequence, like you'll die', ie the tablets MUST be taken then, to some extent. Otherwise, he recommends that the tablets be taken ... if it doesn't matter greatly but he thinks that's the best time.

And fourthly, Ah yes, all that stuff about moods and modals. To me your modal verbs such as should and can are main verbs, not modals, (French devoir and pouvoir conjugate according to the subject, the dependent, secondary verbs goes in the infinitive form, same with Latin debere and posse) and the only modal verbs you mention which I call modals too, now, are parts of the verb 'to be' which are used to form different tenses and moods: be, is, am, are, will, used to, shall, would, would have ...
Over my teaching career the moods were the indicative and subjunctive and imperative. There were no modals. My dictionary says that modals are verb or auxiliary verb forms used to express a distinction of mood, such as that between possibility and actuality. That's it. So all that extra you have supplied is new to me and very interesting, all designed to help explain things to ESL students I think. But I am still playing devil's advocate to all of it, in that I am going through it most critically.

My function was to show people how to translate into English from languages where no 'modals' were used: first recognise the other language verbs were in a different form if they were subjunctive, then realise why, and finally express it in a level of English beyond that of everyday speech, but in such a way as to show that the other language's forms had been noticed and noted and dealt with. There is a huge width of possibility in doing this, otherwise why would the Iliad and the Aeneid continue to be translated half a dozen times a year by countless boffins, all coming up with different versions? All a matter of style in English, the richest one of the lot, really.

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@Brus - The subjunctive is not a modal, it is a Mood, which is a very specific grammatical form which I outlined above.It has nothing to do with the normal meaning of mood. Modal is shorthand for modal auxiliary verb, i.e 'can', 'could', 'will', 'would' etc. Hypothetical conditionals use 'would' or 'could' in the result clause for present and future conditions (what is known in the EFL/ESL world as a 2nd Conditional) and a modal perfect -'would have', 'could have' for past conditions (known as 3rd Conditional). You had both of these in your list, plus a 'Mixed Conditional' which mixes past and present. They use unreal past (or subjunctive only) in the if clause.

Here is a list of examples of the subjunctive collected by a fan of the subjunctive, who hates 'was' instead of 'were', so who is hardly likely to favour my view. But at least he and I and every other grammar website In know of, descriptionist or prescriptionist, are in absolute agreement as to what constitutes the subjunctive.

http://www.ceafinney.com/subjunctive/examples.html

This site is also pretty prescriptionist - note that it says that the modals 'could', would' and 'shoul' are sometimes used to express the same effect. But that doesn't make them the subjunctive.

http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000031.htm

I've just had a look at the English Club page on the subjunctive that Layman mentioned and they have it absolutely spot on - on structure, in the difference between formal and informal usage and in the difference between American and British Usage:

http://www.englishclub.com/grammar/verbs-subjun...

And finally there is my own piece on my blog:

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/06...

@Layman - Yes. It's used less in British English - for example we don't use it much in the present, in sentences like 'It is essential that she sit the exam this semester.' We prefer a construction with 'should' - 'It is essential that she should sit the exam this semester' (which is not subjunctive, whatever Brus might think) or informally the standard indicative - 'It is essential that she sits the exam this semester'.

Both GrammarGirl and EnglishClub are realiable sites on structure, although I don't always agree with GrammarGirl's conclusions. English Club is one of the best big ESL sites; see my comments above. Other good sites are Learn English at the British Council, Learning English at the BBC, UsingEnglish and esl.about.com and grammar.about.com.

I think one of the the reasons that there is so much disagreement is that some people's
interpretation of what the subjunctive is, is somewhat loose. Whether you use the subjunctive or not, is of course simply down to personal preference. And there Brus and I will never agree.

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Right. If anyone has the time? Two respected ESL grammar sites. Correct or incorrect? Opinions would be appreciated.

Grammar Girl - subjunctive
English Club - subjunctive

And, is there a difference between the usage of the subjunctive in American & British English?

Hard to understand how so many people can give so many different answers. There must be a right and wrong. Surely. After all, it's grammar.

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"Irrealis modality is a modality that connotes that the proposition with which it is associated is nonactual or nonfactual."

Jings! Crivvens! Help ma boab! as we Scots say in moments of extremis, such as on reading this. I googled it, thinking you were having me on. What sort of people dreamed up this guff, when all along we had the subjunctive mood to deal with the matter perfectly affably and easily? Did these folk have nothing better to do? Irrealis indeed. It does not exist in my dictionary, so it must have been invented by the sort of people who like calling meetings and attending them, and making things which are simple look complicated. I came upon this sort in my latter days in the teaching trade - they also loved computers and spreadsheets and putting things into files and making everyone's life a misery!

Now, you say that 'the result clause of a hypothetical conditional is most definitely not in the subjunctive, it uses a modal. Just as in romance languages the if clause is in the subjunctive mood, but the result clause is in the conditional mood.' To this I reply "what?". As the subjunctive is a modal, 'it uses a modal' goes without saying, but you say the result clause is conditional, not subjunctive. And the difference would be ...?

Would an example help?

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@Brus - except that, for many of us, especially in the UK, the subjunctive is largely dead. And this is only the natural conclusion of a process that has been going on in English for centuries. Many educated people in Britain say 'if I was' for hypothetical situations - in standard BrE you now have a choice, and that's what foreigners learning English are taught, although they are warned to use 'were' in more formal situations.

Secondly, the result clause of a hypothetical conditional is most definitely not in the subjunctive, it uses a modal. Just as in romance languages the if clause is in the subjunctive mood, but the result clause is in the conditional mood. The subjunctive in English has only two independent forms, the base form of the verb in the present - 'it is vital that he be at the meeting' (this is hardly ever used in BrE), and 'were' for all forms of be in past simple. Otherwise it is identical to the indicative. So this 'was / were' thing is really the only other time that the question of the subjunctive arises. And not surprisingly, as for every person of 'be' other than 1st and 3rd person singular, and for every other verb, the past subjunctive is identical to the indicative, many of us use the indicative for everything. Modern grammar reference books don't even call this the subjunctive any more, but the Irrealis. In EFL teaching we call it the unreal past.

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Cheers Brus. What an amazing and quick answer. This is a cool forum; I could really get into this. Gonna take a while digesting all of that with my cuppa and maybe I'll check in again soon. Thanks for the rapid response. Much appreciated. Determined to get my head around it all.

P.s. Why am I being told to choose another name because my name is already being used by someone else? Hi-jacked after my first post! Lol.

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Hello Evelyn

You ask for advice: ", i have to make a speech topic about wearing school uniform or not what recomendation they would make?.. if i were prime menister using modals, conditional, passive voice, embedded question and reported speech."

Well, let's try! "If I were prime minister" is a (closed) conditional clause, using a subjunctive verb, 'closed' because you are talking about a situation which is hypothetical, that is, you are not prime minister but if you were, this is what you would have done.

Conditional (open) clause is where it is possible: "If I am right ..." for example, because maybe you are right, and on condition that you are right, then you will do this or that ...

Passive voice is where you talk about what was done to the subject of the sentence: "I was appointed PM" (passive) was done to me, but "I became PM" is active because I did it. The cat sat on the mat is active but the cat was asked to get off the mat is passive. The cat sat (active) but was asked (passive).

Modals? That is another term for mood, so means whether the verb is indicative (fact) or subjunctive (hypothetical), so let us try "If the headmaster (or indeed headmistress) lets us wear what we like on Fridays then ..." that is indicative because it shows you think this is a real possibility. Change this to "If the headmaster (or indeed headmistress) were to let us wear what we like on Fridays then ..." That is subjunctive, because it says you think it won't happen.

"Embedded" question is a puzzle to me, but I think it is what I call an indirect question. A direct question you quote the question: "are you mad?" but indirect you tell us about the question someone asked, like this: "He asked him if he was mad". This is one of the three kinds of reported (or indirect ) speech:

indirect question "He asked him if he was crazy." (Direct: Are you crazy?" - with question mark). Indirect command: "He asked him to open the door". (Direct command: "Open the door." Indirect statement: "He said it was raining". (Direct statement: "It's raining").

Good luck with your speech, and let us know how it goes.

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OK, Layman,

the way to get it right is to remember that subjunctive is for 'hypothetical' situations - not factual - and BOTH clauses are subjunctive. otherwise BOTH are indicative (factual). This is called 'sequence of tenses' by some.

So:

1. If I was rude, I apologize. (Maybe I was rude, and if I was, then I apologise.)
2. If I were rude, I apologize. (Plain wrong. This means it would be rude to apologise, and I do apologise because I was rude, but I wasn't, maybe - daft!) 'If I was rude I apologise' - allows the possibility that maybe I was, so I do. 'If I were rude I would ... " means I won't because it would be rude to do so. You have mixed the moods so have not followed the sequence of tenses rule.
3. If I was rude, I would apologize. Suggests maybe I was rude (indicative) but begs the question what second, further condition must first be satisfied before I apologise. If I was rude, I would apologize if only I were a gentleman (subjunctive suggests I do not consider myself a gentleman).
4. If I were rude, I would apologize. This suggests it would be rude to apologise, but I am not rude so I shall not apologise.
5. If I I was rude, I would have apologized. Suggests maybe I was rude, but something else prevented me apologising. Without that further information (introduced, I suggest, by "but" after "apologised", it makes no sense.
6. If I were rude, I would have apologized. This makes sense: someone else might think I should have apologised, but I think it is rude to apologise, so I didn't.
7. If I had been rude, I would have apologized. I didn't apologise because I wasn't (in my view) rude.

Does 'was' refer to the past, and 'were' to a hypothetical situation? Yes.P.s. Hairy wrote previously:

You quote Hairy: "I can't believe that no one has mentioned the fact that the subjunctive is only a mood. It is a matter of whether one would like to sound sophisticated or not.If you want to sound classy, you say "if I were". "
This is nonsense. The subjunctive mood is employed to make it clear that you are talking of hypothetical possibilities. It is like a third dimension. Is the indicative "only" a mood? If we are not allowed moods, then we cannot use verbs, which must be indicative, subjunctive, or imperative (for orders). Without verbs we cannot make sentences. Must we avoid sentences? Of course not! That is why I dismiss out of hand the idea of 'only a mood'. A bit like a car mechanic saying "it's only an engine".
'Classy' has nothing to do with it, unless inverted snobbery compels you to avoid using the subjunctive in case someone realises or thinks you are educated. (In England some people have a problem with 'educated' and 'classy'.)

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Please could someone kindly explain the differences between these sentences, or if any of them are just plain wrong:

1. If I was rude, I apologize.
2. If I were rude, I apologize.
3. If I was rude, I would apologize.
4. If I were rude, I would apologize.
5. If I I was rude, I would have apologized.
6. If I were rude, I would have apologized.
7. If I had been rude, I would have apologized.

Does 'was' refer to the past, and 'were' to a hypothetical situation?

Many thanks to anyone who can help. Really like this forum but having a few problems getting my head around it all. The subjunctive is perplexing though I have to admit, as much as I enjoy it, I'm no grammar head.

P.s. Hairy wrote previously:

I can't believe that no one has mentioned the fact that the subjunctive is only a mood. It is a matter of whether one would like to sound sophisticated or not. If you want to sound classy, you say "if I were", but if you want to sound artless, you say "if I was". It's as simple as that! It's like choosing between the words "career" and "vocation".

Is that true?

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can you help me, i have to make a speech topic about wearing school uniform or not what recomendation they would make?.. if i were prime menister using modals, conditional, passive voice,embedded question and reported speech . Thank you very much.

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@Perfect Pedant and DAW - except most of it's tosh - modals have nothing to do with the subjunctive - except in German. if you want to compare English to Romance languages, for examples - 'would' and 'could' are equivalent to conditional mood and not subjunctive. (English doesn't have a conditional mood - i.e. a separate inflected form of the verb and German seems to combine subjunctive and conditional in one mood). None of the examples A-E are what is understood to be the subjunctive in English. That they may be in German is neither here nor there.

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@D.A.W

I have in the past carped about the length of your posts.
What I have just read here has definitely modified my view.
A fine and detailed explanation of the subjunctive and its uses.

I too have a knowledge of German, some of which I learned at school and while on assignment in Munich.
Early in my stay Munich, thanks to my undisclosed schoolboy German, I managed to avoid falling into some of the traps that my non-German colleagues delighted in setting for new arrivals from the UK.
One old favourite was to tell the newbies that "Moechtest du bumsen" was how to ask for the time.

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Understanding other Indo-European languages give us an idea of what Proto-Indo-European looked like. But the study of the development of a language, its diachronic study, is a very different thing from its synchronic study: what it looks like at a specific point in time. For instance, "if I were" is historically derived from the Old English past subjunctive. But from a synchronic standpoint, it is not the past subjunctive, at least not in a modern linguistic analysis. Huddleston and Pullum call "were" the irrealis. It's not the past subjunctive because "if it were done" is not the past tense of "if it be done", and because it only occurs with the verb "be" - for all other verbs we use the preterite.

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/arch...

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I do not think that anyone else has written anything here about the use of the subjunctive mood to express that elements of doubt in statements, questions, commands, etc. Yes, it truly is used this way, too.

I know an American who had lived in Saudi Arabia for a number of years to teach at a technical university there. The subject of Saudi Arabian food came up. He told me that he had eaten some goat meat while he was there, but he had never tried any camel meat.
Well, while he was there, someone might have asked him,
"Would you like to eat some grilled camel at the students' party?"
Aha, this is in the subjunctive mood because there is doubt.
He might have replied,
"Hell, no," or "I don't think so," or "It is time for me to try some of that."
Also, he might put some in his mouth and then spit it out.
Doubt, doubt, doubt! The subjunctive mood.
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Situations that are clearly in contrast with reality:
"If I were the king of Saudi Arabia, there would be free camel for everyone!"
Subjunctive mood.
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Adding politeness to an order, such as to a waitress:
"Would you bring me some of that goat with noodles and gravy?"
Subjunctive mood.
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Believe it or not, this is in the subjunctive mood, too:
"May God be with us." (Or Allah, or Jesus, or The Buddah.)

Ultimately: "May The Force be with you!"
Yes, the subjunctive mood in STAR WARS.

D.A.W.

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"A Student's Introduction to English Grammar" by Huddleston and Pullum describes three uses for the past tense:
3 backshift in indirect reported speech: I told Stacey that Kim had (instead of has) blue eyes.

In German, this is readily explained by the use of the subjunctive mood in indirect quotations, which is nearly always done.

As it was explained to me, when you are indirectly quoting someone, there is no guarantee that the person really said that. Hence, the subjunctive mood comes into use to express that element of doubt.

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Brus, from the study of German we come to realize that in the following sentence of yours, the addition of the VERB "would" is just an element of politeness:

"I would prefer that you don't come with me."

In contrast, the sentence without the "would" is bossy:
"I prefer that you do not come with me."

Then, we could make it completely bossy by putting it into the imperative mood:
"Don't come with me."
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Some people have laughed at me for stating that to really understand English grammar and to use it right, it is very helpful to understand other Western European languages.
The use of the subjunctive mood is a salient case of this.

I only know German, but my impression is that knowing Dutch, Czech, Polish, or Italian would help dramatically in understanding the subjunctive mood in English -- and especially since so much of the subjunctive mood in English has become vestigal.

Languauges do no exist in a vacuum. English is an Indo-European language, and understanding other Indo-European languages helps you understand how English works!

It is similar to how understanding the anatomy of the horse helps you understand the anatomy of th rhinoceros and the zebra. Some people still believe that all of this is preposterous -- but that is their failing.
D.A.W.

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Oops - I used incorrect word order. One of my example sentences should have been:

"Ich moechte Wiener schnitzel, Kartoffelen und Apfelsafte gern haben."
"I would like to have Wiener schnitzel, potatoes, and apple juice."
D.A.W.

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In German, the subjunctive mood is alive and well, and people use it every day.
I have few doubts that thsi is also true of other languages of Mainland Europe.
Hence, people who are accustomed top using the subjunctive mood in their native language (on "automatic pilot"), then they are much more likely to use the subjunctive mode the right way in English. So, this is the root of that.

Furthermore, in German there are two forms of the subjunctive mood, referred to as Subjunctive I and Subjunctive II, but I never could keep those names straight.
Nevertheless, in English, one of these forms is dead EXCEPT in some uses of the verb "may" that do not have anything to do with asking permission. E.G.
"That may be true," and in some odd kinds of commands such as "May the prisoner be hanged, drawn, quartered, and burned at the stake." I don't get this last one.

The other form of subjunctive mood in English still exists, but its use has become less and less common. I think that this loss is shameful. Examples.
1. That might be true.
2. If you would only use your brains, but that is hard to imagine.
3. If I were the emperor of the entire planet, then ...."
4. Then there is a whole family of helping verbs ("modal auxiliaries") that can be used in the subjunctive mood, especially in questions:
A: Could you do that for me? (Maybe you can and maybe you cannot.)
B. Do you have breakfast for me? (Maybe you do and maybe you don't.)
C. Will you let me out of here? (Maybe you will and maybe you won't)
D. Might we go to the circus tonigtht? (Maybe we will and maybe we won't.)
E. "Would" has more subjunctive uses in questions than can easily by counted. However, millions and millions of people have no idea that they are using the subjunction mood when they use the word "would". In fact, they use the word "would" in sentences that cast them into the subjunctive mood when the situation is not subjuntive at all. Why??? I just say sheer carelessness.

Would you give me 100 pounds sterling or 150 dollars? (Maybe you will and maybe you won't)
Also, being polite when giving an order: To a waitress: "Would you get me some ketchup and mustard?" Most speakers have no idea that this is in the subjunctive mood.
In German, the subjunctive form for the auxiliary verb "mag" is used much more than the indicative mood - as far as I know. This verb translates as "would" and it is "moechte" in German. (On the other hand, perhaps we American students were taught to use "moechte" a lot so that we would not come across as boorish in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Do you want to visit a country to be a guest, and then be a boor, too? I don't." Here is an example sentence:

"Moechte ich Wiener schnitzel, Kartoffelen und Apfelsafte gern haben."
equals, "I would like to have Wiener schnitzel, potatoes, and apple juice."

"Moechten Sie etwas Erpsensuppe gern haben?"
"Nein! Niemals moge Ich Erpsensuppe haben!"
equals. "Would you like to have some green pea soup?"
"No! I never want to have any green pea soup!"

D.A.W.

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Crazy English

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Spiceman had some thoughts on April 24:

""It is high time you go to bed." I say is more bossy, "you went" is subjunctive, allowing space for a polite bit of choice, however insincere.

"I would prefer that you don't come with me." (rather is not a verb, you say) -I say 'would' is a verb; rather is an adverb, makes no difference, Spiceman. 'I would rather' is using an antique verb 'would' which means 'want' so the expression is wholly correct and means 'prefer' but just sounds a wee bit less prissy.
"I wish that bank accounts would come with interest-free loans attached." - 'came' is present subjunctive (looks like past indicative) because they don't come that way, so we are talking about a situation which does not obtain. 'Would come' suggests a future state of things, 'came' talks of the current state.

You, Spiceman, say (I quote): "Those sentences you submitted would fall into the 'common usage' column. We hear usage like that regularly and so it sounds correct, even though it isn't." Well, Spiceman, actually, it is correct.

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"A Student's Introduction to English Grammar" by Huddleston and Pullum describes three uses for the past tense:

1 past time: I promised to be back for lunch.

2 modal remoteness: I wish they lived nearby. If he loved her, he'd change his job.
This has traditionally been called the "subjunctive". It covers cases where the event is modally remote, either it's counterfactual, or its fulfillment is a remote possibility. Presumably "It is time you went to bed" falls here as well.

3 backshift in indirect reported speech: I told Stacey that Kim had (instead of has) blue eyes.

http://books.google.ca/books?id=qlxDqB4ldx4C&am...

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So, jayles

"It is high time you went to bed" is not past, but suggests that great though the plan may be in your mind, it is conceivable that your addressee will not go to bed, so this is subjunctive, expressing the doubt about the outcome.
"I would rather that you didn't come with me". Is subjunctive, as you are talking about an act (come) which you hope or think won't happen.
"I wish that bank accounts came with interest-free loans attached". Is subjunctive because you are discussing things which don't happen.

That is why these sentences use a "past" tense when talking about the present/future.

It is not a past tense at all, each case is a subjunctive, describing a verb action which cannot happen, or is not happening, or you don't want to happen, or you don't think will, or you have doubts, will happen. The English subjunctive verb has the same form, usually, as the past tense of that verb. The exception is "be", the present subjunctive of 'be', used for remote future conditions, as eg "if it be your choice" refers to the future when you must make your decision and I don't know, or wish to convey my uncertainty about your choice. "If it is your choice" - indicative - sounds as if you think the choice is already made, so present tense (not oddly, as the choice stands now).

Hey, where's the Lochgelly?

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Hey, Hairy Scot:
"the Scots tend to be more grammatically correct than the English.
If that is a fact then it is almost certainly due to those hard-assed old pedants who beat the language into us with the help of the major product of Lochgelly!" - would that be the 'strap' then, or the malt? I have tasted them both, and know which I prefer!

Now, once again, children: the subjunctive "if I were you"; "I would prefer that you did not come..." are for situations where the action discussed cannot happen or you do not suppose or wish would happen:

"If you have worked hard you will pass your exams" means maybe you have worked hard and will pass ... - open condition, possible, indicative verbs;

"If you worked hard you would pass your exams" means you aren't, or I think you won't, so I think you won't pass ...- closed condition (in my opinion) so I use the subjunctive which looks like the past but it isn't because you could use this way of putting it weeks before the exams while there is still time to mend your ways, but I am phrasing it in such a way as to suggest that you are not, in my view, going to work hard. How else can such - not all that subtle, after all, - nuances of meaning be conveyed if one cannot cope with the subjunctive?

"If you had/were to have worked hard you would have passed" means you didn't work and you didn't pass. Subjunctive because we are discussing things which were never done or never happened but might have been. I challenge anyone to express this message without using the subjunctive.

Now, and this is the crunch: since we must sometimes use the subjunctive, it exists, and as it exists we should use it when it is appropriate, that is, whenever we are discussing things which cannot, do or did not happen, and also to convey the view that what we would like to happen, or to have happened, won't or didn't, although it might.

Oh, come on: does all that really do your head in? Perhaps a wee touch of the Lochgelly ...

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I think where I run into trouble is with an old Catholic school english teaching..."when in doubt, remove everything but the subject and the verb...if they don't agree, it's wrong". So, Bill and Ernie make pies for a living. Bill and Ernie MAKE they don't MAKES even though pies is plural. So, I would never say "I were" (going to the store, having a nap, etc). We were, yes. That's why I always thought "was" should be the form used. Of course, now I've read this discussion and my head has exploded. ;)

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@spiceman ... Those are not past tenses but rather subjunctives and are right.

The subjunctive is typically used after two structures:

1. the verbs: ask, command, demand, insist, propose, recommend, request, suggest + that ...
2. the expressions: it is desirable, essential, important, necessary, vital + that ...

In #1, the kid is clearly not going to bed. It's a command when you say, "It's high time (that) you WENT to bed." ... Think of: I wish you WERE here (when the person is clearly not there).

In #2, "I would rather (falls under #2 - desirable; the implied verb is "like") that you DID not come with me".

In #3, another "desirable", "I wish that bank accounts CAME with interest-free loans attached."

The subjectiv form often looks like the past tense.

The "rather" usage is a set form that goes way back. I had/would rather is an idiom in which the verb (like) is simply implied. Structurally it may be somewhat confusing, but semantically it's perfectly fine and it's been in use for so long that I don't think anyone would ever misunderstand it.

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@jayles: Those sentences use "past" tenses because they are incorrect. They should read:

"It is high time you go to bed."
"I would prefer that you don't come with me." (rather is not a verb)
"I wish that bank accounts would come with interest-free loans attached."

Those sentences you submitted would fall into the "common usage" column. We hear usage like that regularly and so it sounds correct, even though it isn't.

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"It is high time you went to bed".
"I would rather that you didn't come with me".
"I wish that bank accounts came with interest-free loans attached".
So why do these sentences use a "past" tense when talking about the present/future???

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@Warsaw Will
My feeling is that there is a difference between "British English" and "English English", especially the variety spoken in South East England.
As a Scot, I would love to be able to say that English is my second language, but alas that is not the case.
At the risk of starting a civil war, I would note that there are those who maintain that the Scots tend to be more grammatically correct than the English.
If that is a fact then it is almost certainly due to those hard-assed old pedants who beat the language into us with the help of the major product of Lochgelly!

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Despite our differences, this post has thrown up some really interesting stuff, and I thought it would be worth doing (rather a long) blog entry on my thoughts. So if any one is interested it's at:

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/11...

I hope this isn't breaking any forum rules.

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@Hairy Scot - I wouldn't call you a pedant for using 'were', my objection is only if you insist that my saying 'was' is wrong. My impression is that you no longer live in the UK, but probably in North America (we say back to front, not backward). Language in the UK has become a lot less formal, and what is accepted as standard has changed a lot since the 50s and 60s. - I was taught to say 'to whom should I give this book?', but I would just get funny looks if I said that today.

@New Reader - 'different from / that / to' is the subject of a lot of noise on the Internet, and no doubt another PITE post somewhere. But you really should have checked a dictionary first, laddie (or lassie)! I would indeed say 'different from' with a noun or pronoun. But I speak BrE where 'different to' is also perfectly acceptable, and is probably preferred when the next word is 'that' or 'what'. These examples are from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

'American English is significantly different from British English.'
(British English) 'It's very different to what I'm used to.'

And here is H.W. Fowler:

'That different can only be followed by 'from' and not by 'to' is a superstition.'

So tsk tsk, yersel!

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Valentina,
you hit the nail on the head. The politicians speak incorrect English even when they do know the difference, in order to seem demotic, and thereby not lose the votes of those who might think them acting as if superior if they were to get it right. Strange, is it not? Yes, I think this is peculiar to English. Something to do with the climate, perhaps.

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@Warsaw Will
I too am over 60, educated in Scotland during the 50s and early 60s, with "A" levels in a number of subjects and a degree in English.
I try to abide by the rules of language that I was taught during those formative years, but I do not expect everyone to agree with me.
What I do expect is that I be free to express an opinion as to what is correct or incorrect without being labelled a pedant.
I certainly would not label anyone who disagreed with me as an ignoramus.
However when I hear the language of the hip hoppin', jive talkin', text speaking, bunnet oan backward youth of today I often contemplate with despair the future of the English language.
The damage done by Noah Webster will pale into insignificance compared to what these numbskulls will do.
But then I am a pedantic old curmudgeon. :)

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@Warsaw Will
I did not say that anyone had accused me of being pedantic.
What I did say was that it puzzled me that anyone who advocates adherence to the rules of the language is vilified as a pedant, and that I was curious if this was something unique to the English language.
I would think that those who do not wish to follow the rules are a lot worse than those they decry as pedants.
The rules may be old.

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@Warsaw Will
" different in British English, to that in American English"
Tsk tsk
"Different from laddie!!" .

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Sorry, that should have been:

- The ''were" construction is really all that's left, apart from in fixed expressions, so it's not really surprising that's disappearing too, albeit very slowly.

Typing is not one of my fortes.

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Wow, what a lot of issues to address! So I'll start with the easiest ones.
@Willy wonka, much as as I like chocolate, I can't let you get away with this one - "If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel Tower.", is a perfectly standard example of what is known in EFL/ESL circles as a second conditional. Just google 'Second conditional'.

@Valentina. I don't think anybody was accusing you of being pedantic for using 'were', nor do any of us deny that 'were' is correct. It's just that some of us think that 'was' for unreal conditions is just as correct, at least in normal spoken English. Most of us use formal English very rarely.

Would the Egyptian tourist authority campaign of a couple of years ago really have used, "I wish I was in Egypt" as their slogan if it was commonly perceived to be such bad grammar. (Check it on YouTube)

You say you were taught at International House in the 70s, which means your teachers probably went to school in the 60s, as I did. At that time the teaching of prescriptive grammar was the norm in British schools, but that hasn't been true for the last forty years or so. If you doubt me, read David Crystal's 'The Stories of English'.

I was taught a lot of things then that would just get you funny looks today, such as obligatory 'may' for permission, 'to whom should I give this book', etc. British English has changed a lot since those days. And got a lot less formal.

For what it's worth, in modern EFL, we teach both forms, telling the students about the different registers, and letting them decide for themselves.

@mediator - "Anyone who was educated in a British senior secondary school would definitely disagree with you." - 'you're turning me schizophrenic, as apparently I have to disagree with myself - except I don't know exactly what you're talking about, as I've never heard this expression used in Britain, nor have my (British) colleagues, and Google hasn't been much help either, although the term does seem to be used in India. Do you mean a secondary school for seniors, or some supposedly superior school?

Anyway Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, who are all on record as saying 'If I was prime minister ...' all have pretty impeccable educational backgrounds.

@Mediator - "Correct usage has nothing to do with any kind of "prescriptive" bible." - but so many of these so-called rules were indeed introduced by the prescriptivists between the 18th and early 20th centuries. Again if you don't believe me read David Crystal's book. Crystal, as I'm sure you will know, is probably the greatest living authority on the history of the English language as spoken in Britain.

@Hairy Scot - Nor is anybody saying that "If I was ..., I would", is a correct example of the subjunctive. What I'm saying, and I think I differ a little from Porsche here, is that because indicative and subjunctive are almost identical, apart from this one exception, in Britain at least, people are ditching the subjunctive altogether, and using the indicative. JMMBallantyne mentions for example what I would call the present subjunctive - "I recommend that the minister approve the policy paper". Now I know that this form is used in the States, but it's pretty well dead in the UK, except in very formal documents. Swan (Practical English Usage) - "Most subjunctive forms are formal and unusual in British English. In 'that' clauses, British people usually prefer should + infinitive pr ordinary present and past tenses."

The ''were" construction is really all that's left, apart from fixed expressions, so it's not really that's disappearing too, albeit very slowly.

And for all those who look down their noses at MWDEU. I'm afraid you're betraying your own ignorance or perhaps prejudice. MWDEU is one of the most highly regarded books on usage, especially among linguists. It includes plenty of examples from British literature as well as American and is also highly readable. But I admit it is strongly descriptive.

Finally I would like to put my cards on the table, and would be very happy if others were to do the same. I am a 60-something British born and bred native speaker of BrE, RP to be precise, so not exactly at the informal end. I have a reasonably good higher education, teach English to foreigners for a living and blog about English grammar.

I'm getting a little tired of being told my English is not correct by people, one or two of whom I find little qualified to do so. In particular, the comments of one of the most virulent critics on the 'were' side on this post are riddled with grammatically unnatural sentences and unlikely language of a formality rarely heard among British speakers. But I did have a friend from Sri Lanka, for whom I think English was his first language, who spoke in a very similar way.

I would suspect that only PerfectPedant and possibly JMMBallantyne might have some first-hand knowledge of current British English. I'm only making this point because the original question related to the non-use of the subjunctive by a British politician, and I think the position of the subjunctive is very different in British English, to that in American English.

What about a bit of live and let live? You say tomato and I say tomato, etc. By the way I hope you all spotted my heinous breaking of your rule, which was entirely spontaneous. That's just the way it came out. Sorry about the length by the way.

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Who wrote this nonsense in the American Heritage Book of English Usage you quote? It is made up as he goes along by the writer, I suggest. It is obvious that "if I was" is incorrect English, and is what we might call demotic, or an attempt by the speaker to seem demotic to avoid being accused of being elitist, that is, educated. Or a clumsy, unprepared and wholly excusable minor gaffe in casual speech in a casual situation. None of these is what one wants of a hopeful politician in a formal situation, I argue.

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According to The American Heritage Book of English Usage, it is standard English.
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3038

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Give us one example of a site or publication that states that the "was" in "If I was ........ I would" is a correct example of the subjunctive of the verb 'to be".

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@JJMBallantyne

None so blind as he who will not see.

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"We have already established what is correct."

Quite the contrary.

We have established no such thing.

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Your name is well chosen.

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I am not the same Goofy as the Goofy who posted those two links. When I say "evidence" I'm talking about how good writers actually write. Anyone can make a website stating their opinion. But how can any consideration of the situation ignore actual usage?

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There seem to be lots of sites and sources which show "If I were........" as being correct.
Have yet to find one that states that "If I was....." is in fact correct, although most do concede that it is acceptable in an informal or conversational context.

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I am obviously better educated than the Red Goofy

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I was taught English in the 1970s at the Berlitz School in Munich and the instructor always used "If I were......" not "If I was ..........".
I have since met a lot of Europeans whose second language is English, and they too use the "If I were ...." form.

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There are many sources that state that "If I were" is the correct form for the subjunctive of the verb "to be".
What MWDEU lists as "standard" or "acceptable" is not necessarily "correct".
Even Wikipedia gets it right:-
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive_mood#E...

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Regarding:

"...I side with those linguists who think that the measure of what is correct is what is 'well-formed': what is acceptable to the majority of educated speakers..."

If many of the posts on this site are any indication, then all linguists think that the measure of what is correct is what is acceptable to any identifiable group of speakers, no matter how small.

No, let me change that. All linguists think that there is no such thing as "correct".

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Perfect Pedant:
Which evidence are you referring to? The evidence provided by MWDEU shows that both "was" and "were" are standard English. Lots of people here have stated their opinions, but I haven't seen much evidence that only "were" is standard.

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@JJMBallantyne
We have already established what is correct.
But despite all of the evidence you just refuse to acknowledge it.
Maybe you can give us your educational history?
Use of the correct form is by no means mandatory, it is of course entirely up to you, and as Mediator says,"You can also wear your cap backwards."

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"Correct use of the language has nothing to do with any kind of "prescriptivist bible'."

Of course, that would depend on what you mean by "correct".

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@Warsaw Will
Like you I was expressing an opinion. Do you have evidence to back up yours?
Anyone who was educated in a British senior secondary school would definitely disagree with you.
Correct use of the language has nothing to do with any kind of "prescriptivist bible'.
If you wish to use it incorrectly then that is your choice.
You can also wear your cap backwards if you wish.

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@Mediator
- The most annoying thing about pedants is that they are usually correct. - Only if you believe in some kind of prescriptivist bible. I don't. I side with those linguists who think that the measure of what is correct is what is 'well-formed': what is acceptable to the majority of educated speakers.

- My comment (about the UK) 'was well wide of the mark' - Do you have evidence to support that?

- "If I was ...... I would" is technically incorrect. - It depends on who you ask and your definition of correctness (as above). These example sentences are from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary entry on 'if':

"If I was in charge, I'd do things differently."
"(rather formal) If I were in charge…"

The position of every UK-published TEFL book I've ever worked with is the same. The difference is not one so much one of correctness, but rather of formality. As I said I use both, depending on the situation and context.

According to the MWDEU, this use of 'was' alongside 'were' has been common since the 17th century - 'The success that the indicative form has had since has probably been abetted by the near invisibility of the subjunctive'. They include plenty of examples of unreal conditionals with 'was', by, amongst others: Byron, Robert Frost, Thackeray and Lewis Carrol (see Goofy's link).

Lastly, according to Michael Swan (Practical English Usage), the belief that only the 'were' usage is correct is much more prevalent in the US than in the UK. My comments are, of course, purely from a BrE perspective.

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@Hairy

LOL

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I can't believe that no one has mentioned the fact that the subjunctive is only a mood. It is a matter of whether one would like to sound sophisticated or not. If you want to sound classy, you say "if I were", but if you want to sound artless, you say "if I was". It's as simple as that! It's like choosing between the words "career" and "vocation".

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@JJMB, "Tense" is often used to represent any combination of tense, aspect, and mood. Furthermore, there is a past, present, and future subjunctive. Still, I'll be happy to cede the point, athough this really isn't relevant to the discussion.

Let me restate as follows:

...Nearly every verb in Engish has a subjunctive construction. The verb "to be" just happens to be perhaps the only one whose subjunctive form is irregular...

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure whether you may agree with my points or not. Regarding:

"...And while most English verbs have at least one distinctly subjunctive verb form (the uninflected base form of the verb in the third person singular..."

That is consistent with my very point. "distinctly subjunctive" and "subjunctive" are not the same thing. Most correct uses of the subjunctive are not distinctly different from the corresponding non-subjunctive form. That doesn't mean that the subjunctive doesn't exist. It is the mood that determines its, er, "subjunctivity".

I agree, defective modals complicate things even further, but I'm not sure whether their defectiveness necessarily breaks from the normal subjunctive paradigm. Even if it does in some cases, so what?

Regarding the complexity of the Wikipedia link, here we do disagree. I think the link provides a very simple, yet relatively complete description of the subjunctive. It's also consistent with every English grammar book that I have ever seen.

Let me make yet another suggestion. Maybe "if I was you..." doesn't really represent the death of the subjunctive. It merely represents the death of a particular construction of the subjunctive. If it has become acceptable (and I'm not saying it hast or hasn't), then "was" simply replaces "were" as the subjunctive form. It wouldn't be the first time in history that a distinct subjunctive form became obsolete.

For what it's worth, I still use it, my young children do, and if it goes away, I'll be sad to see it go.

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The most annoying thing about pedants is that they are usually correct.
While common usage can be a good thing, the unfortunate fact is that in lots of cases it is not.
@Warsaw Will
I think your statement "that's probably what the majority of educated British speakers would say" is well wide of the mark.
The fact remains that use of "If I was ...... I would" is technically incorrect.

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"I revel in the fact that English is governed by 'Common Usage'"

Well of course, the truth is that all languages are - no matter what some august member of the Académie française or the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española might wish to think.

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According to the Bad Linguistics blog, all three candidates said 'If I was your prime minister', before the last election, which is hardly surprising, as that's probably what the majority of educated British speakers would say. I think I say both as the whim takes me. But then I'm simply one of the swine.

As a separate form, the subjunctive has been disappearing from English for the last 400 years or so, and in BrE this is really its only remaining vestige apart from a few set expressions, such as 'If I were you'. It seems entirely natural to me that 'were' in conditionals will go the same way sooner or later.

As regards foreign learners, in TEFL we tend to use the expression 'the unreal past' to talk about hypothetical conditionals like this, seeing 'were' as an exception rather than the rule (as past subjunctive is otherwise identical to the indicative). And an optional exception at that; although we do warn them to use 'were' in more formal contexts.

Unlike the perfectly named PerfectPedant, I revel in the fact that English is governed by 'Common Usage'; that, through the linguistic choices we make, we can all collectively influence the development of our language. It seems to me to chime perfectly with Anglo-Saxon democratic traditions and legal systems based on custom. As the Roman rhetorician Quintilian put it, ''Custom is the most certain mistress of language."

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I took Latin in high school (don't ask me why, I have forgotten).
My lasting memory is of one classics master with a sense of humour telling a bunch of second year students, "In Latin a sentence is a collection of nouns adverbs, and adjectives, made logical by a verb at the end."
In later life I found that description can also be applied to the German.
English has been greatly influenced by both Latinate and Germanic (almost typed Germinate) languages so perhaps there is more than one source of square holes.

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"Every verb in Engish has a subjunctive tense."

The subjunctive is a mood, not a tense.

And while most English verbs have at least one distinctly subjunctive verb form (the uninflected base form of the verb in the third person singular), many of those tricky modal verbs don't (they represent an entirely more cumbersome argument. For example, is "would" a subjunctive form of "will"?). We could open up another argument here about the conditional versus the subjunctive.

Because the presence of subjunctive verb forms in English is so limited, there's a tendency to overengineer the grammar. That Wikipedia link provides what I consider to be a vastly overcomplicated table on the English subjunctive.

A BIG part of our problem is that our approach to English grammar still tends to rely on hammering a square peg into the round hole of a Latin structural model; a model that is not always appropriate or even useful.

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@Porsche @JJM

My apologies, you are absolutely correct.
I should have said "which has an irregular subjunctive", and perhaps have added, "It is that very fact which causes the confusion that led to this discussion."

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@Mediator, while JJMBallentine already touched on this, regarding:

"The verb 'to be' is, I think, the only verb in English that retains a subjunctive, and that subjunctive is 'were' not 'was'."

This is absolutely not true. Every verb in Engish has a subjunctive tense. The verb "to be" just happens to be the only one whose subjunctive form is irregular.

@Willy Wonka and Goofy, regarding:

"If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel Tower."

Of course this is correct. This isn't a prescriptive vs. descriptive issue. Willy, what you fail to recognize is that the subjunctive IS being used here. The prescriptively correct past subjunctive of "lived" is "lived".

What I think we have here is a general misunderstanding of the full breadth of application of the subjunctive. for all verbs, there are present, past, future, negative, etc. forms of the subjunctive, each with their own rules of construction and application. The subjunctive is not only limited to counterfactual assertions, either. For a quick review, check out the English section of this Wikipedia entry:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive_mood

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"The verb 'to be' is, I think, the only verb in English that retains a subjunctive, and that subjunctive is 'were' not 'was'."

No. When it is used, the subjunctive verb form shows up in three places:

1. The use of the uninflected base form of the verb in the third person singular:

I recommend that the minister approve the policy paper.

Expressions such as "God Save The Queen!" are idioms with this form of the subjunctive embedded within them.

2. The fossil "had better" usage (often shortened to "better" through ellipsis):

You'd better get going.

3. The "were" form of "be" (discussed).

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willy wonka: I don't think you'll find any English usage book, no matter how prescriptive, that says "If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel Tower." is not correct.

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Valentina raises interesting questions. Is the preference for 'informal' speech in any way motivated by a desire to be 'American', or to avoid being accused of pedantry? Not American, I think: Frasier Crane and Niles get it right!
Mr Ed Miliband is a man of education and high office in Britain. Is his choice of slang "was" in place of 'correct' "were" in a hypothetical "If I were the prime minister..." motivated by a wish not to seem pedantic, perhaps? What is wrong with being correct? Why is it pedantic? I am sure we all know the reason for that!

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@Goofy - "If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel Tower." is definitely not correct.

"If I were living in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel Tower"
"If I had been living in Paris, I would have visited the Eiffel Tower."
"If I had lived in Paris, I would be able to speak French."
"If I lived in Paris, I apologise. I don't remember a thing about it."

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There are a number of discussion forums covering this topic, and the opinions are as varied as those given here.
One example is at:- http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t...

I was taught at school that the subjunctive was used to address a hypothetical as opposed to an actual situation:-
If I were your teacher, I'd flunk you. (I am not your teacher)
If I were going to Antarctica, I'd go with my best friend. (I am not going to Antarctica)
If I was fast in the race, it's because I had competition to push me. (I may have been fast; I may not have. The condition is unclear)
If I was rude, I apologize. (I may have been rude. It depends on a person's point-of-view. The condition is unclear)
These examples are similar to those given by Perfect Pedant:-
"If I was a hopeless cad, I apologize."
"If I were a hopeless cad, I would never apologize."

The verb "to be" is, I think, the only verb in English that retains a subjunctive, and that subjunctive is "were" not "was".
Although the use of "If I was ......" has become common in this context it is technically incorrect.

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The MWDEU discusses the subjunctive in detail in the entry I linked to way back at the beginning of this thread:
http://books.google.ca/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&am...

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The statement "It may seem that was is crowding out subjunctive were" suggests that there is a difference between "was" and "subjunctive were".
Where does MWDEU state what the subjunctive is, what it means, and how it should be used?
The englishclub.com entry does give a clear definition of that.

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I'm wrong; MWDEU does say something about it, although it's nothing conclusive:

"It may seem that was is crowding out subjunctive were in informal contexts, such as the letters and journals among our examples here. But not necessarily:"

...and they go on to cite some examples to the contrary.

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Well to be honest I'm not convinced that the difference is one of formality. MWDEU says nothing about a difference in formality. And the englishclub.com site simply asserts that this is so. In the writing of good writers we find both "was" and "were" forms, sometimes both in the same paragraph.

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@goofy
Yes, I agree.
But you did say "how good writers actually write".

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As I've already said, "informal" does not mean "incorrect".

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@goofy
"If I were....." formal, written
"If I was ...." informal, conversational
There is a good and detailed explanation here:-
http://www.englishclub.com/grammar/verbs-subjun...

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I am interested in correct usage, but I find it more useful to take "correct" to mean "how good writers actually write", not "how someone thinks I should write". Good writers use "if I was" and "if I were" interchangeably. I have provided a link to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which discusses the evidence in detail.

But other people have continued to assert that "if I was" is wrong, simply because they say so. I don't find assertions without evidence very convincing.

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Why is being correct labelled as pedantry?
English is my second language and I find it intriguing that people who insist on correctness are labelled, almost insultingly, as pedants.
Why is this?
What is wrong with expecting the language to be used correctly?
Is it because English is spoken in a number of countries?
Are the errors due to slang or the American usage of the language?
Does this happen with Spanish or French?

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I thought this one had been done to death.
Advocating adherence to the rules and structures of a language is not pedantry.
Have a look at this:-
http://www.englishclub.com/grammar/verbs-subjun...

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"'If I was the Prime Minister. ...' said Ed Miliband, British Labour party leader, today, Sunday 24th September 2011. Is this not how to phrase it if it remains a possibility that he was once Prime Minister, or if he is not sure if he was, or is reluctant to admit it?"

As always, pedants attempt to overcomplicate the language. And the English subjunctive is probably one of those aspects of our language that suffers from more schoolmastering than most.

The argument between "if I was" and "if I were" would seem an attempt to put much more nuance of meaning into Miliband's statement than is really there. Whether "was" or "were", the implication is completely clear: "If I was/were the PM [but I'm not]..."

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The only true gospel for the English language is the OED, although Chambers is acceptable for those of us who do the crosswords in the quality broadsheets.

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Have now done so. Cracking good read! I suggest that you use it as your "bible" for US English.

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MWDEU is a dictionary of standard English, from both NA and the UK. I suggest that you read the preface and introduction:
http://books.google.com/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&a...

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Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage is a usage dictionary published by Merriam-Webster, Inc., of Springfield, Massachusetts. It is currently available in a reprint edition (1994), I gather. It is the one which Bob & Bing once sang about, being, like them, Morocco-bound. I reckon it is as American as apple pie.
Now, when a writer uses forms of English other than Standard English, does it mean he doesn't know any better? Or is he ascribing to his characters a bit of a regional dialect, perhaps?
Should you be "done", as we say in Britain, for some heinous crime, would you be happy to be "sent down" for a lengthy prison sentence by a judge speaking, say, in the language of some of the characters from Huckleberry Finn, one of my favourite novels? Or Walter Scott? As long as he had a copy of Webster's among the other tomes lined up on his bench? In such unhappy circumstances I would prefer that the pronouncement be made by someone dressed in formal robes and speaking Standard English. If he were to fail to use the subjunctive where indicated I would lodge an objection, for sure.

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Perfect Pendant
"Unfortunately Merriam-Webster tends to reflect only what is common or acceptable in North America"

This is not true. MWDEU quotes equally from NA and UK writers and usage commentators. If there is a difference between NA and UK usage, or between NA and UK usage commentary, they say so.

Brus
"English usage and correct (as you say, formal) English are not the same thing."

You seem to be equating "formal" with "correct". But "formal" doesn't mean "correct", it means "formal". And "informal" doesn't mean "incorrect".

Also, I don't see why you think that "was" for "were" comes from North America. Many of the examples given by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage are from authors outside of North America: Carroll, Byron, Thackeray, Farquhar.

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'If I was a cad' allows the possibility that maybe I was indeed a cad. In that case, if 'I would apologise' is subjunctive, because conditional, it suggests that I would but I am not going to, because a further condition would first have to be satisfied. So:
"If I was a cad, I would apologise for it if you were to persuade me."

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Goofy
English usage and correct (as you say, formal) English are not the same thing. I started my correspondence with this website suspecting that many misuses of correct English by the British come from North America as here mentioned by Perfect Pedant. My suspicions have not been allayed, confirmed rather!
It is accepted that there are regional dialects and a wonderful thing it is that this is so, of course. Conversations often feature clumsy English, naturally. But when public figures are making gross errors of standard English through carelessness at times when there is a reason to get it right, it is alarming. Are errors in printed headlines, or legal documents, or school textbooks, acceptable? Speeches by politicians? You get my drift.

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Unfortunately Merriam-Webster tends to reflect only what is common or acceptable in North America and is often in conflict with sources outside of that area.
If it were not for that we would probably have less to discuss.

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No, I was sincerely interested in what how you interpret the difference between "was" and "were", since for me, there is no difference. I have heard that for some people, "were" indicates a lower degree of likelihood than "was".

It seems that for you, "was" in a present counterfactual is unacceptable. If you see a sentence like
"If I was a cad, I would apologize."
you interpret it to mean that there is another clause coming. Left as it is, it doesn't work for you.

That's fair enough. However, the fact is that writers use "was" and "were" interchangeably in this context (according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage). Where there is a difference it seems to be one of register. That is, "were" is more formal.

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@Brus
I have agreed with you all along. It's just that we couldn't convince Goofy.
The use of 'If I was ...." instead of "If I were" is something that makes me cringe.
If I were you I would do as I have done and give up on Goofy.
I have a suspicion that we were being trolled.

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Re: “If I was” vs. “If I were”
Perfect pedant:
If I was an ass I am sorry. If I were you I would give up. "If I was.." refers to fact, or possible fact. "If I were..." refers to impossible (closed) condition. I can't be you. But maybe I was an ass.
Timbo: you are right, surely no one else is reading this stuff by now.

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??

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Brus, my apologies, I rendered your username incorrectly. I am sorry about that..

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If anyone else were reading this thread they would surely agree with Brutus.

If anyone else was reading this thread, then they have surely stopped by now.

That said, I would have to agree that "counterfactual" is a perfectly good and useful word.

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"If I was a hopeless cad, I would apologize."
This means that there is a possibility, which I am not yet quite prepared to admit, that I was a perfect cad sometime in the past. I would apologise, but what are we waiting for? We now need to know on what condition, as you have not said "I shall/will apologise, but "would apologise", so you need to go on, saying "if ..." as perhaps "if you were to convince me (that I was a perfect cad).
Complete sentence then:
"If I was a perfect cad, I would apologise if you were to convince me that I was."
This means you don'y think you will be convinced. If you think you will be, then
"If I was a perfect cad I shall apologise if you convince me that I was."

But you don't mean either of these, do you?

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"If I was the Prime Minister, I would change the law." This to me suggests that I am surprised and doubtful to hear that I was sometime in the past the Prime Minister, find it hard perhaps to believe that such an thing could have been allowed, and if it is true, would want someone to change the law, maybe to prevent such a calamity in the future.
(I have, of course, by the way, no particular prime minister in recent history in mind.)
"If I were the Prime Minister, ..." has a totally different meaning, that I want the law changed and if I could I would, but I can't so I shan't because I am in fact not the Prime Minister.
Which one do you mean?

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@Brus
We are obviously casting our pearls before swine.
I give up!

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If I was ... I would ... has one indicative verb (was: factual, perhaps) and one subjunctive (were: non-factual, I shall not apologise...) so the simple rule of sequence of tenses: both clauses need to be subjunctive for a closed or non-factual, or both need to be indicative for an open condition, one which may still be fulfilled. When you say "If I was ...I would, it begs another subordinate clause: "If I was ..., I would ...if ...).

This is the same problem as yesterday's one from Mr Tony Blair, former prime minister of Britain, who is quoted as saying "If I was interested in money, I could make much more", which begs the question, in more than one way, leaving us wondering how he could make much more, and when it might have been that he was interested in money, and why not any more. But he is acknowledged as a great orator who does not need any verbs in his sentences, and indeed does not always use them at all, and speaks in the dialect of his intended listeners, which is not necessarily standard English, so we must not use him as a model.

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Perfect Pedant
It seems to me that "if I was" can only lead to ambiguity if it is used in the same context as "if I were". If my two sentences really do have different meanings, then there is room for confusion, and I'd like to know exactly what the difference is.

Your sentence "If I was a hopeless cad, I apologize" refers to a past event, so it's not the same context as my examples.

Would you ever use "if I was" in exactly the same context as "if I were"? Would you say this:
"If I was a hopeless cad, I would apologize."

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@goofy
The difference lies in the use of subjunctive vs indicative as stated by Brus.
Perhaps a better example is:-
"If I was a hopeless cad, I apologize."
"If I were a hopeless cad, I would never apologize."

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If I was the Prime Minister, I would change the law.
If I were the Prime Minister, I would change the law.

Don't both of these sentences refer to unreal present events? If I can't remember if I was Prime Minister, I would be talking about a past event. I might say:

If I had been the Prime Minister, I would have changed the law.
or
I can't remember if I was the Prime Minister.

The whole sentence determines whether the event is counterfactual, not just the verb.

For people who make a distinction between these two sentences, what exactly is the difference?
If I was the Prime Minister, I would change the law.
If I were the Prime Minister, I would change the law.

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Good one, "I wish I were .....". Now, why is it "I thought I was ...." but "I wish I were ...". One is for fact, the other for non-fact. (Or "counterfactual" to cite a contributor.)+
Students of English as a second language are keen to learn these details, others treat them as an affront. Shame on the others, I say!

"I think I am..." v "I wish I were ...", This time the verb in the main clause (wish/think) are in the present tense. - uh, this time the explanation is harder: both think/wish introduce maybe yes or no subordinate clauses. So why not "I wish I am" or "I think I were"? Even more clearly, here the wishing suggests doubt (subjunctive 'I were') and the thinking suggests certainty (indicative 'I am').

Not so hard after all, hey?

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Good one, "I wish I were .....". Now, why is it "I thought I was ...." but "I wish I were ...". One is for fact, the other for non-fact. (Or "counterfactual" to cite a contributor.)+
Students of English as a second language are keen to learn these details, others treat them as an affront. Shame on the others, I say!

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Good one, "I wish I were .....". Now, why is it "I thought I was ...." but "I wish I were ...". One is for fact, the other for non-fact. (Or "counterfactual" to cite a contributor.)+
Students of English as a second language are keen to learn these details, others treat them as an affront. Shame on the others, I say!

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The subjunctive was drilled into my head, when I was a kid, by that old commercial that went "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener".

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OK, I found idiolect on Google dictionary, and its definition shows that "my idiolect" means that you personally choose to say "If I was ..." for 'counterfactual'. That does not mean you should.

I still maintain that to say "If I was the prime minister" means you can't remember if you were, or don't want to own up to it. To say "If I was there" allows the possibility that you were indeed there.

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Both idiolect and counterfactual appear in OED but, strangely, counterfactual does not appear in Chambers.
(I am typing this in Google Chrome and counterfactual is flagged as a spelling error.)

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Neither "idiolect" nor "counterfactual" are neologisms. They are common words round my way. Anyway, please read the MWDEU entry I linked to.

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I do not know which writers have been using 'was' and 'were' interchangeable (sic) for all those 300 years, but I like your neologism "ideolect", which my dictionary, like me, is too old to include. So too "counterfactual". I shall check them on Google in a few minutes. They have never seen the light of day in any of my language lessons, nor in the textbooks I have used.
Your point about verbs other than 'be' is well taken. The problem with the English subjunctive is that its conjugation is so much like that of the past indicative, it is really only with the rare irregular verbs such as 'be' that its different form is apparent. As it is apparent it is easy to notice it, learn it and use it, so use it!
"If I was a rich man", as quoted by a contributor, sounds obviously plain wrong because it is plain wrong. English dialect maybe, but it is not standard English.

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My idiolect doesn't make any difference in meaning between

If I was the Prime Minister, I would change the law.
If I were the Prime Minister, I would change the law.

I know that both sentences are counterfactual, since the form of "be" is in the past tense, and the main clause has "would". I'm not sure how this variation is evidence of deterioration.

In fact "be" is the only verb that has a special form for the counterfactual. With ever other verb, we use the simple past, for instance:

If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel Tower.

Writers have been using "was" and "were" interchangeable for about 300 years: http://books.google.com/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&a...

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I don't think it needs an education in a decent UK school, just a decent school - German and Danish friends do not get this wrong when speaking in English, because they have been taught the English version of their own languages' subjunctive forms for use in closed conditional clauses (putting forward an impossible hypothesis), such as "if I were you". I cannot imagine having heard 'if I was ...' used by anyone using English as a second language. Americans get this one right too. It seems almost a deliberate ploy to suggest such things as "if I was you" when used by a British public figure, with what motive? The answer is evident.

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Another example of how "common usage" leads to deterioration and debasement of the language.
Anyone with an education from a decent UK school will tell you that of course the correct form is "If I were".
The classic example is the song "If I were a rich man" from the musical "Fiddler on the Roof".
Unfortunately, because of "common usage", it appears that "If I was" is now acceptable.
A pox upon it.

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