Submitted by Missy Sosler • August 2, 2013
Which is correct; If the current owner WERE allowed to have an auto body shop of if the current owner WAS allowed to have an auto body shop? I am questioning whether Owner should be with WERE or Owner should be with WAS?
August 6, 2013, 4:46pm
It depends on what is being asked - is this about the past or the future?
WERE - This is a hypothetical situation in the future. For example, 'If the current owner WERE allowed to have an auto body shop, she could make a lot of money from her business.'
WAS - This is something that might or might not have happened in the past. For example, 'If the current owner WAS allowed to have an auto body shop, but now he is not, I wonder who cancelled his permit?'
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August 6, 2013, 9:27pm
"should" here is somewhat academic. There are millions of English speakers north of St Albans who rightly use "he were" and "we was" as a relic of Viking grammar - take a listen to "Chlorination Street". One could blather on about subjunctives and the kinship to "waere" in German; but it's all pretty much undermined by those Viking offspring. So don't get ye knickers in a twist about it.
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August 7, 2013, 7:23am
@jayles - I think Northern English dialect use of 'were', as in 'He were in t'pub' (He was in the pub) is a bit of a red herring here, as it has nothing to do with the subjunctive or hypothetical situations, but is a non-standard indicative verb form, just as Northerners might also say 'We was on our way to see our Valda', and some Londoners might say 'I done it yesterday, didn't I?'
I presume Missy Sosler is talking about a hypothetical conditional regarding the present /future, in which case the traditional purist 'correct' version is to use the subjunctive, which in this case would be 'were'', for example 'If the current owner were allowed to have an auto body shop, he would open one tomorrow'.
However, in almost all verb forms the subjunctive past is exactly the same as the indicative past:
'If the current owners were allowed to have an auto body shop, they would open one tomorrow' - no difference'If the current owner wanted to have an auto body shop, he would open one tomorrow' - also no difference.
So, not surprisingly many people, especially perhaps in Britain, no longer make this differentiation, and use the indicative 'was'. Modern linguists and many modern grammarians (for example in EFL/ESL teaching) consider both to be correct, the only difference being in formality. Personally I use both, as the fancy takes me, and if anyone tells you that 'was' is wrong here, I'm afraid they are rather out of touch with modern grammatical thinking. This use of both subjunctive and indicative past for hypothetical or unlikely situations is known in EFL/ESL teaching as 'the unreal past' , and in at least one modern grammar reference book, as 'irrealis'.
I've written about this at some length here - http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/11...
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August 7, 2013, 9:28am
To my knowledge, it's a North American/British English distinction. North Americans say "was," where British English speakers say "were," as it's a hypothetical ("if such-and-such were true").
August 7, 2013, 2:07pm
@dave - sorry but I don't agree. I'm British and I often say things like 'If it wasn't for the such-and-such, I'd do such-and-such'. In fact, the subjunctive is used rather more in the States than in Britain; we very rarely use present subjunctive, for example - 'it is very important that this be finished by Friday'.
I teach British English to foreign learners, and all our course materials recognise both 'was' and 'were' for hypothetical use, with 'were' being seen as more formal.
Look at all the nonsense written on the Internet about Joan Osborne's 'One of Us', because it includes the line 'If God was one of us'. Most of the objections to this line seem to come from America. What's more most of the grammar websites that say 'were' is the only correct version are American. (Although to be fair, so are most of the linguistics sites which say that this is nonsense).
And there's a good reason for this. My understanding is that more Americans learn grammar at school. Between the late sixties and the early nineties there was hardly any grammar taught in British state schools as a reaction against the conservatism of grammar teaching at that time . As a result, my impression is that there are a lot more people in the States who consider themselves as grammar geeks than there are in the UK. But on the other hand the grammar they learned at school and put forward on forums etc, often tends to be quite conservative (or perhaps better - formal).
Check out Grammar Girl, one of the less dogmatic American websites, and you'll find that she only accepts 'were', in hypothetical situations. - http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/gram...
On the other hand 'If I was' is regularly used by highly educated British English speakers, as you can see if you read my blog post, linked to above, which grew out of another thread on this website on the same subject.
August 8, 2013, 3:41am
WW: "Between the late sixties and the early nineties there was hardly any grammar taught in British state schools as a reaction against the conservatism of grammar teaching at that time."
I was educated in the UK at the back end of that period; grammar hardly figured. I remember learning that verbs were "doing words", adjectives were "describing words", and that was about it. I picked up some English grammar in French lessons, and by watching Countdown when someone would have a dodgy "agent noun" disallowed.
August 8, 2013, 3:50am
I didn't mean to suggest "was" was not British English. I hear both "was" and "were" used as the subjunctive (in the UK). I've rarely heard the latter used in North America. That's just my experience.
August 8, 2013, 6:05am
@ChrisB - I'm an English teacher (TEFL) and I'd never even heard of an agent noun before today. An agent in passive constructions, yes, but not an agent noun, which I had to look up. Well, you learn something new everyday.
@dave - I admit it's difficult to compare popular spoken language, but what I notice is that most of the complaints about 'was' being used in hypothetical conditionals seem to come from North America. But as you live in North America, I'll take your word as far as common usage goes; that was new to me, although it gels with what they say at Random House. Perhaps that's why there are also more complaints there.
I would quibble with you slightly that 'was' is being used *as* the subjunctive, however; rather it is being used instead of the subjunctive to express the same function - the hypothetical, or as some grammarians call it - the counterfactual, and what in TEFL we call 'unreal past'.
One reason for this quibble is that we can't invert with 'was' as we can with 'were', which I believe to be a feature of the subjunctive. We can say 'Were I to win the lottery tomorrow, I would ...', but we can't do that with 'was'; it just doesn't work.
But back to Brits and 'was'. I tried 'If I were' etc in the British National Corpus (http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/), and got the following:
if I was - 901 if I were - 687if he was - 1407 if he were - 734if she was - 779 if she was - 488
Now I know that there could be some non-hypothetical instances of 'was' there, but from a quick glance at the 50 examples of each they give, 'was' seems to being used mainly in the hypothetical sense.
August 8, 2013, 7:36am
Didn't know about the BNC. thanks for the resource!
I should clarify that I'm British-Canadian, so I've lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Currently in the UK.
August 24, 2013, 6:52am
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August 24, 2013, 11:46am
Well, you learn something new every day; what a fascinating insight this is. I'm almost tempted to look just to see about the buttered wife - sounds like something from 'Last Tango in Paris'.
August 28, 2013, 7:31am
"I am questioning whether Owner should be with WERE or Owner should be with WAS?"
The answer is "yes". In other words, either one. The use of the subjunctive "were" has been giving way to "was" as someone already stated here.
August 28, 2013, 12:15pm
@JJMBallantyne - good to see you back.
August 30, 2013, 11:26am
Good to be back.
September 20, 2013, 9:06pm
@Dave, I too must disagree: when one says "if I/it/he/etc were to," you're speaking in the subjunctive mood. That's purely resevered for hypotheticals. Were is used will all forms in this construction.
If you're speaking about something that's likely to happen, then it's indicitive and was is used for the singular pronouns (except you -- always you were regardless of mood or number). In this case it's the speaker's choice; both are acceptable.
Also @Dave, my experience has been entirely the opposite of yours; I here the subjunctive used more in the US and see many others with the same experience as me. It's generally claimed that we use the subjuntive much more frequently in the US vs the UK. Either way, the subjunctive is rare in both.
Perhaps it's not used as frequently in Canada? It's taught/required (formally) in AmE.
When speaking informally, use whatever you like; people will most likely understand you either way (via context).
September 21, 2013, 6:18pm
Those of us in the UK and elsewhere who learn Latin learn all about grammar - we have to, in order to make sense of the permutations of the word endings. The only nation I have come across which thinks grammar is daft and takes the view "who cares" is the British, where there is to be found in all too many places a seething resentment against education in general: grammar, incredibly, is thought to be elitist by the lefties (I have often heard them say it is) who seem to have controlled the teaching profession here ever since the '60s, with dire results. For instance people in the public eye such as politicians and broadcasters are now nervous of employing grammatically correct English, including the subjunctive, in public, anxious lest they be condemned as elitist. The few who do publicly speak grammatical English are derided, and even attract dislike, because of it. It's quite extraordinary, really. All other nations respect and admire education but large numbers of Britons seem suspicious of it, and resentful.
o tempora, o mores, as we say.
There would be nothing elitist about Latin if everyone were offered the chance to learn it. As was the case a few decades ago, when a Latin qualification was needed for entrance into university, for example, but for some time now the study of Latin has been confined to private schools where lefties flourish less easily, as they can hardly argue that such schools are elitist and then go and work in them (although there are fifth-columnists who do just that!). Grammar schools which provided a brilliant education without fees were thought to be elitist and so were closed back in the '70s. The difference in educational standards provided by private and public schools is now greater than at any time since the last World War. No wonder there are now so many Etonians in the government, and there are such a disproportionate number of privately educated pupils winning places at UK universities. (I think the figures show that over 50% of university places go to privately educated students, who constitute only 7% of the school population). The fact that they have learned some Latin, and so some grammar, including the subjunctive, is not unrelated to this disparity (which of course has other forces too bringing it about). There are signs that this is all recognised and some public (i.e. state-funded) schools are now running Latin clubs for those who want it.
I'll shut up now, or you might not let me come to the ten-year reunion (or is that for the people arguing about the spelling of resume?).
September 21, 2013, 7:12pm
Speaking as a leftie, if one wishes to learn a language, the earlier one starts, the better. So shouldn't we all be learning and using Latin as soon as we start primary schooling? All we need is teachers who speak latin fluently. Then we could speak English proper.
September 21, 2013, 7:52pm
Jayles, you are right. You should kick off early, the earlier the better. There is a very popular course called "Minimus" featuring what appears to be a Roman version of Mickey Mouse, and it is used at primary level to entertain small people. I do not think that they are frightened by grammar there.In my Latin course adverbs are introduced right from the start, as they are easy because at first they don't have different endings to worry about. 'Properly' is 'recte' and, because it is an adverb, it describes how you do something (speak English, for example). But proper is 'rectus' or 'rectum, recti, recto, recta, rectae', etc etc (36 permutations depending on what is being described as being proper), so must be brought into play, a few endings a week, over about a year of lessons, as adjectives are, after verbs, the most complex words to learn about in Latin. In the second and third years the pupils learn the other 72 endings for 'more properly', and 'most properly'. Then they know all about adjectives. Meanwhile they have known about adverbs from the start. That's right. Recte means 'right', too, if we mean 'correctly', doing it right. If we are talking left and right it's sinister and dexter. I wonder what 'lefties' might be. I'll work on it over a beer. That's the fun of Latin: it isn't easy, and you have to think. Those mottos in Latin can be very cryptic.
But I'll tell you what: Latin students know grammar, because they have to if they are to cope with all those permutations and structures. And it's good at providing a rich fund of vocabulary, too, as in dextrous, sinister and correct, all from Latin. Nothing elitist about it, lefties need not fear, obviously.
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September 21, 2013, 8:15pm
@Brus - the subjunctive has been disappearing from British English for a lot longer than just since the educational reforms of the late sixties. Fowler called it largely moribund in 1926, and Somerset Maugham announced in 1949 that, “The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible” .
We haven't used present subjunctive for a long time in BrE, except in very formal contexts, so what we are talking about is past subjunctive in hypothetical conditionals. Past subjunctive is identical to past indicative except in two persons of one verb. If we are not confused with the the other persons of 'be' and all persons of every other verb, the only function I can see subjunctive 'were' serving is to show off how grammatically well educated you are.
So now to grammar schools. In fact not all grammar schools closed in the 70s, as it depended on the political colour of the local government. Some became comprehensives, some continued alongside comprehensives and some still exist today, although many of the best have admittedly gone private, due to Labour's mistaken (in my view) policy of stopping funding grant-aided schools - not all grammar schools were directly funded by the state - when I was young, 40% of children in Edinburgh went to grant-aided schools, somewhere between state and private.
And frankly speaking, grammar schools were elitist, being intended for the top 25% of pupils. Yes, a few, such as Manchester Grammar School, had an excellent record at getting working-class kids into Oxford and Cambridge. The problem was not so much with the grammar schools, as with the other side of the coin: what happened if you weren't one of the lucky 25%, a decision that was made at the age of eleven or twelve. Because if you didn't pass the 11-plus exam, the alternative was the Secondary Modern school, basically a passport to nowhere. There were certainly mistakes made in the early 70s, but I can't imagine many want to go back to that sort of inequality of opportunities.
Yes, there are more children at private school than ever before, partly due to Mrs Thatcher's policy of financially aiding pupils to go to private school, and partly due to underfunding of state schools. But I'm afraid your figures for university places are wildly out, unless you believe the term university should be reserved for Oxbridge. In fact, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 88.9% of those entering university come from state schools, and even at Oxford and Cambridge, the figures are 57.5% and 63.3% respectively for students from state schools.
I learnt Latin at school and it has absolutely no effect on whether I use the subjunctive or not. As for politicians and others, it needs to be remembered that Britain is not like meritocratic (at least in theory) France, or the States. Too often elitism in Britain has been associated with privilege, with the class system. Thank God, that is now weakening, and the effects can be seen in language, which is moving to the middle. The language spoken by the upper classes is markedly less 'U' than it was when I was young, and as the working classes become more aspirational, their language is also apparently changing.
You may think that when Cameron or Miliband says 'If I was in such-and-such a situation, I would do so-and-so' they're dumbing down to appeal to a particular audience, but the truth is that the language of people of their background is also changing. I had a pretty similar sort of education, before the reforms, and I don't use subjunctive much either.
Still, current education minister Michael Gove would agree with you about the subjunctive, though few language professionals agree with him. Gove is the one who wrote a note to his department, in which he suggested the passive should be avoided. Not only did he misidentify the passive in his note (par for the course for passive critics), he introduced his letter with the sentence 'Thank you for your letter of the 17th asking me, on behalf of your colleagues, how I like letters to be drafted.', which of course contains a passive.
September 21, 2013, 10:09pm
@Brus Wow thanks - and I thought 'rectum' meant 'anus' as in 'anus horribilis'.
September 22, 2013, 6:35am
Warsaw Will: thanks for the corrections to the details which I over-simplified in the hope of keeping my rant as short as possible; you are absolutely right. I guess my figures for private/state students in universities did indeed refer to Oxbridge or at least Russell group of UK universities - figures I took aboard a few months ago from the Daily Telegraph. Those entering all the universities we have these days for all courses in everything indeed do not show the demotic figures I mentioned. And indeed some grammar schools survived the cull in the '70s. And those who won places in them did not do so by lottery but by the much hated 11+ exam which it is usually argued excluded too many too young from the chance of a good education, although it allowed those who were successful to go on to enjoy one.So only two points: Somerset Maugham whose work I greatly enjoy did not write the pure English attained by his near-contemporary Nancy Mitford, and he did not set out to do so. The other where you mention " I learnt Latin at school and it has absolutely no effect on whether I use the subjunctive or not". Yes, I say, but you do know what the subjunctive is! And Mr Gove probably knows what the passive is, too, and wants to have its use avoided not because of any literary flaws but because he wants action in his department. The subject of his passive infinitive 'to be drafted' is 'letters', inanimate, so that one is okay in his view, I guess. I insist that the central thesis of my diatribe is that folk grumble and tut about how no one is taught grammar any more, and I say yes, those who learn Latin do. So, for example, the folk who say "I" when they mean "me" have no idea why it is wrong because they don't know their subjects from their objects, nor what a preposition is, so "Tom and me are well glad that Maggie and Jock have invited Sally and I to their do" is grammatically incorrect. It is still fine to say it, of course, if you insist, but if the speaker thinks it is 'correct' it is a shame not to know any better, really. I was intrigued to hear a good old friend tell off another good old friend who had said "They're coming with Jock and me", claiming it should be "with Jock and I". And no, she had not learned Latin either. And no, her interlocutor did not defend her version, as she was too polite, but just let a flicker of smugness show for a second!
Jayles, right on, correct, except that 'anus horribilis' is a joke, of course, annus is a year, as in annual and anniversary (vers- from vert- = turn). Horribils = horrible, frightful and dreadful, but also, colloquially, astonishing and wonderful. When she mentioned it in her speech the Queen took care to pronounce it with a short 'a', as she did not want it possible to seem to make the blue to which you allude. Word order is different and sentences these days, conventionally, have capital letters only with proper nouns. And anus = old woman! and gets a laugh every time.
September 22, 2013, 10:58am
@Brus - I'm a little confused. In your first comment on the 21st, you said that as a nation we British think that grammar is 'daft' and that 'there is to be found in all too many places a seething resentment against education in general: grammar, incredibly, is thought to be elitist by the lefties', so I thought your main targets were left-leaning Guardianistas like me. But now you are complaining ' that folk grumble and tut about how no one is taught grammar any more', which sounds a lot more like Daily Mail readers to me.
You imply that learning Latin will cure all our grammatical ills. I have no problem with those who want to learning Latin; they say it improves your sense of logic, for example. But Latin is not English, and Latin grammar is not English grammar. That may seem obvious, but part of the problem with the 18th century prescriptivists is that some of them tried to force English into a Latin mould. I would also remind you that much of the success of the Scottish University system during the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment, and the more than average production of engineers and philosophers in Scotland at that time, was partly because Scottish universities had moved away from the mainly classical system that prevailed in England at the time.
People will learn grammar when it is presented in an engaging and interesting way, and based on real-life normal Standard English, as it largely is in EFL/ESL teaching. I remember what we had before the reforms, and it was deadly dull, and many thought it stultified any sort of creativity. But what people like Gove and (Latin teacher and self-appointed 'expert') Nevile Gwynne put forward as 'good grammar' is completely out of kilter with what those who teach English and those who study language (i.e. linguists) think (and with real-life normal Standard English). If you're a Telegraph reader I highly recommend the occasional forays into this arena by Tom Chivers (although I doubt you'll agree with him). As far as I'm concerned, his is one of the most sensible voices talking about grammar today.
And on the topic of education, just a reminder that when I was at school only about 10% of pupils went on to university, now the figure is more like 50%. From being something reserved for the privileged few, higher education really has opened up to the many. In 1960 there were 22,426 first degrees awarded in the UK. By 1990 that had risen to 77,189, and at the same time there was a tenfold increase in higher degrees awarded (figures from the House of Commons Library). To put it into perspective, population increase over the same period was about ten percent. The figures are far higher today, but the statistical system seems to have changed, so the 1990 figures give a fairer picture.
September 22, 2013, 2:30pm
Warsaw Will, I bow to your superior familiarity with the history of these things, and like what I read. I have no experience of the dull and stultifying teaching of grammar before the reforms, nor of the syllabus for EFL/ESL. I too spent my schooldays in Scotland, however, and in my time the figure of 8% was given for those who went on to university, with many others going on to other forms of tertiary education, of whose institutions a great number have since been reclassified as universities. As to what I think about that and the tenfold increase in the higher degrees awarded, I shall zip my lip.What I am very familiar with is the business of translation from ever more complex Latin into, therefore, ever more complex English, presenting a perfect scenario for students to find themselves confronted with the challenge of finding the most correct and the most expressive way to render into English a given set of words whose structure bears next to no resemblance to the final choice of a translation. It is an ideal medium for challenging a person to deal with the conundrum : "Here is what you must say, (but it is in Latin), now say it (in English)."When you say that part of the problem with the 18th century prescriptivists is that some of them tried to force English into a Latin mould, then I find myself calling out "What?", closing my computer down and heading for the pub, where I might or might not try to work out what that's meant to mean! But I value your splendid and learned and beautifully researched and argued pieces on this subject. My research is confined to reading the newspapers and having learned discussions with equally aged and disillusioned old persons. Meanwhile are we not meant to be confining our deliberations to the correct use of the subjunctive? I use it, I learned about it through Latin, not English, lessons, and I deplore the ambiguity which results when it is not used when it should be. Politician: "If I left money in a brown envelope ..." readily permits the interpretation that he allows that indeed he may have left it. Politician:" If I were to have left the money ..." makes clear he claims not to have left it, quite a different thing. But he may well mean the latter although he says the former, but then, that's politicians for you anyway, not so?
September 22, 2013, 3:31pm
@Brus Whilst learning Latin may be great fun, surely learning almost any inflected language would serve to raise awareness of grammar? The other criterion would be usefulness. Clearly a smattering of Latin (and Greek) are still a prerequisite for studying western medicine, botany, European history and so forth;but for business Spanish, Japanese, Chinese or something would have more practical application. Again, outside the catholic church, latin is dead; much easier to find teachers and watch the news in a living language. One also needs to look at the impact of so many children using English as a second language, even in England, Speaking one language at home and using another for exams, education and business can lead to colloquial competence in the home-spoken language, but a narrow vocabulary, and vice versa for English. Where I am living, even at secondary school, English is the medium in the classroom; but in the playground and outside children tend to separate into their own first-language groups. We have here schools where well over half the students would rarely speak any English at all over the weekend. Becoming more aware of Latin grammar (well any grammar) might indeed help a little, but hardly a cure-all. There is a real difficulty in acquiring a university/business level of English with so many opaque latinate borrowings endemic. For instance, the links between "correct", "director", "erect", "regal", and "real" are obscure in English. The wordoots in some other languages ( say, German) are often more obvious.
September 22, 2013, 4:02pm
For instance, the links between "correct", "director", "erect", "regal", and "real"are obscure in English, you say. Latin: rex, reg- = king, ruler. reg- rex- rect- = rule, ruledcorrect-cor- is a corruption of con- = together/strongly (when used as a prefix). -rect from reg- = so strongly according to the rule.director - rect-rule rector (noun) = ruler dis- in all directions so director = ruler in all directions (?) e- out e-rect = ruled outwards (in fact upwards)reg- = king so regal = kingly = king-likereal is from res = a thing so is not connected. English dictionaries verify the Latin roots of all these words. I like all your points, and agree. If one plans an academic career Latin is invaluable. For business I would not know what is required, but a sound command of English is more than essential, I understand from those people I know who are engaged in it.
September 22, 2013, 5:11pm
@Brus - thank you for your kind remarks and the fact that, although our views are pretty well diametrically opposed, we manage to keep our discussions fairly civilised.
So, before you rush off to the pub, it is my understanding that what are now generally considered to be the shibboleths of the proscription of split infinitives and preposition stranding started off because, as these didn't happen in Latin, they shouldn't be allowed in English. Although probably some 95% of grammar is totally non-controversial, one area where many disagreements occur is that of pronouns, one of the few areas where we still have inflections, and some people try to compare the system in English, a largely non-inflected language to Latin, a highly inflected language. In fact where Latin has come in most useful for me is in trying to learn Polish, as Polish has a similar seven case system to Latin, with the different cases having more less the same uses as in Latin.
So, back to the subjunctive. I'm the same as you, I didn't learn it through English either, but through French and Spanish. But that's because it has such a marginal role in (at least British) English, whereas in Romance languages it is much more important - though that doesn't stop the French trying to avoid it - il faut faire qqc, rather than il faut que je fasse qqc etc.
But I repeat - how can there be ambiguity in a mere two persons of one verb, when there is none for the other four persons of the same verb and all other verbs. You give the example of 'If I were to have left the money' instead of 'If I left the money', but there are a couple of problems here - firstly 'If I were to have left the money' is not the subjunctive of 'If I left'. The past subjunctive of 'leave' is 'left', exactly the same as the indicative, just as it is for every verb except 'be'. All you are doing is making it more formal or tentative.
The only case where the past subjunctive is different from the past indicative is in the 1st and 3rd persons of 'be' - 'If I was/were' 'If he/she was/were' and variations of was/were.
The second problem is that apart form a few constructions such as 'I wish' and a few fixed expressions, this only occurs in hypothetical or counterfactual conditionals. And conditionals consist of two clauses. In your examples you only give half the story; it's the other half and the context that tells you whether we are using a real or counterfactual conditional:
'If I left money in a brown envelope when I was here earlier, I'd be grateful if you could tell me where it is' - is not really a true conditional; it means 'íf it's the case that', is in the indicative and it's about the past.
'If I left money in a brown envelope on the table, would you then be more inclined to award us the contract' - now we have a hypothetical conditional (and a hidden subjunctive) about the present/future, with what we call the Unreal past. Using 'If I were to' doesn't make it any more subjunctive, simply more tentative.
The usual way of putting your second (past hypothetical) example would be with 'had' - 'If I had left money in a brown envelope' which is also a hidden subjunctive. Again the 'were to have' is not the subjunctive of 'had', simply more tentative.
Two more examples. The first in each pair is a standard hypothetical (with a hidden subjunctive), and the second just a more tentative version.
with present/future meaning'If we offered you a greater discount, would you be prepared to double your offer?''If we were to offer you a greater discount, would you be prepared to offer us a greater discount?'
with past meaning'If we had offered you a greater discount would you have doubled your order?''Were we to have offered you a greater discount, would you have doubled your order?'
All are in the subjunctive, but because in the first in each pair the subjunctive is exactly the same as the indicative, nobody notices. I'm afraid the 'were to' construction is a bit of a red herring here. The real question (as the questioner originally asked) is whether these two sentences are equally valid:
If she were here now, she'd give you a piece of her mind.If she was here now, she'd give you a piece of her mind.
And whereas most traditional grammarians would say no, the answer most linguists and EFL books would give for normal spoken English is yes, with the proviso that you are better to use 'were' in more formal contexts. But that is not really for any linguistic reasons, but because certain people, like those traditional grammarians, will expect it. Compare that with the same sentence with 'they', where subjunctive and indicative are exactly the same:
If they were here now, they'd give you a piece of their mind(s).
If there's no room for confusion with this one, how on earth is there any room for confusion with the 'she' version.
The truth is that the Subjunctive has been losing its distinctive forms in English for at least the last 500 years, and what we have now are simply the final vestiges. In a largely non-inflected language, I personally see nothing fundamentally English about the subjunctive, and am quite happy to see it go, although I respect the views of those who don't. But it's a bit like 'whom', those who want to use it are free to do so, but they don't really have any linguistic grounds for criticising those of us who don't so much.
September 22, 2013, 6:20pm
Warsaw Willexcellent arguments. Incontrovertible. But: you acknowledge that there is a subjunctive form, and because certain people, like those traditional grammarians, will expect it, as you say, then I say that even if we do not normally use it, we should know it so that we are equipped to use it when it is suitable.My example of the brown envelope and the money was indeed half-baked as I neglected to put in the other bit. The money in brown envelope usually denotes nefarious activity, such as bribery, so I was hinting at a politician denying culpability, as inIf I left money in the brown envelope that it wasn't meant as a bribe (open condition, maybe I left it). Both verbs indicative.If I were to have left ... I would ... (closed condition - denies I left it). Both verbs subjunctive.And thank you for clearing up that thing about the 18th century prescriptivists trying to force English into a Latin mould, and the split infinitives and so forth. That is not my intention in promoting Latin. Indeed you acknowledge that it is mighty handy when attacking Polish, and I would observe that Russian and Czech have numerous cases (Russian 8), and German manages four,(nominative, accusative, genitive and dative) requiring a grid of 24 words (many are duplicates) for 'the', for example: der, die, das, den, des, dem all mean 'the' and learning them, armed with Latin, is a piece of cake. Xhosa and Zulu and all their cousins in the Nguni language set have no fewer than 16 noun groups (rather Monty Pythonishly, groups 13 and 14 have no words in them, rather like 'no rule 7' in that Australian sketch). All this was sorted out in the 19th C by, I bet, a European clergyman equipped with Latin. I shall Google it later and see, as my textbook on Xhosa is vague about it. Armed with the experience of Latin declensions you can embark upon a study of almost any language. The classical Buddhist language of Pali, in India 2,000 years ago, has the identical endings to 'mensa, mensam' in Latin for the same purpose of nominative and accusative subject and object, feminine nouns. The masculine ones are not identical to those of -us -um or -* -em in Latin, but then -* in Latin indicates strange endings for 3rd declension nouns, so Pali too, so they echo one another That would be because these languages have the same Indo-European root. Armed with Latin a visit to Spain shows very quickly that learning Spanish takes a few days only, and Italian the same. Spanish vocabulary in places proved tricky, so I asked some Spanish children who were learning Latin how they found it so easy, and how come some Spanish words are nothing like Latin when so many are the same - the answer is that the tough ones are derived from Arabic (the Moors, of course!!). All great fun, and yes, I did nip out to the pub between the last piece and this one. And while the subjunctive does belong in book 3 of a 3-book set for learning a language, whether it is widely 'used' or not it must be included in a sound and complete study of a language, including English.
September 22, 2013, 7:39pm
Mostly covered at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive
I think Murpy/Hewins mentions that Br English often uses "should" after a verb like "recommend", whereas apparently Am English prefers subjuctive.Eg: "They recommended that interest rates (should) be raised".
September 23, 2013, 2:45am
@jayles - Yes, we don't use present subjunctive much in BrE, except when being very formal, and of course we have some pf the same aspects as we have with the past subjunctive. And that is that many forms of the subjunctive are exactly the same as the indicative. Let's change your example slightly:
'They recommend that the Governor of the Bank of England raise interest rates. - 3rd person singular - subjunctive is different from the indicative - raises
They recommend that you raise interest rates, Sir.' - 2nd person plural - subjunctive is exactly the same as the indicative
The number of occasions when the subjunctive is different from the indicative is tiny, and this is why I don't buy the clarity argument, and probably why its decline in use continues. In British English, the only difference between using the subjunctive or indicative is one of formality, and it might be argued, elegance.
As for what people need to know, in BrE it basically boils down to one thing: in present hypothetical conditionals, and with expressions lie 'I wish/If only', in formal English many people will expect you to use 'were' instead of 'was' in the 1st and 3rd persons of 'be'. It's much better to see it simply as an exception to the rule, as we do in EFL/ESL, than getting all worked up about the subjunctive, a word we hardly ever mention.
It's interesting that a few years ago, the Egyptian Tourist Board ran an advertising campaign with the slogan 'I wish I was in Egypt', with music from Aida. I don't remember any great outcry because they didn't use the subjunctive, which theoretically they 'should' have done, as it's a hypothetical statement. The truth is that because the subjunctive is exactly the same as the 'normal' (i.e. indicative) past in the vast majority of cases, people are tending to ignore the exception, and use normal past for that as well. Pretty logical, really.
For those who really must have the subjunctive there's a good collection of examples put together by a subjunctive fan here - http://www.ceafinney.com/subjunctive/examples.html
September 23, 2013, 5:00am
@Brus - you might be interested in my blog post on the subjunctive, where, through the use of tables, layout and colour, I think I've been able to put things more clearly than I have here. It also includes a discussion of the 'were to' construction, and the was/ were debate.
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