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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

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“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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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.

user106928 Sep-25-2011

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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&pg=PA877&vq=subjunctive&dq=merriam+websters+dictionary+of+english+usage&source=gbs_search_s&sig=Oy0dCbCw5SCr5alz6IIx61tNYoY#v=onepage&q=subjunctive&f=false

goofy Sep-26-2011

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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."

user106928 Sep-30-2011

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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".

bubbha Sep-28-2011

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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.

Brus Sep-26-2011

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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.

goofy Sep-26-2011

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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!

Brus Sep-28-2011

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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.

Brus Sep-27-2011

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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.

Brus Sep-26-2011

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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?

Brus Sep-28-2011

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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.

goofy Sep-29-2011

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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.)

user106928 Sep-26-2011

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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."

goofy Sep-30-2011

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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!

Brus Sep-28-2011

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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.

goofy Nov-08-2011

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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.

goofy Oct-05-2011

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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.

goofy Oct-06-2011

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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.

Warsaw Will Nov-14-2011

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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.

Timbo1 Oct-04-2011

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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]..."

JJMBallantyne Nov-08-2011

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

goofy Nov-08-2011

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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.

goofy Nov-09-2011

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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&lpg=PA877&vq=subjunctive&dq=merriam%20websters%20dictionary%20of%20english%20usage&pg=PP10#v=onepage&q&f=false

goofy Oct-06-2011

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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.

JJMBallantyne Nov-10-2011

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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."

Warsaw Will Nov-11-2011

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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.

JJMBallantyne Nov-11-2011

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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.

goofy Nov-12-2011

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"We have already established what is correct."

Quite the contrary.

We have established no such thing.

JJMBallantyne Nov-12-2011

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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.

Brus Oct-06-2011

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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.

user106928 Oct-06-2011

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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.

goofy Nov-08-2011

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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?

goofy Nov-12-2011

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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. :)

user106928 Nov-16-2011

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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. ;)

docswee Jun-19-2012

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Crazy English

Salahudheen Aug-07-2012

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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/archives/001192.html

goofy Aug-10-2012

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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-subjunctive.htm

And finally there is my own piece on my blog:

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/06/exploring-grammar-subjunctive.html

@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.

Warsaw Will Aug-24-2012

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@jayles - Hi, I confess to knowing next to nothing about the use of subjunctive in early English, but looking around, the subjunctive is usually seen as a form of inflection, some of whose functions were 'taken over by' modals (MWDEU). That's not the same as saying they *are* the subjunctive. Or as one paper (The Subjunctive in Old English and Middle English - Eva Kovacs) puts it (my emphasis):

"*Instead of* the subjunctive mood modal auxiliaries can also be used. The
auxiliary found most frequently in these clauses is shal/sholde, especially in the preterite. Furthermore, may/mighte also occurs mainly in the present tense, just like wil/wolde, which is occasionally found in Late Middle English."

By the time eighteenth century grammarians had discovered the subjunctive it had largely fallen out of use, and as I've already pointed out, more has disappeared since then, such as its use with real time conditionals. What's more, as Goold Brown shows, in A Grammar Of English Grammars, these grammarians disagreed quite significantly as to its composition and use.

However, grammarians today are generally agreed that there are two inflected (or rather, uninflected) forms, present and past (although compounds are also possible - "If he were wanting to ...)", and I firmly believe to start bringing modals into it is an unnecessary complication - especially to the understanding of modals, which are complicated enough already. In these old grammar books, where may, might and should are sometimes referred to as subjunctive, I have never seen these polite forms ("Would you, could you" etc) referred to like this, and if anything they are much more like a conditional mood. But it is generally agreed, that as we don't have separate inflections for these, they don't constitute a mood.

"English does not have an inflective (morphological) conditional mood, except in as much as the modal verbs could, might, should and would may in some contexts be regarded as conditional forms of can, may, shall and will respectively. What is called the English conditional mood (or just the conditional) is formed periphrastically using the modal verb would in combination with the bare infinitive of the main verb." Wikipedia

The modal system in English is highly complex and central to the way we express modality, just as the primary auxiliaries are to the way we express time and aspect. The use of the subjunctive, on the other hand, is marginal in modern English, and in British English, apart from set phrases, is for all intents and purposes limited to this one word - 'were'. And even then its use varies according to context. It might be hanging on in there in hypothetical conditionals, but it's not nearly so strong in constructions with 'I wish' or 'I would rather', and especially not after 'imagine' and 'supposing'.

I much prefer the concept of 'unreal past' that we teach our EFL students, which explains all these uses much more easily, the past being used here for 'distancing', and 'I/he/she were' simply seen as an exception (see quote from The Cambridge Grammar of English Grammar, above), charming and elegant as it may be for some people, and even for me sometimes. I'm not saying that the history of the subjunctive isn't interesting in its own right, but as far as modern language teaching is concerned, I don't think it's worth much more than a quick mention to explain the 'were' exception.

Warsaw Will Mar-07-2015

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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.

Brus Oct-01-2011

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

user106928 Oct-01-2011

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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?

Brus Oct-01-2011

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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.

Brus Oct-05-2011

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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.

user106928 Oct-06-2011

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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.

Brus Oct-06-2011

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

Brus Oct-06-2011

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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-subjunctive.htm

user106928 Nov-08-2011

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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...

user106928 Nov-08-2011

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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.

goofy Nov-08-2011

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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&lpg=PA877&vq=subjunctive&dq=merriam%20websters%20dictionary%20of%20english%20usage&pg=PA876#v=onepage&q&f=false

goofy Nov-08-2011

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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).

JJMBallantyne Nov-09-2011

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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

porsche Nov-09-2011

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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.

user106928 Nov-10-2011

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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.

porsche Nov-11-2011

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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".

Hairy Nov-11-2011

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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.

Warsaw Will Nov-11-2011

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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.

user106928 Nov-11-2011

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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".

JJMBallantyne Nov-12-2011

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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

goofy Nov-12-2011

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

user106928 Nov-16-2011

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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!

Warsaw Will Nov-20-2011

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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!

user106928 Nov-23-2011

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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.

spiceman Apr-24-2012

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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.

AnWulf Apr-26-2012

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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&lpg=PP1&dq=students%20introduction%20to%20english%20grammar&pg=PA46#v=onepage&q&f=false

goofy Jun-19-2012

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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.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Adding politeness to an order, such as to a waitress:
"Would you bring me some of that goat with noodles and gravy?"
Subjunctive mood.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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.

D. A. Wood Aug-10-2012

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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.

Warsaw Will Aug-11-2012

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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'.)

Brus Aug-23-2012

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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.

Brus Aug-23-2012

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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.

Layman Aug-24-2012

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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/glossary_of_terms.html

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/english/modal+verb

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.

Warsaw Will Aug-27-2012

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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.

Warsaw Will Aug-27-2012

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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.

Jasper Aug-28-2012

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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..

alexandre Nov-20-2013

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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?

Brus Oct-01-2011

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

Timbo1 Oct-04-2011

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??

user106928 Oct-04-2011

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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.

user106928 Oct-05-2011

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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."

Brus Oct-06-2011

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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?

user106928 Nov-08-2011

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

user106928 Nov-08-2011

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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.

user106928 Nov-08-2011

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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=50929

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.

user106928 Nov-08-2011

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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."

willy wonka Nov-09-2011

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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!

Brus Nov-09-2011

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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."

user106928 Nov-09-2011

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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.

user106928 Nov-11-2011

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@Hairy

LOL

user106928 Nov-11-2011

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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."

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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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".

porsche Nov-12-2011

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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#English

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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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.

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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user106928 Nov-12-2011

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I am obviously better educated than the Red Goofy

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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user106928 Nov-12-2011

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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.

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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Your name is well chosen.

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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@JJMBallantyne

None so blind as he who will not see.

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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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".

user106928 Nov-12-2011

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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.

Brus Nov-13-2011

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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.

Warsaw Will Nov-14-2011

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