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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

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Warsaw Will

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December 3, 2010

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I'm a TEFL teacher working in Poland. I have a blog - Random Idea English - where I do some grammar stuff for advanced students and have the occasional rant against pedantry.

Latest Comments

“If I was” vs. “If I were”

  • March 7, 2015, 1:04pm

@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.

There are two Etihad Stadiums, one in Manchester and one in Australia. The latter rarely seems to get a 'the', the former sometimes. Officially the Manchester seems to take 'the', but more often than not (for example in Wikipedia) is mentioned without. Manchester City's own website appear to use both versions (compare the article with the map):

This is not a grammatical rule about sponsors, just that sponsored stadium names appear to usually take 'the'. It's not a matter of 'should be'. And writers are free to do what they like. Here are a couple of site searches, one for the BBC, and one for the football site 'FourFourTwo'; you'll see that both versions get used. That's life!

‘S (apostrophe+S) versus OF

  • March 5, 2015, 7:54am

@jayles - custom, I guess - the way a lot of grammar is formed. It's the same for a five dollar bill, an eight pound baby, any time we have a number being used with a noun of measurement. It's not so much because 'it's what people say' as that it would sound odd with the s.

The other form takes the s because it's replacing of, and would have the s even in the singular. It's one mile's walk from here.

“If I was” vs. “If I were”

  • March 5, 2015, 7:43am

In fact that sentence "If I was the Prime Minister, I would have changed the law." does work,as a mixed-time hypothetical condition, but only if you accept that "was"can be used in hypothetical conditionals.

@jayles - I agree that there is a hidden subjunctive in things like "If I had", but I'm not so convinced by your arguments about modals. French and Spanish use similar expressions, but they are part of their conditional mood, not subjunctive. Theres'a website put together by a subjunctive fan, with a very comprehensive collection of examples, and he doesn't, as far as I can see, include expressions like this.

I'm aware Lowth talks of using the subjunctive with words like "may, might, could, would", but I haven't investigated it very far. It might be worth, however, exploring the possible link between "should" and the subjunctive - the fact that it can be inverted, and that Brits often use it instead of present subjunctive, and in expressions like "I should think so". But again, I can't remember seeing anyone fererring to this as the subjunctive.

“If I was” vs. “If I were”

  • March 3, 2015, 6:58am

@ElleEnglish re: "If I was the Prime Minister, I would have changed the law."

"I would have changed the law" is still hypothetical, but with past reference, so you need "had" in the "if" clause - "If I had been prime minister, I would have changed the law"

The only way I can think of when "If I was"can be used with past reference is using 'real past ', for example when it refers to a repeated event in the past - "If I was in London, I always stayed at the Ritz." Or, in an example similar to the 'cad' one above - "If I was rude (earlier on), I apologise" (as opposed to "If I were rude, I would apologise")

" If the subjunctive disappeared altogether, it would make for extremely confusing communication at times." - So why aren't we confused with every other verb and four persons of 'be'?

I'm not 'uneducated', in fact I know quite a lot about grammar. But I also know I have a choice.

“If I was” vs. “If I were”

  • March 3, 2015, 6:23am

uninverted, narrowness

“If I was” vs. “If I were”

  • March 3, 2015, 6:21am

Yes, jayles, you're right, there are a couple of times when we don't have that freedom, and one of them is when we use inversion in conditionals. But in the univerted version of the expression you used 'was' would be OK, at least according to Oxford Dictionaries Online:

" if it wasn’t/weren’t for…
used to say that somebody/something stopped somebody/something from happening If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be alive today."

Inversion seems to lock you into the subjunctive. For example, we can't abbreviate 'not' here either - an asterisk means it's ungrammatical, i.e. not acceptable to the majority of speakers:

If he were/was arriving later, I could go and fetch him.
Were he coming later, I could go and fetch him.
*Was he coming later, I could go and fetch him.

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.
Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.
*Hadn't I seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.

Interestingly, some writers also used to replace the 'would have' part with 'had'. When this happened together with inversion, Priestley called it the double conjunctive (his word for subjunctive) and thought it had 'a peculiar elegance':

'He had (= would have) formed one of the shining characters of his age, had not the extreme narowness of his genius, in everything but war, diminished the lustre of his merits.' David Hume, History

The other exception would be the fixed phrase 'If I were you'. This would sound very odd with 'was'.

For more on inversion in conditionals, see:

‘S (apostrophe+S) versus OF

  • March 3, 2015, 5:52am

The last one is easy enough - in 'It's a four-hour walk' the time expression is adjectival, whereas in 'It's four hours' walk' were saying it's a walk of four hours, hence the apostrophe. But many people are dropping the apostrophe in plural quantities, which is understandable.

As for the rest, I don't think you can draw up hard and fast rules. Custom has led to some being used more one way, others another. It's a bit like compound nouns: together, hyphend or separate? There is no rule, that I know of.

OK. First, there is no 100% rule when it comes to the use or not of 'the' in place names; there are always exceptions. So I was careful to use the word 'usually'. And I should say that all the stadiums I mentioned are in Britain. It may be different in other English-speaking countries.

1. The Brittania Stadium - No, Brittania is not a part of England, but the old Latin name for the island of Britain. But in this case, the stadium owes its name to its sponsor, the Britannia Co-operative Bank.

2. The Hawthorns, the Valley: these both take their names from natural features. Apparently the site of the present West Brom ground used to be covered in hawthorn bushes, hence the name.

3. Old Trafford is an area of Manchester, Anfield is an area of Liverpool. Villa Park seems to have been called after the team that play there; 'park' is sometimes used to mean football pitch, especially, I think in Scotland. Also, parks themselves tend to have names without 'the': Central Park in NYC, in London: Hyde Park, Green Park, Richmond Park, Kensington Gardens. Regent's Park is usually referred to without 'the', but its official title is The Regent's Park, being called after Prinnie, the Prince Regent, later George IV.

You really need to check these out on an individual basis (like I did, at Wikipedia). But I think what I said before stands as a general principle.

Well, you've caught me out there. I teach foreigners English and write a blog on aspects of English, and one of my posts was about the use (or not) of 'the' in place names (a bit of a problem for learners). But after a quick check, I notice that although I have entries for "theatre, hall, bar, station" etc, "stadium" is noticeable by its absence.

But I'll go for the same rule as with theatres, airports, bridges etc. If it has name of the town or place where it is situated, then 'the' is unusual - Wembley Stadium, Twickenham Stadium (rugby union) - both Wembley and Twickenham are geographical areas of London, Murrayfield Stadium (centre of Scottish rugby; it's in an area of Edinburgh called Murrayfield).

However when a descriptive word or the name of a person comes first, 'the' is more likely. If I can take a theatre analogy, in Cambridge there's a theatre called "Cambridge Arts Theatre", while in London there's "The Cambridge Theatre", presumably called after a long-dead Duke of Cambridge.

Back to stadiums - in the UK we have "The Millenium Stadium, The Emirates Stadium, The Stadium of Light (Sunderland AFC), The Macron Stadium, The Madejski Stadium". Note that two, of these, Emirates and Macron, are called after their sponsors, and one of them, Madejski, after a hotel which is part of the stadium.

One stadium seems to neatly sum up this rule. Headingley stadium, named after the area of Leeds it is situated in, has long been famous in the world of rugby. Now it is "The Headingley Carnegie Stadium" due to their sponsorship by the Carnegie School of Sport Exercise and Physical Education, at Leeds Metropolitan University. No doubt as more and more stadiums start bearing the names of their sponsors, the defiite article will appear correspondingly more often.

Cricket, incidentally, has "The Oval" - after its shape, but "Lords", not called after some aristocrat, when you might expect "the", but after a certain Thomas Lord, so it sort of makes sense.

Once again, as with football, much if this comes from Wikipedia.


When “one of” many things is itself plural November 27, 2011
You’ve got another think/thing coming September 29, 2012
Fit as a butcher’s dog May 22, 2013
“reach out” May 25, 2013
Tell About October 18, 2013
tonne vs ton January 25, 2014
apostrophe with expressions of distance or time February 2, 2014
Natural as an adverb April 13, 2014
fewer / less May 3, 2014
Opposition to “pretty” March 7, 2015