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  1. #1
    NikkiBarber's Avatar
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    Default If I "were" king instead of "was"

    I believe that it is possible and correct to use the form "were" instead of "was" (and possible do the same with other verbs in similar situations) when refering to a hypothetical situation. Is this true? Also, what would this be called and what are the rules for when this can be used?
    Thank you in advance.

  2. #2
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    You're correct. It's called the subjunctive.
    I'm not a teacher, but I write for a living. Please don't ask me about 2nd conditionals, but I'm a safe bet for what reads well in (American) English.

  3. #3
    NikkiBarber's Avatar
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Thank you for the quick answer.
    What is the criteria for when this can be used? Does it only apply to "to be" or can it be used with another verb?

  4. #4
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Distinctively past subjunctive forms - i.e. those which differ in form from their indicative counterparts - consist only in the 'were' that follows a first or third person subject in a so-called second conditional, such as

    If I were a bird, I could fly.

    If my wife were a better cook, I'd be happy.

    Although sentences such as the above are accepted in all varieties of educated English, there is a tendency, particularly in spoken BrE, to replace the subjunctive with indicative forms, giving

    If I was a bird, I could fly.

    If my wife was a better cook, I'd be happy.

    Since, however, such locutions are considered either incorrect or, at best, poor style, by many AmE speakers, learners are probably best advised to use the distinctively subjunctive forms where appropriate.

    Note that these guidelines refer specifically to hypothetical conditional sentences (a sub-class of adverbial clause). There are, however, other kinds of adverbial if-clause, and even nominal if-clauses, in which indicative forms will normally be obligatory.

    I would be happy to furnish some information on these if required.

  5. #5
    NikkiBarber's Avatar
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Philo, thank you so much for your detailed explanation. I felt fairly certain that it was correct but since I've never actually heard another person use this form outside of schools and universities, and this only in Denmark where they primarily teach British English, I was uncertain.
    If you have the time to explain the other if-clauses you mention I would really appreciate it.
    I only just discovered this site and for someone like me, who only speaks English as a second language, it is a welcome discovery. Reliable information on the correct use of a language that I am still struggling to master - perfect!
    Thank you both again for your help.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    As I've said before, I'm not convinced these are subjunctives at all. They are past imperfects, or in some cases past perfects, if you ask me. In most cases, a conditional, when accompanied by the actual condition it depends on, requires the latter in a past imperfect or past perfect:

    I would be rich, if I had a million dollars.
    I would be in a better situation, if I listened to you.

    In my view, "if I were you" is just an old variant of "if I was you"; if you watch Coronation Street, you will notice that in areas of England populated heavily by Scandinavians in the past, there is quite some interchange between was and were (were being used for all persons in such areas).

    In my view, the subjunctive has all but disappeared in English, but survives in vestigial form in such phrases as:

    She was afraid she might miss the bus.
    He was appalled that you should mention the accident.
    However pretty she may be, I don't like her.

    Or, in bare form:
    It is very important that we be here on time, at 6 AM.

    These are subjunctives consistent with other Indo-European languages. "If I were you" appears to bear no relation to any European concept of the subjunctive.

    I agree with Barb however that lots of people, in "common wisdom," say that it is a subjunctive. I just don't think it really qualifies.

  7. #7
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    konungursvia wrote

    As I've said before, I'm not convinced these are subjunctives at all. They are past imperfects,

    With all due respect, the enormous problem with this popular, but simplistic, analysis is that they do not refer, in any way, shape or form, to the past!!

    Past subjunctives, on the other hand, in all Indo-european languages, do refer to the imaginary present/improbable future (see also below). They simply happen in English, with the exception of I/he/she/it were, to have lost their distinctively morphology.

    If you are going to base your arguments on that kind of incidental, superficial evidence, you might as well argue that 'him' is not really an object form, just some kind of Scandinavian variant of 'he', and that direct objects do not really exist in English, as the majority have no distinctively 'accusative' form.


    These are subjunctives consistent with other Indo-European languages. "If I were you" appears to bear no relation to any European concept of the subjunctive.

    There, I'm afraid, you are quite wrong! In German, the closest I-E reative of English (indeed, a mere couple of millennia ago, effectively the same language), the hypothetical sentence

    If I were a bird, I would fly.

    would be

    Wenn ich ein Vogel waere, wuerde ich fliegen.


    as compared with a simple (and genuinely past!) indicative, such as

    Ich war hier, als er kam.

    (= I was here when he came).

  8. #8
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    I do not share Philo's views about the necessity for students to learn about the subjunctive, but he is absolutely right in saying that the underlined form in if I were you is a subjunctive form.

    (By the way, most modern authorities consider that such forms as, she might miss, you should mention, and she may be are better considered as modal constructions than as subjunctives.)

    I fear that this may seem a little confusing to you Nikki. Try to bear in mind that while some people disagree on the importance of the subjunctive in modern English, most authorities for the last four centuries have agreed that there is a subjunctive mood in English. Very few writers consider that calling any verb forms in English 'imperfect' is helpful.

    If you read Philo's posts, Nikki, you will have an accurate picture of the subjunctive.
    Last edited by 5jj; 13-Dec-2010 at 08:01. Reason: typo

  9. #9
    NikkiBarber's Avatar
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    This is all a little confusing, but it is also very interesting. Perhaps the reason why it confuses me so much is that the subjunctive is not used in Danish at all except for in the Danish translation of "Long live the queen," which someone told me was a subjunctive.
    Can someone explain the different functions of the subjuntive? I understand that in the example I first mentioned it is used to express a hypothetical, but the only other way I was taught to use the subjunctive is with "to be." As in: "It is important that you BE on time." But once again I don't understand why it is subjunctive.
    Also, what makes konungursvia's examples subjunctive?

    She was afraid she might miss the bus.
    He was appalled that you should mention the accident.
    However pretty she may be, I don't like her.

    All your posts have been very helpful but I still don't understand the basic purpose of this form and if anyone can find the time to explain it I'd really appreciate it. Please don't worry about being too detailed or expansive. I will read the posts as many times as it takes for me to get it.
    Thank you

  10. #10
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    The subjunctive is actually fairly rare in modern BrE, and many people do not use it at all. The reason it is often associated with BE, is that it is only with this verb that it is easily recognisable. In the present subjunctive, for example the only difference between the subjunctive and the indicative for all verbs (except BE) is that the third person singular subjunctive does not end in –s; he come. With BE, the present subjunctive form is be for all persons.

    In the past subjunctive, the form for BE is were for all persons. For all other verbs, the subjunctive form is the same as the indicative. So, in If I had a lot of money I would buy a car, some people argue that the underlined word is subjunctive. However, as it has the same form as the indicative, this is not important, IMO. (Philo would disagree with me on this last point, but he and I agree on the existence and form of the subjunctive, as do most writers on grammar.)


    The subjunctive, where it exists, has two common uses:

    The mandative, expressing some form of command or suggestion: I insist that he come.

    It is commonly replaced by a should form: I insist that he should come or an indicative: I insist that he comes. (Some writers consider the indicative to be 'incorrect'.)


    The conditional/concessive: If that be the case…, If I were you….

    Many speakers use the indicative: If that is the case…, If I was you…. (Some writers consider the indicative to be 'incorrect'.)

    It also survives in certain fossilised phrases: Long live the Queen, Britannia rule the waves.

    Konungursvia's examples are examples of modal verbs in use, expressing what, in some languages, would be expressed by a subjunctive. K’s view that they are subjunctive is not shared by many writers. Philo has already demonstrated how K's view on the absence of the subjunctive in other Indo-European languages can be challenged by facts..


    Danish depends on tenses and modals to express what in some languages is expressed by the subjunctive mood, just as English does for many speakers.

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