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  1. #61
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    MrPedantic wrote:

    I would take a different view. Since I know that I myself sometimes use the was-subjunctive, and sometimes the were-subjunctive, depending on the context and the intended meaning, I wouldn't have any grounds for assuming that other speakers had done the same only in error.
    We would just have to ask them. Sadly, however, as they are unavailable for comment, let us pass on...

    Strictly speaking, your second example is not a 2nd conditional;
    Of course, it is a "hybrid" form combining structural features of both a second and a third conditional. However, as we tend to classify conditionals primarily according to their protasis rather than their apodosis, it would be reasonable to classify this as a 'variant second conditional', but, in any case, irrespective of the relative temporality of the consequences inferred, the condition specified being counterfactual, the basic point that it illustrates remains, in all essential respects, the same (see also below).

    and probably both the 1st and 2nd conditionals are more flexible than you suggest. Thus

    1a. If he's here, I'll eat my hat.

    does not imply belief that he's here;


    And I have nowhere suggested that it does! What it entails, as previously stated, is simply the speaker's belief that he may be here.

    2a. If he were the man we're looking for, he would have a tattoo on his right buttock.

    does not categorically imply the belief that he's not our man:


    I'm very much afraid that it does!

    Anyone who utters the sentence above is implicitly asserting the following beliefs:

    1. He does NOT have a tattoo on his right buttock.
    2. He is, therefore, NOT our man.

    That is simply what the sentence means - whether the speaker likes it or not.

    If, on the other hand - the matter not having been, as yet, properly investigated - the speaker were unsure as to whether there in fact was a tattoo on the man's right buttock, then (s)he would instead use a first conditional, and say

    If he is the man we're looking for, he will have a tattoo on his right buttock.

    since the existence of the tattoo, at the time of utterance, is considered a possibility.

    to establish that, we would first need to debag him.
    Indeed we would, but this incidental fact about the world would have no bearing on the appropriateness of the speaker's original sentence, which merely asserted his/her beliefs at the time in question.

    But in any case, even if the point were valid, it would not preclude the use of "was" in counterfactual statements:
    3. If he was any bigger, we'd have to use a taser.

    And, albeit less felicitously expressed, precisely the same point would apply: he is - according to the speaker - NOT any bigger than this and we consequently do NOT need to use a taser!

  2. #62
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    I'll return to other points later.
    My apologies for the misreading of 'BE'. The fault was mine entirely.

  3. #63
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    Philo, I believe that we do not disagree on much except whether there is any value in labelling the forms we are discussing ‘past subjunctive’, or whether there is a simpler way of looking at modern English.
    But this is precisely what the dumbing down of English grammar* always achieves: an apparent short-term gain at the expense of a long-term loss of systemic coherency and internal consistency.

    Let us just review a few basic facts and principles (boldfaced for ease of reference):

    1. The underlined past subjunctive form of 'be' in a second conditional sentence such as

    If I were king, I would live in a castle.

    is not only correct by the lights of all educated speakers of contemporary English throughout the world; it is the only acceptable form for a great many of them, while the corresponding indicative mood-form 'was' in the same sentence position enjoys acceptability only among a limited subset of those users (not least because, unlike 'were', it is potentially ambiguous as a counterfactual: see post #50).

    There can therefore be little doubt that, of the two, 'were' in this sentence position can legitimately be regarded overall - i.e. in terms both of level of acceptability and of innate semantic clarity - as the superior/more 'correct' form and 'was' as the inferior/less 'correct' form.

    2. To assert that 'be' is the only verb in the English language possessing a past subjunctive mood would be tantamount to suggesting that all other verbs in the English language are referentially defective - a patently absurd position.

    3. To base grammatical classifications of words on coincidences of sound/spelling rather than on clear referential/functional analogy in the context of a given construction is a fundamentally unsound procedure (see post #37)

    4. When assessing the grammatical status of a word on the basis of referential/functional analogy, it is proper to relate it to standard, rather than to nonstandard, forms, or, as the case may be, to superior/more 'correct', rather than to inferior/less 'correct', forms.

    Thus, when assessing the grammatical status of a verb form occupying the underlined sentence position in the example above, it is proper to classify it according to the classification of 'were' rather than according to that of 'was'.

    CONCLUSION: Any single-word past-tense form occupying the underlined position in

    If I were king, I would live in a castle.

    is logically classifiable as a form of the subjunctive, and not of the indicative, mood.

    RIDER: To accept the reality of a linguistic classification and yet, when teaching even the most advanced students, rely on terminology that serves or seeks to deny, disguise or obfuscate it could be a considered, at best, a form of intellectual patronization, at worst, unprofessional and misleading.


    Now, if you consider any of the principles/axioms cited above to be false, dispute the truth of any of the facts of usage cited or consider the reasoning process employed to be in any way unsound, then I will be most happy to hear your objections. Perhaps, despite the many hours of thought that I have devoted to this topic, you will find something that I have carelessly overlooked.

    If not, however, I would humbly submit that you are bound to accept my conclusion and my rider!




    (*Frankly, I don't see what else any attempt to make language appear simpler than it really is could be called.)
    Last edited by philo2009; 14-Jan-2011 at 08:28.

  4. #64
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    1. The underlined past subjunctive form of 'be' in a second conditional sentence such as

    If I were king, I would live in a castle.

    is not only correct by the lights of all educated speakers of contemporary English throughout the world;it is the only acceptable form for a great many of them, )
    This forum challenges that statement - unless you are claiming that those of us who disagree with you are not educated.

    while the corresponding indicative mood-form 'was' in the same sentence position enjoys acceptability only among a limited subset of those users (not least because, unlike 'were', it is potentially ambiguous as a counterfactual.
    You choose to consider it ambiguous. It is no more ambiguous than the use of 'can' for permission, which so many pedantic teachers used to refuse to understand - when everybody else did.

    There can therefore be little doubt that, of the two, 'were' in this sentence position can legitimately be regarded overall - i.e. in terms both of level of acceptability and of innate semantic clarity - as the superior/more 'correct' form and 'was' as the inferior/less 'correct' form.

    There is clearly little doubt in your mind. This forum, and the works of several leading writers on grammar show that there is doubt in the minds of others.

    2. To assert that 'be' is the only verb in the English language possessing a past subjunctive mood would be tantamount to suggesting that all other verbs in the English language are referentially defective - a patently absurd position.
    As far as I can see, nobody has asserted that. Once again, you are attempting to strengthen your case by showing the absurdity of arguments that were never made.

    3. To base grammatical classifications of words on coincidences of sound/spelling rather than on clear referential/functional analogy in the context of a given construction is a fundamentally unsound procedure.
    To base grammatical classification on a form recognisable in only one verb doesn't seem particularly sound to me.

    4. When assessing the grammatical status of a word on the basis of referential/functional analogy, it is proper to relate it to standard, rather than to nonstandard, forms, or, as the case may be, to superior/more 'correct', rather than to inferior/less 'correct', forms.
    I agree about standard/non-standard. The superior/inferior idea is just a little subjective.

    Thus, when assessing the grammatical status of a verb form occupying the underlined sentence position in the example above, it is proper to classify it according to the classification of 'were' rather than according to that of 'was'.
    That's your opinion. It isn't mine.

    CONCLUSION: Any single-word past-tense form occupying the underlined position in If I were king, I would live in a castle
    is logically classifiable as a form of the subjunctive, and not of the indicative, mood.
    That's one way of looking at it.

    Given that only one verb shows a different form in that position, and thousands do not, it would appear to be more logical to wonder whether there was any point in separate classification of moods.

    To accept the reality of a linguistic classification and yet, when teaching even the most advanced students, rely on terminology that serves or seeks to deny, disguise or obfuscate it could be a considered, at best, a form of intellectual patronization, at worst, unprofessional and misleading.
    Possibly. However, as I don't accept the reality of a past subjunctive, there is no problem

    I would humbly submit that you are bound to accept my conclusion and my rider!
    Hope springs eternal..

    dumbing down of English grammar*
    *Frankly, I don't see what else any attempt to make language appear simpler than it really is could be called.
    Another red herring. Nobody is attempting to make language appear simpler than it really is. I, for one, am attempting to show that it is simpler than some maintain.

    And 'dumbing down'? Perhaps that is what you do when you dismiss arguments that have never been made. And what about blandly claiming that all 'careful speakers' agree with you? When MrPedantic produces one who doesn't, you can blithely dismiss it with the words "Well, they may possibly write it in, let us be charitable and say, an unguarded moment, but would they rigorously defend their choice and stand by it if the matter were brought to their attention by a punctilious editor or perceptive reader? Somehow, I suspect not..". In another thread, I mentioned a leading writer on grammar, and you casually dismissed his work. In a way I envy your blind confidence that you are right and those who disagree must be wrong. Some might consider this ' intellectual patronization, at worst, unprofessional and misleading'.

  5. #65
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    It's very simple: if, of two constructions A and B, B (as demonstrated) requires context to disambiguate it while A does not, then A is logically the clearer/more precise of the two. Ergo, B is, relatively speaking, ambiguous.
    QED

    It may be true that some examples of the "If I were/was" construction would require context to disambiguate them, but that does not mean that the "If I were" variant of the construction is

    a) clearer in an absolute sense;
    b) more logical in an absolute sense;
    c) more precise in an absolute sense.

    (By what reasoning would you judge that one variant was more "logical" than the other, for instance?)

    Then too, ambiguity in the absence of context is not of any great importance, since we would never encounter this construction without context, except in grammatical exercises or threads on ESL forums.

    Consider also:

    1. If I were you, I'd reconsider that decision.
    2. If I were you, I'd reconsider that decision.
    3. If I were you, I'd reconsider that decision.

    Which is the threat, which is the piece of friendly advice, and which is the attempt to defraud? To deprecate a construction because it requires context is a little like deprecating a fish because it requires water.

    (I should also add that greater logic, clarity or precision in one variant does not necessarily imply "ambiguity" in the other. We can be less logical, less clear, or less precise without being more ambiguous.)

    MrP

    Not a professional ESL teacher.

  6. #66
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    1. The underlined past subjunctive form of 'be' in a second conditional sentence such as

    If I were king, I would live in a castle.

    is not only correct by the lights of all educated speakers of contemporary English throughout the world; it is the only acceptable form for a great many of them, while the corresponding indicative mood-form 'was' in the same sentence position enjoys acceptability only among a limited subset of those users (not least because, unlike 'were', it is potentially ambiguous as a counterfactual: see post #50).
    The usage of BrE men and women in professions connected with law, government, teaching, medicine, etc. (which generally require some higher education of some kind) is not what you suggest.

    In the utterances of such speakers, it is very common to encounter phrases with patterns such as:

    1. If it wasn't for the fact that X, Y.
    2. If he was going to do X, he would have done Y.
    3. If he was here now, he would do X.

    No one misunderstands these utterances through the absence of the were-subjunctive; and in other contexts, the same speakers may well employ "If he were", etc. Certainly the tendency is not restricted to a "limited subset"; probably the reverse is true.

    By the way, the fact that "was" is employed in place of "were" in such cases does not mean the mood is therefore indicative: the mood remains subjunctive even where the form is indicative.

    Best wishes,

    MrP

    Not a professional ESL teacher.

  7. #67
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    2a. If he were the man we're looking for, he would have a tattoo on his right buttock.

    does not categorically imply the belief that he's not our man:

    I'm very much afraid that it does!

    Anyone who utters the sentence above is implicitly asserting the following beliefs:

    1. He does NOT have a tattoo on his right buttock.
    2. He is, therefore, NOT our man.
    It depends on the context and tone of voice:

    "Well, he certainly has brown hair and brown eyes. But so do several hundred thousand other males in Rio de Janeiro. Is there anything else to go on?"
    "He has something of a grammar habit. So if he were to turn left at the next crossroads, and head down to Marnie's place for another dose of phrasal verbs, it would be significant."
    "That's true. But I'm not sure we can wait that long. Anything else?"
    "I thought I saw something drop out of his back pocket. It looked like a past subjunctive to me. If you drew up by the hot chestnut vendor, I could take a look."
    "No time. We have to move fast. I need ideas, and I need them now."
    "Wait a minute. I did hear he once won a spelling bee in Wisconsin. So if he were indeed the man we're looking for -- "
    "He would have a Lazy T tattoo on his right buttock. Brilliant, MrQ. MrP, put your foot down. We're going in."

    Three second conditionals. In none of them does the protasis present a condition which the speaker believes to be unlikely or untrue.

    MrP

    Not a professional ESL teacher.

  8. #68
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    fivejedjon wrote:

    This forum challenges that statement - unless you are claiming that those of us who disagree with you are not educated.
    Sorry, you've lost me! Which of the two statements does this forum dispute? Let me rephrase them for clarity:
    1. There is no educated native speaker of English who would reject 'were' in this sentence position as grammatically incorrect.
    I have found no one who disputes that.
    2. There are, on the other hand, some educated native speakers do not accept 'was' in this sentence position (at least as appropriate for formal/careful usage).
    Also true, I think you will find (and even as a BrE speaker, I happen to be one of them!).


    You choose to consider it ambiguous. It is no more ambiguous than the use of 'can' for permission, which so many pedantic teachers used to refuse to understand - when everybody else did.
    The potential ambiguity, however unlikely you may consider its realization, has been clearly illustrated. As stated previously, if one construction requires context to make it referentially clear, while another supposedly equivalent construction does not, then the latter is the inherently clearer of the two, and the former can accordingly be described as (relatively/potentially) ambiguous. Ambiguity is one of a number of factors constituting reasonable grounds for preferring, and thus effectively asserting in some sense the superiority of, one construction to another.


    As far as I can see, nobody has asserted that. Once again, you are attempting to strengthen your case by showing the absurdity of arguments that were never made.
    Oh, but some hold precisely that position!
    Take, for instance, this entry under the heading 'subjunctive' from the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar:

    Modern grammar ... restricts the use of the term subjunctive to two distinct tenses:
    present subjunctive: a finite verb form identical with the base of the verb...
    past subjunctive: the word were, used as the 'past' tense of the verb be for all persons.

    (1998, p.381-382)


    (my underlining)
    As you can see, this asserts unequivocally that no verb other than be can be considered as possessing a past subjunctive.
    I do agree with you, though, that it is an utterly absurd position!


    To base grammatical classification on a form recognisable in only one verb doesn't seem particularly sound to me.
    Not at all: the classification is based primarily on commonality of manner of predication (see also below). The formal contrast/comparison is effected in relation to the only verb that overtly and unequivocally bears a distinctive corresponding form. Using the verb 'be' as the analogical basis is therefore the only sensible procedure under those circumstances.

    In precisely the same way, we employ a small group of pronouns that inflect for objectivity such as 'I' or 'he' (a similarly infinitesimally small proportion of the total class of substantives) when determining the status of a word as a subject or object, since those are the only forms in relation to which any change can be verified in external, formal terms. And yet, I presume that you have no objection to that...


    I agree about standard/non-standard. The superior/inferior idea is just a little subjective.
    It is ultimately merely a matter of degree...


    That's your opinion. It isn't mine.
    Rather than an opinion, it is the only logical inference to be drawn from the set of arguments posted, resting primarily on the validity of the assertion that 'were', in terms of level of acceptability/support and clarity of expression, can objectively be termed the 'superior' form, a point already covered, so I will move on...


    That's one way of looking at it.
    Ditto previous comment.


    Given that only one verb shows a different form in that position, and thousands do not, it would appear to be more logical to wonder whether there was any point in separate classification of moods.
    Let us imagine for a moment a parallel universe in which past subjunctives, just like indicatives, simply denoted actual past states and events: then I might possibly agree. We could probably write off 'were' after 'I' and 'he' as some kind of suppletive past tense that occasionally crops up, although for no discernible reason.

    In reality, however, there is a massive, unmissable difference in terms of
    manner of predicationbetween a past subjunctive and a past indicative, just as there is between indicative mood you go and imperative mood (you) go! That, and not chance morphological conflation, is the basis of distinguishing different moods of the English (not to mention French, German, Latin, Lithuanian,...) verb!


    Possibly. However, as I don't accept the reality of a past subjunctive, there is no problem.
    You don't? Really? Then, it seems that you are in disagreement not only with me but also with the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, which does accept its reality (see citation above).
    You really can't have it both ways: either a past subjunctive exists as a real linguistic category (irrespective of its apparent number of manifestations), or it does not. My position on the matter has been clear from the start and reiterated in almost every post. Yours, on the other hand, has been, with all due respect, vague and evasive...



    Another red herring. Nobody is attempting to make language appear simpler than it really is. I, for one, am attempting to show that it is simpler than some maintain.
    I suppose that grammarians have for centuries been deliberately misleading people by invoking concepts of verbal mood just for the fun of it...


    And 'dumbing down'? Perhaps that is what you do when you dismiss arguments that have never been made.
    I think you're confusing 'dumbing down' with 'strawman arguments'. Going to the trouble of inventing nonexistent objections (which, in any case, as demonstrated above, I have not done) would hardly make an issue appear simpler, would it?


    In another thread, I mentioned a leading writer on grammar, and you casually dismissed his work. In a way I envy your blind confidence that you are right and those who disagree must be wrong.
    A linguistic category cannot simply be annihilated by the divine fiat of any number of celebrity linguisticians. It matters not in the least which big names in the world of grammar have or haven't come out in support of the 'deny-the-subjunctive movement', but whether the arguments that support their position are inherently valid.

    I, for my part, have posted a set of connected principles and facts of usage that combine to lead to only one conclusion. In response I have heard nothing but claims based on the spectacularly weak basis that some forms look the same.

    Sorry, but not impressed!!
    Last edited by philo2009; 17-Jan-2011 at 06:25.

  9. #69
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post

    I, for my part, have posted a set of connected principles and facts of usage that combine to lead to only one conclusion. In response I have heard nothing but claims based on the spectacularly weak basis that some forms look the same.
    You clearly seem to believe that fanciful misrepresentation of so much in this thread, so there is no point in my saying anything else.

  10. #70
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by fivejedjon View Post
    You clearly seem to believe that fanciful misrepresentation of so much in this thread, so there is no point in my saying anything else.
    So, I take it from this that that you do not intend to defend your position any further.
    So be it!

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