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Is the subjunctive dead? Login/Join
 
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Lately I've heard supposedly educated, professional journalists using the past tense in cases wherein the subject is not factual. Is it now considered normal to ignore the subjunctive in all cases?
 
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Writers have been using was and were interchangeably in present counterfactual conditions for about 200 years. If there is a difference it is a difference in formality.

Some people claim that there is a difference in meaning between these 2 sentences, but I don't see it.

If I was in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.
If I were in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.

I think the use of was instead of were is a trend to bring the verb be in line with every other verb, where we use the simple past tense.

If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.
 
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Sadly I think you're right, goofy. Much as I like the distinction, "if I were" means the same as "if I was" -- the "if" is the only verbal cue we need to place us in lalaland.
 
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the distinction

So bethree5, do you think there is a difference in meaning between these two sentences? If so what is the difference?

If I was in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.
If I were in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.

quote:
Originally posted by bethree5:
Sadly I think you're right, goofy. Much as I like the distinction, "if I were" means the same as "if I was" -- the "if" is the only verbal cue we need to place us in lalaland.


"if" is not the only clue that it is a counterfactual, the "would" is as well.

present counterfactual condition: If it was/were possible, I would travel back in time.
past counterfactual condition: If it had been possible, I would have traveled back in time.

In non-counterfactual conditions, I think no one has an objection to was.

present possible condition: I wonder if is possible.
past possible condition: I wondered if it was possible.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: goofy,
 
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We’ve talked about this before, but I think that people including me are confused about it.

https://wordcraft.infopop.cc/ev...171076344#6171076344

In possible conditions, any combination of forms is possible, but not “subjunctive” “were”.

If Hamlet was really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius.

If Kevin was out all day, then it makes sense that he couldn’t answer the phone.

“Were” sometimes does occur in possible conditions like this, but it seems to be a hypercorrection.

I think what makes counterfactual conditions different is the presence of “would” in the main clause. The structure is more strict: for present counterfactuals you have to use “would” in the main clause and the simple past (or were if the verb is be) in the dependent clause.

If America was/were still a British colony, we would all be drinking tea in the afternoon.

For past counterfactuals you must use “would have” + past participle in the main clause and “had” + past particle in the dependent clause.

If I had been ten years younger, I would have considered entering the marathon.

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Goofy, I agree with you. I've never noticed much, if any difference.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by goofy:
the distinction

So bethree5, do you think there is a difference in meaning between these two sentences? If so what is the difference??...
"if" is not the only clue that it is a counterfactual, the "would" is as well.

Oops, missed this while on vacation.
Yes sorry, it's "if" plus conditional tense that make meaning clear.

Actually I was agreeing with you, goofy - "sadly" because I prefer the sound of "were," it's just how I learned to speak. Have to admit, there were plenty of old-timey prescriptive grammarians in my mother's clan, so "was" sounds wrong - but would agree, history of usage shows it's equally correct.

Good discussion on the subject at the link you provided.
 
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"Was" still sounds past tense only to me. It implies specificity, not conditionality.
 
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English used to have a past subjunctive, and “were” of “if I were” is a relic of that. But now for every verb except “be” we use the simple past in conditional clauses, where it indicates a distance in reality rather than a distance in time.

If I drank Busweiser, I would turn into a pumpkin.
I wish I went to New York more often.

I don’t think we should call “were” the past subjunctive, because its distribution and function are so different from the present subjunctive.

https://wordcraft.infopop.cc/ev...551037473#1551037473
 
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OK, I'll shut up.

Geoff, struggling with the difference between "irreal" and "surreal." Hey, where'd that white rabbit go???
 
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quote:
Originally posted by Geoff:
OK, I'll shut up.

What? Please don’t.
 
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Agreed, Geoff. You always ask such good questions. This has been a great conversation (though I have been hesitant to use the word "great" these days because of you-know-who).
 
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