Friday, August 13, 2010

When is the Subjunctive Not the Subjunctive?

Please forgive my impudence, but I must respectfully disagree with a response that Grammar Girl wrote recently.

On Grammar Girl's Facebook page a day or two ago, there was a discussion that involved the use of was and were in the subjunctive. In ESL, subjunctives are also referred to as conditionals or conditional statements, which is the term I am most used to.

Conditional statements usually begin with the conjunction if, but wish/hope and it depends also qualify. Conditionals are divided into three distinct groups, which are:
  • 1st Conditional: Real Present and Future
  • 2nd Conditional: Unreal Present (Hypothetical)
  • 3rd Conditional: Unreal Past
The 1st Conditional is used to show uncertainty about something that is possible in the future. For example, "If I get the job, I will have to move to London." I have applied for a job, but I don't know the result yet. The adverb clause is in the simple present tense and the main clause is in the simple future with will being the preferred future helping verb.

The 2nd Conditional is used to show things that are impossible. The assumed time is right now or sometime in the future. For example, "If I were a full-time employee, I would get medical benefits." The reality is that I am a part-time employee and I don't get insurance. The adverb clause must be in the simple past tense and the main clause must have the helping verb would or could, which are the past forms of will and can. It is in the 2nd Conditional that were is used with all subjects in place of was.

The 3rd Conditional is used to describe an alternate past, something that didn't happen but I wish had. (Or something that happened but I wish hadn't.) For example, "If I hadn't spent so much money traveling in my 20s, I could have saved enough money for a down-payment on a house by now." In reality, I did spend a lot of money traveling so I didn't save much if any money. The adverb clause is in the past perfect (had done) and the main clause needs the auxiliary pair would have (done) or could have (done).

This brings us back to the original point of the blog. What is the difference between If I was... and If I were...?

Everyone is in agreement that in an unreal, hypothetical situation, were is the correct form of be to use regardless of subject. Where I respectfully disagree is with this response.
  • If you're talking about something that could be true, you use "was." Here's an example: If the test was re-administered Tuesday, the answer key will be locked in Professor Hilda's room. Otherwise, Professor Stockton will have it.
This raises some very interesting questions, but first, it raises an eyebrow. Imagine the look on a child's face when something just doesn't seem quite right but he or she doesn't know exactly what it is.

According to the situation (as I interpret it), a test was re-administered but the date is in question. Therefore, re-administering is a real condition, but it happened in the past. I am instantly drawn to the mismatch between was and will be, which breaks my first commandment of grammar. "Thou shalt not mix and match verb tenses."

I agree that was is the correct form of the be verb because this is a real situation, and were should only be used in an unreal situation. However, I think the verb of the main clause should be would be. Therefore, my choice for this statement would be "If the test was re-administered on Tuesday, the answer key would be locked in Professor Hilda's room. Otherwise, Professor Stockton would have it." Since the first verb is in the past, everything that follows should match.

I think this is a good place to stop. My head is starting to spin. This seems to be such a rare irregularity of English that it is open to a lot of interpretation. This is my two-cents worth.

As the father of two sons, I am trying to teach them to always be man enough to admit when they are wrong. In all sincerity, I am ready for any thoughtful, reasonable debate and ready to admit I'm wrong if I've missed something. (And I'm frequently wrong. Just ask my wife.)

Right or wrong, I love a good debate on grammar. I'm so happy to know I am not the only one.