If there was/were..

Discussion in 'English Only' started by drew50writes, Apr 15, 2007.

  1. drew50writes New Member

    U.S., english
    I've searched a few of the related forums, but i'm still left with this confusion about a specific, subtle subjunctive dilemma. In these hypothetical and antithetical statements...
    --"If there was/were no law enforcement, there would be no deterrent to criminal anarchy."
    --"If there was/were no God, there would be no right or wrong."
    --"If there was/were no traffic control system, there would be no limit to the number of fatal accidents which would occur."
    ...is one usage correct for all three examples? and, if so, why, exactly?
     
  2. coiffe

    coiffe Senior Member

    Oman
    English (USA)
    "There would be", the so-called imaginative conditional, requires the residual Old English subjunctive "If there were," in all three cases. Nevertheless you'll hear "If there was" colloquially, a lot -- correct grammar be damned!

    To say "If there was," you'd need a construction like: "If there was no one there and the place was closed, why did you even go?" (It's all past tense, no conditional.)
     
  3. I_like_my_TV Senior Member

    Tongan
    Yes, it's correct, but it's not normally easy to say why it's correct, unless someone's said it's not correct. (It's easier to say why something is not correct though :) )

    By the way "was" is just an informal version of "were" in your sentences, but I think you're already aware of this.
     
  4. drew50writes New Member

    U.S., english
    Thanks, coiffe and I like my TV! I'm critiquing (philosophically, not grammatically) one of these statements in my writing, but in a passing reference to my thought that "were" would be the more correct choice here...i'd suddenly lost my ability to say just why! As you said, the other is so commonly used that it's an easy one to do a grammatical "double-take". Your comments helped me clear the air. Thanks, again!
     
  5. Beverly Boone New Member

    English
    I am writing a story and still confused about the following:

    Which sentence is correct?
    If there was (or were) a harbinger of tragedy to come, it would be in Lester's aggressive behavior.
     
  6. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    London
    English - South-East England
    You can say either. It's as simple as that. Both are fully 100% correct. Some people say one, some people say the other, some people say both with a clear difference between them, some people say both with no particular difference.
     
  7. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 73)
    UK English
    Welcome to the forum, Beverly. :)

    I would write If there was since the question seems to be a simple one: was there or was there not a harbinger of tragedy to come.
    If you write If there were, it seems to make the the existence of a harbinger rather unlikely or remote.

    There is also the more frequent use of if there was in BE compared with AE.
     
  8. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    This example is a little difficult because the context is not quite clear.
    We can have a habitual situation in the past: "Every day he would leave the house at 8 o'clock; if the weather was bad he would take an umbrella".
    We can have a hypothetical situation in the present: "The weather is good today; if it were bad I'd take an umbrella".

    In the first example I definitely wouldn't use "were"; there is nothing subjunctive about this sentence.
    In the second example I would use "were" because I'm not talking about the past. However, the was/were distinction is disappearing and I'd say some younger people are not even aware of its existence. After all, other verbs make no distinction between indicative and subjunctive; it's only the way they're used that tells us the difference (real past or unreal present).
     

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