If John were/was here.

Hello everyone,

I have a question about the subjunctive in English.

Example 1:

Mike and David are in Paris. John is in Berlin. Mike and David are eating at a French restaurant. John loves French food. Mike says to David "If John were here he would order frog legs." David corrects Mike with "No, if John was here he would order frog legs."

David's reasoning is that it is possible for John to be in Paris. It just so happens that John is in Berlin at the moment. Mike counters by saying "No, you have to use "were" because you used "would" in the other clause. Also, John's not being here is contrary to fact, therefore the subjunctive is used."

Who is correct? What makes this subjunctive? I am under the impression that the subjunctive is used any time the statement is contrary to fact. I don't look at whether the statement could come true such as "It is possible for John to be in Paris but it is never possible to be a cow (see example 2)". Thoughts?

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Example 2:

"If I were a cow I would eat grass." - This is a clear example because a person can never be a cow. Reincarnation does not count. ;)

Drei
 
  • bustacap

    New Member
    English/USA
    It would be tough for me to explain to you why the subjunctive is used in that sentence, but it should be.

    "If John were here, he would order frog legs." :tick:

    Think of it this way: if John were to be present at the current moment, he would order frog legs.

    From dictionary.com:
    Subjunctive: (in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions
    In this sentence, "if John were here... he would..." -- a hypothetical situation is described. Therefore, the subjunctive must be used.

    I'm sure someone can explain it more efficiently than I, but until then, I hope this helps.
     

    Joelline

    Senior Member
    American English
    Hi drei,

    Like you, when I was taught the subjunctive, I was told that among its many uses, the most common was to show "a condition contrary to fact." Whether the thing is possible or probable is irrelevant: in fact, John is not in Paris; therefore, the subjunctive should be used in your example. Having said that, I wouldn't faint or throw a hissy-fit if someone didn't use the subjunctive when speaking informally. I'd be a bit more picky for formal writing, however.

    Joelline
     

    on a rose

    Senior Member
    It seems to me that the original question was whether it would be more correct to use "were" or "was" in this subjunctive phrase.
    The fact is that the subjunctive tense is a gradually dying one in English, and can nowadays be replaced by the simple preterite or present tense. We have the choice, and both are considered correct.
    Examples:
    "If I was/were a bird, I would fly high above the clouds."
    "I suggest that she make/makes better use of her time."

    Any of these options are grammatically correct.
     

    Kevman

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I think it's the if that makes this a hypothetical, so it takes the subjunctive regardless of whether it could be possible or not.

    Although it's pretty common to hear something like "If John was here", it doesn't sound exactly 'proper' to me. If you rephrase it this way you can see why:
    Were John here, he would order frog legs.:tick:
    Was John here, he would order frog legs.:cross:
     

    on a rose

    Senior Member
    Since the fading of the English subjunctive tense is such a gradual process, there will be certain instances in which the original subjunctive verb conjugations still sounds more "proper". This is more often true with the past tense subjunctive:
    "If I were you" sounds much better than "If I was you". On the other hand, "If he was coming, he would have called" is an acceptable variation of "If he were coming, he would have called." The second has a slightly more formal tone, however, as it is older English. In terms of the present subjunctive, it can be hard to differentiate which would be the more proper or formal choice: "I demand that she go" vs. "I demand that she goes". For the most part, they're used interchangably.

    In the case of "Were John here, he would order frog legs," this is already somewhat archaic sentence structure, generally not found in regular conversation, so it would make sense that we associate it with the traditional past subjunctive conjugation instead of the more modern. As its use is being phased out, it has not been able to adapt to new linguistical tendencies.
     
    It seems to me that the original question was whether it would be more correct to use "were" or "was" in this subjunctive phrase.
    The fact is that the subjunctive tense is a gradually dying one in English, and can nowadays be replaced by the simple preterite or present tense. We have the choice, and both are considered correct.
    Examples:
    "If I was/were a bird, I would fly high above the clouds."
    "I suggest that she make/makes better use of her time."

    Any of these options are grammatically correct.
    When I hear people say "If I was a bird, I would fly high above the clouds." I think of them as uneducated. This is almost like "We was..." that I hear non-city folk say.

    Drei
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Just a note... one of the benefits of having the subjunctive is distinguishing between real and hypothetical situations.

    "If John was here..." then gets to have its own meaning.

    A:"I knocked on your door last night and neither of you answered."
    B:"I was out, but John was here all evening."
    A:"If John was here, I wonder why he didn't answer."

    In this case, "John was" makes perfect sense.
     

    heidita

    Banned
    Germany (German, English, Spanish)
    Just a note... one of the benefits of having the subjunctive is distinguishing between real and hypothetical situations.

    "If John was here..." then gets to have its own meaning.

    A:"I knocked on your door last night and neither of you answered."
    B:"I was out, but John was here all evening."
    A:"If John was here, I wonder why he didn't answer."

    In this case, "John was" makes perfect sense.
    Very nice example, James.

    Just an anecdote:

    I had taken great pains in teaching my pupil to use were in subjunctive sentences and she understood it perfectly. Then she came home crying.
    Her teacher had reduced her mark as she had used were instead of was.

    If I was a rich man, I would buy a house.

    Her reasoning: She hadn't taught it that way. (sic)
     

    Kevman

    Senior Member
    USA English
    "If John was here, I wonder why he didn't answer."
    What a great example of a non-hypothetical if!

    Her teacher had reduced her mark as she had used were instead of was.

    If I was a rich man, I would buy a house.

    Her reasoning: She hadn't taught it that way. (sic)
    Hasn't she ever heard Fiddler on the Roof?:D
    If I were a rich man, ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.

    Although Jim Morrison also said,
    If I was to say to you,
    Girl, we couldn't get much higher.

    So, like it or not, both subjunctive forms are definitely out there in the world. :)
     
    Just a note... one of the benefits of having the subjunctive is distinguishing between real and hypothetical situations.

    "If John was here..." then gets to have its own meaning.

    A:"I knocked on your door last night and neither of you answered."
    B:"I was out, but John was here all evening."
    A:"If John was here, I wonder why he didn't answer."

    In this case, "John was" makes perfect sense.
    Great example James. This goes to show that it is important to have the subjunctive to be able to distinguish between reality and hypotheses. :thumbsup:

    Drei
     
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