Subjunctive? I didn't know you *were* a doctor.

roxcyn

Senior Member
USA
American English [AmE]
Someone told me that in this sentence:

I didn't know you were a doctor.

"Were" is being used as the subjunctive. I said I don't think so.


The reason I believe it isn't:

a) I didn't know: the past. Once you start out with the past you are generally talking about background information. Since you didn't know in the past, you will follow up with the past in the other clause.

b) were a doctor. Were is agree with didn't know, using the same tense.


Thank you for confirming and/or denying my opinion.
 
  • roxcyn

    Senior Member
    USA
    American English [AmE]
    Actually I would say those sentences you just wrote.

    I didn't know you were a doctor. You are stating a fact and just deleting "that" from the sentence I wrote.

    I didn't know you are a doctor. Talking directly to the person. I didn't know (past knowledge) you are a doctor (I'm seeing you now and you are a doctor)..

    Thank you for your advice.
     

    sound shift

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I didn't know you were a doctor is a comment on the current situation of the doctor in question. The "were" is not a past tense.

    I would be surprised if I heard I didn't know you are a doctor.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I didn't know you were a doctor.

    Were is not a subjunctive. It is past indicative, and it is in the past tense in accordance with the usual English rules of past indirect speech.

    Direct speech I said 'He is here' becomes indirect speech I said he was here.
    Similarly, direct speech I thought to myself 'I am sure you are a doctor' becomes indirect speech I knew you were a doctor.
     

    Arrius

    Senior Member
    English, UK
    Right se16teddy! Just about to say the same myself. To prove that were is not a subjunctive here one may substitute the third person singular he for the second person singular you: "I didn't know he was a doctor" NOT were, which it would be here if subjunctive - which it ain't.
    It is a matter of sequence of tenses not of moods.
    A. :D
     

    jonmaz

    Senior Member
    English-Australia
    "I didn't know you were a doctor" might be understood by the people in conversation but not by a casual listener.

    A I've played golf with you for years and learned only yesterday that you are practising (say) medicine.

    B I've been on the golf pro circuit with you for years and learned only yesterday that you used to practise medicine.

    C I hear you have been struck off the medical practitioner's list for unprofessional conduct. You'll have more time for golf.

    However, I guess the tenses are not altered by the multiplicity of possibilities.
     

    Arrius

    Senior Member
    English, UK
    Unlike jonmaz, I do not think that any casual British listener hearing a snatch of a conversation beween two British speakers would come to the erroneous conclusion that one of them had been struck off the register by the British Medical Council, on hearing "I didn't know you were a doctor". The intonation would be enough to prevent the eavesdropper from falling into that error, but had this negative meaning been intended, the sentence would almost certainly have been phrased: "I didn't know that you used to be a doctor" or, less likely in speech, "I didn't know (that) you were once a doctor". This sequence of tenses is not always shared by other languages, the equivalent German being "Ich wußte nicht, daß Sie Arzt sind" which literally translates as I didn't know that you doctor are.
    On coming upon a friend unexpectedly, the Pommy or Brit exclaims: "Oh, I didn't know you were there" which sounds a little illogical to those unused to it but is perfectly correct. A German would say here with superior teutonic logic the literal equivalent of "I didn't know that you here/there are".
    I wonder if antipodical usage is different, or does the difficulty lie perhaps in the often different intonation (which I know only from the lips of the delightful Nicole Kidman, the luscious Kylie Minogue, the bluff Paul Hogan and the probably late Chips Rafferty - Rolf Harris has been with us far too long to provide a valid example)?
     

    jennball

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I would also say 'were' is not subjunctive here. Look at the following conversation: "I'll bet you didn't know I was a doctor."
    "No, I didn't know you were a doctor."
    'Was' (first person) still has a special subjunctive form, while 'were' (second person) doesn't. The special subjunctive form 'I were' is wrong here, so it would be wrong in the other sentence, too, if there were a special subjunctive form for 'you were'.
     

    mungolina

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I just decided to edit myself out here, I got my knickers in a twist (subjunctives do that). But, I strongly believe it is an imperfect subjunctive, i.e. past tense of the subjunctive. That jennball's example doesn't have a subjunctive form in "I was" doesn't mean "you were" isn't one... whoever said subjunctives were logical and consistent, especially given that they've almost entirely died out?

    Fundamentally, "I didn't know you were a doctor" would be a subjunctive, if the doctor is actually still practicing; and a past if he/she is no longer practicing.
     

    Arrius

    Senior Member
    English, UK
    If he were a doctor... and I wish I were a doctor both contain a subjunctive. I didn't know you were a doctor has merely a simple past tense in accordance with the rules of reported speech whether the man is still practising ( s for the verb in UK orthography but I suppose the American c is predominant especially if you left Blighty at 14) or not. The subjunctive is a hypothetical tense used after commands, wishes, doubts, etc. and for impossible or hypothetical conditions - in the last sentence mentioned there is no doubt or other relevant emotion expressed that would require a subjunctive: it is merely a statement of fact.
    Cheers,:D
    A.
     

    jonmaz

    Senior Member
    English-Australia
    Arrius, you might like to note that most of my countrymen squirm at the very mention of four of the five luminaries you have in mind. One is referred to locally as the singing budgerigar, two were fairly dreadful (over)actors and Rolf…well you got him, we took Allan Bond! Nevertheless, none of them, or even Simone Young if it comes to that, has sufficient comprehension of intonations to prevent them coming to any erroneous conclusions. This must be a skill enjoyed only by those who sent our forebears out here to this delightful part of the world.

    My purpose in raising the issue of whether the doctor was still doctoring, was to simply for the benefit of those helping roxcyn in respect of the tense of the second verb. There continues to be interesting posts on the matter and it appears the options I raised are being taken into account, with or without my help.

    Pity the person was a doctor because you probably are still a doctor when you retire. Let’s take an example of, say, a smoker. Let’s say that in a letter to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, I wrote “I didn't know you were a smoker”. Now we have ruled out intonations and I feel comfortable that these are the words I would use if she had told me, in her letter, that she was a smoker or, alternatively, that she used to be a smoker. The important question, from roxcyn’s viewpoint is…what are the verb tenses?
     

    roxcyn

    Senior Member
    USA
    American English [AmE]
    Thank you, then it isn't the subjunctive because we wouldn't say:
    "He didn't know that I were a doctor".

    Pablo
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    "Harold Shipman! I did not know you were a doctor."

    "I was one, but then there was this serial murder thing and my licence was revoked."
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Member Emeritus
    English - England
    Fundamentally, "I didn't know you were a doctor" would be a subjunctive, if the doctor is actually still practicing; and a past if he/she is no longer practicing.

    If the doctor had stopped practising you'd say something like: I didn't know you were once a doctor, or I didn't know you had been a doctor, or I didn't know you used to be a doctor. You'd probably avoid the I didn't know you were a doctor formula, because it's the form people use when they discover that someone happens to be a doctor.

    Mungolina,

    I can't escape the idea that you are determined it should be a subjunctive, in the face of energetic and well-argued opposition from native speakers, because in Portuguese you use the subjunctive after the negative and interrogative forms of to know.

    What puzzles me most - and it puzzles me very much - is that you don't accept the argument that we don't say:

    I didn't know that I were
    or
    I didn't know that he were.

    as conclusive evidence that this is an indicative form.

    You don't need telling that this subjunctive in invariable (were with all persons, singular and plural), so why don't we say I didn't know that he were, as opposed to I didn't know that he was, which is what we are agreed that we say?
     

    Arrius

    Senior Member
    English, UK
    I can't escape the idea that you are determined it should be a subjunctive, in the face of energetic and well-argued opposition from native speakers, because in Portuguese you use the subjunctive after the negative and interrogative forms of to know. (Thomas Tampion)

    Pretty good reasoning, Thomas, but Mungolina doesn't appear to know Portuguese and on your evidence would escape the serial denial rap on a technicality ;). However, as you must know, there is a similar rule about using the subjunctive in French, which language I believe she uses even more than English: Je ne savais pas qu'il fût médecin = I didn't know he was a doctor (with some incredulity and surprise implied on the part of the speaker), as opposed to the indicative "Je ne savais pas qu'il était médecin" when certainty is implied. Our case rests. (All in good fun, I trust :D) A.
     
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