This very interesting grammar question was raised in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by a new member who goes by the username Nesaga:
“Please explain the rules on the proper use of ‘was’ or ‘were’ in sentences like ‘If I (was, were) there, I would…’ It has been such a long time that I can’t even recall the term for this usage.”
My reply to Nesaga:
The verb “be” is in the so-called subjunctive mood when it consistently takes the plural past-tense form “were” rather than “was” in sentences like “If I were you, I would have accepted that job offer” and “If Marian were taller, she’d qualify for that beauty contest.”
Recall now that mood is that aspect of the verb that expresses the state of mind or attitude of the speaker toward what he or she is saying. There are three such moods in English: the indicative mood and the imperative mood, both of which deal with actions or states in factual or real-world situations; and the subjunctive mood, which deals with actions or states only as possible, contingent, or conditional outcomes of a stated want, wish, preference, or uncertainty.
The indicative mood conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Sentences in this mood talk about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner, and their operative verbs inflect normally in all the tenses and obey the subject-verb agreement rule.
Examples: “The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,100 islands” (objective fact); “Many believe that the evidence against the pork-barrel suspects is strong” (opinion); and “Who then plundered all those millions?” (question).
The imperative mood denotes the attitude of a speaker who (1) demands or orders a particular action, (2) makes a request or suggestion, (3) gives advice, or (4) states a prohibition. This mood uses the base form of the verb (the verb’s infinitive form without the “to”), and is most often used in second-person, present-tense sentences that use the unstated second-person pronoun “you.”
Examples: “Abolish the pork barrel unconditionally!” (demand); “Please keep quiet” (request or suggestion); and “Take this pill for a good night’s sleep” (advice).
The subjunctive mood, which only has present-tense and past-tense forms, performs these five grammatical tasks:
(1) To indicate a supposition or possibility. Whether the doer of the action is singular or plural, verbs consistently take the subjunctive plural past tense in “if”-clauses that indicate a supposition or possibility: “If I were to join you in Tokyo, I’d have to file a vacation leave.”
(2) To express a desire or wishful attitude. Verbs consistently take the subjunctive plural past tense in “that”-clauses that follow main clauses expressing a wish: “I wish (that) she were more reliable.” The wish or desired outcome in such constructions is neither a present reality nor a future certainty.
(3) To express insistence on a particular action. Whether the doer of the action is singular or plural, verbs consistently take the subjunctive plural present tense in “that”-clauses that insist that a particular action be taken: “I insist that everyone vacate the room right now.” “I demand that Francis stop that transaction at once.”
(4) To describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact. Whether the subject described is singular or plural, verbs take the plural past tense in statements introduced by “if” or “wish”: “If the moon were not there, there wouldn’t be tides on Earth.” Inverted syntax without “if”: “Were the moon not there, there wouldn’t be tides on Earth.”
(5) To express doubt about certain appearances or raise a question about an outcome. Verbs take the subjunctive plural past tense in “if”-clauses that cast doubt on observed behavior or a presumed outcome: “She behaved as if she were the only cultured person in class.”
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