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Thread: This is bugging me (subjunctive woes)

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Homemaster's Avatar
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    This is bugging me (subjunctive woes)

    Is it were or was in this? Does the subjunctive apply to questions?

    "What if everyone was an admin?"

    I realise that "everyone" takes the singular, but if it's subjunctive tense then...

    Subjunctive slays me.

  2. #2
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    It's a hypothetical, so I would opt for were. I'm not so sure "was" is incorrect, though, just less formal.
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    ...it's anything but. AW Moderator amergina's Avatar
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    Comic guy Bartholomew's Avatar
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    I'm only here because I thought the title said "Buggering," not "Bugging."

    <Scoots out of the thread>
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    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bartholomew View Post
    I'm only here because I thought the title said "Buggering," not "Bugging."

    <Scoots out of the thread>
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  6. #6
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Homemaster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Susan Littlefield View Post
    It's a hypothetical, so I would opt for were. I'm not so sure "was" is incorrect, though, just less formal.
    Thanks, makes sense to me.

  7. #7
    Le sigh. Tedium's Avatar
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    I'm with Susan. Use "were" with the subjunctive. Doesn't really matter that it's a question or that the subject is singular. That's the prescriptivist answer.

    But, she's also right that "was" is not entirely incorrect thanks to common usage. That's the descriptivist answer. Just depends on how casual you are trying to be.

  8. #8
    USA: 239 years & a day Chase's Avatar
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    To reinforce Susan's use of the subjunctive when the "if" is hypothetical:

    By far the most common use of the subjunctive is the use of the subjunctive after "if" clauses that state or describe a hypothetical situation.

    Subjunctive: "If I were a butterfly, I would have wings."
    Note that in the indicative, we normally write, "I was." For instance, "When I was a young boy, I liked to swim." However, to indicate the subjunctive, we write "I were." The subjunctive indicates a statement contrary to fact. In the butterfly example above, I am not really a butterfly, but I am describing a hypothetical situation that might occur if I were one.

    Indicative: "When I was a butterfly in a former life, I had wings."

    In this sentence, the author uses the indicative to indicate that she indeed was a butterfly in the past, and she is not just hypothetically speaking about a situation contrary to her reality. Note that "when" usually takes the indicative after it, and "if" frequently takes the subjunctive.

    (Carson-Newman College webpage)

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    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    If I were a rich man.....diddle, diddle, diddle....
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    USA: 239 years & a day Chase's Avatar
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    If I were you, Bufty, I'd be careful up on that roof.

  11. #11
    I aim to misbehave Myrealana's Avatar
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    Subjunctive case - "...if everyone were..."

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  12. #12
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    If I were a rich man.....diddle, diddle, diddle....
    I would play the fiddle, fiddle, fiddle....
    Susan

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  13. #13
    The Surreal Thing AW Moderator Maryn's Avatar
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    I've shared this copy-and-paste before.

    Subjunctive verbs can be tricky, and the tone of the narrative containing one can make the correct verb feel wrong. In general, they sound pretty formal and may not fit the tone of what you’re writing. They’d be absolutely correct in academic or business writing, but could sound stiff and weird in a character’s casual dialogue.

    When a verb
    • indicates a wish (Examples: I wish I were home. She wished the store were open.)
    • begins with if and expresses a condition that does not exist (Examples: If I were queen, you would bow. If we were any luckier, we'd be rich.)
    • begins with as if or as though (Examples: She ran as if she were on fire. They bought stock as though investing were risk free.)
    • begins with that and expresses a demand, request, requirement, or suggestion (Examples: The college requires that incoming students register in person. Lucille asks that Tom arrive early.)
    that's subjunctive mood.

    The present tense of subjunctive uses the base form of the verb. (That means the verb’s basic form: come, arrive, run, swing, think, etc.) The past tense uses the indicative mood except for be, which uses were for both singular and plural.

    Maryn, dimly remembering subjunctive from Latin, where she learned most of her English
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  14. #14
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Homemaster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    If I were a rich man.....diddle, diddle, diddle....
    Excellent example haha.

    All good answers, thanks guys.

  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW Cactus Land's Avatar
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    Definitely were because this is the second condition, past simple, plus future perfect.. If I were you, I wouldn't smoke that right now.... in this case, verb to be goes past plural, always... only really sound subjunctivy when the subject is singular...

  16. #16
    The Appleton House ccarver30's Avatar
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    Yeah- were. Conditional.

    It's funny that the only reason why I know verb tenses is from my spanish classes. I don't remember learning any of this stuff in english class.

  17. #17
    here and there again fadeaccompli's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ccarver30 View Post
    Yeah- were. Conditional.

    It's funny that the only reason why I know verb tenses is from my spanish classes. I don't remember learning any of this stuff in english class.
    I learned how to make proper conditional sentences in English through my Latin class; after all, they had to give us the proper English grammatical paradigms to translate the different Latin conditionals into, right?

    At least in speaking and casual writing, I find that using the Right Conditional Forms doesn't go wrong. Not a lot of people say "If I were to do that, I would be an idiot!" these days, but no one misunderstands it, either. And when I write academic work, it fits in perfectly. I have more trouble deciding which forms to use when I'm writing fiction; I have to fight the urge to just let everyone speak 'properly', and consider what it's going to imply about the speaker if they do.

  18. #18
    Shakespearean Fool DreamWeaver's Avatar
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    Just as a personal observation, it seems to me that Brits don't use subjunctive nearly as much as Mercans do. I often read a sentence in British English that jars my internal ear enough to make me mutter, "Were, were, WERE." I find that situation ironic, since we Mercans generally think of ourselves as using a less formal version of English--but we seem to be more particular about using the subjunctive.

    Or maybe I just read bad examples of British writing .
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  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by fadeaccompli View Post
    I learned how to make proper conditional sentences in English through my Latin class; after all, they had to give us the proper English grammatical paradigms to translate the different Latin conditionals into, right?
    Not right. Latin isn't, and never was, the framework for English grammatical construction. It got slathered onto English grammar by the effort of certain Latin scholars in the 18th century, notably John Dryden, which resulted in the ridiculous dictum of not using a preposition to end a sentence with, among many other tribulations inflicted upon students in subsequent decades.

    English grammatical construction isn't derived from Latin. English is not a Romance language, despite its spongiosity in adopting words and phrases from other tongues.

    Subjunctive case in English is a diminishing formality. The issue of decision, relative to the question in the OP, is how formal the writer wants the prose to be.

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  20. #20
    USA: 239 years & a day Chase's Avatar
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    I think we get to blame the subjunctive on Old English speakers and writers.

    In English Syntax: From Word to Discourse, Lynn Berk has this opinion:

    Like the term imperative, the term subjunctive refers to a particular verb form. In Old English, special verb forms existed to communicate non-facts, e.g., wants, hopes, and hypothetical situations. The subjunctive is somewhat weak in Modern English, but there are speakers who use it routinely. In many cases, the subjunctive is a form learned in school or through reading, so it is educated speakers who use it most.

    I’m guilty of aping the subjunctive from reading "too many" old books.

    On the other hand, as far back as the 1920s, Henry Fowler didn’t think much of its use:

    About the subjunctive, so delimited, the important general facts are: (1) that is is moribund except in a few easily specified uses; (2) that, owing to the capricious influence of the much analysed classical upon the less studied native moods, it probably never would have been possible to draw up a satisfactory table of the English subjunctive uses; (3) that assuredly no-one will ever find it possible or worth while now that the subjunctive is dying; (4) that subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage).

  21. #21
    here and there again fadeaccompli's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    Not right. Latin isn't, and never was, the framework for English grammatical construction. It got slathered onto English grammar by the effort of certain Latin scholars in the 18th century, notably John Dryden, which resulted in the ridiculous dictum of not using a preposition to end a sentence with, among many other tribulations inflicted upon students in subsequent decades.

    English grammatical construction isn't derived from Latin. English is not a Romance language, despite its spongiosity in adopting words and phrases from other tongues.
    Perhaps I was unclear.

    Just as learning SPANISH taught me more about what verbs in ENGLISH were doing, learning LATIN taught me more about what conditionals in ENGLISH were doing. This doesn't mean they work the same way! It means that seeing a language from the outside can make it easier to re-evaluate one's native language, and offer more vocabulary and paradigms for discussion of its quirks.

    If I had said "learning Latin taught more about English because English grammar is exactly like Latin!" then there'd be room for dispute. But I didn't say that, because they're not. A year of Japanese also taught me more about English grammar, and they're not even distant cousins as language families go.

  22. #22
    figuring it all out ConnieBDowell's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DreamWeaver View Post
    Just as a personal observation, it seems to me that Brits don't use subjunctive nearly as much as Mercans do. I often read a sentence in British English that jars my internal ear enough to make me mutter, "Were, were, WERE." I find that situation ironic, since we Mercans generally think of ourselves as using a less formal version of English--but we seem to be more particular about using the subjunctive.

    Or maybe I just read bad examples of British writing .
    I once had a prof tell me that colonial societies tend to retain older linguistic forms longer. They're more resistant to change. That's certainly true of American pronunciation of words with the letter r. I used to wonder why we Americans stopped dropping the r. Turns out British people used to pronounce all their r's, developing the dropped r as a feature of the dialect after there was a cultural and (naturally) physical split between British and American populations.

    I'm just hypothesizing here, but I wonder if that's also the reason why Americans say "Merry Christmas" and not "Happy Christmas" as they say in the UK.
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  23. #23
    USA: 239 years & a day Chase's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ConnieBDowell View Post
    I'm just hypothesizing here, but I wonder if that's also the reason why Americans say "Merry Christmas" and not "Happy Christmas" as they say in the UK.
    Hi, Connie.

    Merry Christmas and happy Christmas are the same sign in American Sign Language, but didn't Charles Dickens have his Londoners wishing "merry Christmas" in A Christmas Carol?

  24. #24
    Needs More Hands.... Fallen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fadeaccompli View Post
    Perhaps I was unclear.

    Just as learning SPANISH taught me more about what verbs in ENGLISH were doing, learning LATIN taught me more about what conditionals in ENGLISH were doing. This doesn't mean they work the same way! It means that seeing a language from the outside can make it easier to re-evaluate one's native language, and offer more vocabulary and paradigms for discussion of its quirks.

    If I had said "learning Latin taught more about English because English grammar is exactly like Latin!" then there'd be room for dispute. But I didn't say that, because they're not. A year of Japanese also taught me more about English grammar, and they're not even distant cousins as language families go.
    I was the same. In primary/secondary education there was a focus on punctuation, but nothing really on grammar and syntax. I didn't get into grammar mechanics until university, and that was only going through specialist courses (functional approaches (corpora etc)), and then a latin class. You really get to grips with English in the latter because you're constantly sorting conjugation and declension, where you really need to know indicative v subjunctive, nom, acc, gen, dat, abl etc.

    My Latin is rubbish but it really helped refine my English.

    Connie, we use both happy and merry Christmas over here. Happy Christmas is the less formal.
    Last edited by Fallen; 12-24-2012 at 07:57 PM. Reason: Can't spell you're

  25. #25
    God of the Oceans
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    It is horrible that people didn't learn grammar in elementary school. I didn't learn all of the details in any school, but I got the essentials, including a little about the subjunctive before secondary and more in secondary school. I kept my high school grammar book, because it was a good reference. Latin was slightly useful in English grammar, but there are too many bits of Latin grammar that do not apply for it to be truly relevant to English.

    And a joyous Sol Invictus

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