if clauses—the traditional rules. According to traditional rules, you use the subjunctive to describe an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact: if I were ten years younger, if America were still a British Colony.
The verb in the main clause of these sentences must then contain the verb would or (less frequently) should: If I were ten years younger, I would consider entering the marathon. If America were still a British colony, we would all be drinking tea in the afternoon.
When the situation described by the if clause is not presupposed to be false
, however, that clause must contain an indicative verb. The form of verb in the main clause will depend on your intended meaning: If Hamlet was really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius. If Kevin was out all day, then it makes sense that he couldn’t answer the phone.
if clauses—the reality. In practice, of course, many people ignore the rules. In fact, over the last 200 years even well-respected writers have tended to use the indicative was
where the traditional rule would require the subjunctive were
. A usage such as If I was the only boy in the world
may break the rules, but it sounds perfectly natural.