English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I wouldn't have been surprised to learn it were already named Lingua Mathematica, and I submit that as the best reason to give it that name (and not some other).

Based on my understanding, I think this is correct, but it sounds worse than common uses of the subjunctive I'm already familiar with (e.g. “if I were an Oscar Meyer weiner…”). Is it correct?

Note: I'm interested in prescriptivist English grammar here, not meaningless practicalities like being understood by people. There's no need to remind me that I'll be well understood only by saying “to learn it was.”

I am more confident of “I would not have been surprised if I were to learn it is already named Lingua Mathematica…” and not quite as much more confident in “I would not have been surprised were I to learn it is already named Lingua Mathematica…” which sounds extra hoity-toity.

share|improve this question
I do not understand the votes to close as Not A Real Question. It's a concrete utterance, and OP aks Is it correct or not--and, implicitly, Why? What's ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical about it? Why can it not be reasonably answered in its current form? Barrie England has answered it quite reasonably. – StoneyB Feb 13 '13 at 17:08
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The problem arises with the use of ‘to learn’. There is no difficulty with ‘surprised if it were already named . . .’ That’s because irrealis were is used to express unreal meaning. By introducing the clause with if, the writer envisages a situation in which it might be named Lingua Mathematica, when actually it isn’t.

In the sentence as drafted, however, what is it that the writer would have been surprised to learn? It is the fact that it bore the name Lingua Mathematica. The writer’s surprise is hypothesized on the assumption that it is so called, and that makes were inappropriate.

(In describing the modal use of were as 'irrealis were', rather than subjunctive, I have followed the practice of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’.)

share|improve this answer
Thank you, this clears it up for me! – Daniel Lyons Feb 13 '13 at 13:21
+ Very economical. You might also address the confusion of tenses in the examples in OP's final paragraph, where his confidence is misplaced. – StoneyB Feb 13 '13 at 17:12
Oh, yes. I would not have been surprised needs to be followed by if I had learnt. There is no hoity-toity version, but a possible alternative is I would not have been surprised to have learnt. – Barrie England Feb 13 '13 at 17:20

Beyond being "well understood" by the common speaker, you would almost be more correct were you to say "I wouldn't have been surprised to learn it was already named Lingua Mathematica..." That is to say, you wouldn't have been surprised to learn that it was already referred to as Lingua Mathematica.

You would use the subjunctive in that case only if you were drawing up some matter of circumstance. The fact of the matter is that you are not speculating or supposing that something were named Lingua Mathematica; you seem to suppose that you know it as a fact.

share|improve this answer
On the contrary. I know factually that this thing has no name at all, and this is one of many proposed names. What I'm trying to convey is the sense that if this name had been chosen in the past, it wouldn't be surprising to anyone today. – Daniel Lyons Feb 13 '13 at 6:01
So, what you're trying to say is something like this: "Were it not named that way by others in the past, you wouldn't be surprised." – J.T. Gralka Feb 13 '13 at 6:09
This blog post by Annete Lyon gives an excellent explanation of the subjunctive mood. You might find it helpful. – J.T. Gralka Feb 13 '13 at 6:12
You have an extra not. "Were it named that way by others in the past, I wouldn't be surprised." "It" has not been named yet. – Daniel Lyons Feb 13 '13 at 7:00

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.