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I have the following sentence:

if the foo is/was/were a bar and the baz truck a qux, how does the working of a baz relate to coaching?

Should it be is/was/were? Searching the internet just give me a lot of conflicting answers, so I'm here to hear (hmm that rhymes!) from the experts!

Thanks!

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What does it mean? –  Barrie England Mar 2 '13 at 12:23
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@BarrieEngland Irrelevant - they're just syntactic placeholders. –  StoneyB Mar 2 '13 at 12:38
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@StoneyB. Oh, thanks. The 'coaching' bit made me think it might have been something to do with American football! –  Barrie England Mar 2 '13 at 13:28
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@BarrieEngland foo, bar, baz and qux are the classic stand-ins for variable names in texts on programming; foo and bar have a disreputable past in US military slang. –  StoneyB Mar 2 '13 at 13:43
    
@StoneyB. New to me, I'm afraid. I am, however, familiar with SNAFU. –  Barrie England Mar 2 '13 at 13:52
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closed as not a real question by tchrist, JLG, RegDwigнt Mar 2 '13 at 17:47

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3 Answers

Allow me to rephrase your sample sentence a little: expand your ellipsis in the conditional clause and translate the main clause from the interrogative to the indicative. In the main clause your does means that we must be speaking of a current relationship:

  • If FOO is a BAR, and BAZ is QUX, then the relationship between BAZ and coaching is X.

    This is an acceptable conditional: it describes what you consider to be a general truth.

  • If FOO was a BAR, and BAZ was QUX, then the relationship between BAZ and coaching is X.

    This is marginally acceptable: it describes what you consider to be a generally true inference from historical contingencies. It would be a bit clearer if you changed the verb in the main clause:

    . . . then the relationship between BAZ and coaching must be X.

  • If FOO were a BAR, and BAZ were QUX, then the relationship between BAZ and coaching is X.

    This is not acceptable: it presents the conditional as an irrealis, as something which is not known to be true, and it requires a corresponding uncertainty in the verb of the main clause:

    ... then the relationship between BAZ and coaching would be X.

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These three options are all valid in a sense that they are grammatical. In short, is would indicate that the condition is in present tense, was would indicate that the condition is in past tense and were would indicate a counterfactual.

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Were.

"If the foo were a bar..."

Being part of an if-clause puts the verb in the subjunctive case. The verb "to be" is the only verb in English that has a different spelling in that case.

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Not so. If calls for were only where the protasis is uncertain or known to be false. "If A is 1 and B is 2, then A plus B equals 3." –  StoneyB Mar 3 '13 at 14:31
    
Thanks, @StoneyB for the excellent terse summary of that rule. –  BobStein-VisiBone Mar 3 '13 at 23:15
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