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I've been reading a lot about the subjunctive mood lately, and everything seems clearer than it did some time ago, but I still have doubts regarding this mood. The other day I read the following sentence:

It's about time someone took my place. And I'd be honored if it was you.

So now I'm confused as to whether was or were is correct in this sentence.

I read that the subjunctive mood only exists in the present and past tense. I think that the troublesome sentence describes future: He would be honored if it was he who took his place. If this is the case then the subjunctive mood wouldn't apply here, and therefore "was" would be correct.

I would appreciate any help.

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marked as duplicate by tchrist, RegDwigнt Apr 20 '13 at 9:53

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3 Answers

The subjunctive mood is used when hypothesizing a state of unreality, or something highly improbable, for example, "If I were able to fly."

In your case, someone "taking your place" is not improbable, so the subjunctive is not appropriate.

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Well, "taking your place" may not be improbable, but it certainly is, at least at the moment of speaking, a "hypothesized state of unreality" since it hasn't happened yet, so by your own criteria, Dmitry, the subjunctive ought to be used here. It's really a simple contrary-to-fact condition: If it were you who took my place (but you haven't done so—yet), then I would be honored. –  Animadversor Apr 19 '13 at 22:34
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Well, in England, use of the subjunctive is rapidly disappearing. The BBC seems to discourage its presenters from using it. So, yes, "if I was you" is what you would hear a lot of the time in England. I don't regard it as "correct", but that is to a certain extent a personal preference.

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Very true. The use of the indicative in British English where we Americans would use the subjunctive can sound quite odd to our ears and can even lead to misunderstanding. For example, She insists that he is present means to us something quite different than She insists that he be present. Even when there is not a risk of confusion, it still sounds "off" to us. –  Animadversor Apr 19 '13 at 23:01
    
Well, I agree that there is a difference between those two sentences. As "insists that he be" sounds artificial or prissy to English ears nowadays, you will often find a "should" in there now: "she insists that he should be present", although on the basis of sequence of tenses this is suboptimal. There are more than 11m instances of "insists that he should be" on Google. –  David Apr 20 '13 at 0:36
    
Don't speakers of British English say things such as I insist that she comes meaning the same thing as I insist that she should come? This is what I remember hearing and reading. While the second example would be understood by Americans as equivalent to I insist that she come, the first would not. –  Animadversor Apr 20 '13 at 0:59
    
Animadversor, while I agree the subjunctive should be used where appropriate, it is not always so used in England, and all three phrases you just mentioned strike me as likely to be interpreted as having the same meaning. –  David Apr 20 '13 at 12:01
    
Thanks very much. That's what I wanted to verify, that a speaker of British English would understand all three to mean the same thing. –  Animadversor Apr 20 '13 at 18:24
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It's probably a mistake to read a lot about the subjunctive mood in English, because English doesn't have a subjunctive mood. This may explain some of your confusion.

What English does have is some funny uses of a few words like was and were in idioms like

  • if I were you (which means, roughly, 'my unsolicited advice follows')
    normally occurs at the beginning of a sentence. Advice may be formulated in the first person
    if I was you is considered substandard, because were is completely frozen into the idiom
    • If I were you, I would keep my mouth shut about this.
  • if it was me (which means, roughly, 'my unsolicited reaction to this would be: ')
    if it were me is equivalent and is identical in meaning and usage.
    ... though the were variant may falute slightly higher to some people.

  • were it not for X (which means 'if X was not the case', and presupposes that X is the case)
    was it not for X is ungrammatical -- not just substandard -- because the initial were is necessary in order to recognize the idiomatic clause structure and parse it correctly.

These are common, which is why they're frozen, and they're idioms, which means they don't follow normal rules. They often do follow other rules, however, which have died out in the language. But zombie rules is not usually helpful things to read a lot about; for one thing, they're full of holes.

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These are not idioms, they are simply the subjunctive forms of be. Other verbs also have subjunctive forms in the third-person. From Wikipedia: "It is necessary that he see a doctor (contrasted with the indicative he sees)." –  Bradd Szonye Apr 19 '13 at 20:39
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That's an infinitive, not a subjunctive. It's just another type of complement clause. Certainly not a Mood. And why would you say that they're not idioms? –  John Lawler Apr 19 '13 at 21:12
    
Wishing, supposing, and even pretending the subjunctive were truly gone does nothing to make it so. Visser documents dozens of places that still apply in Modern English. The point is that the conditions are still there that trigger changes in the verb, and you do no one any good with telling them that it is gone when it is not. –  tchrist Apr 19 '13 at 21:52
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Pretending these are infinitives is about as relevant — and accurate — as saying that “I hit the bottle yesterday” is a present tense form just because it looks like “I hit the bottle whenever I feel like it”. It makes equally little sense to call those infinitives there, which seems to be your preference, and I simply do not understand it. You’re focusing on inflectional morphology to the detriment of semantic constraints that actually matter here. –  tchrist Apr 19 '13 at 22:01
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I'm surprised that it's the linguists here who appear to want to squash the use of the word "subjunctive" when it is actually useful, along with "indicative" and "imperative", for indicating how a verb is used. And how a verb is used sets the form it takes. The subjunctive mood uses the infinitive form. Or -- since you assert that it is "certainly not a mood" -- is it actually the definition of a mood which is changing? Perhaps I should ask a Question on ELU. –  Andrew Leach Apr 20 '13 at 6:53
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