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In a comment signed by Martha, she wrote that:

"If I was an airline pilot" and "If I were an airline pilot" have different meanings. The latter is the subjunctive case (and presumably what most people mean, even if they say the former). The former is talking about the past tense - "if I was an airline pilot 10 years ago..."

The comment above received 8 upvotes, and this confused me. Somewhere out there, are at least 9 people who hold the same view on this usage. I can't "see" how the sentence: "If I was a pilot 10 years ago" is speaking about the past.

The sentence begins with "if" which means the speaker is thinking and talking hypothetically, imagining a situation which is unreal. He or she being a pilot never happened. Now I would understand the number of upvotes if (ha!) "was" had been said to be informal and "were" considered to be grammatically more acceptable, (especially if one were to sit an English exam or submit a paper) but to say it expresses a past tense?

My natural inclination is to write: If I had been a pilot 10 years ago. But in this case the speaker is still hypothesizing in the present about an unreal, and no longer possible situation.

Am I wrong??

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Depending on what people say here, you might want to add a comment over there. I like your had been wording. –  J.R. Jun 4 '13 at 9:38
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What I think Martha meant was that sentences like "if he was at the party, I didn't see him" are grammatical. Here, was is in the past tense, and because you don't know whether or not he was at the party, you don't use the subjunctive. Since a situation where someone doesn't know whether or not he was an airplane pilot is unusual (amnesia?), Martha didn't pick the best example sentence. –  Peter Shor Jun 4 '13 at 11:35
    
@PeterShor the example you have given makes it clearer now what might have been Martha's intention and of course in the context of a party I wouldn't know whether a person came or didn't. But what about the 8 upvotes, supporting her theory? –  Mari-Lou A Jun 4 '13 at 17:24
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My only explanation is that they knew what she was trying to say, and didn't realize how bad her example was. –  Peter Shor Jun 4 '13 at 17:29

1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

You are right in your assumptions, as long as we talk about conditional sentences and the subjunctive mood of "be". You only need to consider that the verb after "if" might not be in the subjunctive mood. Think about sentences like these:

If he was nice to you, it was because he wanted something. (He is usually rude and now you tell me he was nice? Then he definitely wanted something.)

If I was rude, I apologize. (I might have been rude, I don't know. If that was the case, I apologize, I didn't mean to)

Now compare the second one to one where the subjunctive is used:

If I had been rude, I would have apologized. (I was not rude and I did not apologize.)

As was already mentioned in a comment, "If I was an airline pilot" would be unusual to say. I guess you could say something like: I am an actor now. If I was an airline pilot 10 years ago, that was only because my parents insisted. All I ever wanted was to perform on stage.

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Thank you for your clear explanations, I especially appreciated your way around in the last example. Very nice thinking! –  Mari-Lou A Jun 4 '13 at 18:08

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