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In "The Origin of Species " of Charles Darwin, Chapter 1, we can read this:

it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving

Is not it an error to write 'it vary' in stead of 'it varies' ?

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The language has changed in the last 155 years –  andy256 May 9 at 8:24
    
But why in the same book, each time we read "it" they add an "s" to the verb that follows ? Only this verb ! –  user73441 May 9 at 8:25
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It's a use of the subjunctive (cf if I were; if I be). Look up 'subjunctive' (and as andy implies, it's not as popular now as in CD's day). –  Edwin Ashworth May 9 at 8:53
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alternative, more modern, version: "it follows that any being, if it were to vary slightly.., would have a better chance of surviving." –  msam May 9 at 9:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

As Edwin Ashworth notes in the comments, this is an instance of the subjunctive mood. From Wikipedia:

The English subjunctive is an irrealis mood used to form verbs in statements that do not describe known, objective facts. These include statements about one's state of mind, such as opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire. The subjunctive mood is also used statements that are contrary to fact, such as, If I were a giraffe, ... (subjunctive), as distinguished from, I am a human being. Subjunctive statements often occur in dependent clauses, such as the subjunctive example in the preceding sentence.

There are plenty of examples in the article that highlight the various uses of the subjunctive but in this case its use is that of a hypothetical situation:

It follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, ...

You could also write something similar to the following:

It follows that any being, if it were however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, ...

This form is not a necessary form and you could use "varies" if you felt like it. But this usage is completely grammatical (although it does sound a bit dated.)

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According to what I learned it should be 'varies'. Here subject is 'being' and that is singular so use of 'varies' is more appropriate. I refered this link http://www.stickyball.net/writing.html?id=381

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So how come during all these decades no one pointed this grammatical error in the most famous scientific book in the world ? Am I very smart ? –  user73441 May 9 at 9:39
    
You are probably! B) But that was more appropriate according to me and also as andy256 said "The language has changed in the last 155 years". –  Pooja Raja May 9 at 9:50
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A downvote. This answer is incorrect. See comment by @EdwinAshworth above, for the correct explanation: it's a subjunctive, after "if". –  DavidR May 9 at 15:32
    
Thank you for drawing my attention and pointing my mistake @DavidR –  Pooja Raja May 9 at 17:49

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