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Hopefully this one is nice and simple. Which is correct:

I would never say that I am superior to a cleaner.

or

I would never say that I were superior to a cleaner.

I'm rather confused -- any answers (and an explanation of the answer) would be appreciated.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The first one is correct. The second is not.

You could substitute was for were and it would be OK:

  • I would never say that I was superior to a cleaner.

That's just the ordinary past tense, echoing the morphological past of would. If you used will instead of would, was refers to your purported past superiority, while the present am is simply generic:

  • I will never say that I was superior to a cleaner.
  • I will never say that I am superior to a cleaner.

The reason is that the sogenannte "Subjunctive" is rare in English, and occurs only after certain predicates, of which say is not one, even in a universal temporal negative construction (i.e, never say).

In general, it's best to avoid mentioning the term "Subjunctive" when speaking of English grammar; it simply confuses people because they don't know what it means, either.

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Thanks John. My instinct was that the first one was correct, but many (including an ex-teacher) argued that it was the other. –  Mr. Who Dec 19 '11 at 22:36
1  
And that is exactly why John's last point is good advice. On occasion I have found - even on this site - people talking about "subjunctive" to mean "sentence which in some other languages would be expressed by a subjunctive". This is generally Not a Good Thing. –  Colin Fine Dec 20 '11 at 0:13

The first example is the correct thing to say.

The Past Subjunctive, also called unreal Past, is used to express a wish that is unlikely to be fulfilled:

I wish that he were here now. (He can't be here despite my wishes.)

OR It is high time we moved house. (I don't think we can do this now.)

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