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Which is correct: “what if there was” or “what if there were”?

Someone recently posted to meta.stackoverflow.com about a plural bug on Area 51, writing

...it doesn't effect [sic] the functionality of the site, but it'd be nice if the grammar was correct...

I jokingly pointed out that he meant "It would be nice if the grammar were correct."

The user Gilles commented

...you picked something that's actually not an error... you don't have to use the subjunctive, the indicative is also correct.

That's not my understanding at all, but I've never studied grammar. We're dealing with a speculative/conditional future, the subjunctive is required, isn't it?

I recognize that language is a living thing, and that in English our use of the subjunctive is decreasing. But surely the indicative is not correct in this case? At least not yet?

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In full application of Skitt's law, I shouldn't have called it an indicative, it is not an indicative. What I should have said is that while were is formally the “most correct” subjunctive form, was is perfectly standard usage. Also, I'm sure this has been asked hundreds of times here before. –  Gilles Feb 9 '12 at 13:03
    
@Gilles: LOL, I was wondering if we'd end up with an endless series of Skitt's Law examples. :-) I understand that using "was" here is common. But I wouldn't call it correct. (To give you an idea of my upbringing, my father's voice comes to me from across the years: "'Common' is exactly what it is." ;-) ) If you see a duplicate referring to the future conditional case, by all means flag it. I didn't, in a few minutes of looking, but that doesn't mean anything. –  T.J. Crowder Feb 9 '12 at 13:07
    
I did flag a duplicate, one from the “related” column. I picked english.stackexchange.com/questions/2705; upon reflection “If I were” may be a special case, and maybe this is closer and not an exact duplicate. Hmmm –  Gilles Feb 9 '12 at 13:19
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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Feb 9 '12 at 16:26

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1 Answer

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language treats this were as an irrealis form of be and not the subjunctive, which is typically realized by the bare form of the verb (e.g., important that you be on time). It says the were version belongs to a formal style, but that the was version is standard.

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Thanks. Which section / chapter / etc.? –  T.J. Crowder Feb 9 '12 at 12:44
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But it is historically the subjunctive. It's just that in modern English, the subjunctive is used in two completely-looking different ways (this one and "it is necessary that he be detained"), and they think that using the same name for both would be confusing. The irrealis were is slowly losing ground to the indicative, and is considered optional by many grammarians. –  Peter Shor Feb 9 '12 at 13:02
    
@T.J.Crowder: Chapter 3, section 1.7 –  Brett Reynolds Feb 9 '12 at 13:08
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