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This is an excerpt from a grammar book by Longman. It was discussing tense and time distinctions and the excerpt is about future time.

As you can see in the next example, the reference can be to a situation that never actually occurred:

'I was going to be called Kate if I was a girl.'

What I get from the example is the impression that the narrator is a man and before he was born his parents decided upon the baby's name if it were a girl. What I want to know is shall I use the subjunctive form were instead of was in "...if I was a girl."? Or is the sentence correct?

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I hesitate to call it "correct", but it is surely natural because this is how people -- even educated people -- talk. A pedant might insist that you write something like, "I would have been called Kate if I had been born a girl." (A hyper-pedant then would correct the pedant because the speaker would not even exist if the hypothetical had become reality.) –  Eugene Seidel Apr 25 '12 at 5:24
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The sentence is definitely correct as written. The subjunctive is correct only when the sentence is a contrary-to-fact conditional. But in the time-frame being described, the parents don’t yet know the sex of their child. –  Lubin Apr 25 '12 at 5:30
    
@EugeneSeidel Yeah, a pedant would do that. –  BRKsays Apr 25 '12 at 5:54
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@EugeneSeidel: Even to a pedant, I was going to go to the gym means something different from I would have gone to the gym ; both are acceptable. –  TimLymington Apr 25 '12 at 12:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 0 down vote accepted

was it should be. At the time the parents considered the name, it was a distinct possibility. That it did not happen, was in the future.

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Thank you all for your prompt response. –  BRKsays Apr 25 '12 at 5:58

In most cases, the were subjunctive is optional, at least in British English. Here only the indicative makes sense. The authors of 'The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language' avoid referring to a were subjunctive at all, preferring 'irrealis were'.

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The subjunctive is slightly less common in American English, so your answer applies on either side of the Atlantic. –  Charles Apr 25 '12 at 13:08
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Other uses of the subjunctive seem to be more common in AE than BE: after pharses like "mandate that" and "direct that", US formal writing prefers the subjunctive, but in the UK either form is acceptable. –  Colin Fine Apr 26 '12 at 0:20
    
And BrEng, at least, often has the further alternative of 'should' + plain form. –  Barrie England Apr 26 '12 at 6:19
    
The "were subjunctive" is only optional in the same sense that "am not", "are not", "is not", "have not" are optional (since they can be replaced by "ain't"). There is an unsophisticated dialect in which the were subjunctive is rendered using the plain past was, just like the subjunctive for most other verbs. Then there is a dialect whose speakers use were in the subjunctive mood consistently. This is not because they are correcting for anything, but simply because it's a feature of the native dialect that they speak which sounds right to them. –  Kaz Aug 18 at 22:02
    
The unsophisticated dialect is British English. –  Barrie England Aug 19 at 6:35

"... if I were a girl"

A very simple way of viewing the whole mood thing is that fact-statements are indicative, and thought-statements are subjunctive.

In this sentence, assuming that the speaker is male, being a girl is not a fact and cannot be indicative. Being a girl is a thought-statement, so it should use a subjunctive verb.

This can be tested by inversion - removing the 'if' and inverting the verb and subject. "... were I a girl" still works, but "... was I a girl" doesn't.

This demands the question "Why did a Longman Grammar book use "...if I was a girl?" Well, grammar books can and do get things wrong, possibly deliberately to keep things simple at lower level. Another possibility is that they are jumping on the lazy-man's bandwagon of pretending the subjunctive doesn't exist anymore - a depressingly popular bandwagon.

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The subjunctive If I were does not apply in this sentence; to use it would be a case of hyper-correction.

The "If I was" part is not actually from the speaker's own hypothetical point of view about himself. What that clause is doing is referring the point of view of the parents or guardians, which existed in the past.

Prior to the speaker's birth, those people said to each other something like, "If it is a girl, we will call her Kate". This is not a subjunctive mood, but a straight conditional: it refers to an unknown future, not to an imaginary alternative present or past.

The speaker is relaying this conversation between the parents or guardians, using reported speech rather than as a direct quote. In doing so, the point of view shifts to the first person, and so "it" becomes "I", and "is a girl" becomes "was a girl".

"If I were a girl" is something else: it is a statement referring to an imaginary present, from the speaker's own point of view. It is not applicable in the sentence, because the sentence is about a naming decision which took place years ago: that naming decision is not conditional on an imaginary present; it is conditional on different events having taken place in the distant past.

"If I were a girl" can only be properly used as a conditional for present and future statements such as, "If I were a girl, I'd be wearing a summer dress right now". "If I were a girl, I was going to be called Kate" is nonsense, because "was going to be called Kate" is situation which really existed in the past, whereas "If I were a girl" is an imaginary present: thus, an actual past is made conditional on an unrealized present. On the other hand, "If I were a girl, I would have been called Kate" is possible. This hinges together an imaginary future and imaginary past, which is possible ("In an imaginary world in which I am a girl, my imaginary past is such that I was called Kate"). This sentence now has a different point of view, though; it is no longer relaying the circumstances of the naming decision made by the parents, but simply remarking on an imaginary past and future.

The sentence "I was going to be called kate if I was a girl" is correct; its only flaw is that it is clumsy. It is not making effective use of the nuances which are possible with English tenses, as well as alternative vocabulary, for maximum clarity. A rewrite such as "I was going to be called Kate if I had turned out to be a girl" is no more correct, only more polished.

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The subjunctive mood is only used when expressing conditions that are doubtful, but still possible. The way that sentence is structured, it could go either way, as moods are less important in English than in other languages, but if it were restructured (see! look, subjunctive!) to be

I was going to be called Kate if I were born a girl.

The subjunctive would make more sense, or if it used:

If I were a girl, I would have been called Kate

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"If I were a girl, I would have been ..." is awkward, because "If I were" requires a present tense, whereas "would have been" is in the past. Consider: "If he were/was rich, he'd party with celebrities." versus "If he had been rich, he would have partied with celebrities." Substituting were for was buys you nothing: both are acceptable for the subjunctive. –  Kaz Apr 25 '12 at 6:50
    
My understanding of the subjunctive is imperfect, but I find that this sort of thing satisfies my teachers. –  Quasiperfect Apr 25 '12 at 7:15
    
@Kaz: There's nothing wrong with something like "If I were rich, I would have paid for your plane ticket." In this case, however, it should be "If I had been ..." because the implicit time reference is to the time of his/her birth, which happens before he/she is called Kate. –  Peter Shor Apr 25 '12 at 15:21
    
@PeterShor Yes you are right, and furthermore, "If I had been rich, I would have paid for your plane ticket." is strange/wrong if the context being discussed is not some past in which circumstances were different. "Would have paid for your plane ticket" could be last week, or twenty years ago. –  Kaz Apr 25 '12 at 16:55
    
So "If I were rich, I would have X" refer to a kind of extended semantic present: "My status now is that I am not rich, and that same status was already in effect at a particular time in the past when it prevented me from doing X." So in this case the past event is connected to the present by unchanging circumstances. In our sentence, can we regard not being a girl as an unchanging circumstance since birth? No, because the state change is important: the state change from "unknown" to "boy" and the subsequent naming. The connection to the present status is irrelevant. –  Kaz Apr 25 '12 at 17:19

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