Which one is correct?

  1. If I were him, I would doubt if she is serious about this relationship.
  2. If I were him, I would doubt if she was serious about this relationship.
  3. If I were him, I would doubt if she were serious about this relationship.

I presume that (1) is definitely wrong but uncertain about (2) and (3). I see this sentence as a reported speech in the first conditional. My thought, "Is she serious about this relationship?", is reported by myself. Since it's reported, the tense should be shifted back according to the tense of the main clause, "I would doubt." The problem is that the "would" is resulted from a counter-factual hypothesis and without this hypothesized situation, the reported sentence, "Is she serious about this relationship?", wouldn't exist at all. That's why I'm bewildered by choosing (2) or (3).

  • I'm pretty sure the correct one is number 3. But when I see a question like this it reminds me, as one who speaks English largely by native instinct, how little I know about the underlying rules. – WS2 Jan 8 '14 at 22:41
  • It depends; are they still in a relationship? – Elliott Frisch Jan 8 '14 at 22:56
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    Actually, all of them should be "If I were he" – Oldcat Jan 8 '14 at 22:58
  • @Oldcat Aren't all of them also using a pronoun without an antecedent? – Elliott Frisch Jan 8 '14 at 23:00
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    @JJcat If it were me, I wouldn’t worry too much about the he/him thing in most contexts. – tchrist Jan 8 '14 at 23:53

Don’t get confused by the second if not being a conditional at all, but rather the version that means whether. Try changing your second if to either that or to whether for a clearer read.

That just puts off the decision of what tense/mood to use. The issue there is that whether clauses could indeed historically trigger the subjunctive in the verb they governed, whether it be present or past, in and by themselves.

Nowadays you invariably get indicative in the present, but people still waver about the subjunctive when back-shifting it. Both variations occur in the wild, no matter whether they are “right” or “wrong” — whatever that means. (But not “no matter whether they be” — nobody says that anymore.)

  • I don’t know whether she is/she’s ready.
  • I didn’t know whether she was ready.
  • I didn’t know whether she were ready.

Given that, “If I were he, I would doubt that she were serious” does not lack for historical support, but it is a bit stuffy — a little bit for some, too much for others.

“If it were me, I’d doubt she was serious” is how most people would say it today, except in super-stuffy writing. You could even get by with a simpler “Me, I’d doubt she was serious.”

For further reading with an historical perspective on all this and copious examples, I strongly recommend F. T. Visser’s monumental An Historical Syntax of the English Language, in two volumes, covers this simple matter in only around 250 pages of his second volume, treating with Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, the stuff between then and now, and Contemporary — or as Visser calls it, Present Day English.

Here is a Google Books link to Visser’s second volume, to the portion covering “modally marked forms” (nées subjunctives) in various circumstances. Start reading a hundred pages or more earlier than that point, though, back when it first starts.

You do have to get used to his peculiar terminology of modally marked forms, but his scholarship and examples are, well, exemplary. It really is FMTEYEWTK on the subjunctive in English.

  • Someone who uses "given that" followed by "lack for" should not comment on "stuffy." – sas08 Apr 9 '19 at 1:26

I'd say "none of the above". More specifically, I'd say...

If I were him, I would doubt that she is serious about this relationship.
(or perhaps more likely, nothing at all between doubt and she)

I doubt any native speaker would use ...she were serious... in those contexts. Problem solved!

  • There are those who would, actually, but perhaps not many. – tchrist Jan 8 '14 at 23:54
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    @tchrist: True. I was thinking in "modern speech" mode when I wrote about my doubts, but switching to "archaic mode" it sounds much more credible. Checking Google Books for things like "doubt it were a" confirms your point. Such usages do in fact occur in older texts, and in some more modern dialectal contexts. – FumbleFingers Jan 9 '14 at 12:56

All three choices are wrong, unless they start with "If I were he". Assuming that fix is in... #2 is correct.

I would say: If I were he, I would doubt if she was serious about this relationship.

As you say, with #1, the tense needs to shift back to that of the start of the main clause (or the "If I were..." lead-in).

In #3, the pairing of "she" with "were serious" sounds wrong, very prominently so if we were to strip the lead-in off the sentence as below: I would doubt if she were serious about this relationship. The tense of the trailing part of the sentence is fully in synch with the tense of the rest of the statement in #2: I would doubt if she was serious about this relationship.

My vote is for #2.

  • 2
    The tense may need to correspond to the main verb, but the mood definitely does so. If you start If I were he you cannot continue ...if she was serious. Were serious would be correct: is serious is not wrong, but has a different shade of meaning. And of course, many people would see nothing wrong with If I was him, I would doubt if she was serious. – Tim Lymington Jan 8 '14 at 23:31
  • @TimLymington Can I ask what different shade of meaning "is serious" would carry? – JJcat Jan 9 '14 at 12:32
  • @TimLymington: Your comment is wrong. If the expression "if she were serious" is acceptable, then the expression "if she was serious" is also acceptable. One uses the irrealis "were" while the other uses the modal preterite. – F.E. Jan 9 '14 at 20:17

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