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I set a test with the following direct sentence, which the students were supposed to put into reported speech: Interviewer: "Are you fluent in English?" I expected the students to write: The interviewer asked me if I was fluent in English. However, some students wrote: The interviewer asked me if I were fluent in English.

I know that "was" and "were" are sometimes both possible, like: If I was/were rich... But to my knowledge this is used in unreal situations. Is it correct to say: The interviewer asked me if I were fluent in English?

  • Most likely your students are guilty of hypercorrection. Though, their example use of "were" could possibly be considered to be a dialectal extended use of irrealis "were" (according to the 2002 CGEL) -- where the usual expectation for indirect reported speech would be either the backshifted preterite ("was") or the non-backshifted "am". Since these are students, I too agree with your assessment that the "were" version should probably be, er, corrected to use the more accepted versions. :) – F.E. Jan 29 '14 at 21:17
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I'm hesitant to disagree with @Barrie-England given his credentials, but I don't believe "were" would be grammatical in this case. As he mentioned, "it conveys varying degrees of remoteness from factuality." In your example, it's unlikely that you're asking your reader about his or her wishes, opinion, judgement, or possible state. Your statement is asking for clarification of a definite and factual characteristic.

Answering the question with a "were,"

The interviewer asked me if I were fluent in English.

would leave the audience (me at least) wondering what the uncertain event, action, or state would be. Expanding it to something like the following to add the necessary element of uncertainty would seem grammatical to me.

The interviewer asked me if I were fluent in English, would I then travel to England.

That's probably an awful example, but I see "were" being used with words that denote uncertainty: would, if, should, could, wish, must, etc.

I see "was" being used to denote certainty. Presuming your question was expected to be answered with a "Yes" or a "No," "was" should be used.

Really, though, shouldn't they have responded with:

The interviewer asked me if I am fluent in English.

  • +1. I still believe they're both strictly speaking grammatical, but there's truth in what you say. For myself, I'd avoid if I were wherever possible. – Barrie England Jan 29 '14 at 19:50
  • Yes, both versions -- using "am" or using the backshifted "was" -- would be completely acceptable here. I also basically, on the whole, kinda agree with your evaluation on the use of "were" in the OP's example. :) – F.E. Jan 29 '14 at 21:28
  • @BarrieEngland Absolutely agree. – emsoff Jan 30 '14 at 4:15
  • Thanks @F.E. I think oddly enough I owe this one to my Spanish teacher. The subjunctive seems a more distinct tense in Spanish and French. – emsoff Jan 30 '14 at 4:17
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Both are grammatical. Were in contexts like this is usually called a subjunctive, but the authors of 'The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language' use the term ‘irrealis were’. They write that ‘it conveys varying degrees of remoteness from factuality’ and that were is more formal than was.

My own view is that if I was is the more natural form.

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Is it correct to say: "The interviewer asked me if I were fluent in English"?

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Your students have written a sentence that has the form of indirect reported speech, and since the original utterance was Interviewer: "Are you fluent in English?", then usually what would be expected as good answers would be:

  • 1.) "The interviewer asked me if I am fluent in English."

  • 2.) "The interviewer asked me if I was fluent in English"

The difference between the above two is that the #2 version backshifted the verb in the subordinate clause.

A possible explanation for why your students used "were" in their answers might be that they had mistaken the subordinate closed interrogative ("if") for a conditional ("if").

There is a related section in the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), that might be helpful here. Page 87: (note that "%" means grammatical in some dialects only)

Extended uses of irrealis were

For some speakers, irrealis were is not restricted to the modal remoteness constructions, but is found also in certain backshift and past time uses that bear some resemblance to them:

[33]

  • i. % She phoned to ascertain whether he were dining at the Club. -- (backshift)

  • ii. % He looked at me as if he suspected I were cheating on him. -- (backshift)

  • iii. % If he were surprised, he didn't show it. -- (past time)

In [i] we have backshift in a closed interrogative (the 'original question' was "Is he dining at the Club?"). This construction allows if in place of whether (to ascertain if he were dining . . .), and this can be seen as providing a link to the central uses of irrealis were.

In [ii] the backshift is in the complement of suspect, which in turn is within a conditional construction (though not, in this case, a modally remote one).

Example [iii] is a conditional, but of the open type, not the remote (for a past time remote conditional requires a preterite perfect: If he had been surprised, he would have shown it).

Was is much more usual than were in the constructions of [33], and for most speakers probably the only possibility. Were here clearly has something of the character of a 'hypercorrection': prescriptive grammar used to insist on were rather than was in modal remoteness constructions, and this may have led to the avoidance of was in certain neighbouring constructions. (fn 8)

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footnote 8: Examples like [i] and [iii] are mentioned in some usage manuals, and generally treated as incorrect; but they are found in the writings of highly prestigious authors. Another type of example we have encountered is: The two theoretical extremes of such a scale of formal explicitness would be (a) the case where no information at all were expressed formally, and (b) the case where no information were expressed pragmatically. Were is here in a relative construction embedded within a main clause containing a modal remoteness use of would.

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