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What is the difference between these two sentences and which one is correct? If both be correct, when should I use the one over the other?

"If people who seek food were able to produce enough food by themselves, they would no longer need help."

"If people who seek food were to be able to produce enough food by themselves, they would no longer need help."

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    To quote Barrie England, '... in a sentence such as If I were you, I’d have a haircut, many grammarians still regard this use of were as subjunctive. Huddleston and Pullum do not. They call it irrealis were.' [trimmed] Nov 5, 2014 at 11:24

2 Answers 2

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The second sentence:

If people who seek food were to be able to produce enough food by themselves, they would no longer need help.

makes no sense to me. For me, "to be" adds only confusion, not nuance. However, I have heard, often enough, "were to be" plus a past participle, and in those (passive construction) cases it does make sense:

If people who seek food were to be given the wherewithal to produce food for themselves, they would no longer need to be given food.

although even there the "to be" adds nothing and could be eliminated.

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The second phrase is incorrect: "to be" plus the infinitive implies a degree of compulsion that is not needed in this sentence.

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  • I wonder if the second sentence is grammatical. Nov 5, 2014 at 10:54
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    @CopperKettle I'm not too happy with it; 'were to be' is normally followed by an -ed form and can imply intention or requirement (as Martin implies) or unmarked 'future in the past'. 'The prawns were to be eaten before Friday.' / '[It was a great place to look.] The children were to find nine different beetles in that particular field.' I suppose 'were to be' can be used as a deleted form of 'were supposed / intended to be' or 'were going to be': 'The upstairs carpets were to be green.' Nov 5, 2014 at 11:18
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    'Were to' followed by the infinitive does not always imply a degree of compulsion: "If he were to arrive tomorrow ..." has a very similar meaning to "If he arrived tomorrow ...". I think that 'if X were to be able to' is not so much incorrect as inelegant. As 'If X were able to' is available, the 'to' in the 'were to' version seems redundant. There are five citations for 'were to be able to' in if clauses in COCA, suggesting that I am not alone in finding it acceptable.
    – tunny
    Nov 5, 2014 at 13:02
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    I afree, my answer was hasty and I did not stop to think abiut "were I to do this" etc.
    – Martin
    Nov 5, 2014 at 13:30

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