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In the book A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, I've noticed the use of the subjunctive mood after wonder if:

In truth, he had scarcely considered the mudmen at all, beyond eyeing Meera once or twice and wondering if she were still a maiden.

And again, later in the book:

He listened to the blasphemies and wondered if he were dying.

My (non-native) grammatical intuition makes me think this sounds really wrong. I would say "he wondered whether he was dying" and therefore also "he wondered if he was dying".

I would be tempted not to use the subjunctive with an if that can be replaced by whether, and to only use the subjunctive with an if that actually has a conditional value, for instance: "he wondered, if he were dying, why he was feeling so alive".

Also, I believe that using Martin's structure in the present tense may sound even more wrong: "he wonders if he be dying" (present subjunctive)...

So, am I right, or is it correct to use only a subjunctive clause after wonder if?

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    The merits of this example aside, don't count on Martin to use English correctly in all cases. He is affecting an imaginary dialect that is an approximation of Wardour Street English, and even then it's not always well done. – Robusto Mar 28 '15 at 14:22
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    @Robusto: Martin is writing in a semi-archaic style, and using the subjunctive here is perfectly reasonable. Shakespeare often used the subjunctive with whether: "For 'tis a question left us yet to prove, Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love." Maybe Martin doesn't always get it right, but I don't think there's anything objectionable about these sentences. – Peter Shor Mar 28 '15 at 15:00
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    Those sound perfectly fine to me. "Wondered if" in combo with the subjunctive is actually a fairly natural thing. The subjunctive mood is used to express things that may or may not be true, and wondering if such things are true is clearly something that one would do. – Hot Licks Mar 29 '15 at 2:36
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It is correct to use the subjunctive here, and not all that uncommon. Many native speakers would also use "was". It depends somewhat on personal, regional and stylistic factors. In speech or ordinary writing, generally either sounds natural. I suppose some might find the subjunctive to sound odd or old-fashioned, or the indicative to sound inelegant or uneducated. If you want to use what native speakers would consider the most strictly "correct", as in the context of a grammar test, then it might be a safer bet to use the subjunctive. Incidentally, the past subjunctive can also be used with "whether" in similar circumstances (hat tip to tchrist in comments).

Here's a Google ngram chart for "wonder if she were" and "wonder if he were". If you look through the citations, you can find examples of these phrases being used by other English writers in comparable contexts to the ones cited in the question.

  • No matter whether it were for good or for evil, we once wrote things that way more often we do now. And whether it be for good or for evil, sometimes we still do. :) – tchrist Mar 28 '15 at 14:53
  • Please see Visser’s An Historical Syntax of the English Language for examples of using “modally marked forms” (what Visser calls the subjunctive) in clauses governed by whether. Chaucer used it: “To assay his horn and for to know whether it were clear.” There are both present and past tense uses lavishly demonstrated there, as well as historical ones. – tchrist Mar 28 '15 at 14:58
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    Here's an ngram chart with the "was" indicative variants as well. They rise quickly in recent years (since about 1975). – wchargin Mar 28 '15 at 15:33
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    I’m not sure I quite agree with “If you want to use what native speakers would consider the most strictly ‘correct’, as in the context of a grammar test, then you should use the subjunctive”. This speaker agrees completely with TanguyP, for instance: my personal subjunctive (outside of main clauses) is strictly an irreal or counterfactual mood; elsewhere, it is ungrammatical. If any grammar test were audacious enough to include this in it, I would expect the correct answer in current English to be the indicative, not the subjunctive. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 28 '15 at 15:37
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    @Janus Bahs Jacquet: You might very well be right! It would definitely be a bad grammar question, but sometimes test-writers have stupid questions, and I'd assume the kind of test-writers who included a question about a sentence like this would subscribe to the "if using the subjunctive is possible, it's mandatory" school of thought. As for irrealis, it's a vague enough concept that people can have different opinions as to what is included in it. – sumelic Mar 28 '15 at 15:42
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As shown by Google Books

"wondering if she were still" About 25,800 results

this is a well established use of the subjunctive, and still in use.

The reason for its existence lies in the on-the-fly introduction and support of doubts as to the reality of the situation/assumption, in concert with "wondering" and emphasizing it, something that could be rendered correctly only in more verbose phrasings, also pertaining to subjunctive mood in nature:

"wondering if she might still be a maiden"

Certainly "was" /can be/is/ used instead, but this effect of /emphasizing/raising to power/ the wonderment goes out the window, and you have at work what I, at least, would call mentally flatter writing :-)

About 25,800 results

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    Strange, I get the raw ratio for "wondering if she were still" : "wondering if she was still" as about 10 : 53 000. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '15 at 22:46
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I agree with both you and Martin, more or less. The quoted examples seem fine, to me, but then they are also fine if changed to the indicative. But more importantly (and why I decided to write an answer), I think you're on to something interesting here when you note:

Also, I believe that using Martin's structure in the present tense may sound even more wrong: "he wonders if he be dying" (present subjunctive)...

This example in the present tense is really bad in current English, and I find all Martin's examples unacceptable if they are changed to the present tense.

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    Well, even though these forms are traditionally called the past and present subjunctive, they aren't really used in analogous ways in Modern English. It's probably better to think of them as different constructions. – sumelic Mar 29 '15 at 1:19
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The present subjunctive was once used but is now considered archaic. Here is a sentence as it might have been written hundreds of years ago: "I see the grevous wunde, the blod flowe, and wonder if I be dying." (Attempts at old English spellings are invented, to add flavor only.)

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