I read this in a Facebook post today:

"If his participation in the Kardashian circus wasn't already a sign that he were mentally ill, then this is the slam dunk."

I would be grateful if somebody could tell me if this is correct usage of the subjunctive form (it doesn't sound right to me), or if it should read: "he was mentally ill," or alternatively, as he is still alive, "he is mentally ill."

Also, a brief explanation of why would be great.

  • This should not be subjunctive. The sentence sounds like he is mentally ill, so it's not counterfactual. Either was or is would work better there. Jun 6 '15 at 20:17
  • Thank you @PeterShor. I thought the same. But would the subjunctive form be needed for the first part of the sentence: "weren't already a sign" instead of "wasn't already a sign"?
    – ac23
    Jun 6 '15 at 20:27
  • The first part doesn't need a subjunctive, either. If the first part were to use a subjunctive, you would want finish the sentence with would be the slam dunk, rather than is the slam dunk. But wasn't and is work fine here. Jun 6 '15 at 21:14
  • English doesn't have a subjunctive! Jun 6 '15 at 23:40

The answer is yes, to be absolutely correct, the sentence should use the subjunctive, but not in the way you suggest. It should read "If his participation in the Kardashian circus weren't already a sign that he was mentally ill..." The "weren't" is in subjunctive mood because the clause is a counterfactual conditional, proposing something that is not true, namely that his participation in the circus is not a sign he is mentally ill. The "was" in "he was mentally ill" just describes the counterfactual condition, so it doesn't take the subjunctive. That "was" could also be "is," depending on what the sentence is intended to mean. Does it mean that he was mentally ill at some time in the past? Then "was." Does it mean that he is mentally ill now? Then "is."

An analogous sentence would be, "If his text weren't [subjunctive] indication enough that he was totally into her [not subjunctive], then the picture was."

  • Thank you so much for taking the time to give me such a comprehensive answer.
    – ac23
    Jun 6 '15 at 19:54
  • 1
    After 'If X weren't ...' you also need to switch to '[then] this would be ...'. Jun 6 '15 at 20:09
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    There's no necessity to use a special inflection here, and "absolutely correct" in this context means "pleasing your old English teacher". If your teacher is listening, then go ahead. If not, you can use it or not, as you please. There really is no "should" here; grammar is oral, not moral. Jun 6 '15 at 21:28
  • @JohnLawler, that's an interesting question. Grammar, I believe, is both descriptive and normative. There is no question that the subjunctive would be correct here, but few people would use it in writing, and even fewer in speech. Does the number of people who use a word incorrectly make it correct? If most people, for instance, say "literally" to mean "figuratively" (i.e., the opposite of "literally"), does that make that usage correct? I would say probably not. Jun 8 '15 at 4:32
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    If you presuppose that some words are correct and others not, ex nihilo, then you have the problem of verifying the correctness. Where do the "normative" rules come from? Who has the authority to decree correctness? And why should anyone pay attention to them. You would indeed say probably not, but you can't say why; and since your opinion is not the same as everyone else's, you need a lot ot authority yourself if you can't point to the actual rule and verify its validity. Jun 8 '15 at 19:13

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