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I'm reading Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta are being prepared for the Arena by special instructors. The plant instructor says: Avoid berries unless you are 100 percent sure they aren't toxic.

How would you fill in the gaps?

Our plant instructor made a point of telling us to avoid berries unless you ____ 100 percent sure they _____ toxic.

This is a grammar point that most grammars don't cover. I don't know what grammar term is used for this grammar point and I don't know how the rule concerned is formulated.

In the novel I have the sentence in the proper form. But I would like to know how native speakers would fill in the gaps, and what term is used in English grammars.

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    Were, weren't. The only other choices would be was and wasn't, which would be very low register (i.e. the less-educated). It's called sequence of tenses. If you start out with a phrase like "the instructor said," you must switch his present tense verbs to past. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 18:32
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    @Steven Littman The switch from present tense to past tense in reported speech is called backshift. But it is often optional and when it is, you can certainly keep the original present tense instead of backshifting it without sounding uneducated!
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 18:49
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    I told Stacy that Kim has blue eyes is just as grammatical as I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes. The "were" and "weren't" that you mentioned are just backshifted past tense, not subjunctive.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 18:54
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    @BillJ--You misinterpreted what I said. I said that "was, wasn't" were uneducated. Also, although backshift is also correct (and works well if you're looking for a verb), sequence of tenses is the usual terminology for this phenomenon in both ESL and foreign language pedagogy where I am (Eastern US). I also didn't say "are, aren't" wouldn't work; the question was, which would I use as a native speaker. Also, OP knows "backshifting," since he used it as a tag. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 19:37
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    That sentence is wrong because you shift from first person plural to second person. It should be "Our plant instructor made a point of telling us to avoid berries unless we were 100 percent sure they were not toxic." If you put you in, that part of the sentence is not backshifted but sounds more like a direct quote. Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 12:48

3 Answers 3

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That is a trick question. As written, the sentence has a rather disorienting shift from first person plural to second person. Backshifting the sentence should give

Our plant instructor made a point of telling us to avoid berries unless we were 100 percent sure they were not toxic.

Using a direct quote would give

Our plant instructor made a point of telling us "avoid berries unless you are 100 percent sure they are not toxic."

But keeping you and adding to means that it's halfway between a backshifted sentence and a direct quote. To me, it feels more like a direct quote, so I want to use are.

You can't make that sentence grammatical by filling in the blanks with any tenses, which is why it's not treated in grammar books.

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I would argue for are/aren't. I'm not sure about the exact grammatical argument, but there are two things in play here.

The main one is that there is an implied "should" in this sentence structure. The instructor said that you should avoid eating berries unless you are 100% sure...

I expect there is a more robust/accurate argument involving the fact that "to avoid" is in the infinitive. Typically after an infinitive another will follow (he told us to get a car to drive him around).

In any case, the tense of the following verbs is dependant on their relation to current time I.e. if the advice still holds. For example, if the sentence was "he said to avoid truck stops unless you want(ed) to be killed", the tense of 'want' depends on whether or not the threat still exists (I.e. it depends on the narrative mode/tense). If we're discussing advice given by a cop at the time of a truck stop killing spree in the 80s, then 'wanted' makes more sense, but if it's advice from a few hours ago 'want' is perfectly acceptable.

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  • Note I think @Peter Shor has a much better/more accurate answer, but leaving mine up for now. Will modify/delete if necessary. Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 15:32
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Our plant instructor made a point of telling us to avoid berries unless you were 100 percent sure they were not toxic. Your sentence is type 1 conditional. Type 1 conditional sentences become type 2 sentences in reported speech

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