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I am an assistant English teacher in Japan. My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) was asking me questions about the subjunctive mood.

We were talking about sentences such as:

Were it not for your help ... If not for your help ... But for your help ... (This one actually threw me for a loop at first)

These sentences all use "your help" as a noun.

Then he proposed the sentence:

If there were your help, I would finish quickly.

My immediate reaction was nope nope nope nope nope. It sounds so wrong to my ears. But, not having an English degree, and only going on being a native speaker, I can't explain WHY this is wrong (or if it is actually wrong).

My suggested versions were:

If you were to help me ... If I were to have your help ...

So now I need YOUR help! Is "if there were your help" wrong and why is it wrong?

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    To me it sounds so wrong because I've never heard anyone say it, because using "you (your)" and "there" together sounds redundant, or simply because of its word order. "If help were there" or "If you were to help (me)" sounds natural to me..., dunno why though.
    – wordsalad
    Aug 31 '17 at 2:49
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    Unrelated: the expression is "threw me for a loop", not "through me for a loop". Aug 31 '17 at 3:25
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    There's nothing wrong with the reworded If your help were there, I would finish quickly so I don't see a "subjunctive" problem with the OS, just a word order/idiomatic problem. Aug 31 '17 at 3:27
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    The problem about asking native speakers is that we've never learnt any English grammar, so we don't know why it's wrong, we just know that it is. You can say "If there were more time, I would finish quickly", or "If there were a King of France, I would marry him", so the subjunctive is OK. It seems to me that "if there were" must be followed by some kind of quantifier: "a" or "more" or "fewer" or "no" or "at least". But I'm not sure: you could say "if there were peace on earth, ..." So the rule must be a bit more subtle than that. Aug 31 '17 at 16:35
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    You could also say "If your help was available, ...". Or a simpler version of your second idea, "If I had your help, ..." Sep 1 '17 at 0:34
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I think "If there were your help" sounds wrong for reasons that are completely unrelated to the use of the past subjunctive/irrealis were.

A test: do you think "If there was your help, I would finish quickly" sounds any better? What about "There was your help, so I was able to finish quickly"? Both of these sentences sound bad to me.

I think the problem lies in the use of the "there is" construction with "your help".

The noun "help" by itself seems more acceptable; "If there were help, I would be able to finish quickly" sounds better to me, and I was able to find an example sentence with this kind of structure: "Yes, if there were help of a certain amount given, we would establish these homes"(Scotland. Departmental Committee on Habitual Offenders, Inebriates, etc - 1895). I wouldn't say "If there were help" is everyday language, but it seems possible.

So why does adding "your" make it sound worse? I think it's because possessive determiners in English usually imply a sense of definiteness. When I say something like "your help", it is understood to mean something like "the help from you", not "any/some help from you".

And it's not usual to have a definite noun phrase after existential "there is" or "there are"; we say things like "There is a book on the shelf" but usually not things like "There is the book on the shelf" or "There is your book on the shelp." (These might be possible if "there" is used as a demonstrative, to emphasize the location of the book, but that is a distinct use of the word "there"—see the answer to "There is the man." Is *there* an adverb or pronoun?. When "there" is used as a dummy pronoun, it goes after the verb in questions—"Is there a book on the shelf?"—while when "there" is used as a demonstrative, it can't go in this position: we would say "Is your book there(,) on the shelf?" not "*Is there your book on the shelf?")

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    After talking with my teacher and reading your answer, we are now thinking indeed it might have to do with combining "there" and "your help." All of my examples that sound correct to me do not use "there." "Your help" is very specific, as you said. Like saying THE book, not A book. So if we wanted to say "If there were time..." it makes sense because time is very open ended. But "your help" is too specific. So it doesn't go together with "there."
    – KumaAra
    Aug 31 '17 at 3:10
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    @KumaAra I think it's the combination of "you" and "help" that is too specific. "If there were someone to help, I would finish quickly" (or "If there were some help, I would finish quickly") sound OK to me (native British English speaker) though they seem a bit formal and old-fashioned. (Note "If someone were to help, I would finish quickly" really means "Don't just stand there watching me, do something useful!" - sentences in BrE often mean something different from the literal meaning of the words!
    – alephzero
    Aug 31 '17 at 13:26
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    I will note that in a different context with different emphasis, the same words could sound natural. For example, as you pointed out, "There was the book" would not be used to mean "The book existed" even though "There was a book" would be a natural way to say "Some book existed". However, the phrase "There was the book" with the emphasis on "There" is something I have seen used to mean "The book was in THAT place instead of some other place". I think this structure doesn't work as well with "your help" because it's less physical than a book, but that might be a source of confusion. Aug 31 '17 at 15:29
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    @KamilDrakari Another context that could make the phrase work: a lazy student looking for easy answers to a problem tells a story about how their studying last night went. "Wikipedia didn't have anything, everybody on Stack Exchange downvoted my question...there was the book, but I wasn't going to spend the time finding the right section in that dry tome."
    – amalloy
    Aug 31 '17 at 19:30

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