2

Yo, is this sentence correct? It's hard to find a guide that speaks directly to this use of the subjunctive:

I realized that this issue needed more active contemplation, were I to find any closure.

More simply it'd be:

I realized that, were I to find any closure, active contemplation was needed.

  • I realized that, to find any closure, active contemplation would be required. – Nigel J Jan 2 '18 at 2:00
  • I wouldn't go along with the answer below. I've posted an answer that has a different analysis. – BillJ Jan 2 '18 at 9:19
4

Only backshifting, not subjunctive

Reduce it to its most straightforward word order, and the answer will become clear:

  1. I realized that active contemplation would be needed if I ?were to find any closure.

The thing is, I’m not sure this should be a were there, which is why I’ve marked it with a ? character of dubious grammaticality. I think it’s a backshifted real case, not a hypothetical one at all!

Here's the original, which as you see is all completely real:

  1. If I am to find any closure, active contemplation will be needed.

When you prefix that with I realize that in the present tense, you leave both of the other two existing verbs in the present tense that you found them in in the first place:

  1. I realize that if I am to find any closure, active contemplation will be needed.

Notice again those three bold verbs are all in the present tense.

Now to place the whole sentence into the narrative past, you merely swap each of the three tensed verbs from their present tense to their respective past tense:

  1. I realized that if I was to find any closure, active contemplation would be needed.

Since there is no hypothetical case here, you cannot use the “unreal” inflection of were, the one descended from the old past subjunctive. Since there is no subjunctive, you also cannot use “subjunctive inversion” of starting with a verb in the subjunctive and skipping the if word altogether.

  1. I realized that, ✻was I to find any closure, active contemplation would be needed.

That has the ✻ mark of ungrammaticality because you cannot use inversion on a subjunctive conditional when there is no subjunctive conditional in the first place. That’s a real case so no inversion is permitted!

This is valid, though:

  1. I realized that active contemplation would be needed if I was to find any closure.

But I don’t much care for it.

  • Thank you so much! I knew it sounded wrong, but didn't know the grammar well enough. I'll just reword the darn thing. Once again, thanks! – puntifex Jan 2 '18 at 0:15
  • @puntifex You should remember to click on the check-mark next to the score of this post to mark it as the accepted answer. – tchrist Jan 2 '18 at 0:26
  • Spot on. I think the ‘I am to’ can be thought of as ‘deliberative’ (as when we say “What am I to do?”. If the conditional were to be expressed with the word ‘were’, we would understand the conditional to be remote or unlikely. – Tuffy Jan 2 '18 at 0:55
  • I wasn't aware that a sentence containing if could be considered real in whole or in part. I had the same problem over here, see Clare's second comment. And I think the OP's Q and the above link are related. I tend to prefer were in these situations, and am still trying to figure out why. The subjunctive inversion adds immediacy to the situation, as if time were running out. – Phil Sweet Jan 2 '18 at 2:02
  • @PhilSweet Consider: “If Phil was at the game Saturday night in Boston, then he obviously didn’t fly out to Seattle that afternoon as he had been planning on doing.” You can see that that’s a real past in both the protasis (if part) and the apodosis (then part). It’s the same in the present tense: “If I am hungry, I just eat whatever is around.” When you take the present/present case with two reals and backshift the whole thing to the past tense, both of them still have to be real: “I remembered how if I was hungry, I just ate whatever was around.” – tchrist Jan 2 '18 at 2:04
2

I realized that this issue needed more active contemplation, were I to find any closure.

The sentence is fine. It’s a conditional construction where the protasis has the form of an ungoverned content clause with subject-auxiliary inversion. "Were I to find any closure" is the equivalent of "if I were to find any closure".

As to whether it's subjunctive is controversial. Many speakers would maintain that it's the past subjunctive on account of this use of "were", while others (like me) analyse it as the irrealis form, a special mood form instanced solely by "were".

Note that one or two other auxiliaries are possible in this kind of construction, for example "have" as in "Had I known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake".

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