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I'm trying to understand why the plural is used in this case instead of the singular. The sentence uses the plural version of the past tense of "be" when referring to "the flow".

Why is the sentence written this way "If the flow were working" instead of "If the flow was working"?

If this was at the present tense, I don't think it would've been written as "If the flow are working".

The snippet is pulled from the Popular Science magazine, summer issue of 2019 page 64.

If the flow were working properly the ground would filter rainwater, ...

Popular Science, Summer 2019, page 64

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    "Were" is not here a tensed form, so it's not a plural. It's the 'irrealis' "were", a special mood form instanced solely by "were" with a 1st or 3rd person singular subject -- often replaced by the less formal preterite "was".
    – BillJ
    Aug 23, 2019 at 12:49
  • Incidentally, the alternant "was" would be a 'modal preterite' where the use of the preterite "was" has to do with modality rather than past time. Thus both irrealis "were" and modal preterite "was" indicate a degree of remoteness from factuality. The only real difference is that "were" is formal and tends to be preferred by older speakers, while "was" is neutral.
    – BillJ
    Aug 23, 2019 at 13:38

1 Answer 1

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Were

What you see isn't using the plural past tense conjugation "were" of the verb "to be" but is using the singular past subjunctive mood conjugation "were."

When a hypothetical scenario is raised, one that hasn't actually happened, we use the subjunctive mood. In English, the past subjunctive mood uses the exact same words as the past tense for every verb except one: the verb "to be."

Be:

Past Tense

  • I was
  • you were
  • he/she/it was
  • we were
  • you all were
  • they were

Past Subjunctive Mood

  • I were
  • you were
  • he/she/it were
  • we were
  • you all were
  • they were

While in the vernacular, it is often said this way, it is actually improper to say "if the flow was working properly" unless talking about an actual past event in which that didn't take place. That isn't the scenario that is being posed, though. The scenario being posed is an imaginary or hypothetical one where that happening results in a conditional consequence coming true, which grammatically requires the subjunctive mood.

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  • In other words, every time there's a hypothetical "if" "were" has to be used, right? Thank you.
    – slybloty
    Aug 23, 2019 at 12:01
  • As in the song "If I were a rich man"! Aug 23, 2019 at 12:04
  • No, that's not true. There are situations when you can say "was," as I explained. Aug 23, 2019 at 12:04
  • Yes, in the song from Fiddler on the Roof "If I Were a Rich Man" "were" is the correct usage, as in the song "If I Were a Boy" by Beyoncé. Aug 23, 2019 at 12:09
  • It is actually improper to say "if the flow was working properly" unless talking about an actual past event. This is only true if you are a prescriptivist. But that's simply not how people actually use language. People use was for the subjunctive all the time. In fact, it's more common than were (which is fading from normal use). In terms of learning how people actually speak, it's more "proper" to use was than were. Aug 24, 2019 at 19:51

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