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I cannot fathom why were is used in the below highlighted sentence. Why can it be used in this way? I have got suggestions that this sentence is typical of the subjunctive mood to hypothetically discuss what has not existed yet, roughly meaning that if a vaccine for Covid-19 were available now, it would protect those vaccinated from the disease. But is it?

Looking forward to your insights. The following text is an excerpt from the Briefting section of the lastest the Economist issue, just to give you enough context of the sentence in question.

For a vaccine to get from phase I to phase III trials in just ten months, as rvsv-zebov did, was unheard of at the time—a startling example of what urgency and organisation can do. Now a repeat performance, ideally taken at an even faster tempo, is the sum of the world’s desire. In the middle of April more people are dying of covid-19 every three days than died of Ebola in west Africa over three years. A vaccine would not just save lives; it would change the course of the pandemic in two separate, if related, ways. It would protect those who were vaccinated from getting sick; and by reducing the number of susceptible people it would prevent the virus from spreading, thus also protecting the unvaccinated.

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    "Those who were vaccinated" is the past tense. Those people received the vaccine. – Yosef Baskin Apr 22 at 16:45
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    The example sentence you give in the first paragraph of the question doesn't appear anywhere in the longer quotation you give in the third paragraph. I'm confused by the correlation between the two. In the longer quotation, were is not in the subjunctive; it's talking about a conditional future (the development of a COVID-19 vaccination at some point), not a false-to-fact present. – Jason Bassford Apr 22 at 16:46
  • @YosefBaskin The specific were is not talking about the historical development of the Ebola vaccination. It's speculating about the future development of a COVID-19 vaccination. (In any case, it's still not in the subjunctive …) – Jason Bassford Apr 22 at 16:51
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    (The use of were here is past tense relative to a time period in the future. It's the same as when I check into the hotel a week from now, I will have taken a taxi there. At the future point, a week from now, something will have happened in the past relative to it—even though both things have yet to happen.) – Jason Bassford Apr 22 at 16:55
  • No, because English does not have a subjunctive mood! Seriously. – BillJ Apr 22 at 17:35
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That's not the subjunctive. The subjunctive part of this proposition is unexpressed but understood:

[If there were a vaccine] it would not just save lives; . . . It would protect those who were vaccinated from getting sick.

Were in were vaccinated is part of a past tense passive voice construction. This example is awkward but serves for purposes of illustration:

Passive voice: [If there were a vaccine] it would not just save lives; . . . It would protect those who were vaccinated [by medics] from getting sick.

Active voice: [If there were a vaccine] it would not just save lives; . . . It would protect those whom medics vaccinated from getting sick.

If we use are instead of were, we can reimagine vaccinated as a past participle adjective:

[If there were a vaccine] it would not just save lives; . . . It would protect those who are vaccinated from getting sick.

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  • And "it would protect vaccinated people from getting sick," too. – Yosef Baskin Apr 22 at 22:40
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    @YosefBaskin: Yes, that would be a more natural use of the past participle adjective here, but I wanted to contrast were*/*are and passive*/*adjective. – Tinfoil Hat Apr 22 at 22:44
  • Thanks for your input. After [If there were a vaccine] is reinstated, however, the sentence looks all the more like a typical Subjunctive Mood structure to me, with a if-conditional clause stating a hypothetical scenario and the main clause building on that to imagine what can happen accordingly. – grammar-in-action Apr 22 at 23:57
  • The subjunctive were — which is used for counterfactual conditions — only appears in the condition clause (which, in your example, does not exist but is only implied). The were in were vaccinated is unrelated to the subjunctive. – Tinfoil Hat Apr 23 at 3:38
  • I am at a loss. Would you say that this sentence as a whole, "It would protect those who were vaccinated from getting sick", is an assumption, based on the contextually implied condition [if there were a vaccine]. – grammar-in-action Apr 23 at 3:53
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Here is another way of going about answering this question.

"Were" here might be a slip, a misuse. Since four "would" are used consecutively here, I am not sure that they are all just used as the past tense form of "will" to indicate past future prediction. But rather, they are used as a hedge, as an apparently uncertain but in fact calculated way of expressing the author's opinion that the prospect of having the vaccine at our disposal is promising. Hence the sentence in question can be interpreted as a fact under the guise of a conjecture. See this usage of would here. Why "that would be me"? (part 2)

In the light of this, "were" here would seem the odd one out because it does not fit into this interpretation. Perhaps I can change it to "would be", but again, it is open to discussion.

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  • No, you cannot double up the would. That's not grammatical. Swap in a singular for clarity: "It would protect a person who [was/were/had been/would be/would have been] vaccinated." Notice you cannot use were there in English, nor anything with would. – tchrist Apr 23 at 4:17
  • @tchrist♦ Thanks. So what you are suggesting is that "were" here could be a misuse, but cannot be replaced with "would be", because it would be ungrammatical? – grammar-in-action Apr 23 at 4:25
  • The were simply matches the number of its subject, those who. For whatever reason, I might even try a past perfective version here: had been, had gotten. Perhaps because it orders the vaccination further into the past as a precondition for that protection. – tchrist Apr 23 at 4:32
  • @tchrist♦ But why is this statement positioned in the past? Is it by talking about how previous vaccines worked in the past, making analogy with how a future vaccine for Covid-19 can be effective in altering the course of the current pandemic? – grammar-in-action Apr 23 at 4:45
  • Because English has always used the past for things still only imagined such as with would like this. It would be better if they were / could be here. I wish they were / could be here. – tchrist Apr 23 at 4:52

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