I recently wrote the following:

…even if the story were originally true, there's no way that Obama was president when it happened.

And then I stared at it, trying to figure out if the second phrase implied that it had happened. I thought about other ways to phrase it, …when it would've happened, etc, but everything felt more cumbersome than the original. Does the second phrase belie the subjunctive and make it sound as if the story is true? If so, how could I phrase it better?

  • Seems folks are interested in the context. You'll see why I avoided it at first. There's this tale of a professor who taught his class about socialism by failing them that has been appearing on my Facebook stream. The particular edition that I've gotten twice now has explicitly stated that the socialism in question is "Obama's socialism". I looked the story up and found out that it's unlikely this story started the rounds while Obama was PoTUS.
    – kojiro
    Jan 4 '12 at 2:57

I can't for the life of me understand what the word "originally" is doing there, but let that pass...

I see nothing logically or grammatically wrong with "when it happened", because "even if" has already invited us (for the sake of argument) to suppose that it did happen.

Without more context it's all a bit vague, but I'm inclined to suspect that possibly it might have been better to say "no way that Obama would have been president".

  • I agree. Clauses that are part of a hypothetical situation is normally in the simple past. And the main clause should have would or might, or another conditional auxiliary. Jan 4 '12 at 0:13
  • Thank you for letting my use of originally pass. I think I meant to say actually.
    – kojiro
    Jan 4 '12 at 1:14
  • @kojiro: I can't put my finger on it, but "there's no way" bothers me a bit too. Perhaps because of your "originally", I assume "the story" goes back long enough that Obama couldn't feasibly have been in power (maybe I'm getting old, but it seems to me he's only just taken over). Saying "there's no way" seems to imply someone might challenge that, which just feels odd to me. I'd just say "Even if it were true, Obama wasn't in power then". Jan 4 '12 at 2:42

I disagree with the other answer. The problem is actually with the subjunctive itself. The sentence is saying something like: Assume there's a story that happened when Bush was president. Even if the story WAS originally true (during a previous presidency), the story has since morphed, and there's no way that Obama was president when the original event happened. I.e. it should be: …even if the story was originally true, there's no way that Obama was president when it happened. (The current version of the story isn't true; the previous version was.)

  • +1. I have to like this answer because it solidly defends my originally improper use of "originally".
    – kojiro
    Jan 4 '12 at 1:19
  • Hmm. I don't understand this answer at all. If a story was true, it is true. Only apparently it's no longer the same story, and it [about?] a different president anyway. And we're worrying about the correct grammar for discussing the truth of this story? I'm not sure I live on the same planet as you guys. Jan 4 '12 at 1:45
  • I am assuming the President is a part of the story. For example, "Can you believe this guy? Congress wanted to do such-and-such very reasonable thing and the President vetoed it." Maybe the original story was true, in that Bush did veto it, but it's not true the Obama did. Jan 4 '12 at 1:51
  • *that Obama did Jan 4 '12 at 2:03
  • oic. In Britain, I think if we hear some unusual story about what "the Prime Minister" did, we don't usually just seamlessly transfer it to the next person to take office. Unless it's a joke, I suppose, in which case you might amend it to the current person to make it seem more topical. Today it's "In Soviet Russia, Putin votes for YOU!", but when he's eventually replaced, I guess we'll just change the name and keep telling it. Jan 4 '12 at 2:24

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