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I was reading this topic from March 2014 and thought Charles’s answer was great until I got to the following part:

The letter claimed exactly the same as the first, namely that if his letter wasn't published, he would be angry.

Now, by the rules I have laid out you would expect that wasn't, the indicative form, would be appropriate because we didn't know if his letter was published. Actually, it is not what we know that matters but what the writer of the second letter knew, but it nets out to the same grammatical issue. If this were a counterfactual conditional, i.e., it was known that the letter wasn't published, then weren't, the past subjunctive form, would be correct. But it isn't a counterfactual, so wasn't is OK here.

However, based on his logic in his answer, wouldn’t the subjunctive be correct only if it was known that the letter was published? I.e.,

If the letter weren’t published, he would be angry. (And the letter was published.)

*If the letter wasn’t published, he would be angry <—- this one wouldn’t work in the case that the letter was published, right?

I acknowledge it’s slightly strange to make a new post asking about someone else’s logic, but I’ve been reading it for a while and it’s bothering me! I would simply have commented on his answer, but I didn’t have the option to do so.

EDIT: I don’t need explanations on when to use which construction...this is literally a post analyzing someone else’s comment that I think has an error in it and it’s driving me crazy because it doesn’t feel like a comment that would have an error in it and yes probably super hair-splitty irrelevant but what is it we’ve all come to do here anyway

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  • Counterfactual "if I was you" was possibly as idiomatic as "if I were you" in 1804, and is on the increase of late. 'Wouldn't work' = 'unacceptable' are terms that should perhaps be avoided here. Jan 22, 2021 at 18:59
  • '[W]ouldn’t the subjunctive be correct only if it was known that the letter was published?' ... No. 'Were his letter not to be published, he would be angry.' Hypothetical at the time referenced, possibly since found to be the case or not the case. Jan 22, 2021 at 19:04
  • Related and probable duplicate.
    – tchrist
    Jan 22, 2021 at 20:50
  • However, based on his logic in his answer, wouldn’t the subjunctive be correct only if it was known that the letter was published? No, it would have been "hadn't been published."
    – Greybeard
    Jan 22, 2021 at 22:55
  • Does this answer your question? When to use "If I was" vs. "If I were"?
    – fev
    Jan 30, 2021 at 0:24

2 Answers 2

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There is nothing "subjunctive" about this; it is a simple "type 1" conditional: a possible condition and its probable result. (Warning: Grammar terms vary.)

To better illustrate, here's the sentence as if in direct speech—the main clause isolated:

The letter claimed: "If my letter isn't published, I will be angry."

And here it is with "backshifting"—as occurs with indirect speech or when a verb in a subordinate clause is affected by the past tense in the main clause.

The letter claimed that if his letter wasn't published, he would be angry.

Here it is again with a different auxiliary:

The letter claimed: "If my letter does not get published, I will be angry."

The letter claimed that if his letter did not get published, he would be angry.

Here it is in the active voice:

The letter claimed: "If you don't publish my letter, I will be angry."

The letter claimed that if we didn't publish his letter, he would be angry.

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  • The original commenter wrote that if it was known that the letter was not published, “weren’t” would be correct. However, is it not the case that “weren’t,” in reference to the letter’s publishing, should be used only if the letter had actually been published?
    – user53
    Jan 23, 2021 at 0:56
  • @user53 : This is all made very complicated by the clause structure, the use of the passive voice, and the negative. It's worth a separate question some day. But yes: The letter claimed that if his letter weren't published [but it is published], he would be angry [so he is not angry]. You could also say: The letter claimed that were his letter not published [but it is], he would be angry [so he is not angry]. (Note that now published is past participle adjective rather than a part of a passive voice construction.) Jan 24, 2021 at 0:49
  • Thx! That’s exactly what I thought.
    – user53
    Jan 31, 2021 at 2:02
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The letter claimed exactly the same as the first, namely that if his letter wasn't published, he would be angry.

You question is about 'Subjunctive Mood'

Do you know the definition of it?

S.M. is used when a speaker says which is not true but "unreal"

Let's shorten your sentence: If his letter wasn't publihed, he would be angry.

Two clauses are here: 1.(if-clause)If his lettter wasn't published and 2.(main-clause)he would be angry.

Let's take apart the two clauses.

We have two tenses of verbs here: wasn't, would

'wasn't' is not "unreal" but it's real (was not published in the past) 'would' is "unreal" (he may/will be angry if he knows it was not published)

If you say "If his letter weren't published", it means if it is/be not published, he will/may be angry.

Let me add some more comment.

If his letter weren't published=As his letter is (to be) published, he is not angry.

If his letter wasn't published=As his tetter was not published or if there is possibility that his letter was not published, he is angry now.

S.M is used when the speaker says untrue(the opposite) But simple conditional is used (when we don't know if it's true or not)

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    Just one problem: English does not have a subjunctive mood like Latin, French and German do. Nowadays the "were" under discussion is called 'irrealis' mood.
    – BillJ
    Jan 22, 2021 at 20:02
  • your comment fits with my understanding but not with what the commenter on the other post wrote. because it seemed like the rest of the answer was great, I wondered if there was something I was missing.
    – user53
    Jan 23, 2021 at 0:42

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