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I'm wondering which of the following sentences is correct:

  • They realized that if the threat WAS not contained, it could endanger the nation."
  • They realized that if the threat WERE not contained, it could endanger the nation."

My understanding is that the subjunctive "If X were" is used for a counterfactual to a present situation. But here, the threat not being contained is a real possibility being considered in the past.

If the main clause were written in the present tense, "to be" would be present indicative: "If the threat IS not contained." So I'd think it should be past indicative when the main clause is past tense. Am I right?

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    I don't think this is a duplicate. This question is really about tense, not about the subjunctive per se.
    – alphabet
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 1:41
  • It's more about the deciding what is the viewpoint in time that is determining the tenses. I read both as correct, but viewed from different time points. This is a case of grammatical aspect marking in English. Not everyone seems to do this.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jan 6 at 13:05

3 Answers 3

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I agree with alphabet's comment that the question is about tense.

Let's put the sentences into the present tense, as statements which are going to be reported:

  1. We realize that if the threat is not contained, it could endanger the nation.
  2. We realize that if the threat be not contained, it could endanger the nation.†

One uses the indicative mood; the other the subjunctive. Putting them into the past as reportage changes the tense:

  1. They realized that if the threat was not contained, it could endanger the nation.
  2. They realized that if the threat were not contained, it could endanger the nation.

You need to decide on whether the original statement would use the subjunctive or not. If it should, then the reported past-tense statement would too.

There isn't enough information in the two sentences to determine whether or not the subjunctive is appropriate or not. If it is, then (2) is fine. If not, then use (1).

† Footnote: using be like this is really old-fashioned.

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Your understanding is correct. You have a combination of reported speech and first conditional. A simple example of this would be:

If it rains we will postpone the event.

which backshifts to

She realized that if it rained we would postpone the event.

Normally, if the fist conditional backshifts, it means that the information it conveys is no longer valid in the present (the date of the event already passed). If that information is still valid then backshifting is not necessary.

Grammaring explains:

When we report first conditionals, the following changes may occur:

  • Mark: If we leave now, we can catch the train.
  • Mark said that if we leave now, we can catch the train. (reported simultaneously; we can still catch the train)
  • Mark said that if we left, we could catch the train. (the reported words are out-of-date; the train has already left)

Therefore, your first sentence considers a real possibility but in a period which has now past, the circumstances are different now, the threat is no longer present.

Your second sentence is grammatically correct but conveys a different meaning. The threat not being contained is considered as an unreal possibility. There is more confidence in the possibility of containing the threat, whereas the possibility of the nation being endangered is more remote. Also, the circumstances are still relevant to the present.

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  • What about the sentence "We realise that if the threat be not contained, we will be overrun"? Would that not become "They realised that if the threat were not contained, they would be overrun"? Or are you saying that the subjunctive is entirely wrong there?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 7:02
  • Not saying it is wrong, it just conveys a different meaning. The use of subjunctive in the first conditional seems a bit farfetched here, but, it would be possible.
    – fev
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 7:04
  • I'd say it carries the same meaning but sounds rather rarefied. << They realized that, were the threat not contained, it could endanger the nation. >> actually needs 'were', but again falutes quite high. Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 11:03
  • How are those examples meant to work? Mark: 'If we leave now, we can catch the train' is clearly correct, but not comparable to the other forms. How could 'Mark said that if we leave now, we can catch the train' ever work? Doesn't the 'that' wreck it? ‘if we left now, we could catch the train’ and possible variants, fine. How is ‘if we left, we could catch the train’ out of date; how does it imply the train has left? To be out of date, would that not need to read ‘if we had left then, we could/might have caught the train’? Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 21:23
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The indicative and the subjunctive give different meanings:

• They realized that if, in reality, the threat WAS not contained, it could endanger the nation." This implies that there is a known and practicable method of containing it.

• They realized that if, theoretically or by chance, the threat WERE not contained, it could endanger the nation." The speaker is uncertain that anything will be done as they have no control over any solution.

The adverbials can be omitted as the mood of the verb conveys the meaning.

The indicative implies a degree of ability to manage, order, or control the outcome or event - and thus the result. The subjunctive implies a lack of effective control over the outcome or event.

Consider: If you save your money in our bank, you will become rich. Here, the addressee has the ability to place money in the bank and thus become rich.

God save the King – Here, God cannot be commanded and thus the speaker has no control over the outcome.

If I were a millionaire, I would buy a yacht / If I were able to fly, I would sit on the tallest building.

Here, the speaker is stating that they have no direct ability to achieve the condition.

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  • Does that not rely on 'in reality' being opposed to 'theoretically'? Does that not mean 'really' would not be opposed to 'theoretically', and 'was' and 'were' would not be opposed, either? Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 21:31

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