Is the word "was" correct? How would you describe the grammatical tense?

Sometimes the yogurt would have a bit of an off-taste, and we would wonder if the batch was going bad because of the temperature or because of contamination

My intuition (I'm a native English speaker) is that it's either "was" (90%) or "were" (10%). Definitely not "is" (despite the fact that in any historical example this would have been expressed contemporaneously as "I wonder if the batch is going bad because of...") or "would be".

It catches my attention because overall the sentence is in a subjunctive mood.

  • Just what do you mean by "grammatical tense"? English verbs can be one of only two possible tenses morphologically: the past and the non-past. Some inflect for person and number, but those are not tenses. There are a scant few other possible inflections for verbs beyond those, like the participles, but those are not considered finite verbs. As for countless multiword verb constructions, those have as many names as they have people naming them, but none of those is to be considered a tense sensu stricto. These can also indicate voice, aspect, and mode—which are not tenses either.
    – tchrist
    Apr 13 at 12:19
  • Ok that's why I'm asking, I get confused by all these terms like past participle and subjunctive... it just seems like there are a half dozen different ways to use a verb depending on whether it's a definite past action or an indefinite past pattern of action, or a hypothetical future action, or a planned future action, or a completed present action, or an ongoing present action, etc., and I admit, I didn't pay enough attention in English class when it came to grammar because I have enough sense of the language "by ear" to form correct sentences most of the time.
    – Jason S
    Apr 13 at 19:21

1 Answer 1


This if-clause is not a conditional clause; it is instead an interrogative clause. The grammatical tense is the simple past because tense agreement requires the past. In sentences involving a conditional clause there is always expressed in the matrix clause a situation that should or should not be realized if the condition were to obtain.

(CoGEL § 15.33) The central uses of conditional clauses express a DIRECT CONDITION: they convey that the situation in the matrix clause is directly contingent on that of the conditional clause. Put another way, the truth of the proposition in the matrix clause is a consequence of the fulfilment of the condition in the conditional clause. Here is an example:

  • If you put the baby down, she'll scream. [1]

In uttering [1] the speaker intends the hearer to understand that the truth of the prediction 'she'll scream' depends on the fulfilment of the condition of 'your putting the baby down'.

There is no such relation between the verbs in the OP's sentence.

In a situation where question concerns a present case of "going bad" we would have the following sentence, where the present is used naturally in the if nominal alternative interrogative clause (constructed with "whether …or" and "if … or; "if the batch was going bad because of the temperature or because of contamination").

  • We are wondering if the batch is going bad because of the temperature or because of contamination.

If the asking of the question is about a "going bad" in the past, then the past is used.

  • We are wondering if the batch was going bad because of the temperature or because of contamination.

Note: "Would" does not express the subjunctive, but simply an action in the past that was habitual or recurring.

  • 1
    'We would wonder' places the wondering in the past. Thus '[W]e would wonder whether/if the batch was going bad ....' ('sometimes the yoghurt would have ...' places the problem firmly in the past also). Apr 13 at 11:50
  • "Would does not express the subjunctive"... does this use of "would" have a name, then? I need a Field Guide to the English Language.
    – Jason S
    Apr 13 at 19:24
  • 1
    @JasonS It does not really have a name, and it might be characterized according to various terms, but in CoGEL, it can be read that this particular usage is labelled as "the predictive HABITUAL meaning", that "in past tense narratives 'would' is a popular means of describing habitual behaviour", and that "[its use] is a little more formal than the equivalent use of 'use to'". Other interesting fact to be read in this grammar: "[it] needs to be used with a time indicator" (ex.: In the spring the birds would return to their old haunts, and the wood would be filled with their music…).
    – LPH
    Apr 13 at 21:59

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