I'm an ESL teacher. Normally I teach lower intermediate but I also teach a mixed level grammar review class. I pride myself on being able to explain things clearly but today I found myself in THREE sticky situations all in the same class! I'll explain here the two problems involving conditionals.

First Case: Is it better to say...

If he knew that I WERE/WAS home now, he would call. OR If he knew that I AM home now, he would call.

Does the second verb in the if clause also take the subjunctive form because it is in the if clause or should it take the present simple form because it is not a hypothetical (I am home now is not hypothetical, his knowledge of it is.)

  • By the way - there's a move afoot to create a sister site, or something else, more welcoming to EL learners, where your insights would be highly valued. Here. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 23 '12 at 3:16
  • Seems interesting. I could definitely point students in that direction once it's up and running and participate. If there is anything else I could do to help let me know. – Jerry Aug 23 '12 at 3:27

I would write "if he knew that I was home" (with or without "that") because of the sequence of tenses. That is, "knew" is a past tense form, even though it can be either present subjunctive or past indicative. It's therefore ungrammatical to follow it with a present tense form such as "I am" or "I'm". If you were talking in the past indicative, you'd say "He knew that I was home", so you use the same form (adding "if" at the beginning) for the present subjunctive.

  • We could be on to something here. Perhaps then there is a rule that in a conditional clause using the present subjunctive all verbs on the clause should follow the subjunctive form even if they are indicative? – Jerry Aug 23 '12 at 2:15
  • @Jerry: Enough already with the rules! The subjunctive is trying to die quietly, decently, and without fuss! If you start bringing rules into it, the poor thing will be dragged back into the limelight! – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '12 at 2:41
  • Haha If it were only that simple! If I didn't have to teach and explain this stuff I'd probably agree with you. – Jerry Aug 23 '12 at 2:45
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    @FumbleFingers No, the subjunctive is being subjected to deliberate euthanasia. Some of us want to keep the life-support switched on, and even inject some life into it and publicise its cause. – Andrew Leach Aug 23 '12 at 8:48
  • @Andrew: Have you no compassion? I bet you'd still be "striving officiously to keep alive" poor Tony Nicklinson, who's just had to undergo the humiliation (and perhaps pain) of starving himself to death because our UK laws wouldn't allow him a dignified medically-assisted exit. – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '12 at 17:14

Google Books has 3670 written instances of "if he knew I was here", but only 135 of "if he knew I were here".

As I expected, there are none at all for "...am here", which just sounds like a bad translation to me (though to be fair, there are actually two instances of if he knew I'm here).

Don't bother about "rules" of grammar and logic here - in the long run, it's what people actually say and write that defines "correct".

On the "logic" front, I'll just say I know of no absolute linguistic principle whereby transforming "You know that I am here" into "If he knew that I am here" is guaranteed to produce not only an acceptable form, but the only acceptable form. Anyway, it would be a lousy principle if it pronounced nearly everyone's usage as wrong.

The verb form agrees with knew - so ordinarily, we use the simple past was. A few people use the "subjunctive" were, because the entire conjecture is hypothetical (he doesn't know; the speaker is postulating what would happen if he were to know).

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    As for Google - who wrote those books? – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 23 '12 at 2:06
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    Try this: "Bob thinks Linda's at Cathy's, so he won't call. If he knew that she's here, he would." > "Bob thinks I'm at Cathy's, so he won't call. If he knew that I'm here, he would." – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 23 '12 at 2:58
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    @Jerry OK: "Bob thinks Linda has leprosy, so he won't date her. If he knew that she has nymphomania he would." – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 23 '12 at 2:59
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    @Jerry And really it's not about teaching kids to speak English, is it? Their peers will do that. It's about teaching them what their peers don't know, how to read and write English (same thing at bottom, I'd say, but ...). If they read better and write better they'll think better and speak better, and maybe eventually end up Chief Justices instead of seasonal construction workers. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 23 '12 at 3:12
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    Any thoughts on: 1) If he was aware that I am home, he would call. (You must be home when saying this.) 2) If he was aware that I was home, he would call. (You needn't be home when saying this.) link – Rachel Aug 23 '12 at 7:35

Am, for the reason you give. Perhaps this will help you explain it:

Tell your class "I know X. Does he?"

There are three possible answers—either

  • he does know X or
  • he may know X or
  • he doesn't know X.


  • (He doesn't know X, but) "If he did know X, he would call."
  • (He may not know X, but) "If he does know X, he will call."
  • (He does know X, and) "**Because he does know X, he will call."

The same X in every case.

Now, walk your class through it with X = [the name of somebody in the class].

Then do the same thing with X = "that I'm home".

Then substitute "knew" for "did know", and "knows" for "does know" - they probably have sorted those out already.

  • Oh. Perhaps I should change my answer text. It never occurred to me anyone would expect to see "am" here (it's neither here nor there whether it's here or home! :) – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '12 at 1:50
  • @FumbleFingers - Your text directed me to an error in my text, too, so we're both getting smarter. . . Me, if I said "I was home" either I'd follow it with "he would have called" or I'd transcribe it "If I wuz home". I'm snotty that way. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 23 '12 at 1:56
  • Your logic may be impeccable, but it's too exhausting for me to follow right now. Pretty obviously very few writers (and even less speakers, imho) sign up to this logic. I think maybe because it's just too complicated. People don't have time to think that much when they're talking! – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '12 at 2:02
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    @FumbleFingers Well, my daddy the English perfessor allus tole me to think first, then talk. After 64 years it's a habit and I can skip the thinking part mostly. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 23 '12 at 2:05
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    @FumbleFingers That's like arguing that I can't catch a ball because the trigonometry is too hard. However, like you, I can't believe that a native speaker would ever say "am" in this context. – user16269 Aug 23 '12 at 2:08

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