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Why have the subjunctive and indicative converged in Modern English?

I am reading an article and wondering about this sentence:

How to react if a huge quake was to hit

Why does it say was to hit? Is it a conditional? I went through all three conditionals but I could not find this rule.


What is being expressed here is ‘unreal’ meaning, which describes something which is not likely to happen in the future. An alternative way of saying it is simply if a huge quake hit, which you will perhaps recognise as the second conditional.

You might also find if a huge quake were to hit. The difference between this and if a huge quake was to hit is a question of style rather than grammar. Were used in this way has traditionally been called a subjunctive form, but the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ reject this description. They call it ‘irrealis’ were and note that ‘It is an untidy relic of an earlier system, and some speakers usually, if not always, use preterite was instead.’ In brief, if you use were in such contexts, no one will object, but it might make you sound rather formal when you don’t want to. On the other hand, those native speakers who use was offend no rule of English grammar.


Your grammar is better than that of the writer of the article you were reading. They should have written "if an earthquake were to hit" but instead used a common (though non-grammatical) substitution was for the conditional were.

  • What you suggest is how to react if a huge quake were to hit. But then I am stil confused. If it is a conditional, then according to the rules, it is a future real possibility, either likely to fulfill or unlikely. If likely, Form: if + Simple Present, will-Future, if unlikely then: Form: if + Simple Past, Conditional I (= would + Infinitive. So unfortunately I am still confused about it. I also thought about the passive voice but I guess I was wrong as well :-) – Ekhefik Oct 24 '12 at 6:16
  • @Ekhefik: You say "according to the rules", as if there were some clearly stated rules for this situation. Unfortunately, whatever your English teacher or English textbook says, there are no clearly stated rules for this or most other English constructions. Language doesn't work that way. – John Lawler Oct 24 '12 at 6:36
  • It's a subjunctive because it expresses an unreal condition. Using the subjunctive implies that the condition is unlikely to be fulfilled. There are a few ways of expressing subjunctives. There are many pages on the Net that explain subjunctives. Here's one that's not too bad, but, as John Lawler says, "there are no clearly stated rules". – user21497 Oct 24 '12 at 6:43
  • 1
    -1. If it's a common substitution, it's not ungrammatical by definition. Ungrammatical would be "if earthquake an hit was to". "If an earthquake was to hit", on the other hand, is perfectly grammatical, just not the highest register. This distinction is at the very foundation of any linguistic research. – RegDwigнt Oct 24 '12 at 8:44
  • @RegDwighт♦: ++1 if I could. Understanding this simple point would make many questions about English redundant. – Barrie England Oct 24 '12 at 8:50

Something "is to happen" is a common abbreviation of "is going to happen" or "is about to happen", with added hint of urgency/immediacy. It appears in all variations like "are", "would be", "was" instead of "is" and of course arbitrary verb. You'd say

"I was just to go"

if someone asks about when you'll be ready and you were already packing up to leave.

Now the use of "was" in your quote is a wrong use of a conditional "were". The sentence could be rephrased as "How to react in case a huge earthquake were about to strike?" or "What is the proper reaction in case of imminent huge earthquake?"

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