Past-Subjunctive WAS in counter-to-fact IF clauses
highbob at MINDSPRING.COM
Fri Dec 1 07:12:50 UTC 2000
Herr Clapp, Ron, et al,
Thanks for the nod toward Fowler; I found him at Bartleby.com, and you
weren't kidding--it's not light reading. It did help me with the issue,
though, and James, I appreciate your clarification that Fowler bases the
subjunctive upon whether the conditional runs contrary to fact, something
that I tend to forget. Amid the stacks of freshman comp papers I deal with
each semester, I see very little use of the subjunctive, but then again, I
see less and less of it anyway, no matter the source.
By the way, I found a clearer explanation at Bartleby.com from the American
Heritage Book of English Usage, but I'm pretty proud that I managed to
battle my way through Fowler's explanation. What a curmudgeon! (And that's
a nice way to put it.)
> From: "James E. Clapp" <jeclapp at WANS.NET>
> Reply-To: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Date: Wed, 29 Nov 2000 14:12:18 -0500
> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU
> Subject: Re: Past-Subjunctive WAS in counter-to-fact IF clauses
> Arnold Zwicky wrote:
>> ron butters:
>>> The point is that WERE is the present subjunctive but WAS is the
>>> past subjunctive. Since the time is past, I'd use the past
>>> subjunctive. Examples:
>>> WHAT IF NIXON ACTUALLY WAS THE REAL WINNER OF THE ELECTION?
>>> WHAT IF NADER ACTUALLY WERE THE REAL WINNER OF THE ELECTION?
>>> My memory is that this is what the old-timey rule-books say.
>> that's what fowler 1926 says.
> I don't see that. Fowler's 1926 entry on "Subjunctives" is not easy
> reading, so I could be missing something--in which case I hope you will
> point out and explicate the relevant passage--but I just don't see
> anything in there about the appropriate verb form for referring to
> hypothetical circumstances contrary to fact in the past. Fowler is
> mainly concerned with the misguided use of "were" instead of the
> indicative "was" in straightforward conditionals (referring to past
> circumstances that might be true)--a product of confusion "possible only
> in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but
> artificial." As an example of such inappropriate use of "were" he
> gives: "If this _were_ so, it was in self-defence (sense, _was_)."
>> it doesn't fit my judgments at all. for me, the nixon sentence
>> is merely conditional, not specifically counterfactual...
> Fowler would concur.
>> the specifically counterfactual would be
>> WHAT IF NIXON ACTUALLY HAD BEEN THE REAL WINNER OF THE ELECTION?
>> this is the system described in the big quirk et al. grammar.
> Or to construct perhaps a clearer example, we would say
> "I don't know where he was at the time, but if he _was_ at home
> then he could not have been involved in the brawl in the bar."
> "Unfortunately, he was in the bar; if he _had been_ at home he
> could not have been involved in the brawl."
> Fowler doesn't say what verb he would use for the underscored phrase in
> the second sentence, but in various ways he seems to rule out both "was"
> and "were," which seems to leave "had been" as the only possibility. So
> I think he agrees with you (and Quirk) in all respects.
>> everybody seems to agree that the nixon sentence with WERE (and
>> past reference) is out. but there seem to be two different
>> schemes for the counterfactual in the past. (plus the innovative,
>> and still non-standard, counterfactual with WOULD: WOULD HAVE BEEN.)
> Well, among you, me, Fowler, Quirk, and the bamboo tree, I only see one
> scheme for the counterfactual past: "had been."
> I do note that the OED classifies "were" as "pa. subj." (entry for "be,"
> def. 7). But that appears to be more a classification of the *form* of
> the word than of its usage; the OED's examples for this "past
> subjunctive" include such clearly present-sense uses as "Would I were
> there!" Cf. this citation (in def. 8) from Richard III (1483), included
> to illustrate the point that "the common literary form [for the past
> participle] in 14-15th c. was 'be', before the general acceptance of the
> northern 'ben, bene'," but incidentally illustrating how English deals
> with a past circumstance contrary to fact: "As...if this Act had not be
> James E. Clapp
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