Past-Subjunctive WAS in counter-to-fact IF clauses

James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Fri Dec 1 15:20:25 UTC 2000

Bob Haas wrote:
> 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.

Even when the effect is actually contrary to the intent of the writer.  Like
criticizing Clinton by saying "It is important that the president is honest
with the people" instead of "It is important that the president be honest
with the people."  And of course the problem is compounded when the may-might
confusion is added, as in saying of a person who drowned: "If he had a life
jacket he may be alive today" instead of "If he had had...he might be."

> By the way, I found a clearer explanation at from the American
> Heritage Book of English Usage...

Frustrating, though, that even that fails to explain why the "past
subjunctive" is used only in referring to present and future circumstances.
Explicit treatment of "" vs. "If...were" vs. "If...had been" remains
to be found.  It's probably in Quirk et al., which I don't have.  (Too bad I
chickened out of trying to smuggle into the United States the horribly
printed pirate copy I bought for six dollars in China.)  I'm guessing that in
"If...had been" the auxiliary "had" is past subjunctive.

James E. Clapp

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