Past-Subjunctive WAS in counter-to-fact IF clauses
James E. Clapp
jeclapp at WANS.NET
Wed Nov 29 19:12:18 UTC 2000
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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