Featured Linguist!

Jost Gippert: Our Featured Linguist!

"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more



Donate Now | Visit the Fund Drive Homepage

Amount Raised:

$34890

Still Needed:

$40110

Can anyone overtake Syntax in the Subfield Challenge ?

Grad School Challenge Leader: University of Washington


Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: Subjunctive vs. indicative following 'if'-clauses in English
Question: To whom it may concern:

I came across the following graphic on Facebook (https://fbcdn-
sphotos-b-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-
snc6/208097_505755036104309_1918646052_n.jpg) and became
curious about whether or not there are any systematic studies that
document whether English speakers consistently maintain the
distinction between the subjunctive and the indicative in clauses
starting with 'if'. Is this graphic simply illustrating a prescriptive rule,
and if not, is this perhaps dialect-specific? Any leads on scholars who
have worked on this question would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you,
Calvin Cheng

Reply: Like James Fidelholtz, I am somone who uses the subjunctive spontaneously, because that is what I am used to, though when speaking informally I'm sure I would often use the indicative where grammar-books would call for the subjunctive. But (also like JF?), I don't believe that the rule quoted in the graphic you showed us is the normal rule. To me, the issue is not whether a state of affairs never could arise, but rather whether it actually did/does obtain at the time in question. So I might say "I don't know whether John was here this morning, but if he was that would explain what happened to the pie"; but I would say "John isn't here yet, but if he were, the pie would vanish". The point here is that "if he was" means "if he actually was, and he may well have been", whereas "if he were" means "if he hypothetically were, though we both know that in fact he wasn't". (And in informal usage the indicative, "he was" rather than "he were", is used in either case.)

I believe that the usage I have described is the normal distinction made by people who use the subjunctive, and that the author of the graphic has simply misunderstood the construction. (I am British whereas JF is, I believe, American, but I doubt whether this is a relevant difference in this context.) Of course it could be that there are alternative rules for using subjunctives, with some speakers following one rule and others the other; but I do not believe that is in fact so.

Geoffrey Sampson

Reply From: Geoffrey Richard Sampson      click here to access email
 
Date: 15-Oct-2012
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Subjunctive vs. indicative following 'if'-clauses in English    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (13-Oct-2012)
  2. Re: Subjunctive vs. indicative following 'if'-clauses in English    James L Fidelholtz     (08-Oct-2012)

Back to Most Recent Questions