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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- 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)

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