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Joe Carillo
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« on: February 08, 2018, 08:20:04 PM »

Distinguishing second conditional sentences from subjunctives
(Sixth and last in a 6-part series on the subjunctive)

This is the sixth and last of a six-part series on the subjunctive form, decidedly the most deviant and most intimidating of the three moods of the English language.  Started last January 29, 2018, it will run every other day (except Sunday) until February 9.

A Tanzania-based Forum member, Mwita Chacha, raised this very interesting question in March of 2013: “Which is correct between 'If you were not my wife, I would say you’re crazy’ and 'If you were not my wife, I would say you were crazy?’”

My reply to Mwita Chacha:

Distinguishing a second conditional sentence from a subjunctive sentence can be tough and tricky, so I can understand why you haven’t been able to classify the following two sentences correctly:

“If you were not my wife, I would say you’re crazy.”

and

“If you were not my wife, I would say you were crazy.”

To begin with, those two sentences are not second conditional sentences. A second conditional or unreal possibility sentence is one that talks about a possible but very unlikely result that the stated future condition will be fulfilled; in short, the stated outcome is an unreal possibility. To denote this situation, the “if” clause of the sentence states the future condition in the simple past tense, is followed by a comma, then is followed by the future result clause in the form “would + the verb’s base form.”


Here’s a correct example of a second conditional: “If I finished medical school, I would be a doctor,” or, alternatively, “I would be a doctor if I finished medical school.” We have an unreal possibility situation here because the speaker didn’t finish medical school and didn’t become a doctor.

Now, of the two sentences you presented, the grammatically and semantically correct form is the first: “If you were not my wife, I would say you’re crazy.” As I have already pointed out, however, the sentence isn’t a second conditional. It’s actually a sentence in the subjunctive mood, a form in English that denotes acts or states that are contingent on possible outcomes of the speaker’s wish, desire, or doubt. This is as opposed to denoting acts and states in real-world situations, which is what the indicative mood does.

SECOND CONDITIONAL SENTENCES COMPARED WITH SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD SENTENCES

One of the functions of the subjunctive is to describe the hypothetical state or outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact. It has this telltale marker: when the verb “be” is used in the premise or “if”-clause of subjunctive sentences, it exhibits maverick behavior by sticking to the past-tense form “were” regardless of the person and number of its subject, as in these examples: “If I were a billionaire, I would subsidize the college studies of 1,000 bright students from poor families.” “If she were my age when I was in my mid-twenties, I would have married her.” “If you were nothing less than a political genius, you’d be able to solve the awful income-inequality problem in the Philippines.” As we can see, in the subjunctive form, “be” looks and behaves as if it were always in the past-tense plural regardless of the number of the subject.

Interestingly, if constructed in the inverted form, such subjunctive “if”-clause sentences could do away with “if”: “Were I a billionaire, I would subsidize the college studies of 1,000 bright students from poor families.” “Were she my age when I was in my mid-twenties, I would have married her.” “Were you nothing less than a political genius, you’d be able to solve the awful income-inequality problem in the Philippines.”

But what about the other sentence you presented: “If you were not my wife, I would say you were crazy?”? It’s an incorrect construction of the subjunctive. In form, only the premise or “if”-clause can use the subjunctive “were.” The outcome has to be in the conditional form of the appropriate tense of the verb.

The first sentence you presented, “If you were not my wife, I would say you’re crazy,” is in the present-tense subjunctive. If the speaker wants to refer to precisely the same situation in the past, he needs to put the outcome in the past-tense conditional form to make the sentence semantically correct: “If you were not my wife at the time, I would have said you were crazy.”

I hope that this has adequately clarified the distinction between second conditional sentences and subjunctive “if”-clause sentences for you.

RELATED POSTING IN THE FORUM:
The four types of conditional sentences
« Last Edit: February 08, 2018, 11:44:34 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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