We were talking about "what if's" in my writing class last night and everyone would say things like "What if Narnia was real?" Based on my Spanish training, I think that "was" should be a "were," but I'm not as familiar with subjunctive use in English. Am I crazy, or are they wrong?
Wish it were clear
(aka JEM of Can I Get a Side of Reality With That?)
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You are absolutely correct that "what if" expressions should use the subjunctive mood in English. Your classmates are, however, demonstrating its diminishing popularity. W. Somerset Maugham said that “The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible.” However, the Random House College Dictionary says, "Although the subjunctive seems to be disappearing from the speech of many, its use is still the mark of the educated speaker." So sorry Maugham-y, baby. Many still use (and defend) the subjunctive mood.
This mood is often used to express a wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred. Whether wished for, feared or suggested, it's NOT the current state of affairs.
Here are a few examples:
Present tense (all subjects take "be", not "am", "is" or "are"; no "s" endings either)
I wish to be proven right.
It's high time she buy a new car.
Past tense (all subjects take "were")
She wished she were invisible.
"If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack / To sit in the synagogue and pray." (From the Fiddler on the Roof song, of course)
Future tense (all subjects take "were to" instead of "will/shall")
If he were to win the lottery, he would move to Rio.
We wish we were to host the party next year.
The "English subjunctive" wiki has a handy chart to help you select the correct verb form, and tons of examples and explanations.
BEWARE that not every "if" clause is discussing a hypothetical situation. In cases where you could swap in the word "whether," the sentence does NOT use subjunctive mood.
He asked me if [whether] I was scared.
She wants to know if [whether] I am going to the prom.
Commands and requests
Subjunctive mood also appears in subordinate clauses, almost always a "that" clause, after verbs of commanding or requesting (jussive subjunctive).
Dad demands that you be here at eight.
We move that the bill be put to a vote.
I suggest that he move to another room.
There are a number of stock phrases expressing hypotheticals or commands/requests that also use subjunctive mood:
~if need be
~as it were
~if I were you; were I you
~be that as it may
~(God) bless you!
~come what may
~far be it from me
~so be it
~suffice it to say
~peace be with you
~the powers that be
~truth be told
~would that it were
Hope that helped clarify things for you. The Wiki I mentioned above goes into more depth, so swing by there for more information.
What's your opinion of the subjunctive mood? Do you side with Maugham, in wishing it die? Or do you agree with Random House's editors that it's a sign of being educated?
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