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1. 'If only she would contact me'. This sentence uses 'if' but there's only one clause so what type of sentence is this? You wouldn't call it a conditional, would you?

2. The above sentence is about a wish and therefore we don't use 'will'. Also, in other such sentences we use the simple past to express a wish or non-fact, eg 'I wish you lived nearer.'

Ok, my question is: Are the above the subjunctive mood?

I know how the present and past subjunctive works, eg 'I demand that he leave!' and 'If I were you', respectively. However, what about the use of the past simple and modals such as 'would' and 'could' to express hypothetical situations, wishes, etc? Are they the subjunctive too, and if not - why not?

I've looked at many different grammar books and such constructions are always kept separately from the subjunctive.

Btw, I understand the 'unmarked subjunctive' to be, for example: 'If you were prime minister...' As we use 'were' in the second person, anyway, the subjunctive is, therefore, 'unmarked'.
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Hello Jussive

1. I would call it an exclamatory conditional. The main clause is left unspoken, but we can usually infer it, e.g. "if only she would contact me, I would be very happy".

2. The non-past use of the past tense we find in "I wish you lived nearer" does suggest a subjunctive mood: cf. "I wish she were here". Presumably the verb in such cases was marked for the subjunctive, in an earlier form of English (cf. the German past subjunctive, where e.g. an umlaut serves as a marker).

3. We may sometimes be able to distinguish between subjunctive and non-subjunctive "would" and "could"; for instance in an IF clause:

3a. If he could help me, he would.

Here, the "could" seems to have a subjunctive sense: "if he were able to". Similarly, it seems to me, "would" can be called subjunctive, if we can put "were willing to" instead.

So in that respect, "would" and "could" can act like any other past tense form, and serve in a subjunctive context. But I wouldn't call them inherently subjunctive: we can't were-ify the "he would" in 3a, for instance.

MrP
Thanks for your reply, MrP.

1. I would call it an exclamatory conditional. The main clause is left unspoken, but we can usually infer it, e.g. "if only she would contact me, I would be very happy".

Ok, it’s a conditional with an unexpressed result but still a ‘conditional’ right? In this case, would you refer to it as the ‘second conditional’? As I understand it, there are only five conditionals (three strictly speaking plus zero and mixed conditionals).

You see, to me, the sentence 'if only she would contact me, I would be very happy' is incorrect, because ‘if only’ could be expressed as verb as in ‘I wish’ and, therefore, is not behaving as a subordinator and so you have two clauses without a conjunction. In other words, I would have thought that ‘if only she would contact me’ in terms of meaning is a complete sentence in much the same way as ‘I wish she would contact me’ and therefore requires an additional conjuction for the result, ‘if only she would contact me as then I would be very happy’

What do you think?

2. The non-past use of the past tense we find in "I wish you lived nearer" does suggest a subjunctive mood: cf. "I wish she were here". Presumably the verb in such cases was marked for the subjunctive, in an earlier form of English (cf. the German past subjunctive, where e.g. an umlaut serves as a marker).

Ok, so you would refer to the non-past use as the subjunctive - correct?

3. We may sometimes be able to distinguish between subjunctive and non-subjunctive "would" and "could"; for instance in an IF clause:

3a. If he could help me, he would.

Here, the "could" seems to have a subjunctive sense: "if he were able to". Similarly, it seems to me, "would" can be called subjunctive, if we can put "were willing to" instead.

So in that respect, "would" and "could" can act like any other past tense form, and serve in a subjunctive context. But I wouldn't call them inherently subjunctive: we can't were-ify the "he would" in 3a, for instance.

Here, you’ve confused me a bit, CF. In your example sentence, I don't understand what replacing 'would' with some expression tells you. This doesn't mean that replacing 'could' with 'if he were able to' doesn't tell you something, as it is part of the condtional clause which 'would' is based on.

Tbh, I feel that I don't understand you at this point, so please let me give you my take on it and maybe you will see where and why I've lost you:

The way I see it is, in such a construction, ‘could’ indicates the hypothetical nature of the whole sentence. ‘Would’ (although can be used in a number of ways in other constructions) in the second conditional is clearly used as a marker and is based on the hypothetical condition laid out. 'Would' itself doesn't have to be hypothetical as in 'if he would'. It is just the result of a condition and what's important is that it changes form according to whether that condition is hypothetical or not. I don’t see why we have to be able to replace it with any ‘expression’ (‘were-ify’ - I'm not sure what that means, incidentally) to recognise this. Surely, it’s as simple as this:

If he can help you he will (real possiblity)

If he could help you he would (hypothetical)

Basically, we’ve got a subjunctive marker for each clause in each sentence. There is only one difference between these two sentences and that is the hypothetical element which is what the subjunctive is all about, right?

To illustrate ‘would’ as being a subjunctive marker we can also use it in a similar way to the non-past:

'I wish she helped more.'

'I wish she would help more.'

Here we don't have to deal with conditions.

Ive read that modals such as ‘would’ and ‘could’ give a ‘subjunctive idea’ and other non-committal descriptions as such, but I don’t understand the rationale behind those reservations. They seem also to apply to the non-past. It seems people don’t wish to call these forms the subjunctive for some strange reason and I don’t know what that reason is. What’s so special about ‘were’ and the removal of ‘s’ in the third person singular, as markers of the past and present subjunctive, respectively? We have other markers of the hypothetical/non-fact, as shown in this thread, so why the reservations in calling them the subjunctive also?

Thanks for your response MrP.

Jussive
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Hello Jussive

1. Yes, I'd call it a type 2. (Other types are also possible, e.g. "If only I had known!" – type 3.)

Although it's true that the sentence "I wish she would contact me, I would be very happy" lacks a conjunction, I'm not sure we can infer that "If only she would contact me, I would be very happy" is therefore incorrect. Structures with similar meanings don't necessarily have similar grammar.

I would myself take "If only X!" as an exclamatory fragment. I can't parse it in a way that would yield all the meaning we give to it; which makes me think that something is always unexpressed. (But I may have misinterpreted it.)

2. I think of it as a past subjunctive; but I wouldn't refer to it as such, because the next question would be "how can I distinguish the past subjunctive from the simple past, if they look the same?"

It seems safer to say that the past tense can be used for the "remote" or the "unreal".

3. Sorry, my example was confusing. I didn't mean that the "would" in 3a is subjunctive: I meant that a "would" in an IF clause may sometimes be a subjunctive – i.e. the past subjunctive form of "will" – and that we can test for such cases by exchanging the "would" for "were willing to". In other words, it would have to be a context where "will/would" retained its sense of volition, e.g.

3b. If the doctor would see me now, I'd be very grateful.

The "would" in a typical main clause of a type 2 IF statement doesn't strike me as "subjunctive", however:

3c. If I were you, I'd buy a new car.

I'll come back to your question about why we don't call all non-factual/hypothetical markers "subjunctive", if that's ok – I have to log off in a minute!

MrP
2. I think of it as a past subjunctive; but I wouldn't refer to it as such, because the next question would be "how can I distinguish the past subjunctive from the simple past, if they look the same?"

It seems safer to say that the past tense can be used for the "remote" or the "unreal".

We distinguish it by using the past perfect instead of the simple past to talk about hypotheticals in the past:

You lived closer (real past)

I wish you lived closer (hypothetical about the present)

I wish you had lived closer (hypothetical about the past)

It seems to me that there is a marked difference with no overlap of meaning. I still don't understand why the unreal past isn't generally referred to as the 'subjunctive' when we clearly mark it.
The above was me, MrP.

Sometimes this logging in thing makes me want to pull my hair out!

Regards

Jussive
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Anonymous2. I think of it as a past subjunctive; but I wouldn't refer to it as such, because the next question would be "how can I distinguish the past subjunctive from the simple past, if they look the same?"

It seems safer to say that the past tense can be used for the "remote" or the "unreal".

We distinguish it by using the past perfect instead of the simple past to talk about hypotheticals in the past:

You lived closer (real past)

I wish you lived closer (hypothetical about the present)

I wish you had lived closer (hypothetical about the past)

It seems to me that there is a marked difference with no overlap of meaning. I still don't understand why the unreal past isn't generally referred to as the 'subjunctive' when we clearly mark it.

I suppose because the "marking" depends on context; and an ESL student may not understand the context.

But out of interest, how would you explain the difference between the following two sentences to a student:

1. If he ate less cake, he wouldn't get so fat.

2. If he ate less cake, it would be because he didn't want to get more fat.

(For myself, I'm not sure I would know where to begin.)

MrP


Ive read that modals such as ‘would’ and ‘could’ give a ‘subjunctive idea’ and other non-committal descriptions as such, but I don’t understand the rationale behind those reservations. They seem also to apply to the non-past. It seems people don’t wish to call these forms the subjunctive for some strange reason and I don’t know what that reason is. What’s so special about ‘were’ and the removal of ‘s’ in the third person singular, as markers of the past and present subjunctive, respectively? We have other markers of the hypothetical/non-fact, as shown in this thread, so why the reservations in calling them the subjunctive also?

Some first thoughts...

It's true that modal verbs can be used to express the subjunctive mood in English (e.g. "may you live long"); but not every use of a modal verb expresses the subjunctive.

Moreover, although the subjunctive may be used to express the hypothetical or non-factual, not every use of the subjunctive expresses the hypothetical or non-factual. For example:

1. Long live the King!

2. My sentence is that the prisoner be hanged.

This is also the case in other languages, e.g.

3. C'est dommage qu'elle ait fermé ses portes.

At first glance, it seems to me that the distinction between the true subjunctive, where the verb changes its form, and the use of modals to express the subjunctive, as in my first example, may be worth preserving.

MrP
MrPedantic
Anonymous
2. I think of it as a past subjunctive; but I wouldn't refer to it as such, because the next question would be "how can I distinguish the past subjunctive from the simple past, if they look the same?"

It seems safer to say that the past tense can be used for the "remote" or the "unreal".

We distinguish it by using the past perfect instead of the simple past to talk about hypotheticals in the past:

You lived closer (real past)

I wish you lived closer (hypothetical about the present)

I wish you had lived closer (hypothetical about the past)

It seems to me that there is a marked difference with no overlap of meaning. I still don't understand why the unreal past isn't generally referred to as the 'subjunctive' when we clearly mark it.

I suppose because the "marking" depends on context; and an ESL student may not understand the context.

But out of interest, how would you explain the difference between the following two sentences to a student:

1. If he ate less cake, he wouldn't get so fat.

2. If he ate less cake, it would be because he didn't want to get more fat.

(For myself, I'm not sure I would know where to begin.)

MrP

Sorry, I haven't replied earlier. I was discussing something similiar to this somewhere else.

I concede that the unreal past and modals used for non-fact may need to be established through context but how is this different to 'were' to express the subjunctive mood or not:

She phoned to ascertain whether he were dining at the club

Thanks

Jussive
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