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We have a rule, let's call it Rule W :

if clauses—the traditional rules. According to traditional rules, you use the subjunctive to describe an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact: if I were ten years younger, if America were still a British Colony. The verb in the main clause of these sentences must then contain the verb would or (less frequently) should: If I were ten years younger, I would consider entering the marathon. If America were still a British colony, we would all be drinking tea in the afternoon. When the situation described by the if clause is not presupposed to be false, however, that clause must contain an indicative verb. The form of verb in the main clause will depend on your intended meaning: If Hamlet was really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius. If Kevin was out all day, then it makes sense that he couldn’t answer the phone.

What is the origin of this rule?

Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage says (page 712):

...it can be seen that the subjunctive is likely to be found after the verb wish [...] after if, as if, and as though, and at the beginning of a clase or sentence stating something contrary to fact or hypothetical. Hall 1917 and Jespersen 1909-49 (vol. 4) observe that was began to compete with were in these contexts sometime around the end of the 16th century, but it apparently did not become frequent in this use until around the end of the 17th century.

MWCDEU makes no mention of "an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact"; it just says that was and were are both used in hypothetical statements for the past 300 years. So where does Rule W come from? Is there still a dialect that makes a distinction between "if I were" and "if I was"? If there is, why doesn't MWCDEU mention it? Are the people who wrote Rule W using that dialect as a model, or are they just making stuff up?
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Before I go any further, let me try to understand your question correctly. You asked "MWCDEU makes no mention of ‘an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact.. . So where does Rule W come from?’" Doesn’t MWCDEU say and I quote, "... stating something contrary to fact or hypothetical... ?"
I think you're right. I was reading "contrary to fact" as something different than "presupposed to be contrary to fact," but I don't think there is now. I'm wondering if people like Grammar Girl have confused me by making too fine a distinction between something that is hypothetical but still possible, and something that is hypothetical and impossible.

But the second part of my question is still relevant I think: Is there still a dialect where the distinction between "if I were" and "if I was" is still alive?
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Is there still a dialect where the distinction between "if I were" and "if I was" is still alive?
I would say that the distinction is just normal, standard English, as explained in green above (Rule W). Not everyone 'uses the rule', and it's true that it's dying out as the preference of many speakers is turning toward was, but for those that maintain the distinction, the reason for using were or was is as explained above. I don't see it as dialectal or regional.

CJ
However, if MWCDEU is right that both "were" and "was" are used with the same frequency in hypothetical statements for the past 200 years, then Rule W is not normal standard English. Normal standard English is to use either "was" or "were" interchangeably.

This accords with my experience; I do not make this distinct between "if I was" and "if I were". I was not even aware there was a supposed distinction until recently.

So maybe what I'm really wondering is: why does this rule persist? And where does it come from?
That was me.
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why does this rule persist? And where does it come from?
Hmmm. To be honest, I'd have to say "I don't know" and "I don't know". Still, it is tempting to speculate. Ultimately, I suppose, it comes from a time in the history of English in which the difference was felt instinctively by most speakers. The use of the subjunctive was supposedly much more frequent then. Maybe it persists because English Forum moderators (and teachers of English generally) are always bringing it up when students ask whether they should use was or were in if-clauses. Emotion: smile I imagine they ask because they hear both, and they imagine that one must be right and one wrong. Certainly, even in modern English, the following is wrong, so complete interchangeability ofwas and were after if is not possible, so how to explain it but to drag out the whole messy explanation of "Rule W"?

If Hamlet were really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius.

CJ
CalifJim If Hamlet were really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius.

CJ
Hi Jim

Fortunately I don't have to explain anything unless I want to Emotion: smile, but in Helsinki English your sentence would read:
If Hamlet really was written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe's genius.

Cheers
CB
CalifJimcomplete interchangeability of was and were after if is not possible,
Complete interchangeability is possible, in hypothetical statements, for me. But I guess not for you?
CalifJimIf Hamlet were really written by Marlowe, as many have argued, then we have underestimated Marlowe’s genius.
It seems to me that either "was" or "were" is ok in that sentence. It is a hypothetical statement.

However, there are some cases where you can't use "were" after "if". These examples from MWCDEU of "were" in non-hypothetical statements do sound wrong:

He was asked if he were apprehensive.
I do not even know if she were actually a War Widow.

MWCDEU says these are "considered hypercorrect by the few who notice".

...So I think I see your point. Thanks!
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