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Hello Teachers

Surfing online, I came across a bit tough question from an English learner from Japan. The question is:
The passage below is from a retold version of "Edith's Book" by Edith Velmans.

I thought of turning myself in from time to time. I thought: "If I wanted to, I could go over to Gestapo headquarters and tell them who I really was. 'Edith van Hessen,' I would announce. 'I'm a Jew.' If I did so, I would be sent to Westerbork"

Why did the writer write "who really I was", not "who really I am"?
My thought is that Edith used intentionally "was" to suggest that in those days she really had a psyche that "being Edith van Hessen" was in a remote past. But the answerer answered that there is a possibility Edith might use "was" to make it agree to the past form of the finite modal (i.e., "could") in the subjunctive main frame. I would like to hear your opinions.

paco
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Comments  
Hi Paco,

I thought of turning myself in from time to time. I thought: "If I wanted to, I could go over to Gestapo headquarters and tell them who I really was. 'Edith van Hessen,' I would announce. 'I'm a Jew.' If I did so, I would be sent to Westerbork"

I'd say the 'was' suggests that Edith is thinking that she is not going to do this, it's just hypothetical. If it were a real possibility, she'd have said "If I want to, I can go over to Gestapo headquarters and tell them who I really am'."

I guess that means I agree with the answerer's answer.

Best wishes, Clive
Hello Clive

Thanks for the quick reply. I understand "If I wanted to, I could go over to Gestapo headquarters and tell them .." is a second conditional. My question (and the questioner's) is why Edith uses "who I really was" instead of "who I really am". "I am Edith van Hessen" should be an eternal truth to her. Despite this, she uses "who I really was". I am wondering why she does so. I hope you understand what I mean.

paco
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OK, I'll give my question in another words.

[1] I wish I could tell her I am a Japanese person.
[2] I wish I could tell her I was a Japanese person.
Which one sounds natural to you?

paco
Hi Paco,

I definitely prefer simplified questions!

[1] I wish I could tell her I am a Japanese person.

[2] I wish I could tell her I was a Japanese person.
Which one sounds natural to you?


However, I think you are muddying the waters a bit by introducing 'I wish ...'. How about this? Or does it not suit your thought?

1] Maybe I could tell her I am a Japanese person.

[2] Maybe I could tell her I was a Japanese person.
#1 sounds more natural to me. #2 still sounds like it's trying to be more hypothetical than #1 to me.


I don't think the 'eternal truth' aspect is as relevant as you think. For example, I might say 'Last year at the interview, I told him my name was Clive'.

Clive




Hello Clive

So do you mean the choice of the tense in the clause embedded in a hypothetical statement has effects on the degree of the 'hypotheticality' of the hypothetical statement?

paco
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Paco2004OK, I'll give my question in another words.

[1] I wish I could tell her I am a Japanese person.
[2] I wish I could tell her I was a Japanese person.
Which one sounds natural to you?

paco
Number two sounds correct.

Paco, I believe the issue here is about when and when not to use the unreal past. If you look at your examples you will notice we use the present simple 'tell' after 'could'. That's because 'tell' is an action. When we refer to a hypothetical action or happening we use 'could'/'would' + the present simple.

I wish I could play the piano.

If only she would call me.

If only he would help more around the house.

However, when we refer to a hypothetical state we use the unreal past, eg:

I wish I wasn't Japanese.

If only I had a car.

If only I lived in Spain.
Paco, I'm not sure I understand what specific problem you are having here. You do realise that in hypothetical sentences we use the present simple after 'could'/'would' when referring to an action or happening, whereas, we use the non-past when referring to a state, don't you?

I wish I could help her. (action/happening)

I wish you would tell her. (action/happening)

I wish I wasn't Japanese. (state)

I wish you lived here. (state)

I wish you could tell [action/happening] her I was [state] Japanese.

In this last sentence, though, it might technically be 'were' instead of 'was'.

Does that help, Paco?
Hello Jussive

Thanks. I'm afraid it might be rude of me to say that I know that kind of stuff very well. What I am asking is whether the verbal tense in the subjunctive statement would influence on the tense of the verb used in a clause embedded in that subjunctive statement. That is, I am asking a question like:

1. I wish she knew the Earth is a sphere.
2. I wish she knew the Earth was a sphere.
Which one sounds more natural to you?

I was taught we should say like #1. But I have now a feeling some native speakers might feel as if #2 were correct because of the verbal form "knew".

paco
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