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Not sure if "is" becomes "was" or "were" when passing from direct speech conditional to indirect speech.

Direct speech:

The plane can make tight turns if the wind is weak.

Indirect speech:

He told me that the plane, which crashed, could make tight turns if the wind was (or were?) weak.

  • The verb tense should relate to its subject, either "...if the wind was weak," or "...if the winds were weak." However, that being said there is still some wobbliness about this because of "mood". This is out of my comfort zone so I'm going to refer you here: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/23853/… – Andrew Sep 27 '16 at 16:47
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It is not the change to indirect speech which dictates the change in verb form; rather it is the use of the verb could to describe the possibility of an outcome contrary to what occurred, and the introduction of information about that outcome in the form of the parenthetical which crashed.

He told me that the plane, which crashed, could make tight turns if the wind were weak.

This is the subjunctive mood; it is revealed when we use a conditional like could to introduce a speculative event which is contrary to fact. That the plane crashed provides a hint that the wind was not weak.

  • Correct - worth clearly pointing out that this has nothing to do with the "indirect speech" (a phrase which the OP appears to use in order to denote the second-hand accounting?) – Lightness Races with Monica Sep 27 '16 at 19:22
  • Was just having a go at that... (indirect speech or reported speech is what I'd call it, certainly. See this e.g.) – P. E. Dant Sep 27 '16 at 19:44
  • Spot on now. :) – Lightness Races with Monica Sep 27 '16 at 19:56
  • The more I look at this, the more important is the parenthetical. Without it, the sentence is nothing more than reported speech causing the backshift can⇒could. With it, could is a true conditional. I think. I'm upvoting the question in the hope of attracting a more certain analysis. – P. E. Dant Sep 27 '16 at 20:47
  • The use of the subjunctive mood is reducing in modern English. In the 19th century you would have said "The ship can make tight turns if the wind be weak." (replacing "plane" by "ship" for the obvious reason!) using the subjunctive mood "be", but modern English would always use "is". See for example books.google.co.uk/… (published in 1840) – alephzero Sep 27 '16 at 21:13
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In this case, "was" vs. "were" is simply singular vs. plural, and based on the subject they are enacted by.

if the wind was weak. : "wind" is singular => "was".

if the winds were weak. : "winds" is plural => "were".

As a side note, both "the wind was" and "the winds were" are idiomatically the same.

  • 1
    although note that in this case we have a condition which could be counterfactual (i.e. specifying that the wind was in fact not weak) thus "if the wind were weak" could also be seen – eques Sep 27 '16 at 17:09
  • @eques So: the parenthetical, which provides information about the past event, changes this from a simple backshift resulting from reported speech into a usage of could as true conditional, revealing the subjunctive. What say you aye or nay? – P. E. Dant Sep 27 '16 at 21:01
  • could as conditional with subjunctive actually is odd here since the plane is described as "crashed" (i.e. in the past). A counterfactual in the past would ordinarily use perfects ("If the wind had been light"). I couldn't find much info on back-shifting conditional statements (as in reported speech) – eques Sep 27 '16 at 21:11
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You ask about turning the following conditional into reported speech:

The plane can make tight turns if the wind is weak.

The use of present tenses marks this as a real conditional. In other words, this is talking about something that is in the realm of the real, grammatically speaking1. We are not talking about unreality or irrealis here. Note that the modal can here refers to ability. You can also is able to.

If you want to maintain this type of conditional in reported speech, you change the present tense to past tense, resulting in

He told me that the plane could make tight turns if the wind was weak.

Note that could here retains the sense of ability. You could also write was able to.

Introducing the additional information that the plane crashed does not change the type of conditional sentence that you have, so the verb tenses are the same as without this clause:

He told me that the plane, which crashed, could make tight turns if the wind was weak.

It's interesting that the plane crashed, but this fact changes nothing about the type of conditional sentence you have. You could just as well have introduced the fact that the plane landed safely.

Additional information:

Were is the past tense of are, not is.

Both were and was are also used in unreal conditionals, but your sentence is not an unreal conditional.


1 Whether planes in general or this specific plane can actually make tight turns in weak wind has nothing to do with the grammar of the sentence; nor does it matter if the speaker is wrong or even lying about the plane: grammatically this is a real conditional. For the forms of conditional sentences, see, for example, mindmeister.

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