I should not be alive, if it wasn't for a reason.

I think, this "was" should be "is" as the speaker is still quite alive and speaking the sentence. Am I incorrect in this interpretation?


Formally, this is an irrealis conditional and should be expressed with what we may as well call a subjunctive:

I should not be alive if it weren’t for a reason.

Informally, however, the ordinary indicative past often—perhaps fifteen or twenty percent of the time— replaces the subjunctive, and nobody notices.

In this particular case, moreover, there’s a complicating factor. There's an idiom, “If it weren't for X, Y would not have happened”.

If it weren’t for Bob we wouldn’t have escaped.
If it weren’t for the recession I’d be retired by now.

This particular idiom has over the last fifty years or so exhibited a stronger—and increasingly stronger—tendency to replace the subjunctive. In the Google nGram below the blue line shows the rate of replacement for this idiom, the red line the ‘baseline’ rate for an ordinary subjunctive.

enter image description here

I don’t think this idiom is in play here—I imagine what the author means is that there must be a reason why he is alive, he would not be alive unless there were some purpose to his life. But the idiom so to speak “infects” his expression of this thought.

Interestingly, as I was researching this answer I came across this blogpost which employs both forms—the subjunctive in the first paragraph and exactly your example at the beginning of the last.

provided John Lawler isn’t looking!

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  • I have to say I find OP's example extremely "unidiomatic". The first I should not strikes me as even more dated/formal than the subjunctive would have sounded were it to have been used. The net effect of using "modern, informal" if it wasn't just makes it all sound hopelessly mixed up. Me, I wouldn't normally make such an assertion- but if I did, I'd probably say "I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for a reason". I still have no real idea whether OP's speaker means his life [was] caused by something, or [will] enact some future "purpose". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '13 at 23:43
  • @FumbleFingers I agree on should - buthesitated to say so, because there's a small possibility that what's going on here is a "I'm not supposed to be alive, given what happened to me" thing. ... "Hopelessly mixed up" is what you very often get in business and on blogs, anywhere people strive for a formality they don't really get. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 6 '13 at 23:53
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    I was going to make the point in an earlier answer that, as a general principle, learners would do well to avoid specifically attempting to be "formal". There's informal, "normal", and formal. The first two are much "easier" - not least because audience/readers are inclined to be more "picky" about minor slips in formal usages, where they're more forgiving of similar "deviations from standard" when the register itself is more "relaxed" (I didn't actually make the point before, but at least I've got it off my chest here and now! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 7 '13 at 0:03
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    @FumbleFingers You did make that admirable point, here, and I upvoted it ... But it ain't just our guys. You might consider trundling over to ELU and making the same point there; there's always occasion! – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 7 '13 at 0:12
  • Erk! Senility approaches! Yes, I suppose the same point does apply in many contexts on ELU too. But I'm guessing most questioners who should be asking on ELU are aware of things like the Plain English Campaign (or whatever equivalent you have in the US). That's to say, competent native speakers tend to be aware that "formal" is just a "register". But I feel non-native learners are more at risk of thinking it means "better", so they're kinda facing a "triple whammy" by being keen to try, prone to fail, and likely to have errors noticed. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 7 '13 at 0:30

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