I am teaching English in Korea. In my textbook, there is a biography of Bethany Hamilton who lost one of her arms in a shark attack. Here is the problem.

The following is an interview with Bethany.

Reporter 1: Are you upset you didn't win today?
Bethany: I didn't come to win. I came to surf.
Reporter 2: If you could go back to that day, would you still have gone surfing?
Bethany: I wouldn't change what happened to me, because then I wouldn't have this chance in front of all of you ― this chance to embrace more people than I ever could have with two arms.

I am confused because of the very last part since I have to translate the exact meaning of the phrase to my students in Korean.

1) than I ever had embraced when I had two arms
2) than I ever could have embraced if I still had two arms

Which is more correct translation from natives' point of view?

  • Welcome to ELL and thank you for your question. Your title mentions the subjunctive mood, but the subjunctive mood is not revealed here. In any case, your second choice is a good alternate way of expressing the phrase in bold text, but it's not as clear as the original. If I were rewriting her statement, I might add one word: "...than I ever could have embraced with two arms." The participle embraced is "assumed" by the native English listener in her original statement. Jun 22, 2017 at 3:32
  • I don't understand what your question has to do with the title of your question 'subjunctive mood'.
    – BillJ
    Jun 22, 2017 at 6:41
  • @BillJ I think that, given the current sorry state of teaching what remains of the subjunctive, the mere appearance of any conditional verb can spur the observer to cry: "There! I spotted one!" Jun 22, 2017 at 6:46
  • Now I see the confusion arises from the wrong definition of terminology in Korea. We have been taught that non-factual or hypothetical sentences using 'if' and past forms of verbs are subjunctive sentences.
    – Lauryne A
    Jun 23, 2017 at 7:28
  • Still I am not one hundred percent sure of what 'subjunctive' really is in modern English grammar.
    – Lauryne A
    Jun 23, 2017 at 7:29

2 Answers 2


No. 2 is correct. Don't listen to some of these people above; it is the subjunctive mood as "could" is the past subjunctive modal form of "can" in this instance. Yes, in Modern English, most teachers in English-speaking countries call this the conditional mood or teach it as the conditional and they despise the term "subjunctive" because they want to rid English of the subjunctive, but "could" or "would" or "should" or "might" in the apodosis of any conditional statement wherein a past subjunctive verb is used in the protasis (in your case, "had" in "if I still had two arms") is technically a subjunctive form; we just don't call it that anymore. The word "subjunctive" is a big "no-no" in English these days as I've stated above because native speakers want it eviscerated from the language.

  • Well, this native speaker doesn't want to eliminate the subjunctive! Dec 7, 2017 at 6:28

(1) is incorrect. To get the meaning in (1), she would have said something like "this chance to embrace more people than I ever did with two arms."

Two is plausible, as is "than I ever could have embraced when I still had two arms," which would be a third meaning. I would lean towards the third meaning (because it contrasts then and now), but 2 and 3 are really almost indistinguishable.


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