This is from 'Mothers and Sons' by Colm Toibin.

Nancy(mother) tells her two daughters and her son, Gerard that they are moving to Dublin.

The girls made jokes about the move, and asked further questions over the weeks that followed. They found out about schools and even wrote to one girls' school and received a brochure in the post. Gerard did not mention it, and grew grimly silent if the subject were raised in his presence. Nancy realized that he had told no one because he had no one to tell as he was no longer very friendly with any of his schoolmates and he was not close enough to any of the businessmen in the town to whom he looked up so much.

I could have just read it without much thought, but this somehow got my attention.

The Italic sentence is not hypothetical (unreal conditional). It is past real conditional.

I understood the sentence as 'Gerard did not mention it, and grew grimly silent when the subject was raised in his presence.'

So my logic is that 'the subject' being singular, 'was' should be used instead of 'were.'

What do you think?

  • "When the subject was raised" is very different from "if the subject were raised". Although "was" is acceptable with if in everyday speech (as in "If I was rich" instead of "If I were rich", the "were" always implies an unreal condition.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 16:34

2 Answers 2


were (subjunctive BE) can be used with situations as they may arise (and may have arisen):

Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

Although it is possible to understand were there as reported speech.

...to debase in the eyes of the people all who had been in authority under the late queen, by rigorous inquiries into their conduct, and by bringing them, whenever it were possible, under the lash of the law.

John Lingard, A history of England from the first invasion by the Romans. Volume 7. 1825.

In a dialect where the subjunctive is far from moribund, one could say:

He grows grimly silent if the subject be raised in his presence.

He grew grimly silent if the subject were raised in his presence.

That the statement is made about the past doesn't make it impossible to speak of the past conditional situation.

  • You wouldn't believe how much we, non-natives study so-called 'conditional(subjunctive)' grammar. It's one of the most difficult concepts for us.
    – whitecap
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 20:51
  • After years of learning English grammar (although it stays in my head not on my lips, unfortunately), I still have to stop in the middle of a paragraph, staring at 'if' to figure out whether it is conditional #1,2,or 3(simplified terminology) or worse, 'combination conditional'.
    – whitecap
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 20:52
  • Reading a lot helps to the extent that I was comfortable with 'were' in the above sentence not knowing why. Nonetheless, my mathematical grammar brain kicked in. Thank you, your explanation will quiet the Nazi gramma brain for now.
    – whitecap
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 20:52
  • 1
    @whitecap: forget those numerical categories. The subjunctive is a lovely thing.
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 21:32

I think you're right.

Because the irrealis were is dropping out of many people's natural speech (at least in some dialects), there is a tendency to hypercorrection.

  • I don't agree with this at all. In literary writing, the were stays. Also, it is marked as educated speech.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 16:35
  • The fact that it is "marked" as educated or literary is precisely why hypercorrection tends to occur.
    – rjpond
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 16:54
  • That is not how I understand hypercorrection. If I say it, I ain't hypercorrectin'.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 17:08
  • 1
    @Lambie: Normally "were" (in the 1p/3p sing.) is the unreal nonpast. The quoted passage is in the past tense. Occasionally "were" can describe the unreal past. However, the passage seems to me to be describing the real past. The word "if" isn't enough on its own to make something unreal. I can contrast "If I was angry, it was because I cared" (real past) with "If I were angry, it would be because I cared" (unreal nonpast) and "If I had been angry..." (unreal past). I'd contrast "He grew silent if it was raised" (real past) with "He would grow silent if it were raised" (unreal nonpast).
    – rjpond
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 18:44
  • 1
    As I interpret it, the passage is describing a real past, in which the subject was raised on at least some occasions. When we recount actual past events, it's real: "As a child, if I was sick, I stayed away from school" ("if" and "when" play a very similar role here, as the OP said). "If the subject was raised, I grew silent."
    – rjpond
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 19:02

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