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If I had a daughter who (is/were/was) cute, I would be very happy. (Written to mean that I have never had a cute daughter, so I would be very happy if I could have one)

I think "were" or "was" is grammatically correct because the sentence is of a hypothetical situation. So, "is" seems to be grammatically wrong to use there, and I know a more natural wording would be just "If I had a cute daughter", but I wrote it like that on purpose to ask this question.

  • Because many answers have mentioned the subjunctive, I would like to extend this question by asking what would be the correct way to say: "If I am/was/were the parent of a daughter who is/was/were cute, I would be very happy."? – CJ Dennis Jun 11 at 2:10
  • @CJDennis IMHO, "If I were the parent... who is cute" , at least if you want to use the subjunctive to indicate you are not . – Carl Witthoft Jun 11 at 12:45
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UPDATE
I'm no longer sure about my answer. I have been thinking about this over and over in the past few days but cannot reach a definite conclusion for myself. Hence, 'was' instead of 'were' might be the correcter option for the singular. This was also pointed out by @alephzero, here below in the comments.

ORIGINAL POST
This is the subjunctive: 'were' is correct and used in either the singular and the plural forms. Hence, in your specific example:

Singular: If I had a daughter who were cute, I would be very happy.
Plural: If I had two daughters who were cute, I would be very happy.

Some native speakers, potentially Americans more than British, might say that 'was' would also be correct. However, the intention of your statement is presumably 100% hypothetical, insinuating that you are never going to have a cute daughter. The subjunctive should be used.

The most famous exemplary sentence of the subjunctive is probably 'If I were you I would...'

I believe that in modern colloquial English, even native speakers sometimes tend to replace 'were' with 'is' or 'was'.

  • 1
    your's is the better answer. Perhaps I have been doing it wrong my whole life. English is funny that way. – Frank Thomas Jun 9 at 8:47
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    @Frank Thomas oh.. may I ask you why you deleted your answer? There are also some native speakers who agree with you that "were" isn't correct at least in my sentence. Your answer could be a good example to resolve this problem. – SinK Jun 9 at 8:49
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    The fact that cute daughters exist is not hypothetical or counterfactual. The idea that the speaker might have such a daughter is counterfactual, so the verb "to have" is in the subjunctive mood: "If I had ... ." – David K Jun 10 at 2:12
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    This is fundamentally wrong, because the main clause of the sentence is subjunctive, not the adjectival clause describing the daughter where the fact that it contains a verb is just happenstance. (the sentence could just as well be "if I had a cute daughter …"). In "a daughter who were cute" the "were" is not subjnctive but plural, which doesn't agree with the singular "daughter". It you really want to use the subjunctive, say "If I were to have a daughter who was cute …" – alephzero Jun 10 at 13:46
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    I guess people who believe in prescriptive grammar are upvoting this answer. This answer misunderstands the "rules" for the subjunctive, as alephzero has already summarised. It's a pity @FrankThomas deleted his answer, as I would have liked to read it. – CJ Dennis Jun 11 at 3:06
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I wonder whether this question is involved enough to belong over on English.SE for a purely academic treatment.

In a language-learner’s context, though, I’d suggest that the more idiomatic answer is to rephrase the problem away:

If I had a cute daughter, I would be very happy.

This contains the subjunctive so there’s no confusion.

  • Your example has no subjunctive in it. You simply put the present conditional here and its meaning is distinctly different from the subjunctive's. ...Enjoy the forum though, it's a great and very supportive community here at ELL. – johann_ka Jun 10 at 1:27
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    @johann_ka as I understood it, since the conditional is counterfactual, there's subjunctive mood involved. example 1 example 2 example 3 – thehole Jun 10 at 2:09
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    @johann_ka Please do not demand that people delete their posts. The correct way to handle incorrect answers is to down vote them and/or leave a constructive comment on how they can be corrected. I’ve amended your comment to remove that part, which I believe came across as more harsh than you intended it. – ColleenV parted ways Jun 10 at 17:41
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If I had a daughter who were cute, I would be very happy

This is correct but very formal. Following prescriptive grammar, because there is a counterfactual in the if statement, the subjunctive is needed and the subjunctive of "to be" is "were". In practice, very few speakers (on either side of the pond) regularly use the subjunctive in normal informal speech, usually using the past tense instead, i.e.

If I had a daughter who was cute, I would be very happy

Using the present tense does not really sound natural in most situations like this

In most circumstances, if you want to sound like a native-speaker, go with the past tense when giving the first clause of an if-then sentence

3

To my ear, the only one of your three options that sounds natural and idiomatic is "was":

If I had a daughter who was cute, I would be very happy.

I do not agree with the suggestions to use "were" here. To me, using the subjunctive "were" in a relative clause like this just sounds awkward and wrong. I don't really know if it's a technically and/or historically valid usage that has simply become so uncommon in modern colloquial English that it no longer feels natural, or whether it's an artificial hypercorrection introduced by people who have been taught, against their everyday experience and linguistic intuition, to always use the subjunctive in counterfactual conditionals in order to sound educated. That might be a good question for English Language & Usage.

In any case, using "is" is obviously wrong here. The tenses don't match.

2

The subjunctive is already contained in "had":

If I had a daughter who is/was/were cute, I would be very happy.

You shouldn't use a second subjunctive in the same clause, so use "was":

If I had a daughter who was cute, I would be very happy.

1

"If I had..." is the subjunctive. "who is cute" is a descriptive object. Since "If I had.." is present subjunctive, use "is" . To work in the past, write "If I had had a daughter who was cute..." .

But given the choice, I'd rewrite per thehole 's answer to make the sentence read more smoothly.

  • "If I had..." is a past subjunctive, used to indicate a hypothetical of counterfactual situation in the present or the future (a "second conditional"). Yes, I agree that it's kind of weird to use what's technically a past tense verb form to express a statement about a present or future situation, but that's English for you. :P – Ilmari Karonen Jun 10 at 19:24

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