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I was talking about cooking in my English class and then realized that one of my sentences sounds weird to me.

Later you can add more salt if it was needed.

Does it make any sense to say "if it was needed"? Is that correct?

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  • When seasoning a food dish, a native speaker might say: "You can add more salt to taste later on.". You will sometimes find this usage outside cooking too - like in art: The sketch artist first drew the subject's eyes, then added shadows to taste. Apr 5 at 20:50
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A clause "if it was needed" doesn't work here because it's in the past tense, whereas both "later" and "can" hint at the future.

Later you can add more salt if needed/necessary.

Related

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  • I think the person writing the original sentence thought of "if it was needed part" as past subjunctive, and therefore not really past tense.
    – Weirdo
    Apr 6 at 9:11
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It would be more normal to say "if it is needed".

There is a situation in which you might say "was", but the rest of the sentence would need to be slightly different, and it's a rather weird corner of the English language. Suppose you begin "you could add more salt" rather than "you can add more salt". In that case, you might say "if it was needed". (Though to me "if it is needed" looks fine there too.)

If you're writing formally, or if it's 50 years ago, then you'd actually say "if it were needed" rather than "... was ...". This construction is unusual these days in everyday speech or informal writing.

The usual way this is described is in terms of something called the "subjunctive mood", which applies when you are talking about something that could have been true but isn't. I think the consensus among actual academic linguists expert in the English language is that this is not a good way to describe how the language actually works, but it's common enough that you'll find lots of discussion if you search ELL for "subjunctive".

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    ‘Were’ for the subjunctive hasn’t totally faded out of view; ‘if I were you’, at least, sounds much better than ‘if I was you’. I’d stick with ‘were’ most of the time, because occasionally sounding over-formal is better than occasionally sounding uneducated. Apr 4 at 23:42
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    For what it's worth, I always do it the formal way too :-). Apr 5 at 1:07
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    I wouldn’t say the “were” construction is unusual: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Tim
    Apr 5 at 10:10
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    Notice (1) that the Google N-gram thing is looking only at printed text so it will definitely lean in the direction of more formal constructions, and (2) that in the last ~20 years the "was" form has gone from being much less common than the "were" form to being distinctly more common. Even in actual print! Apr 5 at 11:09
  • The "were" construction certainly still exists, and if you're writing a textbook or a job application you should probably use it. Or if you prefer the risk of sounding like a pretentious intellectual snob to the risk of sounding uneducated, which I personally do because, well, I am a pretentious intellectual snob :-). But I think someone who's just learning the language can afford not to worry about these subtleties to begin with. Apr 5 at 11:12
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Since the recommendation is addressed to you, it will sound entirely natural to include you again.

Hence:

You can add more salt, later, if you need to.

or:

If you need to, you can add more salt later.

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