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It's a phrase in Star Wars by Obi-Wan Kenobi: "He wanted you to have it when you were old enough." Why did he use the word "were" instead of "will be"?

(Regardless of the truthfulness of the phrase, just to understand the logic of the language.) As I understand it, when 'he' (Luke's father) wanted it in the past, he thought about future Luke and the time when he will be old enough. In my native language in this phrase we would use the future tense "will be". Is this just an exception? Or is it correct? What exactly is the explanation?

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    It's treating he wanted you to have it as (he said) he wanted you to have it and there's backshifting of the verbs (want -> wanted, are-> were) for 'reported speech'. Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 23:44
  • "He wanted you to have this when you will be old enough". At any point before he "is" old enough, he "will be" old enough, unless he dies before that time. So basically that would be saying he can have it at any time. Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 19:00
  • Broadly, the whole analyses in your exposition is backwards. If you started from the assumption that Obi-Wan was correct, could you make the argument for that? Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 19:01

4 Answers 4

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Let's clear up some grammar points first.

Time clauses about the future never include "will", and almost always use a present tense:

When I am older, I'll be a doctor.
After I win, I'm going to rub it in your face.
Before she goes, you should apologize.

If these structures would be in a future tense in your language, then we've found the issue.

If not, let's walk through how to change the original statement to reported speech.

Let's start with the original statement:

Vader: I want Luke to have this when he is old enough.

When this statement is reported to Luke later on, Obi-wan shifts the tenses (and pronouns) as normal:

Obi-wan: He wanted you to have this when you were old enough.

That is all.

* spoiler alert

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    *gasp* Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father?! Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 10:19
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    @JustOneMan Just to make it a bit more explicit what gotube and TimR already said: This is an example of indirect/reported speech: Obi-wan reports to Luke what Darth Vader had said to Obi-Wan earlier. In English, indirect speech is usually backshifted (meaning the original sentence is put "one step" into the past), and this is why you end up with the past tense (one step backwards in time from present tense)
    – Narusan
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 14:59
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    I don't think it is all. He wanted you to have this when you are older I consider a perfectly idiomatic alternative if the possibility of the person having it is still open. I would only say He wanted you to have this when you were older if a) I were reporting the event after the intended recipient had become older, b) the item concerned were no longer available for some reason, or c) the intended recipient had already been given the object before he or she had become older.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 20:54
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    When I am older, I'll be a doctor - "I'll" is short for "I will". Seems like its using "will" correctly to me.
    – StingyJack
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 23:57
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    @StingyJack "When I will be older, ...", is the structure the OP is proposing, not what you've said.
    – gotube
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 4:11
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I agree with the answer by gotube about "He wanted you to have it when you were old enough." - this is perfectly understandable to me. However, there is context to this particular line that might be worth exploring.

Obi Wan was just watching over Luke from a distance and didn't seek any direct contact until he rescued Luke, which forced his position. In the films we have seen "Younglings" wielding lightsabers so it's perfectly possible that "old enough" was actually five years old.

It's just as plausible that the meaning was "Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough (but I kept hold of it longer because I didn't want to risk blowing our cover to expose and endanger you. I'm instead giving it to you now because of necessity)". The fact that someone wanted an action to occur at some time doesn't mean that it has to be occurring at the time it does.

The statement stands on its own in any case but, if you want to consider potential implications of what he said, then this is at least plausible.

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    Precisely this. He's stating the lightsaber should have come to luke before this point. "When you were old enough", not "now you're old enough".
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 7:57
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"Were" isn't used only for the past tense; it is also used for the subjunctive, which is used for wishes, suggestions, demands, or desires. See, for example the song If I were a rich man.

The subjunctive is in decline, see, for example Jill Vaughan's Thesis:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the subjunctive in modern English is on its deathbed. It has been described variously as “a vestigial survival” (Strang 1968), “a rather feeble and restricted device” (Foster 1976:220), “a literary trick” (Jespersen 1962: 294) and even “probably simply a conspiracy” (Coffey 2000). Most grammar books published before 1975 concur: the subjunctive will soon no longer be. And yet, as early as the 1950s linguists had begun to highlight some curious goings-on in American English. Barber (1964: 133) notes “a surprising reversion” during and after World War II to older subjunctive forms and by the 1970s many studies were being carried out into subjunctive usage in American and British English, most indicating that the subjunctive was not so moribund as previously thought (e.g. Johansson 1979, Haegeman 1986). Interesting divergences were found to exist in its use in the two varieties. It would not be until Peters’ work in 1998 that the status of the subjunctive in Australian English would be examined in detail. This study offered clear evidence of the subjunctive in this variety also, but revealed that Australian usage differs from that of both American and British English. This thesis explores the status of the subjunctive in all its manifestations in contemporary Australian English. The scrutinising of data retrieved from the Australian component of the International Corpus of English allowed for quantitative analyses of subjunctive usage as well as a detailed investigation into the forms this usage takes. The study is intended to be both diachronic and synchronic; corpus data is both compared with previous findings on the use of subjunctive in Australian English and collated with data from parallel corpora representing usage in other World Englishes (namely British, American and New Zealand English). By examining not only cases where the subjunctive is employed, but also cases where an alternative structure is attested, this study aims to elucidate the factors influential in speakers choosing the subjunctive.

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  • If it's the subjunctive, that implies "He wants you to have it when you be old enough" is correct in the present tense. Do you bite that bullet? Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 7:57
  • Wouldn't it tend to be if instead of when in subjunctive? Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 9:08
  • @PatrickStevens Not sure that "be" in your example is correct. “I insist that he be present” and “If he be late, we shall wait” are (I think) both subjunctive and correct but I don't know why "when you be old enough" sounds wrong, maybe it's archaic.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 9:33
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    Certainly I agree that "when you be old enough" is wrong. That's why I call it a bullet to be bitten, rather than evidence in favour of the assertion that "when you were old enough" is in the subjunctive mood. Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 16:36
  • Please connect your answer to the question about why Obi-wan uses "were".
    – gotube
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 20:53
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It's the subjunctive tense. End of. Alec Guinness was born in 1914. He's from a different era and I wouldn't be surprised if he "corrected" the script before delivering the lines, as the incorrect grammar probably made his hair stand on end. Listen how they talk in another of Sir Alec's great roles in the film "Ice Cold in Alex" (1958).

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    This is a strong claim, and one which I find counterintuitive. As I point out on another thread, it suggests that "He wants you to have it when you be old enough" is correct. If that's a bullet you wish to bite, I'd definitely suggest putting in some kind of source that addresses this specific grammatical structure (rather than just Alec Guinness's general propensity for grammar, which is purely speculation). Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 8:01
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    If we're being picky subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. By the way, how do you know what the original line said?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 9:07
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    I highly doubt that the op's suggestion of "will be older" was in the original script that needed to be corrected. No native speaker would have written that intentionally. It has nothing to do with the generation or class he came from. No one would say what the OP proposed even today
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 20:01
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    the claim that the script was wrong needs some references
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 7:50
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    I see that OP is posting from Russia, and Russian has a subjunctive. I wonder whether his question arises because the English subjunctive is a bit vestigial? I learned the subjunctive in Latin (early 1960s) before I knew that English has a subjunctive. My Latin teacher was the one who pointed out that English had a subjunctive (he belonged to the generation of teachers who believed that Latin was the Platonic ideal for languages, and English was a poor imitation). Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 8:28

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