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Here is a quote from a book:

But he would have no way of knowing if the answer he received were true.

Why is there were instead of was in the above sentence? The only answer that comes to my mind is that this is a subjunctive.

The topic of the subjunctive was covered in the following question very well: Why is it 'come' and not 'comes' in 'it is important that he come...'?

However, my sentence doesn't belong to any of the four categories mentioned by M.A.R. in his answer to this question, so I don't think this the subjunctive. Then what is it?

I get that this is an imaginary situation (would have no way) and the second conditional. But this is all I can think of.

  • Yes, it's the subjunctive. We usually use it for "if" statements; I think that is not discussed in M.A.R's post because he's not discussing "if" statements. The issue is discussed more directly here: Why is it “If I were you” and not “If I was you”? – stangdon Feb 16 '16 at 20:55
  • @stangdon, I read the answer you linked, but I don't see how it is related to my sentence (apart from to the fact that it refers to the second conditional). Now I get the difference between if I were ... and if I was ..., but it didn't resolve my doubts about my sentence. Could you please explain that to me? – user2738748 Feb 16 '16 at 21:18
  • Maybe I'm not clear on what your question is. It's a conditional, if: "if it were true". Conditionals use the subjunctive, which in this case is were. – stangdon Feb 17 '16 at 0:48
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Yes, "were" is functioning as a subjunctive in that sentence. The problem is that, as you seem to be suggesting, the sentence isn't really correct: this is not a proper usage of the subjunctive, because the truth of the proposition (i.e., "the answer is true") is undetermined. I believe it would be more correct with an indicative verb:

But he would have no way of knowing if the answer he received was true.

I believe this is an example of error through over-correction: we're taught in school to say "if he were", and we wind up applying the rule even where it isn't appropriate.

  • This is a sentence from a book by a native English speaker. I don't suggest the sentence it's wrong. I just want to know why it isn't. Could you please provide more details on why you think the sentence is incorrect? – user2738748 Feb 16 '16 at 21:05
  • Agreed, the overall construction is past (real) conditional, where the verb looks exactly the same as simple past. It's not unreal/subjunctive, so "were" is a mistake. – hobbs Feb 16 '16 at 21:35
  • @hobbs - This is a fascinating point; can you go into more detail about why this is past conditional and not subjunctive? It looks to me like that could only be determined by what's surrounding the relevant phrase ("but he would have no way of knowing") but that's not in the simple past itself; it looks to me like it could be present unreal conditional: Bill could ask for an answer, but he would have no way etc. But I could be wrong! – stangdon Feb 17 '16 at 17:44
  • @stangdon "would have [a way]" is present unreal conditional, but the "if" starts a new clause where things can be different. The subject being "the answer he received" makes the past natural, and since the answer was (by presumption, in this clause at least) received, we can talk about it using a real conditional. At least that's my analysis, my expertise isn't perfect here. – hobbs Feb 17 '16 at 19:55
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This does use a subjunctive but it is not correct. The correct subjunctive for the sentence would be "were to be" instead of "were".

It could also work with either the insertion of "had" after the "have" or change "were" to "was". That would of course either not use the subjunctive(was) or change the tense(had).

You could also use the subjunctive of receive, "were to receive" followed by "was true".

The short answer is that yes this is a subjunctive, but it is still incorrect.

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I think the sentence is gramaticaly incorrect. The problem is the use of "would" and "received".

But he would have no way of knowing if the answer he received were true.

"would" is hypothetical, which matches with the subjective use of "were", but it clashes with "received", which is real past-tense.

Better would have been:

But he has no way of knowing if the answer he received is (or was) true.

or, keeping it hypothetical (has not yet received the answer):

But he would have no way of knowing if the answer he receives were true.

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