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I saw this New York Times article:

Mr. Trump’s presence in the 2016 race has already had pernicious effects, but they’re nothing compared with what would happen if he were the Republican standard-bearer. The nominee, after all, is the leader of the party; he gives it shape and definition.

According to normal grammar rules, one should write "he is", "he was", "they are", and "they were". So, in the article above, is "he were" wrong? Should "he were" be changed to "he was"?

  • Actually, according to strict grammar rules, were is correct, and was is "wrong". But increasing numbers of native speakers don't bother with the subjunctive in such contexts. – FumbleFingers Feb 29 '16 at 19:22
  • Related: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/72518 More and more people are going for the indicative mood, but subjunctive still is far from vanishing. – M.A.R. Feb 29 '16 at 20:56
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This is an example of something called the Subjunctive Mood—a tricky aspect of verb usage in many languages. It occurs most often in conditional statements or descriptions of hypothetical situations, but there are enough scenarios where the Subjunctive is correct that I'd just recommend reading this article to get them all.

The sentence, therefore, is grammatically correct because the described situation (Trump as Republican standard bearer) is not currently true. Compare:

Trump was the Republican standard bearer. (Factual)

If Trump were the Republican standard bearer... (Hypothetical)

The use of the subjunctive is a formal grammatical rule with very specific applications that are sometimes difficult to identify properly. It is very common even for native speakers to ignore it in everyday speech, saying things like If I was rather than the formally correct If I were. Formal writing, however, requires it for proper usage.

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There's nothing wrong.

In conditional structures, was for the first and third person is often changed with were. For instance: I wouldn't do that if I were you.

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