If I was or if I were…

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Someone asked me today to comment on this sentence:

Each individual is asked to sign for himself or herself, and if you are a married couple, it is requested that you do not sign Mr. and Mrs. Doe, but rather that each of you signs your respective name.

He wanted to know if the verb after “each of you…” should be “sign” or “signs.” As I quickly glanced at the question, I replied:

The word “each” is treated as singular. Therefore the verb should be “signs.”
In his further correspondence, he stated:
I should have added in my initial request that my colleague stated that the “if” creates a subjunctive which requires the use of “sign” instead of “signs”, but that did not seem correct to me.
Well, of course, his colleague was correct, and I was wrong. Indeed, the use of “if” creates the need for a subjunctive.
English seems to be losing the subjunctive. I’m often asked to answer “If I was or if I were…” and the answer is “were.”
Here’s what Wikipedia says about the subjunctive.
The English subjunctive is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. These include statements about one’s state of mind, such as opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire. The subjunctive mood is also used for statements that are contrary to fact, such as If I were a giraffe, … (subjunctive), as distinguished from I was a child. Subjunctive statements often occur in dependent clauses, such as the subjunctive example in the preceding sentence. It contrasts with the indicative mood, which is used for statements of fact, such as He speaks English.The subjunctive is a strange verb tense (technically a mood) in which the third person singular does not employ an “s”.

Notice the “if” clause. That’s one of the clues that the subjunctive might be called for. The reason we don’t notice the subjunctive is that in regular verbs the only difference between the subjunctive and the indicative is in the third person singular, which in the indicative ends in -s or -es (in most verbs), but in the subjunctive does not.

In fact, the subjunctive is identical to the infinitive and the imperative, which means for the verb “to be” the subjunctive form is “be.” Thus we have sentences such as “Be it resolved…” or even “Here be dragons.” (And you thought pirates were just grammatically flawed; it turns out they used the subjunctive!)

Remember the key to using the subjunctive is when we are describing things that are other than objective facts. So this could be a matter of opinion.

When I recommend you take the bus, I’m using the subjunctive (however, it can’t be differentiated from the indicative, which is why we forget it even exists.)

However in the negative, we simply insert “not” (unlike the indicative, where we need the auxiliary “do” in addition to “not.”

I recommend he not take the bus. Now that looks wrong to me, and most native English speakers would say “I recommend he does not take the bus.” That’s incorrect, since “he does not take the bus” is a statement of fact.

So much for the present subjunctive. There is also a past subjunctive.

The only verb that uses the past subjunctive is the verb “to be”. It is “were” for all persons.

If I were…

If he were…

This is one reason why I always get the question “If I was or if I were…” Every other verb follows a different rule. We use the past perfect. If I stole some money… If I robbed a bank…

If you want to know a lot more about the subjunctive, follow the link to Wikipedia above. It’s a bit much, even for a grammar fanatic like me.