Subjunctive and the Art of the Existential 'There'

“If there were a Form 3, you would have already filled it out.” Reader Jessica had a question about a sentence like this.

The speaker already knew about a Form 1 and a Form 2. The existence of Form 3, however, was hypothetical. So, Jessica wanted to know, is that “were” correct? Or should it be “was”?

There’s a one-word key to finding the answer: subjunctive. That’s the term for the grammar dynamic that determines whether “was” or “were” is best here.

Armed with that one little word, you can research the issue and arrive at an answer. But Jessica already knew that. She Googled “subjunctive” and still couldn’t figure out what it meant for her sentence.

“I haven’t been able to find any examples on the internet about ‘if there were ...’ Only examples of “If he/she/it were ...”

In other words, “there” is complicating the question of whether the verb should be “was” or “were.” But does the “there” really affect the verb?

In this case, no. But it’s good to understand both dynamics, the subjunctive and something called “existential there,” to work all this out. Here's my recent column to explain it all.


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