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Rhetorical conditionals (Quirk et al 1985: 1094)*:

If they're Irish, I'm the Pope.
If she doesn't get first prize, she's no daughter of yours.

Since they focus on something opposite to the truth, can such conditionals be turned into the subjunctive:

If they were Irish, I would be the Pope.
If she were not to get first prize, she would be no daughter of yours.


* Quirk et al. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London and New York: Longman.
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There is a certain element of sarcasm in rhetorical conditional sentences that is culturally bound. Yes, you can turn the examples you gave into subjunctive sentences, but they lose their sarcasm, their "bite." The use of the rhetorical conditional form in the examples you cited also has a certain kind of harshness because the speaker is making a very strong point. Changing the grammar of those sentences into the subjunctive takes away this harshness, which the speaker really wants to have in his/her idea.

For example, if you change to the subjunctive ("If they were Irish, I would be the Pope"), it just doesn't have the "bite" that the original sentence does. It is as weak an idea as saying, "If they were here, I would be happier."

Here are some other examples of the rhetorical conditional:

She's 80 years old if she's a day. (Possible scenario: The speaker has heard an elderly woman telling somebody that she's much younger than she really is. The speaker knows better and lets that other person know the elderly woman wasn't telling the truth.)

If he can speak Mandarin, I'll eat my hat! (Clearly the speaker is saying that he doesn't believe even for one minute that the other person speaks Mandarin.)

Now, imagine that the speaker says these two sentences instead: "She's really 80 years old." "I don't think he can speak Mandarin." Do you see how bland, how plain those sentences are? They mean the same thing, but they don't have any of that sarcasm or harshness that give the ideas more depth, more meaning, more flavor. That's where the cultural influence comes into play.

I hope this explains why it would be better not to turn those sentences into the subjunctive, Chuncan. And thank you for a great question!

Richard Firsten

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