Lois, Thanks. Whatever the questioner was getting at is a bit too esoteric for me to understand, but I really liked what you had to say. Recently, I have heard more and more people (newscasters, and other fairly literate folks) dropping the subjunctive ‘were’ in favor of the indicative ‘was,’ and was wondering what was going on and why they weren’t following the good-old-rules. You have helped answer this question, which has been bothering me for some time. The idea of contemporary usage versus traditional for if/were, etc. is appealing to me. It makes sense and eliminates one more lousy rule that has to be remembered, and decision that has to me made. As far as I’m concerned, it takes some of the junk out of subjunctive, as it were (‘as it was’ will never fly with those who know and love this particular subjunctive, and William Buckley would lose about 20% of what he has to say).
In her great little book ‘Woe is I’ Patricia T. O’Connor has a very nice discussion on the subjunctives, which I include below for your reading pleasure. Of course, much of what she says is obsolete if you subscribe to the contemporary usage. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know what the rules were historically (at least according to O’Connor’s), or what they are if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Buckleyite type, or if you are just a bit squeamish and prefer the traditional. And I can sympathize with the squeamites – old habits die hard, and when the ear becomes attuned to something, its difficult to retrain it (I still can’t say ‘for free,’ although I do now accept it as being sensible and correct, whereas some of the subjunctive stuff is just an outright pain in the ass, and it’s easy for me to say good riddance).
WOE IS I
by Patricia T. O’Connor
WISHFUL THINKING: I WISH I WAS . . .OR . . . I WISH I WERE?
‘Difficult do you call it, Sir?’ the lexicographer Samuel Johnson once sad after hearing a violinist perform. ‘I wish it were impossible.’
‘Were?’ Why not ‘I wish it was impossible?’ …… There’s a peculiar, wishful kind of grammar for talking about things that are desirable, as opposed to things as that really are. When we’re in a wishful mood (a grammarian would call it the subjunctive mood), ‘was’ becomes ‘were.’
‘They wish he weren’t so obnoxious.’ (He is so obnoxious) [I’ll have no difficulty dropping this one]
IFFY SITUATIONS: IF I WAS . . . OR . . . IF I WERE?
What a difference an ‘if’ makes. An ordinary, straightforward statement like ‘I was taller’ becomes quite another proposition when we insert one little word; ‘If I were taller.’
Why is this? It’s because there is a special, ‘what if’ sort of grammar that kicks in when we talk about something that is untrue. When we are in the iffy mood (the subjunctive mood, if you want to be technical), ‘was’ becomes ‘were.’ This happens when a sentence or a clause starts with ‘if,’ and what’s being talked about is contrary to fact:
‘If I were king, no one would pay retail. (I’m not king.)
‘If she were older, she’d know better. (She’s not older.)
‘We could go shopping if it were Saturday. (Today is not Saturday.)
Note: Not all ‘if’ statements fall into this category, only those that are undeniably contrary to fact. In cases where the statement may actually be true, ‘was’ remains ‘was’:
‘If I was rude, I apologize.’ ( I may have been rude.)
‘If she was there, I guess I missed her. (She may have been there.)
‘If it was Thursday, I must have gone to bed early. (It may have been Thursday.)
AS IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW
The same rules that apply to ‘if’ statements apply to those starting with ‘as if’ or ‘as though’:
“He acts as if he ‘were’ infallible.” (He’s not infallible.)
“She behaves as though money ‘were’ scarce. (Money is not scarce.)
Sometimes English slips through a warp and into another dimension. In cases where we’d normally use verbs ‘was’ or ‘were’ we use ‘be’ instead. You might have wondered why, for example, we say, ‘I was quiet,’ but ‘They requested that I be quiet,’ What’s gong on here? The answer is that in English we have a special way of suggesting or demanding something (here’s another example of the subjunctive mood). This is what you need to remember:
Use ‘be’ instead of ‘was’ or ‘were’ after someone ‘suggests,’ ‘demands,’ ‘asks,’ ‘requests,’ ‘requires,’ or ‘insists’ that something be done. [[oy vey!]]
‘I demanded that I be excused.’
‘The judge ordered that he be executed.’
‘Olivia insists they be admitted free.’
‘The law requires that you be fingerprinted.’
If ‘be’ sounds unnatural to your ear, just imagine an unspoken ‘should’ in front of it:
‘I demanded that I (should) be excused’
‘The judged ordered that he (should) be excused.
‘Olivia insisted they (should) be admitted free. [ha, O’Conner can’t bring herself to say ‘for free’ either – so I am not alone!]
‘The law requires that you (should) be fingerprinted’
By the way, the form of the verb used here – BE instead of ‘was’ or ‘were’ – is similar to the one used for a command: ‘BE good!’ ‘BE quiet!’ BE there or BE square!’
Note: Although ‘was, ‘were,’ and ‘be’ give us the most trouble when we’re suggesting or demanding something, other verbs must also be in the command form when they’re forced to give ‘command’ performances: ‘Mom demands that Ricky eat.’ ‘ We insist that she walk.’ ‘He urged that Barbara negotiate.’ ‘I suggested he go.’ Again, if this feels unnatural, imagine an unspoken ‘should’ in front of the verb: ‘I suggested he [should] go.
Ken G – May 8, 2002
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)