Grammar Wednesday!

cal_erg.gifHold on, now; this one might get a little tough.

Blue asked me the other day about when one uses “was” and when “were” is the more appropriate verb form in a sentence (thanks, Kizz, for finding the comment for me!).

In order to answer that question, I need to introduce you to some verb moods. A “mood,” in grammar speak, is a grammatical category that distinguishes verb tenses. There are a bunch of different kinds of verbal moods, but I’m only going to boggle your brains with two today.

The indicative mood makes an actual or factual statement, and is the one that is used most often in English. We say things like the indicative mood makes an actual or factual statement, or, it is the one that is used most often in English.

Okay, so maybe I’M the only one who says things like that, but you get the point.

The indicative mood tells us that something has happened, that something is happening, or that something will happen. There is no question; it’s a done deal.

The subjunctive mood however, is the one that expresses doubt or relates something that is contrary to fact. It is the form we use when we’re talking about hypothetical situations or when we’re making conditional statements, wishing, or praying.

We use verbs like may and might when we’re speaking about doubtful things – I might go to the party, but then again, I might not – and the word if is a good indicator of the subjunctive – If he doesn’t get stuck at any red lights on the way to the airport, he may just make his flight.

The verb to be, and all its varying forms, very often trips people up and is particularly tricky when we’re using the subjunctive. Indicative is easy – she is a nurse; I was at the scene of the crime, but I was only a witness; he said he will be here at five. All those verbs indicate something that is not in question – she graduated with a BSN, so she IS a nurse. Whether or not I was actually involved in the crime may be in question, but there’s no doubt that I WAS there. He’s a man of his word, so if he says he’ll be here at five, he’ll be here at five.

Put an if in front of those sentences, though, and you’ve got a whole other ballgame. If she were a nurse, she would have been able to help the man who had a heart attack in the grocery store. If I were at the scene of the crime, I may have been able to I.D. a perpetrator. If he were here when he said he’d be, I wouldn’t have had to take a cab home. The indicative forms of the verbs wouldn’t be correct here because she WASN’T a nurse, and was therefore unable to help the man. I WASN’T at the scene, so I was no help to the police. He stood me up, so I had to find my own ride back.

The subjunctive is also used when we’re expressing things that aren’t really happening. She walked as though her ass were on fire. Her ass isn’t on fire, but she was walking so fast, you’d think it were. We use the subjunctive mood there. If Susan had known she’d be called into work on Saturday, she wouldn’t have drunk so much on Friday night. She didn’t know, so she had no concerns about downing that whole bottle of Cuervo Gold all by herself.

The subjunctive is used to express wishes, as well; I wish it were snowing harder so they’d cancel school or she wished she were somewhere else as soon as she saw that Grizwold had been invited to the party, too. It’s not snowing hard enough to cancel school (or it likely won’t) and, dammit, there’s that annoying ex – who invited him, anyway? – well, there’s no getting out of it now because, obviously, she’s not anywhere else, is she?

Here’s how I remember when to use was and when to use were: you remember that song from Fiddler on the Roof? If I Were a Rich Man. I’m NOT a rich man, and I likely never will be (well, I know for sure that I’ll never be a man, but the rich part isn’t terribly likely, either). Unless I know for sure that something has, is, or will be happening, I use ‘were’ for my verb form.

Good luck – and keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!



Filed under Grammar

19 responses to “Grammar Wednesday!

  1. berna hul

    “The indicative voice tells us that something has happened, that something is happening, or that something will happen. There is no question; it’s a done deal.”

    The indicative mode of this sequence is obviously WRONG: “Nothing has happened; nothing IS happening; there are no reasons to anticipate that any damn thing will happen.”

  2. John

    Subjunctive is a mood, not a voice.

    “If I were” and “if I was” have been used interchangeably in hypothetical statements for the past 300 years.

  3. You’re right, John, and I’ve fixed my “voice” error.

    While you’re also right that “if I were” and “if I was” have been used interchangeably in hypothetical statements for a very long time, use alone does not make the statements correct – or even clear. This, from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English:

    It has long been conventional to observe that the inflected subjunctive is fast disappearing from English, and the statement is partly true. But particularly at the upper levels of both speech and writing the subjunctive is regularly used in Standard English, and even at the lower levels divided usage and the replacement of the subjunctive by the indicative occur only in certain grammatical situations. In conditions contrary to fact, for example, finite verbs such as arrive are rarely put into the subjunctive, except in the most careful Formal English; you’re more likely to hear ‘If he arrives in time’ than ‘If he arrive in time.’ With ‘was’ and ‘were,’ there is much more divided usage and much more argument about the appropriate usage, especially after verbs like wish: both ‘I wish that his argument were sounder ‘(subjunctive) and ‘I wish that his argument was sounder’ (indicative) are heard and seen today in Standard English. Some relic or fossil subjunctives (if I were you, far be it from me, if need be, and the like) also continue to be Standard; to say or write ‘If I was you’ is still Substandard and will be severely judged.

  4. If I understand the point of that excerpt, then what is emerging is a paradigm of ‘subjunctive’ mood inflections that resembles almost exactly the indicative paradigm, differing in one fossilised form, were. The possibility of zero-inflected, present subjunctive forms, like if I be curt, is in my view used nowadays only in allusion to archaic forms. The bible is full of “if I be” phrases.

    In any case, the subjunctive is clearly no longer productive in English like it is in, say, Italian. In fact, I have a sneaky suspicion that the subjunctive crept its way into English via French, and that it was never an indigenous category anyway.

  5. berna hul

    “…particularly at the upper levels of both speech and writing the subjunctive is regularly used in Standard English, and even at the lower levels divided usage and the replacement of the subjunctive by the indicative occur only in certain grammatical situations.”

    Whatever in Hell or halliburton are the upper and lower levels of speech and writing?

  6. Thanks! I sometimes think I am going nuts. I learned these things correctly way back when. But now, the way people try to correct my writing with the WRONG way, I start to question my memory!

  7. berna hul

    Jaŋari observed that “the bible is full of ‘if I be’ phrases.”

    Full though the bible be of those phrases, I’ll be surprised if Jaŋari can in fact point to even one or two of them.

  8. Corinthians 9:2, If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord.

    I should thank for that.

  9. Now, now – be nice to each other. I know that this stuff raises a lot of hackles, but let’s try to keep it civil, shall we? My classroom is a safe place…

  10. But Miss!
    The glove was clearly thrown at my feet, I had to save face and invoke some Corinthians!
    …and Berna started it!

  11. Yes, Janari, I know – I saw the whole thing. Still, let’s all do our parts to maintain a safe and fruitful learning environment.

    I mean, I love it when you all get into the discussion, but I’d rather it not get too ugly…

  12. John

    That excerpt from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English says nothing about clarity or correctness, it just points out the facts. I don’t think using “was” in hypothetical statements is any less or more clear than using “were”.

    Actually, it could be argued that “was” in “if I was” is the subjunctive – it rematches the subject with the verb in number (ie, uses “was” insteand of “were”) but still distinguishes itself from the indicative.

  13. John

    And altho some people don’t like “if I was you,” the forms “if I was,” “I wish I was,” “if he was,” etc (that is, without a following “you”) are standard, as the the Columbia Guide to Standard American English says.

    I wish my cold hand was in the warmest place about you – Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, 5 Feb 1711

    I wish H. was not quite so fat – Lord Byron, letter, 8 Dec. 1811

    I wish I was six feet tall and I wouldn’t mind if I was handsome – And More by Andy Rooney, 1982

    …and all staring, gravely, as if it were a funeral, at me as if I was the coffin – Henry Adams, letter, 15 May 1859

  14. You know what, though? I still don’t buy it. For me (and it may just be ME), was is always indicative. I was the coffin, metaphorically speaking. I was six feet tall, but have since shrunk. I was a newt, but I got better.

    We all know by now that a lot of English grammar comes down to style and preference. I prefer the subjunctive were, and that’s what I teach my students.

  15. John

    Fair enough! This is why I think usage is the final arbiter in determining what is “correct,” because anything else is just a matter of opinion.

    I think Jaŋari’s wrong: the subjunctive was present in Old English. I think the “were” form comes from the past subjunctive of wesan: singular wære, plural wæren.

  16. I don’t think I said anything to the contrary, John, I was referring to those ‘if I be…’ forms rather than ‘were’. Also, this is probably operating mostly independently of tense (and perhaps even aspect).
    But I’ll happily concede, my Old English is a little rusty.

  17. Pingback: Grammar Wednesday! « A Teacher’s Education

  18. John

    Here’s a good explanation of what I was trying to say, from alt.usage.english:

    In informal English, substitution of the past indicative form (“If I was…”) is common. But note that speakers who make this substitution are *still* distinguishing possible conditions from counterfactual ones, by a change of tense:

    Present Possible condition: “If I am”
    Past Possible condition: “If I was”

    Present Counterfactual condition: “If I were/was”
    Past Counterfactual condition: “If I had been”

  19. In other words John, the cognitive distinction between realis and irrealis, or actual and counterfactual, still holds, but it is no longer syntactically encoded with a separate ‘mood’ but merely an adaptation of the standard verb paradigm.

    I can dig it. Cross-linguistically this sort of thing is quite common. The language I’m working on has only past present and future tense affixes, but combinations of all three can derive various realis/irrealis aspectual distinctions.

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