So I’d like to think that if there’s anything I’ve learned since I started this blog nearly three years ago (yup, it’s been that long), it’s that a little flexibility goes a long way in talking about issues related to grammar, spelling, and language. Although my job as an editor requires me to be fairly precise in adhering to certain style guides, in my life outside of that work, I’m more interested in the nuances.
So I was surprised when I read “Fade Away: The Slow Retirement of a Tricky Subjunctive” by Jan Freeman that I found her thesis—that the subjunctive were is slowly fading away—tickling my peevologist’s funny bone.
Bergen Evans, an English professor and a popular usage maven in the mid-20th century, often criticized “rules” that were really just crotchets. And he said it was OK to use was instead of subjunctive were pretty much anywhere except in the expression, “if I were you.” “Was has been used as a past subjunctive for more than 300 years and is the preferred form today,” he wrote.
. . .
I sent my query to Geoffrey Pullum, coauthor of the imposing Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and a linguist at Edinburgh University. Was there an obvious cure, I asked, for our was-were puzzlement?
There was, he said: Have it both ways. The Times’s choice of the “irrealis were,” as it’s called in the higher grammarspeak, is correct; so is our preferred was. “In informal style, Standard English substitutes ‘was’ for the irrealis ‘were,’ ” Pullum explained. This simply regularizes the verb to the pattern of other English verbs, which all use the past tense form for the subjunctive: “If I went out and robbed a bank.”
And someday, he predicted, the difference will disappear. “The irrealis form is clinging by its fingernails to the cliff of extinction. Only (unlike with most species extinctions) its final extinction will not matter: absolutely nothing will be misunderstood and there will be no ill effects.”
Maybe it’s true what they say, but this is one bit of language evolution I have trouble accepting. I like using were, it feels comfortable to me. But what do you think: Is the subjunctive were a grammatical dinosaur whose bones should finally be laid to rest? Or are Freeman and Pullum reading its last rites a bit too early?