Mighty Red Pen

August 24, 2009

Were vs was

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Word wars — mighty red pen @ 7:36 pm
Tags: , ,

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?

11 Comments »

  1. I actually think that the subjunctive serves an important function in assisting us to keep clear distinctions. ‘Was’ may serve, but ‘were’ provides a marker of additional clarity and, in a world of fairly consistent miscommunication, should be appreciated for this service alone.

    If we were to abandon the subjunctive, we would lose one more of those seemingly small distinctions in our language through which clear expression is made possible. It may be the case that continued simplification of the rules of English is the trend. But it is in the twist, turns, and small details that English finds its flavor, nuance, and flexibility.

    Comment by David — August 24, 2009 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

  2. I don’t buy the argument that “was” impedes clarity. The fact that the peevologists can so easily identify cases where “was” should be “were” is evidence that they have no trouble understanding it.

    Lots of people still use “were” and that’s fine. But I think it will eventually disappear as it is leveled out by analogy with every other verb in English.

    Comment by goofy — August 25, 2009 @ 8:09 am | Reply

  3. often criticized “rules” that were really just crotchets.

    Crotchets?

    Comment by Katie — August 25, 2009 @ 11:10 am | Reply

  4. I find it ridiculous to think that such a common construct would become extinct. If anything, the English language of today is one of inclusiveness, not exclusiveness; hell, even “irregardless” is in the dictionary. If I were a prognosticator of parlance, I would respectfully disagree with the conclusion.

    Also, “was” in the subjunctive sounds kinda dumb.

    Comment by tk. — August 25, 2009 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

  5. As an author, when to use “were” as opposed to “was” is something I struggle with all the time. So, I say the sentence aloud, and use what sounds best. Seems like a simple solution to me. I do find myself using “were” more often than I use “was.”

    Comment by Linda Welch — August 25, 2009 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

  6. I teach ESL and I believe that this arguement is only the beginning of a slew of `simplifications` that are coming our way in English language. Subjunctive were is awkward, non-intuitive and frankly, it violates the subject-verb agreement rules. (I know it does not actually violate any rules, but it seems like that.)

    If English is boasting to be the international language, the irrealis `were` will have to go. Non-native English speakers have a hard time swallowing `I were` in a sentence and to be totally honest, I feel like a hypocrite teaching it as well.

    Personally, I use it more often than `I was` version, but I understand that it is strange and can be easily replaced. Yes, English is immersive, but it also sheds rules that can be omitted without losing meaning, form or function or else we`d still be talking like Shakespeare.

    Comment by Caitlin — August 25, 2009 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

  7. I only learned what the subjunctive was last year when I had to teach it to a class. So I started using it properly then. I’d be dead upset to have to drop it if it WERE to become unfashionable. In the old days, I’d have had to re-jig that sentence to ‘if it became unfashionable’ because I wouldn’t have been sure what was correct. Don’t tell me it’s all over. I was enjoying myself.

    Comment by Fran — August 26, 2009 @ 4:26 am | Reply

  8. @Katie: Yes, “crotchets” — these are “a highly individual and usually eccentric opinion or preference” according to Merriam Webster.

    Comment by mighty red pen — August 26, 2009 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  9. As an author, I am very aware that spoken English is different to written English. In a novel, play, cartoon or any other written form where everyday spoken language is represented, to put grammatically correct English into the mouth of a real-life character would often sound out of place. That said, I think grammatical rules should be followed as much as possible.

    Common problems with the subjunctive can be seen in the following everyday examples:

    1. “It is essential that she is at the meeting.”
    2. “It is necessary that every student wears a uniform.”
    3. “The doctors recommended that she takes a holiday.”

    How many people would notice the grammatical mistakes in the above sentences?
    The correct forms are (as, of course, everyone reading this would immediately notice…):
    1. “It is essential that she be at the meeting.”
    2. “It is necessary that every student wear a uniform.”
    3. “The doctors recommended that she take a holiday.”

    For anyone who still has difficulties, I devised my own simple rule of thumb for checking these: simply insert the word “should” into the sentence immediately before the tricky subjunctive. In fact, I often think the meaning is clearer with the word “should” added anyway, e.g. “the doctors recommended that she should take a holiday.”

    Unfortunately, I have to admit, my “should” trick does not always work. But where it doesn’t the correct subjunctive is usually obvious, e.g. “I hope that he finishes his homework on time.”
    (I would also generally remove the word “that” from such sentences.)

    I took the above examples from the “English Club” website.

    Comment by Nigel Benson — September 8, 2009 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  10. Nigel is talking about the mandative subjunctive: the uninflected form of the verb sometimes used in dependent clauses after verbs like “ask, demand, recommend, suggest, insist, be advisable, be necessary”. This is not to be confused with the “were” irrealis that MRP is talking about. Altho they are often both called “subjunctive”, they are very different in form, function and distribution.

    Comment by goofy — September 8, 2009 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  11. I remember asking my tenth grade English teacher to show me a complete conjugation of the English verb “to be” because I was so confused about when to use which past tense form. She never showed me one, but I did figure out what was going on when I learned about the subjunctive in Spanish class that same year. I have never been a grammar slouch, so it was strange to be so lost on something that seemed so simple. While I now know how to use was and were correctly, I would wholeheartedly vote for the elimination of the “irrealis were.” I disagree respectfully but strongly with those who argue that it provides a clearer meaning to a sentence; overall, I think it is more confusing that clarifying.

    Comment by Janice — September 14, 2009 @ 4:53 pm | Reply


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