Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Were or was? (The subjunctive)

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If only I were familiar with the subjunctive

I used to puzzle about sentences like this. Surely, I thought, ‘were’ should be ‘was’. After all, it’s incorrect to write:

I were familiar with the subjunctive.

I just couldn’t get my head around that ‘were’. Then I heard someone mention ‘the subjunctive’ — no, not a medical condition, but a type of verb.

In modern English, the verb ‘to be’ is the only verb that can be subjunctive. The subjunctive allows us to imagine something that might happen, or something we would like to be true.

And this is where the word ‘were’ comes in, because the subjunctive of ‘to be’ is ‘were’.

‘Were’ in this context is often used with the word ‘if’. For example:

If only he were good at grammar.

If she were plumper, she would be beautiful.

If I were you, I would leave.

It can also be used without ‘if’, for example:

Were I to go out I might see him.

And it can be used with ‘wish’, for example:

He wished the day were over.

To be or not to be…

The verb ‘to be’ usually takes familiar forms, such as:

– I am
– She/he is
– You are
– I was
– She/he was
– You were (this is not the subjunctive ‘were’ – it is just the past tense. For example: You were at home when I called earlier.)

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Written by Wordwatch

31/10/2009 at 4:33 pm

One Response

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  1. From the ‘After Deadline’ column in The New York Times:

    Subjunctivitis
    By PHILIP B. CORBETT

    I try not to dwell on the subjunctive. It’s grim terrain. Usually one rant a year or so is all I can muster, and I’ve covered my quota for this year.

    But how can I ignore this recent spate of problems?

    The Yankees would have an easier time scoring if Cano was more like his usual self.

    But Cano is not playing as he usually does; that’s the problem. So this is a contrary-to-fact condition and should take the subjunctive. Make it, “if Cano were more like …” (As a mnemonic device, my colleague Ken Paul invokes Tevye, a poor man but a fine grammarian: “If I were a rich man …”)

    If there was no lockout, Kreider would have been playing in Los Angeles on Friday when the Kings raised their Stanley Cup banner.

    Make it “if there were [or had been] no lockout.”

    Rodriguez did not directly answer when asked if he were unhappy with Girardi.

    Here’s the inevitable overcorrection problem. This construction does not require a subjunctive; we simply need the past tense to follow sequence-of-tense rules after “asked”: “asked if he was unhappy.”

    If It Were Easy, We’d Get It Right

    Even when we know there’s a problem, we’re not always sure how to fix it.

    An editorial originally said this:

    But if he [Mr. Romney] succeeded in repealing the reform law, which has many provisions that hold down costs for Medicare enrollees, most beneficiaries would see their annual premiums and cost-sharing go up. The average beneficiary in traditional Medicare would pay about $5,000 more through 2022, and heavy users of prescription drugs about $18,000 more over the same period, if the act was repealed, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Then an editor, apparently realizing that “was repealed” seemed wrong in this hypothetical condition, tried again for a later version, with this:

    The average beneficiary in traditional Medicare would pay about $5,000 more through 2022, and heavy users of prescription drugs about $18,000 more over the same period, if the act is repealed, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

    The present indicative “is repealed” in the “if” clause (known as the “protasis” of the conditional sentence) would work best if the main clause (the “apodosis”) included a simple future tense: “The average beneficiary will pay … if the act is repealed.” But with the conditional “would pay,” it’s better to use the subjunctive in the “if” clause: “if the act were repealed.”

    There was a clue in the preceding sentence:

    But if he succeeded in repealing the reform law, which has many provisions that hold down costs for Medicare enrollees, most beneficiaries would see their annual premiums and cost-sharing go up.

    Why the past tense “succeeded” to describe a possible future action? It’s not actually a past tense; that, too, is a subjunctive, correctly used here.

    Wordwatch

    16/11/2012 at 8:42 pm


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