Sunday, November 20, 2011

Subjunctive were revisited (again)

First Joan Osborne and now Ed Miliband.

What, you might ask, have the singer Joan Osborne and the leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, in common? The answer is that they've both been criticised for using was instead of were in unreal (aka counterfactual, non-factual) if statements:
  • If God was one of us - Joan Osborne
  • If I was prime minister - Ed Miliband
I've already written about Joan Osborne here. This discussion is mainly aimed at native speaker grammar fans, but as usual I've annotated more difficult words so that advanced learners can also follow along, if they feel so inclined

The background: a post on Pain in the English, a forum on English usage.

Somebody wrote in to Pain in the English quoting Ed Miliband as saying 'If I was prime minister, I would ...', suggesting that this was a grammatical error because he hadn't used the 'correct' subjunctive form, 'If I were your prime minister'.
I chipped in with my little bit: that according to the linguistics blog Bad Linguistics, all three prime ministerial candidates at last year's general election were on record as having used very similar second conditional expressions with was, not were. I added that this was not very surprising as this was 'probably what the majority of educated British speakers would say', and that personally I used both forms, as the fancy took me.
The discussion then got rather lively, but it has thrown up one or two interesting points. As the temperature here is rather cooler than at Pain in the English, and as space is unlimited, I thought it might be a better place to discuss them.
Disclaimer - Unlike some others I could name, I make no claims to be in any way an expert on grammar, and in particular the subjunctive. This is simply my way of trying to work it all out. On the other hand, as a reasonably well-educated native speaker of British English who teaches English for a living, I think I have a fairly reasonable grasp of what is currently acceptable in British English.
Pain in the English - I would just like to say that I like this forum, and most posts are not quite as controversial as this one.

What a hopeless cad!

I was somewhat bemused by the following pair of sentences, introduced near the beginning of the discussion. These are apparently meant to show the difference between real and unreal conditionals.
  • If I was a hopeless cad, I apologize.
  • If I were a hopeless cad, I would never apologize.
The first thing that surprised me was the use of the word cad, which outside P.G. Wodehouse, I don't suppose I've heard for about forty years.
The second thing was that the meaning of the first sentence wasn't immediately apparent as there's no time reference. This is what is sometimes called a false conditional; meaning 'if it is true that', and uses normal tenses. The second sentence is presumably about the speaker's general character and uses 'special tenses' (past with present meaning + would) for an unreal condition. We can 'translate' them as:
  • If (it's true that) I was a hopeless cad (last night), (then) I apologize.
    - If it is indeed true (and perhaps it is), then I do
  • If I were (by nature) a hopeless cad, I would never apologize.
    - But I'm not, so I will.
This pair of sentences appears on a few American websites, and is possibly used as a standard explanation in the US. But use of the subjunctive in Britain is not the same as in America.

When do we use subjunctive in English?

Apart from a few set expressions, there are two main uses of the subjunctive:
  • Present subjunctive after certain verbs, adjectives and nouns:
    He asks that we be ready to leave at eight.

  • Past subjunctive in unreal conditionals and certain hypothetical statements
    If he were prime minister he would save this country
The present subjunctive isn't used much in British English, although it is used rather more in American English. But in any case it doesn't involve the use of were, so we need talk no more about it here. I've written quite a lot about it on another post, Exploring grammar - the subjunctive.
So the beast in question is the use of the past subjunctive, but first we'll look at a couple of definitions for the sake of non EFL students.

Conditionals in EFL (English as a Foreign Language)

There are many ways to construct a sentence dealing with a true condition, but observers have noticed four or five main patterns, and the teaching of conditionals in EFL often follows these patterns. I've simplified the tenses a little; at higher levels students learn they can use aspects other than simple, for example.
ZeroFor universal and general truths
If + present simple, present simple
If you heat water to 100° C, it boils.
FirstFor probable conditions in the present or future
If + present simple, will + bare infinitive
If she works hard, she'll pass her exams.
SecondFor improbable or impossible conditions in the present or future
If + past simple, would + bare infinitive
If he didn't stay in every night, he would have a better social life.
ThirdFor impossible conditions in the past
If + past perfect, would have + past participle
If he hadn't studied so hard, he wouldn't have passed the exam.
MixedMixes two conditional types, usually 2 and 3
If he hadn't passed that exam, he wouldn't have such a good job now.
All we are really interested in are second and third conditionals, as these are the ones that deal with hypothetical conditions. So do most mixed conditionals, but they simply mix the patterns, so we don't need to discuss them any further. I've already dealt with them in some detail in this post.

But why doesn't it say anything about subjunctive?

As, apart from the was / were duo, subjunctive forms are identical to indicative forms (as we shall see in a minute), it has probably been decided not to confuse students by talking about a form which plays such a marginal role in English.
So up until advanced level, students are simply taught to use the past forms they already know, with the was / were duo seen as an exception. The past forms they know are, of course, in the indicative, but this term isn't used much in EFL either.
So let's look at some extracts from standard EFL materials:

English File Upper-intermediate (Oxford)

Second conditional ...
If I were taller, I'd be a policeman.
You can use was or were in the if clause, e.g. If I was taller.

Raymond Murphy - English Grammar in Use (Cambridge)

After if and wish, you can use were instead of was .... So you can say:
If I were you I wouldn't buy that coat.   or   If I was you ...
I'd go out if it weren't raining.   or   if it wasn't raining.
I wish it were possible.   or   I wish it was possible.

Michael Swan - Practical English Usage (Oxford)

We often use were instead of was after if. This is common in both formal and informal styles. In a formal style were is much more common than was, and many people consider it more correct, especially in American English.

Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary - if

If I was in charge, I'd do things differently.
(RATHER FORMAL) If I were in charge ...
So here we have English File, a standard course book; Murphy, the standard EFL grammar practice book; Swan, probably the standard EFL reference book; and one of the leading learner's dictionaries all saying more or less the same thing:
After if in second (unreal) conditionals you have a choice between were and was, although they vary slightly in how common or formal they say this is.
And this is the position of every EFL book I've worked with over the last ten years.
There are two other forms closely related to unreal conditionals, I wish ... and If only ...

Unreal past to refer to the present

  • If he were/was prime minister, he would introduce free beer for everyone.
  • If only he were/was prime minister (we could all have free beer).
  • I wish he were/was prime minister

Unreal past to refer to the past

  • If his party had won the election, they would have given us all free beer.
  • If his party had won the election (they would have given us all free beer).
  • I wish his party had won the election.
The principle is the same with I wish ... and If only ... as with conditionals, but the extent to which were is used varies a bit, as we'll see later.
'I wish I was in the land of the pharaohs, I wish I was in Egypt', promo on YouTube

As if and as though etc.

In unreal comparisons, a past tense can be used with present reference.
  • She behaves as if she was the Queen of Sheba.
  • He acts as though he was somebody important.
In American English it would probably be more common to use the subjunctive were here, but in British English, indicative was is more popular, except when being rather formal.
The subjunctive were can also be used after the expressions I'd rather and I'd sooner, but this is quite rare, at least in BrE.

Indicative and subjunctive compared

I'm only looking here at the forms used in unreal conditionals: past forms. For a complete list, see my other post.
Dividing the subjunctive into tenses like this might be rather controversial, but in fact I've found subjunctive equivalents of almost every past and present tense on the Internet (see other post).
The past perfect is an example of what some people call the 'hidden subjunctive', and I will try and prove that there actually is a subjunctive version of past perfect, although of course indicative and subjunctive look identical.
Past SimpleIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, itwaswere
we, you, theywerewere
other verbs, eg: work
I, he, she, itworkedworked
we, you, theyworkedworked
Past ContinuousIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, itwas beingwere being
we, you, theywere beingwere being
other verbs, eg: work
I, he, she, itwas workingwere working
we, you, theywere workingwere working
Past PerfectIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, it, we, you, theyhad beenhad been
other verbs, eg: work
I, he, she, it, we, you, theyhad workedhad worked
Past Perfect ContinuousIndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, it, we, you, theyhad been workinghad been working
be to (unreal past)IndicativeSubjunctive
to be
I, he, she, it, we, you, theywas to bewere to be
other verbs, eg: work
I, he, she, it, we, you, theywas to workwere to work
As we can easily see, the indicative and subjunctive forms are identical, except for 1st and 3rd persons singular where the verb be is involved, either as a main verb or as an auxiliary.
This being the case, it's hardly surprising if people iron out the differences and use the same system for everything.

Do we sometimes use the subjunctive without realising it?

Some people say that we are in fact using subjunctive whenever we use an unreal conditional, but that we only realise it we are when we use the one instance where it varies from the indicative: were instead of was. This is the so-called hidden subjunctive, and there is, I believe, a way of testing this out, which is to look at inversion.
At advanced level, EFL books start to talk about the 'Unreal past', that is the use of past tenses to refer to hypothetical conditionals, etc. I believe the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) takes a similar approach, calling it the 'Irrealis'
Most books use this as an amalgam of indicative and subjunctive, with was / were still being treated as a sort of exception (but now referred to as the subjunctive). A few others use the term 'Unreal past' only for the indicative and introduce the idea of a separate subjunctive.

Inverting conditionals

We can invert some conditionals, omitting if, when there is an auxiliary (helping) verb or the verb to be. This is rather formal.
  • If he were my son, I'd give him a piece of my mind.
  • Were he my son, I'd give him a piece of my mind.
  • If I were to offer them 10% discount, they would probably accept.
  • Were I to offer them 10% discount, they would probably accept.
But we can't do this with was. It just doesn't sound natural.
  • If he was my son, I'd give him a piece of my mind.
  • Was he my son, I'd give him a piece of my mind.
  • If I was to offer them 10% discount, they would probably accept.
  • Was I to offer them 10% discount, they would probably accept.
Nor can we use contracted negatives; we have to use full negatives:
  • If it weren't for the rail strike, we could travel tomorrow.
  • Were it not for the rail strike, we could travel tomorrow.
  • Weren't it for the rail strike, we could travel tomorrow.
All this suggests to me that we can only invert with a true subjunctive and that when we use the was form, we are using an indicative, not an incorrect subjunctive. It also suggests that those people who argue that the past perfect form is in fact (a hidden) subjunctive are probably right, as inversion here is entirely possible.
  • If he had known, he would have done something.
  • Had he known, he would have done something.
  • Had he not been informed, he wouldn't have been able to do anything.

The was / were debate - what do other people say?

In BrE the subjunctive mood is most likely found in formal writing and speech ... But is seldom obligatory, and indeed is commonly (?usually) invisible because the notionally subjunctive and the indicative forms are identical.
New Fowler's 3rd edition
According to traditional thought, statements about the conditional future such as “If I were a carpenter . . .” require the subjunctive “were,” but “was” is certainly much more common. Still, if you want to impress those in the know with your usage, use “were” when writing of something hypothetical, unlikely, or contrary to fact.
Professor Bryans - Common Errors Usage
... as a matter of grammar, the instinct for using subjunctives rightly is dying with the subjunctive, so that even the still surviving were is often used where it is completely wrong.Were, however, is often right and almost necessary: other subjunctives are never necessary, often dangerous, and in most writers unpleasantly formal. (Note that almost)
Henry A Fowler - The King's English (1908)
In formal English a distinction is usually made between [was and were] but even here examples such as if she was rich are frequently encountered. This may annoy some people who have invested loads of time getting the distinction right, but there is nothing ugly or confusing in it.
Bad Linguistics blog
In hypothetical sentences, were is usually used instead of was is important to note that was can also be used (although still considered incorrect by some grammarians), and is, in fact, more common in informal English.
Karen's Linguistics Issues
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
Mark Israel at
Fowler noted that the subjunctive was "seldom obligatory" and Somerset Maugham declared half a century ago: "The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is put it out of its misery as soon as possible." Would that that were so.
... As with the hyper-corrective misuse of whom instead of who, however, using the subjunctive wrongly is worse than not using it at all, and will make you look pompous and silly.
The Guardian Style Guide
While most of these commentators recommend using the subjunctive to give your writing extra elegance, none condemn the use of the indicative in informal speech. Which is exactly how Miliband used it. In the UK at least, was is perfectly acceptable in informal usage. And remember 'informal' doesn't mean 'incorrect'. I'm pretty sure I use both, depending on the context and how the fancy takes me.

It seems to be largely a matter of register

In formal English, were is probably more appropriate then was (I really don't like the word 'correct' in these contexts). Here is my idea of how these two forms fit into the different registers:
If I / he / she / it were
If I / he / she / it was
Note - The fixed expression If I were you is so well established, that it would sound unnatural to use was here

Looking at the move from were to was with Ngram Viewer

Now for some Ngram graphs. Ngram Viewer is a service from Google Books developed by academics at Harvard. It shows the instances of chosen phrases in a sample of the books Google have digitised.
It is not perhaps as scientific as using corpora such as the British National Corpus or COCA, but it is very easy for anyone to use.
In each pair, the first graph shows use in books in British English, the second in books in American English. You can click on any graph to go to Ngram Viewer, and try it out for yourself.
It should be noted that these show usage in books, which we could reasonably expect to be more formal than speech, where I think the move to was is likely to be much larger, as suggested at Karen's Linguistics Issues.

Second conditional forms

There is a definite convergence between the use of were and was. This convergence is happening in all forms, and it seems to be just as marked in the US as in the UK

If I was / were

if he / she was / were

If only

There has been some convergence, but in the last ten to twenty years there seems to have been a revival of the were forms in the UK.

If only I was / were

If only he / she was / were

I wish

Although more common, were never had such a lead over was as in the other two forms. In British English it looks as though was has now overtaken were, and in American English, it's getting pretty close.

I wish I was / were

I wish he / she was / were

My answers to some of the points made at Pain in the English

  • Anybody who went to a 'decent school' would know were is the correct form.
    Ed Miliband - Haverstock Comprehensive School ('good overall, with potential to become outstanding' Ofsted), Oxford, the LSE and visiting scholar at Harvard. Probably rather better educated than most of us! Well enough educated, perhaps, to know he has a choice.
  • Why am I called a pedant if I use the correct form - were?
    I don't call anyone a pedant for using were. I use it myself sometimes. But I might call pedantic somebody who insists that I am wrong to use was in non-formal contexts.
  • The most annoying thing about pedants is that they are usually correct
    From my point of view it is nearly always the opposite. See for example this essay at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, or Motivated Grammar's National Grammar Day collections for 2011, 2010 and 2009.
  • I was taught English at a reputable international school in the seventies, and they taught us that were was the correct form.
    In Britain, prescriptive grammar was the norm in schools until about 1970. I was taught all sorts of things at school which would get you funny looks today. Language changes.

    ".. it was only through the school system that prescriptivism had been able to propagate itself. In the UK, from the 1970s, changes in school syllabuses and examination systems heralded a new dispensation, with an unthinking adherence to mechanical sentence analysis and old-style canons of correctness being gradually replaced by broad-based investigation of the forms and functions of language in all their social manifestations." David Crystal - The Stories of English p523
  • I think your statement [about was] "that's probably what the majority of educated British speakers would say" is well wide of the mark.
    Look back at what the highly respected Professor Bryans at Common Errors, Mark Israel at and Karen at Karen's Linguistics Issues say, and they are talking about the US, where use of the subjunctive is probably more common than in the UK.
  • 'Correct' use of language has nothing to do with prescriptivism.
    Except that many of these so-called 'correct' usages came from the prescriptivists. It also depends on your definition of 'correct'. Many writing websites seem to equate 'correct' with 'formal'. Most of us use formal English fairly rarely. Again, see Motivated Grammar's National Grammar Day collections for 2011, 2010 and 2009.
  • 'Common usage' doesn't make it correct.
    There is no rational answer I can give to this one, it's a matter of your point of view. I go along with Quintillius' dictum 'Custom is the most certain mistress of language.' Others seem to rather look down on custom.
  • All linguists think that there is no such thing as 'correct'.
    I think the majority view is that what is acceptable and sounds natural to a competent native speaker is in general correct, and conversely that what is not, is not. But see this post at Motivated Grammar, and this one at Arrant Pedantry to get it from the horse's mouth.
  • The subjunctive is a mood not a tense.
    The indicative is also a mood, but it has tenses. So why can't the subjunctive? It certainly has different times and can be used in continuous and perfect aspects as well as simple.
  • Many sources state that "If I were" is the correct form of the past subjunctive of the verb to be
    And they are perfectly correct. The question is not as to the form of the subjunctive, but as to whether we always have to use the subjunctive in unreal conditionals, or have a choice between subjunctive and indicative.
  • You may of course use language incorrectly if you want to. You can also wear your cap backwards if you want.
    And anybody has the right to sound like a toffee-nosed pedant if they so choose. Sorry, but this is just sheer (unfounded) intellectual snobbery. And a bit of a giveaway - in BrE we say back to front.

Final note

Even though the defenders of was at least provided some evidence to support their viewpoint when asked, it was either mocked, especially MWDEU, or ignored. This disdain is somewhat puzzling, considering MWDEU's reputation (see next section).
The proponents of the pure 'correct' form, on the other hand, produced not one jot of evidence to support their claim that this was the one and only 'correct' use. At least not up till the time I thought it was better to retire. This sounds a bit like assertionism to me.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage

'[MWDEU] is critically acclaimed by linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who calls it "the best usage book I know of... utterly wonderful." It is known for its historical scholarship, analysis, use of examples, and descriptive approach. It has more than 2,300 entries, and includes more than 20,000 quotations from prominent writers.' (Wikipedia). It is online free at Google Books. Update - Unfortunately, this is no longer true, but it's not expensive and just about the best $28 dollars worth I've ever splashed out on.

Related posts

Reference - books

Links - conditionals

Links - subjunctive (mainly British)

Links - subjunctive (mainly American)

Links - discussion about usage


Baiba Svenca said...

That was impressive! You have done a thorough research of these two little words; it felt as if I was listening to a lecture at the university (just realised that I have unconsciously used "was").
I tell my students to use "were" in conditionals but they say "was" is correct because that is what they have heard everywhere where they hear English. Now I give in. Let it be "was". In EFL it is enough.

Areti said...

Hello! I found out about your blog from Baiba's tweet, and I was equally impressed by your in-depth study of various aspects of the English language. As a non-native EFL teacher (and eternal learner), I am very interested in your posts as they help me understand better how the English language works.

Warsaw Will said...

@Baiba - I think it's more a matter of style and register nowadays, than of grammar. As long as they know the options and that in some circumstances, people will expect 'were', they can make their own choices.

However a lot of my students have already learnt 'were', and if they're more comfortable with that, fine. The younger ones soon pick up what others are saying. Have you noticed how many of them use 'like', as in 'There were, like, ten of us' etc? None of us taught them that.

Warsaw Will said...

@Areti - Hi and welcome. I had a quick look around your blog, and it looks really interesting, especially the stuff you've put on Scribd. It looks as though you've done a lot of work there. Do you do it on Word before uploading, or do you have some special program?

Areti said...

Hi! Thanks for your nice words about my blog and my work! I use EclipseCrossword to make my crossword puzzles. Otherwise, I do everything on Word.

Baiba Svenca said...

Will, I'd gladly let my students use whatever form they prefer but for the exams which are formal and demand knowing the standard. That's my dilemma.
Areti, I'm glad I led you to this fantastic blog which is a goldmine if you are a language lover :-)
Thanks Will!

Leo said...

Indeed, a goldmine. Like your (anti)grammar rants. Will definitely share it with other language lovers on Twitter and will be checking back often.

Warsaw Will said...

@Leo - Thanks for your remarks. But I do hope you don't think I'm anti grammar. On the contrary, the more I do this blog, the more fascinated I become with grammar. But the natural grammar of standard everyday English as she is spoken, rather than the pedantic approach to grammar I was ranting against here.

Leo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leo said...

@Warsaw Will - I am with you there. Fascinated with grammar but often annoyed with prescriptive / pedantic / pedagogic rules. You might like my post on the subject: