First Joan Osborne and now Ed Miliband.
- If God was one of us - Joan Osborne
- If I was prime minister - Ed Miliband
The background: a post on Pain in the English, a forum on English usage.
What a hopeless cad!
- If I was a hopeless cad, I apologize.
- If I were a hopeless cad, I would never apologize.
- 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.
When do we use subjunctive in English?
- 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
Conditionals in EFL (English as a Foreign Language)
|Zero||For universal and general truths|
|If + present simple, present simple|
|If you heat water to 100° C, it boils.|
|First||For probable conditions in the present or future|
|If + present simple, will + bare infinitive|
|If she works hard, she'll pass her exams.|
|Second||For 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.|
|Third||For 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.|
|Mixed||Mixes two conditional types, usually 2 and 3|
|If he hadn't passed that exam, he wouldn't have such a good job now.|
But why doesn't it say anything about subjunctive?
English File Upper-intermediate (Oxford)
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)
|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)
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary - if
(RATHER FORMAL) If I were in charge ...
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.
As if and as though etc.
- She behaves as if she was the Queen of Sheba.
- He acts as though he was somebody important.
Indicative and subjunctive compared
|I, he, she, it||was||were|
|we, you, they||were||were|
|other verbs,||eg: work|
|I, he, she, it||worked||worked|
|we, you, they||worked||worked|
|I, he, she, it||was being||were being|
|we, you, they||were being||were being|
|other verbs,||eg: work|
|I, he, she, it||was working||were working|
|we, you, they||were working||were working|
|I, he, she, it, we, you, they||had been||had been|
|other verbs,||eg: work|
|I, he, she, it, we, you, they||had worked||had worked|
|Past Perfect Continuous||Indicative||Subjunctive|
|I, he, she, it, we, you, they||had been working||had been working|
|be to (unreal past)||Indicative||Subjunctive|
|I, he, she, it, we, you, they||was to be||were to be|
|other verbs,||eg: work|
|I, he, she, it, we, you, they||was to work||were to work|
Do we sometimes use the subjunctive without realising it?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
It seems to be largely a matter of register
|If I / he / she / it were|
|If I / he / she / it was|
Looking at the move from were to was with Ngram Viewer
Second conditional forms
If I was / were
if he / she was / were
If only I was / were
If only he / she was / were
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 alt.usage.english.org 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.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage
- Joan Osborne - One of us - If God was one of us - No Subjunctive. What a sin!
- Exploring grammar - the Subjunctive
- Random thoughts - is the Subjunctive worth teaching?
- Third and Mixed Conditionals
- Conditionals in songs
- Lesson on I wish and if only
Reference - books
- New Fowler's Modern English Usage
- Practical English Usage (Oxford)
- Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE - Side and Wellman (Longman)
- English Grammar in Use - Raymond Murphy (Cambridge)
- English File Upper-intermediate (Newer edition also available)
- The Stories of English - David Crystal
Links - conditionals
- British Council
- BBC Learning English - Second conditional
- BBC Learning English - if I was / if I were
- English Club
Links - subjunctive (mainly British)
Links - subjunctive (mainly American)
- Wikipedia - see especially the section: Reduction in the usage of the subjunctive
- English Club - they allow was in informal, familiar conversation
- English Plus (prescriptive)
- Karen's Linguistics Issues
- Mary Ansell - English grammar