U SUCK @ GRAMMAR: Was vs. Were Subjunctive

U SUCK @ GRAMMER* is a column I write (with editing help from my friend Ashley because you guys are super critical) that teaches a basic grammar lesson.  It's usually based on recent blunders and personal pet peeves.  Previously,  we've looked at what the hell "biweekly" means, the tricky difference between "affect" and "effect," where to put "I" instead of "me," and how the hell to use apostrophes.  Today, we're going to tackle:

U SUCK @ GRAMMER: "Were" vs. "Was" in the Subjunctive

My first true love was Paul Simon.  I owned every album, knew every word, read every liner note, rewound and re-watched his scene in Annie Hall over and over again.  I, along with approximately 15 other people in the world, actually purchased (with money) a VHS copy of his directorial debut, One Trick Pony. (I'll sell it to you for $10 or best offer.)  Obviously, Paul Simon is one of the greatest poets and lyricists of our or any age.  But in one sad instance, he betrayed me.

This is the chorus from the 1966, #5 Billboard hit off the double-platinum Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme album, "Homeward Bound:"

Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home, where my thought's escaping
Home, where my music's playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me

But it's not "I wish I was," Paul, it's "I wish I were," because you're using the subjunctive tense!  And I sing it that way over Paul's voice every time it comes on the radio because I truly am an asshole.
The subjunctive is a grammatical mood that indicates "unreality," i.e., a wish, desire, hypothetical, possibility, etc.  The background is a little complicated, but the rule of thumb is largely that whenever you say that you "wish" something, you should use the verb form "were" instead of "was."  This seems counterintuitive until you learn it and then it grates on you all day long because people never say it correctly.

Grammar Girl recommends thinking of the song "If I Were a Rich Man," from the musical Fiddler on the Roof to remember the correct version (and to prove that gay songwriters are way better at grammar than straight ones). Michael Leddy reminds us that it's always "If I were you," and never "If I was you," because I'll never be you.

However, like the mistake we sometimes make defaulting to "so and so and I" instead of "so and so and me" no matter what the context, this rule isn't quite as simple as "if you use 'if,' you use 'were.'"  There's an annoying caveat that might, at first, make you want to throw up your hands and just go with Paul Simon, but makes more sense with some examples.  This rule requires you to use that old English class favorite, context clues. 
No, you idiot, I wish she WERE grammatically correct!

You see, sometimes you can use "if" or "could" to introduce phrases that are NOT in the subjunctive mood.  Sometimes, "if" can still be part of an indicative phrase, which requires "was."

Basically,  the realistic potential of the possibility you're discussing informs whether you use "was" or "were."  In circumstances where you believe the thing you're referencing reasonably will happen, or reasonably could have happened, the sentence is indicative and you can use plan old "was."  In circumstances where you're referencing something "contrary to fact" as this blogger succinctly put it, you use "were."

That's why "If I were a rich man..." uses "were," because Tevya in Fiddler is not a rich man, nor does he reasonably believe he will become one. And Paul Simon is wishing he were going home, while knowing that he is not going home, and is therefore expressing a statement contrary to fact.

However, if you're trying to explain a friend arriving late to a party, you could say, "if Joe was still at work when I left at 7:00, he might have missed the bus."  Since Joe was at work when you left at 7:00, that statement is not obviously false, and in fact may actually be exactly what happened, it's not subjunctive. And it just sounds right, doesn't it? 

How about this: what if you're talking about your dumb, hot friend Roger.  You could say "if Roger was to keep working out like he has been, he'll look smokin' hot by the end of the summer." Because Roger is working out and it's not contrary to fact to assume he'll continue, this is indicative. But you could follow up by saying "I just wish Roger were not such a dumbass."   Because, of course, Roger will never not be a dumbass, and to posit anything else is just wishful thinking.

*Grammar is intentionally spelled incorrectly as "grammer" in the title to parody ironically incorrect use of the word. Don't be a douchenozzle and try to point out that we spelled it wrong.

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Write comments
Mr. Dussel
June 15, 2012 at 2:58 PM delete


June 15, 2012 at 3:03 PM delete

If you was half as smart as you think you is, you wouldn'a spelled "grammer" wrong.

aliya seen
November 2, 2015 at 1:36 PM delete

English writing is quite tricky because we have so many grammar mistakes but now we have spelling correction software that is wonderful and work like a magic.


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