If I Were, If I Was

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Sep 252015

Let’s talk about using the subjunctive. After all, if they aren’t teaching it in school (unless you take foreign language), and if I fail to describe it a bit here, then I have no business ranting about its decline.

First of all, note this: in English, the verb forms for the subjunctive are the same as for the indicative, except for first person and third person singular. That means that much of the time it won’t matter whether you realize you’re in subjunctive or not because you’ll just happen to get it right anyway.

But … what about first person and third person singular? Let’s look at first person first.

First Person

The most common way to get into a subjunctive mood (or mode) is with an If statement that is either false, probably false, or hypothetical.

Suppose I did not go to the game yesterday, and suppose I went to the grocery store instead. At the grocery store, I knocked over the pile of pumpkins. Thus, I could say:

If I were at the game yesterday, I wouldn’t have knocked over the pumpkins.

Now suppose that I did go to the game two weeks ago. I wore my blue sweater at the game (the air was chilly). Someone comes up to me the next day and says, “Hey, I saw you at the game last night. You were wearing a green sweater.”

I could say, “You must be thinking of someone else. If I was at the game, I’d be wearing my blue sweater.”

Indeed, I was at the game, so the conditional is true.

Third Person

Replace the “I” in the previous examples with “Aunt Ruth.”

If Aunt Ruth were at the game, she wouldn’t have knocked over the pumpkins. (She wasn’t at the game; she went grocery shopping instead.)

If Aunt Ruth was at the game, she’d be wearing her blue sweater. (In this example, Aunt Ruth did go to the game in question.)

There are other cases and examples to talk about, and we’ll discuss it further in the near future. Until then …



Dixie and the Decline of the Subjunctive

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Sep 242015

You know how you’ll just be sitting there and suddenly you realize a song is going through your head? And, in fact, sometimes when that happens you realize that the song has been going through your head for a long time (as in days)?

Well, that happened to me earlier this week. I was driving down the road, thinking about all the things going on. I had to stop at the grocery store; I had to pick up my son from piano lessons; I had to stop at the post office; I had to stop at Target to pick up some COTTON tee-shirts; etc. Then, out of the blue, it hit me. I think it was the word “cotton” that tipped me off. I was playing the song “Dixie” in my mind, over and over again.

It’s such a catchy tune. Even Abe Lincoln said that.

“Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton …”

Hold on just a minute (I guess I should say one cotton-picking minute). Where is the subjunctive? The song should be “Oh I wish I were in the land of cotton …”

It set me to wondering.

So, I’ve always been interested in history and politics. There was a stretch of time (like, the 1970s) when I was convinced that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. Department of Education and, in an effort to destroy American productivity and to produce a generation of children barely capable of tying their own shoes, prescribed a megaton of busy-work, labeled as homework. By spending hours and hours on meaningless homework, we would be prevented from having time to spend on real things.

Of course, that probably wasn’t the case. Even if it were, I spent my spare time watching television.

Anyway, long story short, I now wonder if the Confederate States of America developed / promoted this song (Dixie) so that we all would lose our sensitivity to the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive (which lends itself to wishes, hypothetical questions, and important / recommended / insisted upon matters) mood as a literary device is another dial on your English language control panel. It’s like the equalizer on your stereo console.

We had an old Harmon Kardon amp when I was a kid. Actually, it belonged to my Uncle Steve or Uncle Tom, but they left it at my grandma’s house where we lived. Anyway, the amp had one dial called Ambiance. I would play my record albums and fiddle with the Ambiance dial, but I could never distinguish a difference in sound. It either didn’t work, or my Aerosmith and Foghat albums didn’t have any ambiance to begin with — not sure which.

In today’s culture, the subjunctive button is still there but it’s getting little use.

Would that that were not so.


 grammar  Comments Off on DWTGS
Apr 292011

I’ll be the first to admit that my knees wobbled as my partner and I warmed up in preparation for taking the dance floor. After all, it had been years since my last competition — back in fifth grade, when Mary Jo Sue Bobby Bootenshaker and I won the Hokey Pokey Championship — and I still wasn’t completely sold on the idea of performing on Dancing with the Grammar Stars.

“You’ll do fine,” whispered my dance partner during the pause between contestants. “Remember the scene in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ where Fred Astaire dances on the walls? That’s all you have to do.”

“Thanks, Aunt Ruth. Now I feel really confident,” I said with a slight smile. “By the way, you look marvelous in that dress. How, uh, how did you manage to squeeze into it?”

She was wearing a size two something or other — the local paper would describe this as a lovely chiffon chantilly lace with a dollop of meringue — that was perhaps ten sizes too small. Envision trying to squeeze a Sherman tank into the bag of peanuts that the airline generously gives you on the short hop from Frankfurt, Germany to Wichita, Kansas, and you’ll be pretty close.

“It took a lot of grease and I had to borrow a high-powered vacuum from Jim Bob’s Vacuum and Automobile Deodorizer Store (‘Not Only Do We Suck, But We Smell Too’). I don’t think it’s ever coming off. I may as well have just had it body-painted on me.”

“Uh, no,” I gasped, suddenly feeling dizzy.

“What’s wrong, nephew, are you nauseous?” Aunt Ruth exclaimed.

“No, I’m nauseated,” I replied.

“You are nauseous … you are making me nauseated.”

“Oh don’t start that again, Aunt Ruth. Besides, we have bigger fish to fry.”

“Fish? How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“I went surf fishing the other day and brought home a nice assortment of fish that I thought I would grill for you. If you was to come over tomorrow afternoon …”

“If you were,” I corrected.

“No, I’m not. I’m asking you,” replied a flustered Aunt Ruth.

“You said, ‘If you was,’ but you clearly meant, ‘If you were,'” I remarked.

“And why would that be, oh Graceful Gorgon of Grammar?”

“Because you are using the subjunctive.”

“I think you’ve got subjunctivitis of the brain or something, Nauseating Nephew.”

“We can’t neglect the subjunctive form, Aunt Ruth. It’s going out of style, but it’s still important.”

“And why is that?” Aunt Ruth was tapping her foot impatiently.

“Because we need a way in our glorious language to express conditions contrary to fact, or requests, or wishes.”

“Oh, obviously,” she sighed. “Well as long as we’re here, tell me, precious nephew, how one should use the subjunctive?”

“I’m glad you asked.”

An announcement blared over the speakers. “Aunt Ruth and Nauseating Nephew, it is requested that you be ready to dance.”

“Oh that’s weird,” said Aunt Ruth. “Shouldn’t he have said ‘that you are ready to dance’?”

“Nope,” I replied. “That’s the beauty of the subjunctive. Present tense verbs do not change to indicate the subject’s number or person. The subjunctive always uses the base form of the verb (be, jump, sing) with all subjects.”

“Wow, that’s cool,” replied Aunt Ruth. “Could you give me more examples please?”

“Sure, Aunt Ruth. Take a look at the following.”

It is important that you be well-rested.
It is vital that she drink her orange juice each morning.
We asked that he eat less before tomorrow’s test.

“Now, note that there’s only one past tense form of be, and that is were.”

If I were you, I’d have picked a dress about twenty sizes larger.

“Hey, it’s almost time to dance. Here’s your mango,” she said, handing me a fruit.

“Mango? What’s this for?”

“That’s the dance we’re doing, silly.”

“Aunt Ruth, it’s not the mango, it’s the tango.”

She turned pale. “If I were to suddenly disappear, don’t be too surprised. I’ve been practicing the wrong dance.”

“Don’t worry, Aunt Ruth — and good use of the subjunctive, by the way.”

“Uh, thanks. Now, tell me once again when we use the subjunctive?”

At that moment, our dance routine began. I wrapped my arm around Aunt Ruth’s waist — no small feat — and began. As we made our way across the dance floor, we wowed the judges with our own special version of the tango. Using our Nebraska roots, it was actually a combination tango and square dance.

“So … Aunt Ruth … first of all, you use the subjunctive in contrary-to-fact clauses beginning with if. For example, if I were to be a judge, I’d give us a 10. Since I’m not a judge, I use were instead of was.”

“Second, Aunt Ruth, do not use the subjunctive mood when the condition exists or may exist. For example, if she wins the dance contest, she’s going to take a month off. Here you use the normal wins instead of the subjunctive win.”

“Third, use the subjunctive mood when expressing a contrary-to-fact wish. I wish that she weren’t stepping on my feet. I wish that my dance partner weren’t smelling so …”


Aunt Ruth hit me over the head with an umbrella. I guess I deserved that.

“Use the subjunctive mood for that clauses that are requests or suggestions. Aunt Ruth asks that all her dance partners be graceful. Here, use be instead of are.”

“And finally, there are some expressions that use the subjunctive mood because they are remnants from days of old when the subjunctive mood was much more commonly used. The phrase as it were comes to mind.”

We finished our routine to an uproar of applause.

“If I were to have paid money to be in the audience, I’d be happy with our performance.”

“Exactly, Aunt Ruth. Exactly.”