Wednesday, 14 January 2009

On if and was/were

A correspondent writes from Poland about the use of was/were in conditional sentences. He was taught to say If I were, etc., and was advised that If I was, etc. was substandard. But he's noticed that grammars today seem to be saying the opposite. Some grammars say that was forms are normal and were forms are formal. Some say that the two forms are interchangeable. 'Are we in a sort of transitional period?', he asks. Maybe, he adds, were is used only in stock phrases, such as If I were you.

Yes, we have to get that one out of the way, for a start. There are a couple of expressions where the were is idiomatic - as it were is the clearest case, as it allows no substitution of was. Similarly, when the conditional is inverted, was isn't possible: I would like to go, were I not working. If I were you is slightly less fixed, as it's possible to say if I was you as an informal variant. This has become increasingly common in standard English over recent years, and it's the norm in many regional dialects. It isn't that if I were you is formal, though, in standard English; it's stylistically neutral.

This differs from the situation in the 3rd person singular, where the was form seems to be the neutral one these days, with were becoming more formal. But it's a grey area. I heard a discussion the other day which went something like this:

A If Jane was right for the part, I'd cast her.
B But that's the point. Is she right?
A Well if she were, I'd cast her, that's all I'm saying...

The stress fell heavily on were. If it weren't for the extra emphasis, one might say that here the two words were interchangeable. I suspect that A could just as easily have said If Jane were right.... On the other hand, I doubt whether A would have said, with emphasis, Well, if she was .... Phonological highlighting of the contrast seems to make a difference.

I'm not sure about this being a transitional period, though maybe the pace of change is hotting up. Usage issues of this kind were being discussed in Fowler, nearly a century ago. And indeed, you can trace uncertainty between was and were back several hundred years. What I think has happened is that the attitude of grammarians has changed. Formally they would give credence only to the formal options. Today they recognize that everyday usage includes both. A full discussion would need to recognize both a formal/informal contrast and a speech/writing contrast. Personally I (think I) use was as my norm in speech, reserving were for more formal contexts. In writing, I (think I) use were as my norm. I have to say 'think' as I don't use either all that often!

There's an excellent discussion of the various possibilities in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 86-8.

12 comments:

Jake said...

"Formally they would give credence
only to the formal options. Today they recognize that everyday usage includes both"

Formally or formerly?

DC said...

A lovely example of an orthographic 'slip of the brain'. Thanks for pointing it out.

Mark said...

On a slightly tangential matter, I wish we could see a reasonably priced paperback Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I recoil at £130 (or £213 for the leather-bound version), but the "look inside" feature on Amazon demonstrates that it's the kind of book I could luxuriate in for a long time (rather like your own Encyclopedia of the English Language). Am I really the only person who would snap up a £40 paperback version of this behemoth? Love the blog, by the way.

Nigel Greenwood said...

There are also cases of hypercorrection, when "if" clearly means whether: eg "??He asked me if I were going".

And then there are cases where the "if" isn't hypothetical, as in "If [as you've just told me] he was French, why did you address him in German?"

DC said...

Certainly. A full statement of the grammar of 'if' would include these points. The hypercorrectness issue is especially important, I think.

DC said...

Re Mark: the only relevant paperback I know is the Student's Introduction, based on the big book, which came out in 2005.

baralbion said...

Sample chapters are available free here: http://www.cambridge.org/uk/linguistics/cgel/sample.htm. Chapters 1 and 2 are given in full.

Does that allow me to mention a point arising? Pages 9 and 10 of Chapter 1 discuss the use of ‘I’ in coordination either following a preposition or as object. The authors argue persuasively that it is illegitimate to plead for ‘me’ in such a position solely on the grounds that that’s what it is when the pronoun appears alone. They point out that there is another instance in which a pronoun behaves differently in coordination: ‘I don’t know if you’re eligible’ is a permissible English sentence whereas ‘I don’t know if she and you’re eligible’ is not.

So far, so good. But should they not also take into account the analogy with, to adapt their own example, ‘They invited our partners and us to lunch’? We never, I think, find *‘They invited our partners and we to lunch’. I would like to think that, given its prevalence, ‘They invited my partner and I to lunch’ is more than simply a case of hypercorrection, but I’d have welcomed an explanation of the apparent anomaly.

nicky said...

i think i use "if i were" almost exclusively...although if it has a "gonna" after it, i'd probably use "was"... "If I was gonna go, I would have bought the tickets already" or something...hell, i don't...

one use that doesn't get much attention i think is the conditional with was/were and the infinitive, i.e. in the Doors song "You know that I would be a liar/If I was to say to you, 'girl we couldn't get much higher'"

anyone ever had to tackle that one with a student before?

Bill Black said...

I learnt that 'were' is to be used if the situation is impossible, e.g. "If I were you" - it is impossible for me to be you.
'Was' is to be used if it is, or would have been possible, e.g. "If I was a train driver". I could be, or have been, a train driver.
BB

DC said...

It would be nice if such a simple distinction was/were the case!

kevin98230 said...

Is this kind of like "subjunctive" in Spanish for instance?

Nice Blog!

DC said...

Yes, these matters are traditionally discussed under the heading of 'subjunctive'.