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The Word

Fade away

The slow retirement of a tricky subjunctive

By Jan Freeman
August 23, 2009

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What we talk about when we talk about grammar is hardly ever actual grammar - the way we put words and sentences together in English. Most of the time, it’s new words, or new meanings for old words, that grab our attention. But earlier this month, John Carroll - who teaches at Boston University and blogs at Campaign Outsider - sent me a question that really is about grammar.

It was prompted by a New York Times review of “The Battle for America 2008,” which had two instances of subjunctive were that sounded wrong to Carroll. In the first, reviewer Michiko Kakutani asked if there was anything more to say, anything new to reveal, about last year’s presidential campaign. “Given the voluminous coverage of that race, it might seem as if the obvious answer to these questions were no,” she answered.

Later in the review, she wrote: “Mr. Axelrod went on to argue, presciently it turned out, that Mr. Obama’s profile . . . fit this historical moment better than Mrs. Clinton’s and that if he [Axelrod] were right, Mr. Obama could catalyze a political movement and prevail.”

Should, could, those weres be wases? wondered Carroll. I wasn’t at all sure - partly because both subjunctive verbs are deep in complex sentences, and partly because I’ve never agonized over subjunctive were. I learned a casual attitude from one of my first usage books, “A Dictionary of Contemporary English Usage,” by Bergen and Cornelia Evans.

Bergen Evans, an English professor and a popular usage maven in the mid-20th century, often criticized “rules” that were really just crotchets. And he said it was OK to use was instead of subjunctive were pretty much anywhere except in the expression, “if I were you.” “Was has been used as a past subjunctive for more than 300 years and is the preferred form today,” he wrote. Besides, he said, if you’re self-conscious about subjunctives, you’ll end up with a pretentious were where a was is correct: “To be safe, one should write as one speaks.” Taking that caution to heart, I resolved to use was unless it sounded shocking.

Now before anyone starts fretting about the erosion of precise distinctions, let’s remember that with any verb other than to be, we use the past-tense form to serve as a subjunctive in these counterfactual if-clause conjunctions. “I drove fast” and “If I drove fast” use the same verb, and we have no trouble telling indicative from subjunctive. Only to be, only in first and third person singular, uses a different form, not the plain past tense, in this construction: She was a princess, if she were a princess.

Obviously, we could get along without this were. But until we agree to chuck it, how do we choose between was and were? The subjunctive in an if clause, says the American Heritage usage guide, is used of something “presupposed to be false,” like “if I were rich.” If the something isn’t presumed false, but just unknown, you need an indicative verb: “If it was dark, he would have taken the flashlight.”

Even so, like Carroll, I would have used was in both Times examples. I could justify were in “the answers were no,” but the sentence was so hedged already - “it might seem as if” - that more tentativeness seemed like overkill. In the case of Axelrod’s “if he were right,” well, it’s no longer presumed false (that is, unproven); he was right.

These musings weren’t getting us anywhere, though; it was time to call in a genuine grammarian. So I sent my query to Geoffrey Pullum, coauthor of the imposing Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and a linguist at Edinburgh University. Was there an obvious cure, I asked, for our was-were puzzlement?

There was, he said: Have it both ways. The Times’s choice of the “irrealis were,” as it’s called in the higher grammarspeak, is correct; so is our preferred was. “In informal style, Standard English substitutes ‘was’ for the irrealis ‘were,’ ” Pullum explained. This simply regularizes the verb to the pattern of other English verbs, which all use the past tense form for the subjunctive: “If I went out and robbed a bank.”

And someday, he predicted, the difference will disappear. “The irrealis form is clinging by its fingernails to the cliff of extinction. Only (unlike with most species extinctions) its final extinction will not matter: absolutely nothing will be misunderstood and there will be no ill effects.”

Until then, we can choose either formal “were” or less formal “was” in almost every case. Bad news, perhaps, for editors and anyone else who prefers uniformity, but it’s very good news for those of us already defaulting to was whenever we get the chance.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.