Friday, April 26, 2013

GrammatiCats: Was and Were

"Pff, what?  WAS and WERE?  Who doesn't know how to use those?  I 'was' going to read this post, and you 'were' going to write something worth my time.  Handled!"

I know, right?

But then where the dickens do we get "If I were you", and how come Beyoncé's singing about "If I Were A Boy"?  Did Loudon Wainwright screw up in writing "I Wish I Was a Lesbian"?  Should it be "I Wish I WERE a Lesbian," or does it even matter?

These are the burning questions on which our tiny grammatical planetoid turns.  Join us now for a very special episode of "Days of Our Conditional Verb Tenses."

Pinkie Rating: 4

Actually, let's step out of English for a sec.  Here, have some French - it's good for you.

1.  Pensez-vous qu'elle peut réussir?
2.  Pensez-vous qu'elle puisse réussir?

Both of these sentences say "Do you think she can succeed?"   Notice how they're identical, except for the verb, "can".  That's because in these two sentences, it's in:

1.  the indicative mood - the speaker is sure she can succeed: he's treating it as a definite fact.  He's only asking if YOU think so too.

2.  the subjunctive mood - the speaker isn't sure she can succeed: it might happen, or it might not.

We English-speaking folks use the indicative all the time when we're talking about real things in the real world.  "Dinner is ready."  "I love you."  "The check's in the mail."

But think about the difference between "the check was in the mail - I dropped it off myself" and "Okay, let's say the check WERE in the long would it take to get there?"  That second sentence is in the subjunctive, because we're talking about something imaginary, hypothetical, or contrary to actual fact.

This is why we have:
  • If I were you (but I'm not)
  • I wish he were here (but he's not)
  • She looked as if she were going to object (but she hasn't yet)
And this, gentle readers, is why Beyoncé is right and Mr. Wainwright is wrong.  (But don't hold that against him - it's still a fantastic song.)
So when we change "was" into "were", we're really changing an indicative sentence into a subjunctive one.  Half the time, you don't even notice yourself doing this, because the verb was going to be "were" regardless!

Indicative: When you were here
Subjunctive:  I wish you were here

= same difference!

Notice, though, how we still use the indicative for regular everyday unknown things:
  • I'm not sure if he was going to leave early  (he might have left early)
  • If she was here before, she's definitely gone now  (she might have been there) 
  • Unless he was enrolled before the 31st, we won't have his records.  (he might have been enrolled)
You see the difference between these and our first group of examples: the subjunctive sentences are definitely not true, or haven't become true yet, while the indicative sentences actually could be true - we're just not sure whether they are or not.

Oh, and speaking of whether:

You might have noticed that a lot of these subjunctive sentences have an "If" in there somewhere.  True indeed!  But we use the indicative when "if" is substituting for "whether."  Don't be tempted to change "I asked if he was going" to "I asked if he were going", for example: since you had to ask, his going-ness was enough of a possibility for it to fall under that same list of "mights" above, and we don't need the subjunctive.

"Yeah," you might say, "this is cool and all, but I... kinda don't always follow the rules."

And you know what?

That's really pretty much okay.  The subjunctive has already fallen out of much of the English language, and it's continuing to decay as we neglect it ever more frequently in everyday speech.  As it stands right now, unless you mess up a set expression ("If I were you", for example), the average Joe on the street won't even notice a mistake in your saying "I wish he was here". 

But it's good to know the subjunctive and how to use it, because (if I may depart from cat memes for a moment), it can definitely add a certain richness to your writing --

-- even if you're not Joss Whedon.

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1.  Our own voracious Peaches
2.  Pete, courtesy of my own sweet sister!
3.  Shelter kitties, courtesy of Dr. C.  (I don't know why, but these two cubicle cats crack me up!)
4.  Not a cat!  Just a meme, borrowed from the good people at

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. I think I neglect the heck out of the Subjunctive ruling. More than likely, without even knowing/noticing it.

    I love the Firefly example :) Miss that show :(

    Running and catching up as fast as I can!

    1. ME TOO! What a great show! (And you know what? If they can resurrect Arrested Development after seven freakin' years, I am going to go forward believing that miracles do happen!)

      And don't sweat the subjunctive - there are so many more important things to worry about!

  2. Wainwright didn't screw up; the intro to the song very clearly contains the line "You mean you wish you WERE a lesbian, 'cause grammatically..." (which he claims he wanted to say but didn't actually say, because he didn't want to ruffle any feathers).