Friday, August 26, 2016

"IF" Is NOT the Key

A popular post from February 2010. 

by Annette Lyon

We all know the line Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof:

"If I were a rich man . . ."

That sentence is in what's called subjunctive mood.

It's a complicated topic, but today we're making it pretty simple and addressing the biggest mistake I see with it (even with professional copy editors who are supposed to know what they're doing . . .).

In his song, Tevye describes what he'd do if he had a lot of money. He's not rich. He's rather poor, frankly, but IF HE WERE rich, this is what he'd do.

What he's describing is CONTRARY TO FACT.

That right there is the key. He's NOT rich. Therefore, If I WERE a rich man rather than If I WAS a rich man.

The latter sentence is valid too; it just needs a different context that doesn't contradict reality.

The best way is to put reality in question. What if we don't KNOW whether Tevye is rich or poor? Someone could then remember good 'ol Tevye from the neighborhood and say:

"I wonder if he was rich."

WAS works here, because we're simply contemplating the reality. We aren't contradicting it.

The problem is that most people use a handy-dandy trick as their personal red flag for when things are subjunctive: they look for IF.

And that does work a lot, just like our opening sentence, and many others:
  • If I were a rich man . . .
  • If I were skinnier . . .
  • If I were in England right now . . .
  • If I weren't so impatient . . .
In each case, the speaker is contracting fact. They aren't rich, skinny, in England, or patient.

But here's where things get dicey and most people mess up with subjunctive: they see IF and, whether or not the sentence contradicts reality, they immediately assume, "YAY! SUBJUNCTIVE! I'll use WERE!"

  • He wondered if she were cold.
  • If she were going to get there on time, she'd better hurry.
  • She couldn't help but think about if he were attracted to her.
  • If it were a homemade pie, which she'd find out in moments, she'd surely she'd eat the whole thing.
In each of the cases above, we either don't know the reality (so it cannot be subjunctive) or we do know the reality. But the sentence happens to have IF in it, so heck, let's throw in WERE anyway.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • He wondered if she WAS cold.
  • If she WAS going to get there on time, she'd better hurry.
  • She couldn't help but think about if he WAS attracted to her.
  • If it WAS homemade pie, which she'd find out in moments, she'd surely eat the whole thing.
Teachers used IF as a tool to help students spot subjunctive and help them know when to use WERE. But it's not a foolproof method.

IF isn't the only time you'll get subjunctive mood, and it's not a guarantee that the sentence using IF is subjunctive at all.

Simply ask: Is this sentence contracting facts we know?


NO: Use WAS.

Easy, no?


Anonymous said...

A very interesting post. I'm wondering what you think of going the other way.

L.T. Elliot said...

That's a GREAT way to tell the difference. This is like a mini WNW. Ah...I'm all fulfilled!

Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, Annette! Excellent explanation that is easy to remember--just what I need!

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Thanks! I've never heard an English teacher explain that so clearly. No wonder all of us are so confused!

Krista said...

Wow, thank you for that. I love learning something new everyday. It's a little disconcerting that I am learning SO MUCH everyday, but thank you!

Nisa said...

Oh man, reading those wrong examples made me cringe. They just sound so off to me. I think part of this is just habit.

Nice way of clarifying!

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

I totally get what you're saying and goes right over my head. I wonder if you were trying to do that! he he

Amber Lynae said...

I remember learning this in 7th grade. I am sure I've made the mistake of misusing the subjunctive on occasion. However, when I was reading your examples of incorrect usage I could hear the error right away.

Debbie / Cranberry Fries said...

Ah you got me. I read those 'were' sentences and though, huh those sound ok I guess. Then you proclaimed WRONG. And I had to say, yeah they did sound a little off. :) Super fascinating. Great trick to remember!

Josi said...

Could this post have been inspired in part by a certain manuscript you recently edited? Hmmmmmm. I was fixing a lot of 'weres' that should have been 'wases'. Now I know why :-)

So, were contradicting & was reality

How do you know this stuff?

Annette Lyon said...

Josi, That ms just reminded me of it. :)

This post was actually inspired by a copy editor who improperly inserted WERE into MY recent galleys several times.

I tried not to have a conniption over it and instead calmly make the corrections.