Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Subjunctive Mood: Was or Were?

A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

Today's topic sounds scary: subjunctive mood.

Wahahahaaa . . .

Really, there's no need to freak out. That's just a fancy term for something pretty simple.

Which word is correct in these sentences?

If only she was/were home, she could tell her mother the truth.

He wondered if she was/were cold and whether to offer his jacket.

One of those is subjunctive (and takes WERE), and the other isn't (takes WAS).

In reality, subjunctive isn't that big a deal. While I'm not an expert on all things subjunctive, I do know a few basic rules that can help clarify things.

Subjunctive mood simply refers to is a situation contrary to fact.
A line from a Carpenters Christmas song helps me remember the rule. It goes:
"I wish I were with you."
See? The singer isn’t with the loved one but wants to be there. What she is wishing for is contrary to fact.
So instead of: I wish I was with you.
It’s: I wish I were with you.
It's subjunctive. (So is our first example above: the girl isn't home, but if she WERE, she could tell her mother the truth.)
A common rule of thumb people use is watching out for the keyword if, which often signals subjunctive.
If I were taller, I might be able to make the basketball team.
That’s a correct usage of subjunctive mood, because again, the speaker is speaking contrary to fact. They aren’t tall. But if they were, then . . .
Big caveat:
Be wary about relying on if too much. There are plenty of cases where IF does NOT refer to something that’s contrary to fact, so the sentence isn’t subjunctive mood at all, and was is correct.
Such is the case with our second sentence above:
He wondered if she was/were cold and whether to offer his jacket.
In this sentence, nothing is being stated contrary to fact. He's wondering what the reality is—whether she's cold or not—he doesn't know.
Yes, the sentence has if in it, but that doesn’t automatically make it subjunctive. In this instance, WAS is correct.
Subjunctive rule of thumb: When the statement is contrary to fact, use were.

This post is adapted from a section of There, Their, They're: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar, available HERE, HERE, and HERE.

16 comments:

Jordan McCollum said...

I was just teaching about this the other day. What a great explanation!

Amber Lynae said...

Good Post. I got answers right before reading ahead. I have an ear for grammar most of the time. However, there are times when have to look into grammatic rules. I do not say this meaning that people reading my blog will not find grammatic mistakes. I am sure it is packed with them as well as typos, because I am in first draft mode when I blog and do not edit as well as I should before clicking post.
My question for you is: Do you jut have a talent for good grammar?

Stephanie Black said...

Great explanation, Annette. Thanks!

Cynthia said...

The good news is that I got it right. The bad news is that I had no idea why. More good news- now I know! Thanks! My ADD brain had no use for these annoying little grammar rules when I was in school so I'm having to learn it all now. (and I always worry I'm writting incorrectly when I post comments here- I wouldn't want to make you cringe!) Then again, that dash in the last sentence probably did. I'm overfond of dashes. When the heck am I supposed to use them and in what context?

L.T. Elliot said...

I recently picked up my word-nerd guide for my WIP and was all fuzzy and warm inside.

As for subjunctive mood, My dad grilled that into us so hard as children that I subconciously avoid his voice in my head and just do it the way he told me to. Thank heavens, my dad is a smarty-pants, huh? Or else I might be messing up all the more. (In which case, one must OWN a word-nerd book. *Sigh* The safety I feel with it in my possession.)

Josi said...

You're brilliant--I'd never even heard of this before now. I so need your book!

Heather B. Moore said...

Good examples. That one trips me up quite often :)

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

I've wondered about this. I never did well at grammar in school and have a lot to learn still, so thank you my dear!

susana said...

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Nick said...

Good job. I tutor this concept sometimes. You have the rudimentary basis down, but could have done more. I liked it, though.

free test prep said...

Thank you so much for your explanation! Just helped me with a student on this. . . :)

Anonymous said...

A commonly rule of thumb people use is watching out for the keyword if, which often signals subjunctive.

"common"

Niguade said...

I agree that this is a very good explanation with good examples and tips. Annette - you rock! Now, could you send this to the writers for television? :)

Anonymous said...

I'm still confused. I've read in many places that you use subjunctive when a situation is uncertain/unknown. So "he wondered if she were cold" should be correct, yet you say that "was" should be used. I am SO lost after reading this column. It goes against what I've already been taught.

Annette Lyon said...

I'm doing some additional research to clarify, including talking to a linguist with a Ph.D.

I'll report back!

Annette Lyon said...

All right--I've heard back from my linguistics expert!

The subjunctive were IS for stating things CONTRARY TO FACT, and NOT for unknown states.

It may look like it's correct to use WERE in some cases, but those may be when the subject of the sentence is plural, so the verb must be plural (such as THEY WERE). But using WERE in such instances doesn't make the sentence subjunctive.

Hope that clarifies!