Sunday, December 13, 2009

If I Were in the (Subjunctive) Mood

Dear Language Lady, I’m not a language guy per se and certainly not a grammar guru, but since I do write, I am mindful of usage – past and present. I am thus curious about your take on “If I was you” vs “If I were you”. As I understand it, this is the subjunctive mood (designating contingency rather than fact) and is thus correctly stated as, “If I were you”.

The sentence “I was acting as if I were you” uses both the regular past tense and the subjunctive.

-- Gerry (Canada)

Dear Gerry –

You’re a language guy to me if you can spot your English subjunctive! I was given a thorough grounding in grammar in elementary and middle school, but I still did not learn about the English subjunctive until I took foreign languages in high school and college. Even then, “If I was you” and “If I were you” both sounded right to my ears.

The reason both are used is due to basic language change: that is, it seems that teachers stopped teaching the English subjunctive decades ago – even before they stopped teaching English grammar all together 30-plus years ago. So the older generation continued saying, “If I were you,” while the younger generation began saying, “If I was you,” since no one explained the subjunctive rules to them. And when enough people say something for a long enough period, then that too becomes standard, acceptable English – even if it still seems “wrong.” Language, as with all things, changes (alas).

The textbook, “Grammar In Use”/Intermediate by British linguist Raymond Murphy, Cambridge University Press, 2007, which I use -- and love – for my English as a Second Language students, accepts both forms. On a more grass roots level, googling “If I were you” elicits 356 million results, as opposed to “If I was you” -- and a whopping 2.6 billion! The people are clearly speaking.

For a good explanation of the English subjunctive, I recommend the site, (Click on:
This site says that “If I were you” is correct in all situations, while “If I was you” is correct in informal, familiar situations. I’d like to think so too, but “if I was” and other forgotten-subjunctive occasions appear in writing (books, articles, etc) so often, the formal and informal situations are no longer clearly defined.

Historically, English has done a lot to get rid of the subjunctive, which is why it is so hard for us native speakers to learn how to use it in other languages. Meanwhile, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, for instance, use present and past subjunctive all the time – as in “What do you want me to say?” and “I hope you’ll be surprised;” or German, along with the others, jumps in on the subjunctive bandwagon with a sentence like, “If she had more time, she would write more grammar blogs.” Portuguese even uses the future subjunctive following “if” and “when” in instances like, “If you want, we can go,” and “When you arrive, we will eat,” etc. to express a future uncertainty.

English, meanwhile, just avoids all this language subtlety by mainly sticking with verbs that sound like our regular present and past tenses: “She hopes you will like the present” and “I wished you would open it now” would both take the subjunctive in Latin languages.

The English subjunctive still hanging on in two cases: one, is with what I call business-type, more formal verbs: insist, request, demand, recommend, suggest; even there it is only visible with the 3rd person singular, as in “My boss insists that everyone BRING a laptop (not: “that everyone brings”);” or “They requested that she SIT in the corner (not: that she sits).

The subjunctive is more clearly seen in such cases with the verb, “be”:

“I ask that you BE quiet (not: ”that you are”)”; “The president suggested that all be at the meeting on time.”

The other place the English subjunctive is still hanging on (albeit by the proverbial thread) is in the hypothetical case with “if” and “as if”: “If I had a million dollars …” “as If I knew the answer …” “If /as if she understood the problem,” etc. All of these hypothetical clauses take what sounds like past tense; however, it is really the past tense (“you” form) AS the subjunctive form.

This usage is more apparent with the verb “to be” – particularly, when used in phrases like, “If I were you;” and “He wishes she were here.”

For the moment, Gerry, you may proudly stick with your “If I were you” (I think it sounds more elegant) but simply refrain from correcting any friends or colleagues who say the other form – they’re correct, too – though I wish it weren’t/wasn’t so.


The Language Lady said...

Hi Gerry - Thanks for your question regarding subjunctives. I've answered it as a blog, posted December 13. Hope this helps.


The Language Lady

Nick said...

Hmmm...I'm 24 and I always say it as "were"; never "was" for the subjunctive. I did not know subjunctive until I asked my English teacher why I had written "If I were in charge". I saw it in my story I had written and wanted to know why "were" was used there. I knew I had used it correctly, but I wanted to know why. She said, "it's the past subjunctive." That was it and I looked that up and voila, my answer was there.

Nick said...

That was junior year of high school (2002-2003).

The Language Lady said...

Hi Nick - Thanks for writing and letting me know this blog helped. And good for you for still wondering about the subjunctive so many years after you first asked! If you want to improve your knowledge of grammar further, you could check out these entries: "Between You and I" (Obama uses non-standard grammar; April 2009; "Endangered Semi-Colons" (July 2007); and "Being and Not Being a Gerund (May 2008).


The Language Lady

Nick said...

Thanks for the information. I still correct people, especially my mother when she says, "I wish it was..."; no, mom, it's, "I wish it were...". Oh well, it's the pedant in me and this is a big pet peeve of mine.

Actually, people who say "between you and I", but say, "Me and him are going..." annoy me just as much and also people who make up or use nonstandard past tenses of verbs like "smited", "snuck", "brung/brang", "thunk", "slayed", "sended", "treaded", "grinded", and so on. My mother always says "smited" and I yell "smote/smitten"; my cousin always says, "brang/brung" and I yell, "brought"! It's the pedant in me lol. My apologies. Thanks again for your help.