1. Twistedben
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    Twistedben New Member

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    Were vs. was

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Twistedben, Feb 20, 2010.

    I have a pretty good grip upon writing, but the one thing that sometimes trips me up is Were vs. Was, when not referring to time.
    I understand: You were sick, and simple things like that. It is this type of sentence that makes me wonder if Was or Were is appropriate.
    "James drove down Main Street and watched the birds stare at the running car as though it were alien in these parts."
    Were sounds right, but is it wrong to have Was in that statement?
    If any of you can explain why this sounds better or what the difference truly is, it would be appreciated.

    Thank you.
     
  2. m5roberts
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    m5roberts Member

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    yes, "were" is correct in this case. this sentence is in the subjunctive tense (something that i never learned about in any of my english classes, but I understand due to foreign language classes). An easy way to tell if something would need "were" rather than "was" is if the situation evokes feelings of uncertainty or impossibility.

    Example: I would be much happier if I were taller.
    Reason: I am not taller, it is impossible for me to be so (at least at this moment).

    Example 2: I would be very upset if it were to rain tomorrow.
    Reason: I am uncertain as to whether or not it will rain, but, hypothetically, it would upset me.

    Another way you could look at it is that "was" is past tense. If your situation does not refer to the past, you probably shouldn't use "was".

    Example: If I was taller... --> When? Yesterday? No. We're talking about right now and in general, so it is not past tense.
     
  3. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Exactly so. "Were" has two meanings, one as a past, one as a subjunctive.

    The only thing I'd add is that Fowler's "Modern English Usage" (2nd edition) describes the subjunctive as "moribund", and although the use of "were" as a subjunctive is described as still "alive", he says that "nowadays" (ie, 1968) it's acceptable to use "was" instead.

    So yes, "were" is correct in the sentence given, and shows a fine attention to the heritage of the language, but "was" would be fine too and might sound more modern.
     
  4. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    Sorry to pick, but the subjunctive is not appropriate in your second example. You don’t yet know whether it will rain. It may rain; it may be sunny. You can’t know for sure. The upset bit is irrelevant, unless you are writing, “If I were upset...” In other words, you’re not upset, but if you were...

    You don’t use the subjunctive when expressing a condition that may or may not exist.

    SOURCE: Line by Line by Claire Kehrwald Cook.
     
  5. m5roberts
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    m5roberts Member

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    Actually, that is one of its uses:

    "There are varying definitions of the subjunctive in English. Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines subjunctive as 'in grammar, designating or of that mood of a verb used to express condition, hypothesis, contingency, possibility, etc., rather than to state an actual fact: distinguished from imperative, indicative.'"

    http://www.ceafinney.com/subjunctive/guide.html

    And yes, I am aware that whether or not the speaker is upset is irrelevant. It just happened to be a part of the example.
     
  6. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The subjuntive mood is used to "denote an action or a state as conceived (and not as a fact), and [expressing] a wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical or prospective event" (Oxford English Dictionary, quoted in Fowler's Modern English Usage, 2nd Ed.)

    Rain tomorrow is a hypothetical or prospective event, so the subjunctive is appropriate. But as I've mentioned elsewhere, the subjunctive is dying out in English, so stylistically one can choose not to use it in most cases. I'd guess that's where Line by Line is coming from: it's the author's stylistic preference. But the subjunctive is perfectly fine there if that's m5roberts' stylistic choice, and in earlier times it would have been considered mandatory.
     
  7. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    The subjunctive is used to express a condition that differs from one that is known to exist, which is the same as the above in different words. (The hypothetical.)

    You don’t yet know if it will rain tomorrow; therefore you’d use the indicative. It may rain; it may not rain. You don’t know which. Line By Line supports the use of the subjunctive.
     
  8. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    No, because it’s not yet hypothetical. It only becomes hypothetical once you know that something is not going to happen. While it remains a maybe, you use the indicative.

    If John was to come to my party tomorrow. (His coming may or may not happen. I don’t know; therefore I use the indicative.) It's the same as with the weather tomorrow--you don't yet know

    If John were to have come. (I know he didn’t come and therefore use the subjunctive.)
     
  9. m5roberts
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    m5roberts Member

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    hy·po·thet·i·cal (hī'pə-thět'ĭ-kəl)
    adj.

    1. Of, relating to, or based on a hypothesis: a hypothetical situation. See Synonyms at theoretical.
    2. a) Suppositional; uncertain. See Synonyms at supposed.
    b) Conditional; contingent.

    —Synonyms
    1. suppositional, theoretical, speculative.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hypothetical
     
  10. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    I'm talking about for the purposes of the subjunctive.

    When you don’t yet know whether a state exists or not you use the indicative. “If John was to come tomorrow, I’ll be upset.” (You wouldn’t use the subjunctive because you don’t yet know whether he'll come. His being there is a condition that may or may not exist.)

    Once something has happened and what you’re expressing differs from a known fact, you use the subjunctive. “Well, if he were to have come...” (You use the subjunctive here because you know he didn’t come. What you are saying differs from a known fact.)

    Whether it rains tomorrow is not yet a known fact; therefore you don't need to use the subjuntive mood. You only use the subjunctive once you know it didn't rain.
     
  11. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I suggest you look up "hypothetical" in a good dictionary, then compare and contrast with "counterfactual". Rain tomorrow most certainly is hypothetical. When you know it's not going to happen (that will be tommorow, presumably) then it becomes counterfactual. However, Fowler states that the hypotheticals for which the subjunctive is definitely still alive are those that are contrary to fact ("If I were you...") so you can safely ignore the subjunctive in cases that are not (yet) contrary to fact. You just can't call it "wrong".

    It might be worth quoting another bit of Fowler on the subjunctive: "[...] owing to the capricious influence of the much analysed classical moods on the less studied native, it probably never would have been possible to draw up a satisfactory table of English subjunctive uses" and "assuredly no one will ever find it possible or worth while to do so now that the subjunctive is dying".

    In other words, the rules on subjunctives are such a mess that it's probably best to ignore them and they'll go away.
     
  12. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Hypothetical" doesn't have one meaning for the uses of the subjunctive and another everywhere else.
    I certainly wouldn't say "If John was to come tomorrow, I’ll be upset" which seems to me to be a bizarre mix of tenses and moods. I'd insist on making the two verb phrases match, either by saying "If John comes tomorrow, I’ll be upset" or "If John were to come tomorrow, I’d be upset" -- either all future or all subjunctive (I prefer the former, for what it's worth).
    Ok, I'm happy with "you don't need to use the subjunctive mood". But you can if you want to!
     
  13. m5roberts
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    m5roberts Member

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    As am I. The definition is in response to your statement that "it only becomes hypothetical once you know that something is not going to happen." This is not true. Hypothetical means suppositional, uncertain, conditional, contingent (dependent for existence, occurrence, character, etc., on something not yet certain), etc...

    Whether or not I will be upset is dependent upon the possibility of the existence/occurrence of rain.

    Because this situation has proven to be hypothetical, and a hypothetical situation is one of the reasons for using the subjunctive, it is precisely why I use it.
     
  14. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    But you never know for sure whether it will rain the next day. That's the point! It may rain; it may not. That's why you use the indicative.

    Whereas I know for sure that I am not you; therefore I say, "If I were you..."

    I agree that, if it were possible to be 100% certain that it will not rain tomorrow, then you could use the subjunctive.
     
  15. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    You'd have to say, "If John was to come tomorrow..." Unless you know that he definitely isn't coming.

    I can only refer to the book Line by Line for authority on all this. Have you got Fowler's King's English? He discusses this sort or thing in it, too.
     
  16. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    I was just talking about for the purposes of trying to figure out whether to use the subjunctive. It wasn’t meant as a proper definition of “hypothetical.” I was trying to avoid the long-winded textbook explanations, and think I have just confused things by trying to keep it too simple.


    Put simply:

    You use “were” if a condition differs from a known fact.

    You use “was” when the clause expresses a condition that may or may not exist.
     
  17. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes I have got The King's English -- I only wish I could find it! :redface: I've found Partridge's "Usage and Abusage", though, and it's amusing to note that he disagrees with both of us (and with Fowler) on the use of the subjunctive.

    I stand by my claim that the subjunctive can be used for all hypotheticals, and in the past always was. Nowadays it has to be used for hypotheticals that are contrary to fact, which is what Line by Line is giving you, but the old usage of also using it for hypotheticals that are unknown is not quite dead yet but is on its way out.

    Let's face it, would either of us really write "if it was to rain tomorrow I'll be upset" or "If it were to rain tomorrow, I'd be upset"? Surely we'd both write "If it rains tomorrow, I'll be upset" -- at least after editing!
     
  18. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    The publisher has just brought out a reprint if you want another copy. I had to buy a used copy. Out of interest, what does Partridge say?

    I was going to mention about case (I should be upset v. I would upset) but I think that's something best left to die!

    It's true what you say--in reality we'd avoid the problem anyway!
     
  19. m5roberts
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    m5roberts Member

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    Decide if the following is a hypothetical situation:

    What would you do if you won $1 million?

    According to the definition of hypothetical, it is. I do not know if I will win $1 million, but there is still a possibility. Therefore, we could say that this sentence has a subjunctive mood.

    Now, let's re-write the sentence using the verb "to be":

    What would you do if you won were to win $1 million? We have already established that, in it's original form, the sentence is subjunctive (although this is not demonstrated by an alternate verb conjugation). Therefore, when you add the "to be" construct, the sentence remains subjunctive.
     
  20. m5roberts
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    m5roberts Member

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    I would :)
    But only because I like it.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm sure it will turn up.

    Under "Subjunctives", Partridge quotes Dr. C T Onions: "The subjunctive is a Mood of Will; in its simplest uses it expresses desire, and all its uses can be traced to this primary meaning", which I find hard to reconcile with the use of it undesirable counterfactuals ("Had I been going any faster I would have been killed.")

    It might be interesting to consider the following sentence from Partridge on the subject of "Conditional Clauses", though, given as a correct usage: "Should it be wet, you had better remain in London." Looks to me like a subjunctive for an unknown future state!
     
  22. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    I see that Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at Edinburgh University, says that you can always substitute “was” for “were.” He also wrote a scathing attack of Strunk & White’s Elements of style.

    There seems to be so much academic disagreement on this, I think it is best to go with what digi pointed out—that’s it’s moribund topic. Perhaps I am being more of a maverick and cutting edge than I thought with my use of the word "was"! It seems plenty would still use "were."

    It just seems every author has his/her own opinion on this, and that there is no general consensus :)
     
  23. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's also known as the 2nd Conditional.

    This is used for unreal (both impossible OR very unlkely) situations. Sentences using this conditional show an imaginary result for a given situation and the verb 'to be', when used in the grammatically correct formal form, is always conjugated as 'were'.

    Gradually this is going out of use in speech and may eventually disappear in writing, who knows?
     
  24. Twistedben
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    Twistedben New Member

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    This is why I love writers, they are relentless.
    Thank you, everyone, for explaining and making sense of this. From what I can tell, the conclusion is that Were vs. Was is rather ambigious.
    "If I were to sit on that couch, I'd be sprung into the air," I KNOW, for sure, that I'd spring up into the air. But from what I can see, using WAS creates the same outcome.
    "If I was to sit on that couch, I'd be sprung into the air."

    Rather obscured, and possibly, interchangable?
     
  25. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's still hypothetical whether you'll sit on the chair or not, indicated by "if", so I'd say "were" is the right one.
     

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