I wish I were…

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders whether to use was or were in the following examples:

I wish I were…or…I wish I was…
If only it was…or… If only it were…
What is the rule? 

With these examples, the choice is obvous because the words wish and if only make it clear that the speaker is talking about something that is not so. In such a case the subjunctive is called for:

I wish I were…
If only it were…

Sometimes the choice whether to use the subjunctive or the indicative is not so clear. To a large extent, English speakers don’t pay much attention to the subjunctive.

As long ago as 1926 H.W. Fowler called the subjunctive in English “moribund.” He went further and suggested that it never was possible to draw up a consistent table of uses of the subjunctive in English that would correspond to such tables for Latin.

Although the subjunctive is not a big deal in English, some uses of it are still alive and not difficult to master.

Depending on context, the choice between indicative and subjunctive can be as obvious as the examples with “wish” and “if only.”

If I were/if he were/if she were
These forms are called for when the statement refers to a state outside reality:

If he were Governor he could pardon you. (He’s not the Governor.)
If I were you, I’d fix that leaky roof. (I’m not you.)
If she were an animal, she’d be an armadillo. (She’s not an animal.)

If I was/if he was/if she was
These forms are called for when the statement refers to a state of being that existed, or could have existed in actual time:

If he was ill, no wonder he left the oysters untouched.
If I was unkind to you in those days, please forgive me.
If she was lost in the woods, no one can blame her for being late
.

Sometimes the speaker must decide according to intended meaning:

If she were sensible, she’d order a background check on him. (I know her and she’s not sensible.)

If she was sensible, she’d order a background check on him. (I don’t know if she’s sensible or not. She may be.)

In his DCBLOG, David Crystal gives this example overheard in conversation:

A — If Jane was right for the part, I’d cast her.
B — But that’s the point. Is she right?
A — Well if she were, I’d cast her, that’s all I’m saying…

This example shows an intermingling of indicative and subjunctive to achieve nuances of meaning.

Stated rule at OWL

DWT article on Mood

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


22 Responses to “I wish I were…”

  • Peter

    I’d take issue with the last two examples for mixing past and present time oddly – ISTM the indicative versions should be “if she was sensible she’d have ordered a background check” and either “if Jane was right for the part I would’ve cast her” or “if Jane was right for the part I’ll cast her”; it doesn’t make sense that if she was sensible (i.e., at some point in the past) she would order a background check (in the present); and in the second example either the speaker already knows whether or not Jane was right for the part (in which case he would have cast her, but she wasn’t, so he didn’t – he needs to speak in past time here), or he doesn’t yet know (somebody else took her audition, for example, and he’ll cast her or not based on that person’s assessment, in which case he needs to speak in future time).

  • Azhar Siddiqui

    Peter, it seems you have started philosophy (lolz) because its so much difficult to understand (at least for me) what you write….lolz

  • Julian Locke

    Dear Maeve, please review the following illustrative example:

    If she was sensible, she’d order a background check on him.

    This is just not correct English. I’m not saying it’s not typical of colloquial English, but it is both grammatically and semantically indefensible. (Am I shouting?)

    Peter, too, noticed that something was wrong with your example, although, unfortunately, his suggested reformulations introduced new problems, not the least of which was the omission of the necessary comma after the if-clause.

    There are numerous ways of reformulating the example to avoid the use of the subjunctive, but all those that I have considered seem strained and somehow unnatural. (The replacement of “she’d order” with “she must have ordered” seems the least objectionable option, but even that is less than satisfactory.)

    So, why avoid the subjunctive here, when it is clearly the best tool for the job?

    Well, the simple answer is that many of us in the English-speaking world (and not least in England) have forgotten how and when to use it (and even, in many cases, how to recognize it). Moreover, the subjunctive mood often has, to our modern ears, a quaint, old-fashioned sound (particularly when it takes the form of the infinitive without to):

    Take pity on the helpless, be they man or beast;

    Should he fail to arrive, I shall take a taxi;

    Would that I were a younger man….

    It is hardly surprising that problems arise with the subjunctive, as it shares its forms with other verb-forms – for example:

    If he studied hard, he would pass the exam.

    This is barely recognizable as the subjunctive mood, yet a slight reformulation swiftly removes any possible doubt:

    If he were to study hard, he would pass the exam.

    (I won’t go into the niceties of would and should. Modern English, as you probably know, often uses “would” where “should” would once have been preferred, but that’s a discussion for another time and place.)

    Turning to the example that “shows an intermingling of indicative and subjunctive to achieve nuances of meaning”, I sincerely hope that David Crystal had no such idea in mind when citing it. There are no “nuances of meaning” to be gleaned here. The first speaker, A, begins with a statement that is clearly ungrammatical, as it employs the indicative where the subjunctive is required. Nevertheless, B understands A‘s intended meaning, and responds appropriately, subtly correcting A as he does so. A then responds with the correct use of the subjunctive, very probably having taken note of B‘s correction.

    (Alas, A‘s second statement, as quoted, introduces another small but significant error – one that I rather doubt David Crystal would have made. Technically speaking, “Well” should be followed by a stop, such as a comma or semi-colon.)

    Misusing the indicative for the subjunctive will generally go unnoticed in many circles, and we could probably agree that many worse linguistic crimes often go unpunished. I am thinking, in particular, of such crass catachreses as “if you was” and “if we was”, which, outside the pages of Oliver Twist or Pygmalion, are an offence to any but the least-educated ear.

  • Nick

    If she was sensible, she’d order a background check on him.

    You are so right. Bad English! It is always “were” in that situation whether it be a possibility or not. It is completely wrong. Here is right:

    If she was sensible, I did not notice it.

    The statement, “If she was sensible, she’d order a background check on him” technically is talking about a past condition such as:

    I remember my mother well; may she rest in peace. I remember If she was feeling sensible, she would always order a background check on a person.

    Something like that.

  • evanonsense

    “If I was/if he was/if she was” was explained here, but what if the conditional statement is pertaining to the future? Is it right to say:

    “If she would climb the mountain tomorrow, then I’ll join him.”

    or

    “If she would climb the mountain tomorrow, I’ll join him.” (omitting “then”)

    Or neither is right?

    Second question, since the action hasn’t happened yet, is it a rule of thumb to always use “would”?

  • Nick

    “Would” should almost never be used in the protasis of an if/then statement (the “if” part). The first one would be where the old present subjunctive form used to exist more frequently:

    Correct: If she CLIMB the mountain tomorrow, then I’ll join him.
    Correct: If she SHOULD CLIMB the mountain tomorrow, then I’ll join him.
    Correct: SHOULD she CLIMB the mountain tomorrow, then I’ll join him.

    “Would” here is just not correct (yet) in Modern English, but it is in some statements such as:

    Correct: I wish he WOULD shut up.

    In older times, this would have been either:

    Correct: I wish that he SHUT up or (I wish for him to shut up.)

    Now, “would” replaces the present subjunctive to make it a conditional statement, but it still is technically the subjunctive, but it is not the old-fashioned, pure subjunctive conjugation. English has made concessions over the years. Don’t listen to this article’s explanation of the subjunctive; it is only telling half truths on how to use it. Many of its examples above are wrong.

  • Michael

    Aside from mixing genders in the examples, there’s also the error in 3rd person verb (perhaps it was just a typo). The first example should be:
    If she CLIMBS the mountain tomorrow, then I’ll join HER.

    This is 1st conditional- a probable scenario followed by a reaction.

    If you go to the store, please buy me a soda.
    If it rains tomorrow, we won’t play baseball.

    It’s also used in general truths (mostly using ‘WHEN’ instead of ‘IF’)

    WHEN water is heated to a certain degree, [then] it boils.
    IF water is heated to a certain degree, it boils.

    2nd and 3rd conditionals speak of situations that we wish were different, either in the present/future (2nd), or in the past (3rd). In this case- NEVER use ‘If’ and ‘would’ in the same clause, as the ‘If’ clause must set up the alternate scenario, and the ‘would’ clause must give the result. It’s a common mistake – even for native speakers- to say something like

    “If I would have won the lottery that time, I’d be rich now.” (2nd)
    “If I would have been on time, I wouldn’t have missed the bus.” (3rd)
    “If only she would have listened to me, she wouldn’t be in trouble.”(3rd)

    The correct usage is:
    “If I had won the lottery that time, I’d be rich now.”
    “If I had been on time, I wouldn’t have missed the bus.”
    “If she had only listened to me, she wouldn’t be in trouble.”

    You CAN use ‘If’ and ‘would’ in the same clause for something like:

    “If you would please turn to page 32 of the textbook…”

    But that sounds terribly formal.

  • Michael

    Of course, as soon as I hit ‘submit’ I noticed an error in my OWN post!

    3rd conditional speaks only of the past:

    If she had listened to me, she woudn’t have been in so much trouble.

    The example above is 2nd conditional- she’s in trouble NOW because she didn’t listen to me.

    Sorry for any confusion!

  • Nick

    If she CLIMB the mountain tomorrow, then I’ll join him.

    No, I meant for it to be “CLIMB” because, in older forms, this is correct. The subjunctive follows “if” when it is possible that it might happen. We see this in “if truth be told”, “be that as it may”, which means “if that be as it may”, “whether it be”, “if need be”, and so on.

    It’s better if she not come.
    It’s best if he climb the mountain with someone.

    It’s an old form. Yes, most people say “CLIMBS” now in a clause of “if she climbs”. Both “if she climb” and if “she climbs” are correct in modern English now, but the latter is the most frequently used.

    Technically, “if she climbs”, semantically speaking, means that it is a known fact such as in, “Well, if she climbs mountains, [as the speaker has been told this] she should climb this one.”

    It really is the death of the subjunctive. In the end, as long as one KNOW what the sentence means, it really doesn’t matter.

  • Michael

    I’m not sure you’re using ‘subjunctive’ correctly. It is used for urgency or stress. Generally, it’s situations like advising, recommending, asking, or urging someone to DO something.

    Regular:

    He studies hard to get good grades.

    Subjunctive:

    I’d urge/advise/recommend that he STUDY hard to get good grades.

    We can’t use the subjunctive alone, as in ‘He STUDY hard…’

    Regular:

    I try to do my best.
    You try to do your best.
    He tries to do his best.

    Subjunctive:
    It’s important that I try to do my best.
    It’s important that you try to do your best.
    It’s important that he try to do his best.

    There are certain fixed expressions, like ‘God bless America’, or ‘If truth be told’, that use subjunctive, but they can’t be copied into other situations, such as, “The priest bless the congregation at the end of every service.” In that case, it’s a regular event and uses present simple, “The priest blesses the congregation…”

    We can use the PAST subjunctive in certain situations that are not realistic.

    If I were you, I’d do it. (Informal, ‘If I was you…’)
    If he were older, he could drive. (Informal, ‘If he was older…’)
    She acts like she were the boss. (Informal, ‘like she was the boss’)

    If we are talking about something that actually DID happen, we can’t use past subjunctive.

    If I was mean to you, I apologize. (Not, ‘If I were mean…’)
    She was acting like she was the boss. (Not, ‘She were acting…’)

    (This is ONLY for American English.)

    [quote]Technically, “if she climbs”, semantically speaking, means that it is a known fact such as in, “Well, if she climbs mountains, [as the speaker has been told this] she should climb this one.”[/quote]

    That’s not correct. The conditional of ‘If something HAPPENS, something else WILL HAPPEN’ is based on the *possibility/probability* of the first event, and the ‘If’ clause must use the regular 3rd person form of the verb.

    If she climbs the mountain tomorrow, I’ll join HER. (I know there’s a good chance she will do it, and I’d like to go with her.)

    Even if the speaker has been told she likes to climb mountains and wants to recommend a certain peak, it’s still unknown whether or not she is going to climb tomorrow, so we would use first conditional. In your example, you’re giving advice and using a modal verb (should) which is always followed by the base verb, with or without the conditional clause.

    If she climbs tomorrow, (I think) she should go to this particular mountain.

    She should climb this particular mountain tomorrow (in my opinion).

    I do agree that in conversational English, the meaning of the sentence is what’s most important, not the strict grammatical rules. If someone would say, “I hungry. I eat now,”no one would ever say, “I don’t understand what you mean.”

  • Nick

    No, I’m using it correctly, but just archaically.

    If she CLIMB the mountain tomorrow, she will be fine.

    It’s why you say “if truth be told”, or whether it be, or even until death do us part.

    It’s why Patrick Henry said, “if this be treason, make the most of it.”

    Whether it be means if it be this or if it not be this. It is subjunctive, but very few people say it like this anymore. It’s archaic. Read Shakespeare or Chaucer. In Hamlet, there’s a line that says, “if it offend thee,…”

    So on.

  • Nick

    It’s also why many people use “should to replace it.

    “If she should climb the mountain tomorrow….
    “Should the truth be told…”

    If I should die….

  • Michael

    Not for nothing, but I don’t think you can use Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Patrick Henry to validate a usage like, “If she climb the mountain…” A few hundred years ago, people used words like ‘prithee’, ‘canst’, and ‘thine’. I suppose you could argue that using them today isn’t technically *incorrect*, but why would you? Again- certain fixed expressions have become so well known that people use them without thinking about the actual grammatical structure, but they would never replicate them into everyday conversation. “I promise to love you ’til death do us part” isn’t the same as “He will be at work ’til the clock do say midnight.” Saying the latter sounds like you are a non-native English speaker who has used Google translate to try and make a sentence. It may not be entirely inaccurate, but it’s not natural.

    Aside from that, the structure of the first conditional is “If + [present simple], then [will/can + base verb].” If we are using it to give advice, we can substitute ‘should’ instead of ‘will’, but the ‘If’ clause remains present simple, not subjunctive. We are talking about a very real possibility, not an imaginary situation.

    The scenario you are describing is that someone has told the speaker that a friend is most likely going to climb a mountain tomorrow. Perhaps you want to give advice : “If she climbs tomorrow, she should go to Myers Peak. It’s great.” Perhaps you know her favorite spot: “If she climbs tomorrow, she will probably go to Myers Peak.” Neither case would ever use the subjunctive form in the ‘If’ clause because you are making a prediction based on certainty. The second conditional speaks of unreal situations in the present or the future, and sometimes uses subjunctive, but not the first conditional.

    Using the subjunctive for a sentence such as “God be with her if she climb tomorrow” isn’t a case of first conditional; it’s a personal statement, stressing that you hope she will be safe. And, yes, it’s correct, but it’s not natural. If you want to speak like a person from the 19th century, so be it (*wink*). But don’t expect many people to fully understand you, especially if you use it in the wrong context.

    [quote]It’s also why many people use “should to replace it.

    “If she should climb the mountain tomorrow….
    “Should the truth be told…”[/quote]

    ‘Should’ and ‘will’ are modal/auxiliary verbs and are always followed by the base form of the verb, regardless of tense or subject. It has nothing to do with subjunctive.

    I should be studying, but I’m too tired.
    He shouldn’t have stayed out all night.
    It’s going to rain; you should take an umbrella.
    We should see if they can exchange the tickets for an earlier time.
    It shouldn’t take too long.
    They should stay with us.

    Using it changes the tense from subjunctive to something else entirely.

    It’s important that he listen carefully. (present / subjunctive)

    He should listen carefully. (present simple with modal to give advice)

    I advised that he listen carefully. (past / subjunctive)

    I told him that he should have listened carefully. (past simple/present perfect with modal to show to show judgment)

    It’s also important to stress that conversational English is different than written or formal English, and using the subjunctive form in those areas might not be as awkward.

  • Nick

    I was saying it is still correct, rather than that is what people say:

    Check out “Lousy Writers: What is the Subjunctive?” Here are some examples:

    Now, if the fire of electricity and that of lightning be the same, this pasteboard and these scales may represent electrified clouds.—Franklin.

    If, in our case, the representative system ultimately fail, popular government must be pronounced impossible.—D. Webster.

    If this be the glory of Julius, the first great founder of the Empire, so it is also the glory of Charlemagne, the second founder.—Bryce.

    If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need of these ethics. —Emerson.

    To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of those October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air.—Thoreau

    The “should” in “if it should” or “should it” replaces the subjunctive:

    “I insist he surrender.”
    “I insist he should surrender.”
    “If that be the case, I shall eat my hat.”
    “If that should be the case, I shall eat my hat.”
    “Should that be the case, I shall eat my hat.”

    It’s fancy English. I was never arguing that one should go around saying that all of the time, but it does work in formal writing, especially college writing. I always say “whether one be” or “whether he do” and I even wrote in my last paper, “His hands, though they be destitute, are clean…

    What can I say? Shall we move on now? This conversation is getting old. One day, people will probably be berating those of us who still say “if it were” or “if I were” because that’s not what people say anymore, right? If anyone WANT to climbe that mountain, more power to him. Case closed.

  • Nick

    I really don’t think you need to argue so vitriolically about a stupid subject like this, Michael. I’m showing an historical viewpoint on the subjunctive and it is heard and seen every now and then. Normally in conversation, I use the subjunctive in these situations naturally:

    “I’ll just do it so that he not have to.”
    “As long as he understand what I’m saying, it’s fine.”

    I would never say “he doesn’t have” nor would I say “he understands” there above. I would normally say, “if she should climb” though. It’s all about how one was raised and how he learned and picked up parts of his language. I’ve always said it that way and have never been told I was incorrect. I’ve been told it sounds old-fashioned. Be that as it may, it’s still the subjunctive. Again, I shall close this case again. Peace be to all and Merry Christmas.

  • Nick

    “I’ll let you play Juliet provided I be Romeo.” LOL

  • Kate Loverude

    Dear God, I want you to make real wishes real wishing starlight starbright real wishing wishker lobster real wishing star fairy real wishes come to life as long! I wish will you change me into a thirteen-year-old younger kid and live inside a Disney Princess Dream House next to hotel in South Carolina including mermaids food drinks cats Andre my two new kind good hearted sisters 13-year-old Anya and 9-year-old Sara all the time tomorrow, No turning back! Amen

    Dear God, I want you to make real wishes real wishing starlight starbright real wishing wishker lobster real wishing star fairy real wishes come to life as long! I wish Jeff Becky Kelsey Loverude whole people from Massachusetts police security Danielle work study school nipmuc Danielle work study students teachers Aunt Julie Olsen and her family Uncle Tec Aunt Rhonda Grandma Jan Erikson and her friends Bakken family Grandma Jan Person Brittany Bakken and her husband Ashely Uncle Dave and their family Uncle Mike Cal and their family will all be Gone gone forever tomorrow, No turning back! Amen

  • Steven

    Nick, you say:

    Normally in conversation, I use the subjunctive in these situations naturally:
    “I’ll just do it so that he not have to.”
    “As long as he understand what I’m saying, it’s fine.”

    If that is true, then your use of the English language is certainly not “fancy”, but rather it is ridiculous. Most people who wish to learn more about English grammar are people who aim to speak the language more fluently. Thus your obstinate approach seems quite counter intuitive.

    Rather than insisting on using such nonsense as, “If anyone WANT to climbe that mountain,” perhaps you’d do better to improve your grammar:

    I’m showing an historical viewpoint on the subjunctive and it is heard and seen every now and then.

    (And no, I’m not referring to your questionable use of “an”)

    In general, I found that all other commentators had sensible thoughts on the subject. Well, except Kate of course, who appears to have taken some sort of psychotropic. Thanks everyone for the valued information.

  • linda

    obvious not obvous

  • Tim

    Oh what vicious squabbles about such pettiness!

    “Colloquial” English varieties are the only forms that matter, because they are what we use to communicate. If indeed the semantics of the sentence call for a verbal modal distinction, as in “if Jane were sensible…” or “if he was sick” in your variety, use it- no one’s stopping you. But don’t go around reprimanding others who might say “if I was a bear I’d eat fish all day”, because it’s how a LOT of people say it, which means the way YOU so proudly proclaim it will probably die out someday and be thought of by future generations in the same way as you think of “thou art”. It’s simply not how English is spoken anymore, right? The subjunctive vs. past distinction of “if I was” and “if I were” will similarly fall by the wayside, and that’s okay, since I highly doubt you’ll ever find yourself at an impasse of comprehension as a result of an absence of such a distinction.

  • Ben Turner

    Yay!

    There’s nothing like being made to feel stupid on an off day, and I mean that as a compliment to all (of?) the grammarians here.

    The subjunctive, split infinitives, and the various theories regarding “shall” haunt me on a daily basis. I learn and memorize, and then re-memorize, and nothing sticks.

    But thanks for sidetracking me from work today!! I haven’t even read these posts yet but know that I am going to spend hours poring over them later on.

    Cheers-thanks-a-lot.

  • Kim

    I LOVE THIS!!!

    It drives me nuts when a person does not use the subjunctive properly in the English language. I know several latin-based languages (because I studied them) and if you don´t understand and use the subjunctive, you simply cannot speak these languages and be understood.

    Futhermore, colloquial language is spoken language and should not be used in formal expression or writing. In the South, we say, ¨Comere¨, which means, ¨Come here¨. But you´ll never catch me writing comere, ever. We also say, ¨What ya´ll doin´?¨ instead of ¨What are you doing?¨ Another one, ¨Gimmee that¨ instead of ¨Give me that¨. Just because we ¨talk¨ like this, does not make it acceptable in its written form.

    Using and recognizing proper grammar is paramount to being an articulate and educated person. Just because ¨no one does it¨ (most likely because they don´t know any better), doesn´t make it right.

    I make grammatical mistakes sometimes, but honestly wish I didn´t. Although an avid reader since I was very little, I am an awful speller and I thank the stars for spell-check!!! Another pet peeve of mine: yes, misspelled words!

Leave a comment: