The irrealis “were” can say hello to the Dodo

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Mariana Blaser recently brought up the question of the subjunctive use of were. She gave the following examples:

“If she were younger, she would have enjoyed that trip.”
“I wish I were stronger.” or “He wished he were stronger.”
 
Somehow the second sentence feels odd to me. Using the verb flexed in the plural form with “wish” should also be used with “he”, “she” and (eventually) “it”?

Before I could respond, she found her own answer in an article by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe.

I’m happy to say I anticipated this verdict in my post on subjunctive were:

To a large extent, English speakers don’t pay much attention to the subjunctive.

The upshot of the Globe article is that although sites like this one still offer guidelines for its use, the subjunctive use of were is is a non-issue.

According to Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and a linguist at Edinburgh University, we can substitute was for subjunctive were in any context.

Fade away: The slow retirement of a tricky subjunctive

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21 Responses to “The irrealis “were” can say hello to the Dodo”

  • Brad K.

    Does that mean I should not write about my fantasy life as a counselor for were children? You know, the offspring of were foxes and were wolves and those that were not?

    What about movie and song titles? Barbara Streisand singing “The Way We Was” just wouldn’t sound the same.

    I guess I really don’t care if some think it has dropped from popular usage. Losing the subjunctive were would feel quite higgledy-piggledy.

  • Peter

    But those are not subjunctives anyway, Brad 😐

    [Just be happy English doesn’t have an optative to ignore, as well :)]

  • mand

    Fair enough, i’m no dialectal reactionary, but i’ll miss the subjunctive.

    The Boston Globe article reminded me how much i hate words being referred to with no indication such as italics or inverted commas; as misleading and thus distracting as an omitted comma or hyphen can be. These sentences make my point, especially the first:

    Obviously, we could get along without this were. But until we agree to chuck it, how do we choose between was and were?

  • Gloria

    Just this morning, I heard a television commericial in which the announcer said, “If you or a loved one was diagnosed with…” It sounded like nails scratching on a chalkboard to me! Was his grammar correct, or should he have said, “If you or a loved one were diagnosed with…”?

  • thebluebird11

    I, for one, am not letting go. If I/you/he/we/they/one were to get rid of the “irrealis were,” my mother would surely turn over in her grave. I already wrote a short post at the Boston Globe site (having been, somehow, “misdirected” there by clicking the wrong link first), so I won’t repeat it here. Again, I’m far from a grammarian, but if I WERE a grammarian, I would be sticking to my guns. Call me pretentious, I don’t care. I have to sleep at night!

  • Maeve Maddox

    Gloria,
    I’m with you. The situation the announcer is talking about is hypothetical and the verb should be were. In the post above I’m just reporting what the man from Edinburgh said. You can read my take on the “if” construction here:

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/i-wish-i-were/

  • mand

    That’s the point, isn’t it? In Gloria’s tv example the sentence is ambiguous if you allow ‘was’ for the hypothetical sense. It could mean ‘If this were to happen…’ or ‘If this happened…’ – which, to me, is the whole point of hanging onto ‘old-fashioned’ constructions and words. Otherwise the language is impoverished; we lose the ability to make that distinction. (Just as the wrong use of ‘alternate’ for ‘alternative’ has lost us any word that means ‘every second one’.)

  • Rod

    I’m in the middle of a toefl preparation and I’ve been told to respect the usage of this subjunctive or else I’ll be screwed, since this grammar test for foreigners sticks to the old fashion stuctures whether we agree or disagree; but I didn’t know this construction was falling into disuse; thanks for the post

  • Andy

    “Irrealis”? I don’t recognize this term. I’ve checked on two dictionary websites, Merriam-Webster and Oxford University Press, and both failed to return any explanation.

    When, how, and where did this term slip into usage? I’ve been teaching English since 1972 and have never seen it before.

  • Mary Hodges

    What is “irrealis” ? I’ve never come across the expression. It it an American usage?

    A couple of examples that would sound very odd using “was”
    “If I were you…”
    “If I were a rich man…” (first line of song.)

  • Shirley Stuart

    What does Geoffrey Pullum know? I LOVE the subjunctive, and if I were he, I’d be ashamed of myself as a lazy dog! The use of “were” adds clarity and elegance to our language, and I would hate to see it go.

    Are we supposed to say, “If I wuz you . . .” now? How about, “If wishes wuz horses, then (or maybe now it’s than?) beggars would ride”?

  • Brad K.

    @ Mary Hodges,

    My Chambers dictionary lists irrealisable as a secondary spelling for irrealis. Irrealisable is “not realizable.”

    I would guess that irrealis would be ir (not) real is (item). In this case, a word that isn’t real.

    Realia, according to my Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, is an educational term for coins, tools, etc. used by a teacher to illustrate everyday living. A second, philosophical meaning is “things that are real.” From Latin, “real things” – neutral plural.

    I don’t know latin, but I imagine a neutral singular “real thing” might be realis. And a not-real thing might be an irrealis. But I am just guessing.

    But then I checked my Chambers dictionary for realia – from LL (Low, or late, Latin) neuter plural of ‘realis’, real.

    Guessing again, I would peg irrealis as a everyday teaching object of something not real. As it were.

    lol!

  • mand

    Well done, Brad K.; though a neuter singular is more often in -um, this is indeed the n.sing. of realia. (See MyEtymology and the ‘Word Origin & History’ in this dictionary entry.)

    Andy, i’d never seen ‘irrealis’ before either but in some grammars it’s apparently familiar: Balkan syntax and semantics looks fun! And here in English synonymes by George Crabb, a comparison of actual, real and positive to get our teeth into.

  • mand

    Woo! With four links that comment still got past the spam filters!

  • Maeve Maddox

    Sorry, guys,
    It was naughty of me to use “irrealis” without explanation. It was my first encounter with the term too and I’ve been teaching English since before the term “determiner” became common.

    I guess I expected everyone would read the article I was responding to.

    Here’s the reference:

    These musings weren’t getting us anywhere, though; it was time to call in a genuine grammarian. So I sent my query to Geoffrey Pullum, coauthor of the imposing Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and a linguist at Edinburgh University. Was there an obvious cure, I asked, for our was-were puzzlement?

    There was, he said: Have it both ways. The Times’s choice of the “irrealis were,” as it’s called in the higher grammarspeak, is correct; so is our preferred was. “In informal style, Standard English substitutes ‘was’ for the irrealis ‘were,’ ” Pullum explained . . .

    And no, I don’t agree with Professor Pullum that it’s OK to ditch the subjunctive “were.” Guess I’m not a genuine grammarian.

  • mand

    No need to apologise, the exploring was fun!

    (By the way, what’s your view on that comma?)

    I can’t be a genuine grammarian either – but then i haven’t ever claimed to be. ;0)

  • Brad K.

    @ Maeve,

    Would another expression for irrealis be “phantom”? In your example “If she were younger, she would have enjoyed that trip” then common or general rules would pair She Was or We Were. So using She Were might be considered a “phantom” construct, not because the sense of the verb and noun agree, but because the verb is used in a disjoint time sense.

    Almost like “informs” as in “Data informs strategy, or should.”

    I at first took irrealis to be a generic descriptor, like plural or male. But perhaps the phrase “irrealis were” is a specific bit of technical jargon, with a meaning quite aside from common usage, and not immediately available from the words of the phrase.

  • Peter

    Irrealis is a generic descriptor, like plural or male. “Irrealis were” is being used to distinguish the subjunctive (an “irrealis case”) from the indicative use of the word ‘were’ (e.g., “we were speaking”); it’s just another way to say “subjunctive”. (Actually, it’s a more generic descriptor than “subjunctive”, but English, like Latin, only has the one irrealis case; i.e., the subjunctive. Ancient Greek, for example, has two: subjunctive and optative, so “irrealis” would cover both)

  • mand

    @ Peter: {applause} :0)

  • Nick

    I love the subjunctive and, if I were you, I’d use it. It’s important that it not be lost to morons and ignorant people who care not about the language that they speak! God save the subjunctive and God forbid it ever fall out of use!

  • Ben

    I agree with Nick, 100%. That the subjunctive be maintained and upheld is a vital concern. Would that it might always exist!

    On the other hand, I appreciate ‘were’ not being taught as standard usage in ‘subjunctive contexts’, since students of English want to be able to uninhibitedly communicate, and burdening them with higher-level, seldom-respected rules about how language ‘really ought to be’, doesn’t do them much service.

    Students SHOULD be taught the subjunctive, but in its proper context: as the mark of an educated, discerning speaker, and not as a regular piece of ‘everyday’ grammar.

    Having said that: long live the subjunctive. It won’t die with me 🙂

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