If I were using the subjunctive…

The subject of the subjunctive came up in a recent email discussion. English does have a subjunctive – or, I should say, some versions of English do have a distinct subjunctive. Some people will say “If I was you,” meaning right now, and they’re not using a special subjunctive form. But others (me included) will say “If I were you,” because I couldn’t possibly actually be you, and they are using a special subjunctive form. And I will be addressing the kind of English that does use these forms.

There are actually a variety of places where the subjunctive gets used in English, although rather fewer than there used to be, and I’m not going to go into detail about all of them, but they all involve a posited alternate reality – one that is desired (as in “I ask that he come to see me”) or merely posited as possible (“If music be the food of love, play on”), or one that is  definitely expressed as other than the current state (“If I were a rich man…”).

The discussion began with the sentence “He felt as if he were at a crossroads.” And the question: The character is indeed at a crossroads, so should it be “was”?The answer to that one: If he was considering the real possibility that he at the time was at a crossroads – “He felt that he might be at a crossroads” – then it’s “was”. If he was simply likening his state to being at a crossroads, without considering it a real possibility then and there (whether or not it actually was a real possibility – in this case it’s his feeling that counts), then it’s “were.”

Now, in a case such as “as if the tree was weeping,” trees can’t weep, unless you wish to attribute weeping to trees in some metaphorical way (but that’s something best established as a “real-world” possibility before jamming it into this kind of context), so it should be “as if the tree were weeping.”

If we have a phrase such as “It seemed as if the opposite was happening,” , we could use it in a context where we can consider that the opposite may in fact have actually been happening: “I had been assured that I would become rich. But it certainly seemed as if the opposite was happening.” (It was looking like he was getting poorer.)

But in a case where the opposite was established as not happening or simply couldn’t happen, we’d have to use “were”: “It was obvious that I was becoming rich. But on some days it certainly seemed as if the opposite were happening.” “Of course when I let the ball go it fell towards the ground. But it certainly seemed as if the opposite were happening.”

In short, you use the subjunctive when you’re talking about a postulated world not considered as part of the real world in which the sentence’s actors are situated. You use the indicative (“I was”) when you’re talking about a real-world possibility.

I remember someone in a copyediting class I took at Ryerson getting this one confused. She said that I, in the classroom at Ryerson, should say “If I was in the Eaton Centre now,” because I could be in the Eaton Centre. But actually it was established that I was not in the Eaton Centre, as I was there in the classroom talking to her. If she had said, “I saw you yesterday afternoon in the Eaton Centre,” I could have replied “If I was in the Eaton Centre, how did my co-workers talk to me at the office?” But as long as I’m using the version of English that uses separate subjunctive forms, I can’t use “If I was” in the present, just in the past, and only when considering real-world possibilities in the past. I can’t say “If I was in the Eaton Centre now”; it has to be “If I were in the Eaton Centre now” if I’m not there, and “If I am in the Eaton Centre now” if we’re considering the possibility that I actually am there.

And that’s the big key, by the way: not whether the state of affairs actually could be so, but whether the actor in the the mental act introducing the clause is considering that it actually could be so (if no actor is specified, then the author and reader are the actor). So a delusionary person could “feel as if he was being eaten by a unicorn” if carnivorous unicorns were real possibilities in his world, and anyone can “feel as if he were breathing” if it’s established that he is/was not breathing.

So Tevye sings “If I were a rich man…” because he’s not. If he sang (note I’m using a form resembling the indicative past here; I could also use “were to sing”) “If I was a rich man,” the next words would not be “all day long I’d yidda biddy bum,” they would be something like “how did I get to be such an old bum?”

11 responses to “If I were using the subjunctive…

  1. Further clarification: It’s not that one uses the subjunctive only with things that are theoretically impossible; one uses it with things that in fact aren’t so and are not in question as possibly being or having been so. I think the Tevye example is a good one: it’s not theoretically impossible for Tevye to have been a rich man in the past, but in fact he wasn’t and no one is suggesting he was. So he’s not considering it as a fact; he’s musing on something known not to be true.

  2. The article holds ” Some people will say ‘If I was you,’ meaning right now, and they’re not using a special subjunctive form. ” If not subjunctive then what mood? Surely not indicative. If they were using indicative then they’d not use the past tense “was” for something happening in the present.

    • They are in what we would call the subjunctive mood, but they are using the same form as the indicative past. You can, with a simple Google search, find as many instances as you could want of “If I was you, I would” referring to possibilities in the present. (I’d be surprised if you needed to do a Google search to find instances, though; I see and hear them quite regularly.) It’s not a special subjunctive form in that “If I were” uses “were” with “I”, which is not used anywhere in the indicative, so it is a special form, whereas this use of “If I was” simply uses the indicative past form for the present subjunctive and so makes no formal distinction – context alone is the guide as to whether it’s past indicative, present subjunctive, or even past subjunctive.

  3. Using “was” in statements like, “if I was you” is just shitty English. It’s bad and makes the person sound unintelligent.

  4. It’s been awhile since April, but I shall respond again. “If I was,” when it’s not talking about a true past situaton (If I was mean to you yesterday, I’m sorry), is just plain, old, shitty English. I think it has a bucolic sense to it, as if it were being spoken by some bumpkin from the hinterlands. Again, that’s just my tenet on this subject. Take care.

    • Well, you’re not alone in this view. But it’s similar to saying that people who don’t have polished shoes are of low quality. And, as I mentioned, you’re condemning not only millions of highly educated people but entire nations. Still, defining social levels is one available function of language, like it or not, and it’s one that doesn’t require general agreement, as two people may look down on each other.

  5. Though don’t ask me; I still say “if it be” as in “if it be possible.”

  6. Pingback: mamapundit | motherhood, and all the rest of it.

  7. The “If I were a rich man” type is my favourite type.

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