Whenever I craft a grammar-related blog post, I’m helping myself as well as serving my readership.
That’s because: It’s impossible to memorize all the rules of grammar. I’m incapable of reciting every nuanced detail to the general masses. Yes, this is my not-so-guilty reveal–j’admets (that’s French for “I admit”)!
My prediction: By the end of this blog post, you will slay the “I was vs. I were” beast like Perseus turning ancient Greeks to stone with Medusa’s dangerous gaze.
But enough about Greek mythology; let’s get grammatical…
To Be or Not to Be–Such an Irregular Question: The verb to be is a quirky, irregular verb. (Why should French schoolkids have all the conjugating fun?) Was and were are both past tenses of the verb. You utter these past-tense words every day without thinking about them, but it’s important to understand their different forms.
Rather than boring you with an old-school explanation, I’ll resort to juvenile humor…
Was = first-person singular and third-person singular:
I was nowhere near your neighborhood when I heard about tonight’s party…thanks for telling your sister’s boyfriend’s cousin!
“I was born a poor black child (said Steve Martin, as Navin Johnson in The Jerk).”
He was everything I’d never dreamed about, which of course made him irresistible.
Were = second-person singular AND plural as well as first-person and third-person plural:
You were always on my behind…I mean mind, just like that Willie Nelson song!
We were young, brilliant, invincible, and quite modest during our college days.
“Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies and the king and the queen of the prom, riding around with the car top down (and the radio on)…”
No big woof, right? But what trips up many people is figuring out when to say and write “I was” versus “I were.” No need to fret, I’ve got your back on this one. I hope you’re in the mood for something subjunctive…
Memorize This Grammatical Tidbit–the Subjunctive Is a Mood, Not a Tense: Ah, the subjunctive–that fickle mistress (or master) of the hypothetical. You probably dated someone in high school or college who unwittingly referred to the relationship in the subjunctive. (But I digress.)
My faithful Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th Edition) provides the following definition for the word subjunctive:
“of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire)”
The key thing to know about the subjunctive is that it indicates a speculative situation. It’s something that might possibly occur in the future, but most likely, it’s an unrealistic pipe dream. Basically, it’s something you might wish for that’s unlikely to happen.
Yes, I’m prepared to offer you use of the subjunctive in a sentence (or two or three or four):
I wish I were living in a van down by the river, just like Matt Foley.
If I were taller, my signature pixie-cuteness would be gone with the wind.
I wish I were able to sing without frightening small children and domesticated animals…
If I were going to fire you, I’d do it on a Wednesday.
The Keys to Understanding the Subjunctive Kingdom Are If and Wish: By now you’re thinking, “I was…I were…who cares? What’s the big deal about this subjunctive thing?”
I honestly believe it’s good to know when to use the subjunctive and when to refrain. Why risk sounding slightly illiterate when being interviewed by a future employer?
As already revealed, two helpful clues indicating you need to use the subjunctive were after your “I” statement are the words if and wish. These hopeful words indicate you’re about to say something that’s a wistful hypothetical.
When expressing your flight of fancy, choose the more unpredictable If I were / I wish I were instead of the factual I was.
Correct and Incorrect Subjunctive Statements You Know and Love: The best examples of proper subjunctive use (and butchered misuse) come from the top of the grammar food chain: Hollywood and the music industry.
Forget about Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and all those other drab grammar bibles. All you really need to master the subjunctive are “some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and you’re fine.”:
“If I were a rich man, ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum… (Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof)
“If I were king of the forest…not queen, not duke, not prince.” (The Lion, The Wizard of Oz)
“If I were a boy / I think I could understand / How it feels to love a girl / I swear I’d be a better man.” (All hail Beyoncé, queen of the subjunctive!)
“Wish You Were Here” (A subjunctive statement, but in second-person singular. It’s also a classic Pink Floyd song [and album]. It was written as an emotional lament for one of the band’s founding members, Syd Barrett.)
“If I was gonna kill, you I’d use my hands.” (This improper use of was in the subjunctive is courtesy of Evelyn Couch, Fried Green Tomatoes)
“Oh I wish I was a little bar of soap…” (Known by preschool children everywhere; please note the incorrect was instead of the subjunctive were…)
Sadly, much bad grammar floats in the atmosphere regarding the subjunctive mood. Another blatant example: Zach Braff’s flagrantly disrespectful movie from the summer of 2014, Wish I Was Here.
For more horrifying details, read this cleverly written article by Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post.
How do you like my grammar tip now, dear readers? Given the generous helping of examples provided, are you more likely or less likely to use the subjunctive when next you craft a business-related piece of content?
Is this type of blog post helpful to you in your professional life? Would you prefer I no longer blog about grammar usage?
If I were you, I’d open your most recent e-newsletter article or blog post and review your I was and/or I were proclamations… 😉
Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print or web marketing and educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or e-mail By All Writes LLC at firstname.lastname@example.org for a no-obligation project quote today!