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wasn't vs weren't

Discussion in 'English Only' started by GretchenPlay, Oct 31, 2007.

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  1. GretchenPlay Senior Member

    Yang yang, South Korea
    New Zealand, NZE
    I feel quite ridiculous asking this. I am a native speaker and thought i had it right! However my spell-checker tells me otherwise.

    Here's what i have:

    I wonder if he's even coming?
    Oh but surely he is!
    If he wasn't, surely I'd die right now

    Is it supposed to be wasn't or weren't? And could someone please be so kind as to give me a reason?
     
  2. Perdue Senior Member

    UK
    UK English
    Surely it must be wasn't - as conjugated the verb is : I was, he/she was, one was, we were, they were.
     
  3. GretchenPlay Senior Member

    Yang yang, South Korea
    New Zealand, NZE
    yes i thought so too...but now i'm fumbling in wonder!
     
  4. tantan Junior Member

    Bulgaria
    The non-native to the rescue:)
    I think it is the 'If clause' that requires the use of 'infinitive conditional' in this case.
    I believe we have become used to conjugating in this case, but if we go back to hard grammar rule, the spell-checker is right.

    A little bit like we now tend to use 'they' instead of he/she.
    Well, that's not a good comparison, but...

    or maybe like we don't say 'whom' every time we have to, and soon the 'who' will start sounding more appropriate, where we actually require 'whom'

    "If someone were a native speaker, they would know whom this question concerns..."

    hope this helps
     
  5. Elwintee Senior Member

    London England
    England English
    This English speaker is rather old-fashioned, and personally I would use "weren't". This is because the verb follows an "if" - the uncertainty requires the subjunctive. "If only I were rich..." versus "I was rich once, but I've lost all my money". The latter sentence is a (sad) fact, the former is referring to a possibility. A really old-fashioned sentence might help to illustrate the difference: "Were he to come to the party, I would be pleased" is strictly correct (subjunctive, as I don't know whether he'll come or not). Perhaps you would agreed that "Was he to come to the party..." sounds a bit odd?
    Having said that, a lot of prescriptive grammar is no longer applicable, especially in colloquial speech, and for that your "If he wasn't..." sounds fine. It's just good to know the old rules, as they generally have to be applied in academic work. Hope this helps! :)
     
  6. GretchenPlay Senior Member

    Yang yang, South Korea
    New Zealand, NZE
    Thank you both terribly. I have been digging into the subjunctive today (in Spanish) and I think that is what made me panic. Personally I would prefer that I used correct 'prescriptive' grammar. It's a little like poetry isn't it? One must know the rules before one can break them.

    Thank you all again
     
  7. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Just a postscript GretchenPlay - you'll find *lots* of previous threads if you enter "was were" or "subjunctive" into the search facility or the WRF dictionary.

    Loob
     
  8. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Do keep in mind that your spell-checker and grammar-checker are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Indicators, but not absolute judges of spelling or grammar.

    I wonder if he's even coming? <--- Present
    Oh but surely he is! <--- Present
    If he wasn't, <--- Past !!!
    surely I'd die right now. <--- Present
    Your computer wants you to replace wasn't with weren't.
    Your computer is confused. Which is not to suggest that I'm not, but I'll try to explain.

    First a question. Under what conditions would you die right now.
    Presumably, if you were to discover right now that he is not coming. This is not a matter of discovering later that he isn't coming.

    The version that makes sense to me in this context is:
    If he isn't (coming), surely I'll die right now.

    In order for the subjunctive to be used, I have to move into the future, and the consequence has to be a future consequence, not my immediate death in the present.
    If he weren't to come, surely I would die.
    Which indeed I would set aside in favour of:
    If he doesn't come, surely I will die.
     
  9. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    Not really; it could be in the present: If I were rich ("were" because at present I am not in fact rich), I would live in Paris.

    In this case, we have another action taking place in the present: the man is coming.

    Therefore, the subjunctive that is contrary to fact or to wish is if he were not coming...
     
  10. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Slightly brain-fried about this peculiar circumstance :) The tenses and meanings keep shifting in and out of perspective. I think it's the impact of right now, which confines the meaning of I would die.
    I wonder if he's even coming?
    Oh but surely he is!
    If he were not coming, surely I would die right now.
    Is that OK?

    Is it the same as:
    If he is not coming, surely I will die right now.
     
  11. Ynez Senior Member

    Spain
    Spanish
    What modern grammars normally say of "if I/he/she was/were" is that both are correct and "were" more formal.

    They say the most common is the expression "If I were you".


    Then, there is no regional difference in use related to this, is there?
     
  12. Sycdan New Member

    English - NZ
    Hi Gretchen,

    I know you posted this ages ago, but thought I'd try clear it up :).

    'Was' and 'were' are a little complicated, because while 'was' has only one use in English (the indicative past tense of the word 'be' with a singular subject), 'were' has two - the indicative past tense of the word 'be' with a plural subject, and the subjunctive of the word 'be' with any subject. Because of this, a lot of people get confused, as they are never really taught when to use the subjunctive properly - and unfortunately, there are a lot of self-proclaimed "grammar experts" out there willingly to "correct" you who think they know what the subjunctive is, but really don't!

    So, what form to use? Really, it's quite simple - all you need to be aware of is what you are trying to say with your sentence :).

    If you are saying that something is false or as yet undetermined, then you should use the subjunctive - were, be, etc.

    For example,

    "If I were the Prime Minister, I would make English easier to learn!"
    vs.
    "If I was the Prime Minister, I would make English easier to learn!"

    Here, the speaker is stating that she* is actually not the Prime Minister, even though she is saying what she would do if she were, so the first one, using the subjunctive 'were' is right.

    On the other hand, if you are saying that something is true, then you should use the indicative - was / other were, is, did, etc.

    "When I was Prime Minister, I made English easier to learn!"
    vs.
    "When I were Prime Minister, I made English easier to learn!"

    Here, the speaker is stating that she actually was the Prime Minister at some time in the past (even if it is true that she wasn't), so the indicative must be used. Of course, 'were' can also be used as an indicative too, but only with a plural subject. In this case, the subject (I) is singular, so 'was' is the correct form.

    "If it wasn't him who ate the cookies, then who was it?"
    vs.
    "If it weren't him who ate the cookies, then who was it?"

    This one is a bit more tricky, but again, we just look at what is being said. In the first, the speaker is assuming as fact that it actually wasn't said person who ate the cookies, and looking for an alternative - without changing the meaning, we could rephrase this question as something like:

    "OK, so it wasn't him who ate the cookies. But who was it?"

    This seems to makes sense.

    However, if we substitute 'weren't', things get kind of awkward. In asking "who was it?", the speaker is expressing a desire to find out whom it was who ate the cookies, but by using the subjunctive is specifically denying that it wasn't him who ate them - in other words, she is asking who is was while at the same time saying exactly who it was! Though in a sense grammatically correct - one could happily say "if it weren't him who ate the cookies, then his fingerprints wouldn't have been on the jar" - the meanings of the individual parts conflict, so the first wording is correct.

    Which, rather long-windedly, leads on to your original question! lol

    You see, really, as in the previous example, both the subjunctive (were) or the indicative (was/were/is) could potentially be used, depending on the attitude of the speaker, though as the first sentence in the exchange suggests that she (?) expresses a tentative belief that the guy will show, the subjunctive seems to fits better.

    I wonder if he's even coming?
    Oh but surely he is!
    If he weren't (to come), surely I'd die right now

    The problem is, this gives us a conflict in timing - the speaker is saying is that she will die right now if he doesn't come, but it could be that he would have shown up in ten minutes - she can't know that he hasn't come unless she waits for him to arrive longer than 'right now' (quantum mechanical thought experiments aside lol). No big deal though :) - just leave out the 'right now', or substitute something like 'when I found out':

    I wonder if he's even coming?
    Oh but surely he is!
    If he weren't, surely I'd die.

    I wonder if he's even coming?
    Oh but surely he is!
    If he weren't, surely I'd die when I found out.

    Hope this helps! (if somewhat belatedly)

    Nick

    * Instead of trying to use 'one' all the time, or the cumbersome 'he/she' / '(s)he', I tend to use a single pronoun chosen for the gender of the person whom I am talking to; most people probably don't mind much these days but I mean not to offend anyone who finds any one set of pronouns offensive and feel this is the safest way to do it!
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2009
  13. desert_fox Senior Member

    English
    you are speculating about if things were different in the past, that some other result may have occurred. It is contrary to fact, and only speculation, and is put in the subjunctive form.
     
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