if I was / if I were [rich; rude, etc.]

Einstein

Senior Member
UK, English
Well, I haven't got time for a long reply now.
The thing which concerns me most is the suggestion that if I was + something which is not the case is not commonly used by BE speakers and writers to introduce a hypothetical present.
No, I'm not suggesting that! I'm sure it's very common. Let me just restate my opinion that the choice between "was" and "were" depends more on the degree of formality than on the degree of probability. If someone wants to use always "was" I've no objection, just as I've no objection to their using "was" in less formal situations and "were" in more formal ones. That's my experience... which you may say is limited given that I've lived abroad too long.:)
In my last post I simply pointed out that your H.G. Wells quote was inappropriate.
 
  • tunaafi

    Senior Member
    English - British (Southern England)
    Let me just restate my opinion that the choice between "was" and "were" depends more on the degree of formality than on the degree of probability.

    I don't agree about the degree of formality. In fact, I don't think most speakers consciously choose. I (69) always use were when talking about hypothetical situations, probably mainly because of my age. My son (35) always uses was. This Ngram shows a marked decline in the use of were in British English from about the mid 1950s on.
     

    tunaafi

    Senior Member
    English - British (Southern England)
    I don't know anyone whose use in confined to only one of the alternatives. [/QUte

    Even the people I know who might say 'It I was to fly to the Moon', would say 'If I were you'.

    Well, apart from my own family, I know several. This Ngram suggests that my son and some of the other people I know are not the only ones to say "If I was you".
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Well, apart from my own family, I know several. This Ngram suggests that my son and some of the other people I know are not the only ones to say "If I was you".
    That's interesting. It's almost the only form like that which I regard as uneducated.

    The AE members sometimes go on about the need for were rather than was in hypotheticals of this kind, not just in impossibilities, yet the comparative ngrams suggest there's not much difference in AE and BE practice over this impossibility at least.
     

    tunaafi

    Senior Member
    English - British (Southern England)
    That's interesting. It's almost the only form like that which I regard as uneducated.

    My age, background and schooling tell me it's uneducated. My knowledge of the real world and my interest in descriptive, rather than prescriptive, grammar tell me that 'If I was you' is used by many fairly well-educated people.
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    If I had a pupil going for an interview for a job in which general education and intelligent presentation were important, I wouldn't expect him to get the job if he used the expression, if I was you.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    If I had a pupil going for an interview for a job in which general education and intelligent presentation were important, I wouldn't expect him to get the job if he used the expression, if I was you.
    It's interesting, isn't it, that this is such a shibboleth. I don't think anyone would hold up their hands in horror at "if I was in your position" or "if I was John".

    I have the feeling that "if I were you" has become a set phrase - a sort of idiom.

    ---------

    Ooops, I've just realised that Einstein suggested that back in post 34:eek:
    Since this thread has come back to life I want to express my two cents on the was-were difference. I don't see the choice as dependent on the degree of impossibility.
    [...]
    If people don't always say "If I were...", in my opinion it is for two reasons:
    1) some limit its use to writing or formal speaking;
    2) some limit it further, to set phrases such as "If I were you".
    PS I should add that I agree with Einstein as far as my own usage is concerned. In everyday speech, I use "if X was" except in the phrase "if I were you"; when writing formally, I'd probably replace at least some of those "was"s with "were"s.
     
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    tunaafi

    Senior Member
    English - British (Southern England)
    If I had a pupil going for an interview for a job in which general education and intelligent presentation were important, I wouldn't expect him to get the job if he used the expression, if I was you.

    If the academic achievements and overall abilities of a pupil of mine held to be less important than his use of a subjunctive, I would think he was better off not trying to work for people whose priorities were so expletive deleted
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Just checking, tunaafi: your son definitely wouldn't use "were" even in what Einstein and I called a set phrase: If I were you?

    If he wouldn't, then I'd say that's proof that it's been a set phrase only temporarily, as part of the inexorable - and nearly complete - erosion of the the past subjunctive.

    Which I'd find (a) interesting and (b) not at all surprising:).
     
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    tunaafi

    Senior Member
    English - British (Southern England)
    Just checking, tunaafi: your son definitely wouldn't use "were" even in what Einstein and I called a set phrase: If I were you
    I wouldn't swear on oath that he'd never said it in his life. I always use were in hypothetical situations and his mother does in the fixed phrase if I were you; thissuggests that he almost certainly did when he was younger. However, I doubt if he's said it since he started school in the mid 1980s. His sister says both if I were and if I was.

    By the time I left teaching in comprehensive schools at the end of the 1990s to return to TEFL, I was vaguely aware that a lot of pupils, and some of my colleagues (especially the younger ones) said 'if I was'.

    I have long felt that the past subjunctive survives in British English only in some who will have shuffled off their mortal coils within the next twenty-five or so years. The last trace of the subjunctive, if I were you, may linger another couple of decades.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm interested that belief in the decline of the subjunctive has survived current academic opinion that the mandative subjunctive has been undergoing something of a revival in BE over the last thirty years.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    For me, the decline of the past subjunctive and the revival of the present subjunctive are two quite separate phenomena, TT. But yes, it is interesting that they're happening simultaneously.
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    In about 1952 the novelist Evelyn Waugh said as follows to a fellow novelist (Graham Greene):
    "I wouldn't give up writing about God at this stage, if I was you. It would be like P. G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series."

    Draw what conclusions you like. :)
     

    CharlesLee

    Senior Member
    Korean
    <-----Off-topic comment removed by moderator (Florentia52)----->

    Hypothetical and conditional forms are different. The past tense of the sentence starting as in "If I'm" , would change into "If I was".

    Ind, Subjunctive are different even if it would seem similar. If I'm rich, I will buy a new car. = Young as they are, still able to do that.

    If I were rich, I could buy a new car. = He's broke at the moment so it's impossible.

    If you change first conditional form as the past form, it turns from "is" into "was" as remaing indicative one.

    In order to distinguish between Subjunctive and indicative forms , we are using be verb as Were.

    It's also used to be obviously different in French as Sois, or soit, etc from Suis, es, est etc.

    But if I was Elvesham, I should remember where I was on the previous morning,...

    I'm unsure of Einstein's example because the example still emphasizes unreality....

    But his only explanations make sense along mine, but not example.

    We can see one of Saurabh's examples

    I would say hi to her if I was amongst them. (I wasn't there however could have been there) -:cross: this example must be a had PP form.

    because the explanation sounds as if they describe a past event, which means the sentence is clear while the explanation isn't coincident.

    but still possible way to use was if the nuance of meaning would be slightly changed.

    I'd be sorry, if I was wrong :)
     
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    CharlesLee

    Senior Member
    Korean
    I wonder if you would, Charles.


    We use the past tense forms to talk about the future in clauses with if:

    • for something that we believe or know will not happen:

    We would go by train if it wasn’t so expensive = We won’t go by train because it is too expensive.
    I would look after the children for you at the weekend if I was at home = I can’t look after the children because I will not be at home.
    I have to say this is what I was talking about but this isn't a hypothetical form but a conditional future form

    , which means Thomas and Einstein know the form of indicative forms but they are similar when the future indicative form turns in to the past form

    just like above you mentioned. It doesn't mean we can use hypothetical forms as a current tense.

    If speakers focus on current status, the were form would be hypothetical.

    for example, "If it's not so expensive, we won't go by train." = present form of indicative as the first conditional form.

    "If it weren't so expensive, we would go by train." = We use past tense for current situation as subjuctive form and the 2nd conditional form.

    Now that you've seen both of them, if you change both forms as past tenses, the 2nd hypothetical form won't be changed

    while first form would go with " was" , and "Would".
    So we should be careful on that.
     
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    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    Going back nearly a year! I've just noticed this comment:
    I don't agree about the degree of formality. In fact, I don't think most speakers consciously choose. I (69) always use were when talking about hypothetical situations, probably mainly because of my age. My son (35) always uses was.
    I was wrong to use the expression "degree of formality". What I really meant was that it depends on how "modern"/"old-fashioned" we are and this is in line with what tunaafi says about himself and his son. My point remains that the use of "was" or "were" for a hypothetical present or future depends on our cultural training and not, in my experience, on how probable or improbable the event may be.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Going back nearly a year! I've just noticed this comment:
    I was wrong to use the expression "degree of formality". What I really meant was that it depends on how "modern"/"old-fashioned" we are and this is in line with what tunaafi says about himself and his son. My point remains that the use of "was" or "were" for a hypothetical present or future depends on our cultural training and not, in my experience, on how probable or improbable the event may be.
    What's to prevent someone with a given cultural training using was for some hypothetical present cases, and were for other less probable and for impossible ones?

    I think this is my present practice.

    Looking back at the thread, I'm pleased to see that I've been arguing this all along and trying to find examples in literature to support the view.

    My view hasn't changed since last year.

    Note I'm not saying that cultural training is for nothing in this, just that I don't think you should discount probability either.
     
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    DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    My point remains that the use of "was" or "were" for a hypothetical present or future depends on our cultural training and not, in my experience, on how probable or improbable the event may be.
    That's certainly the way I look at it, too. I consistently use the subjunctive, partly because that's the way I was always taught/brought up do it from my schooldays, and it still sounds right to me.

    But also, in my case, I'm being heavily influenced now by learning Italian where my tutor says that a similar situation exists in that language - the subjunctive tenses are used by speakers of "good" Italian (her words, not mine), while in everyday colloquial speech, native Italians will often nowadays use the indicative.

    What's to prevent someone with a given cultural training using was for some hypothetical present cases, and were for other less probable and impossible ones?

    I think this is my present practice.
    Absolutely nothing prevents that, and I don't think I've ever said that it does or did. Just don't expect me to do likewise, though. :)
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    'Subjunctive' is the name of a mood of a verb. In English, it expresses "suggestions, wishes, uncertainty, possibility, etc" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subjunctive.

    If this definition were helpful, we might expect to find the following odd sentences:

    uncertainty: I am really not sure that he play the violin well.

    wish: I wish that she live with her parents.

    possibility: I don't know where she is. Perhaps she be in Hong Kong.

    suggestion: I suggest that brown lentils be healthier than green lentils.
     

    CharlesLee

    Senior Member
    Korean
    Now I've realised how many native English speakers have been speaking just like that so far for long. Thanks for all your meaningful discussion.

    I thought 'Was-use' was considered only acceptable in the indicative mood, but it doesn't yet.

    As a non English speaker, an English teacher in my country, the most important thing is whether or not I should say it's correct.

    Now I think I can answer learners in my country in the cultural and linguistic context.

    This is what I found on BBC. BBC World Service | Learning English | Ask about English
    'If I was you ...' is incorrect, at least in formal speech and writing.

    Unfortunately, it is quite common to hear native speakers say it, and it might be that the subjunctive form is gradually disappearing from English.

    < ---- >

    It has made me shocked since I thought subjunctive form was settled down enough to distinguish between them, or distance.

    What worries me is how non English speakers could identify difference between them, if they do so.




    < Edited to add formatting to indicate quotation and to remove excessive quotation.
    Cagey, moderator >
     
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