Native English Speakers' Subjunctive Mistakes..

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Bienvenidos, Dec 25, 2006.

  1. Bienvenidos

    Bienvenidos Senior Member

    Have you ever heard a NATIVE English speaker say, "Well, if I was president" or "if she was there." It really gets to me....I've been told not to be a grammar snob, but it's hard for me when I notice that English speakers have such a hard time with the subjunctives of other languages because they don't even know how to use their own! And it's really not emphasized at all in schools what's the reason behind this...and what can we do to revitalize the subjunctive mood?

    I'm asking because tens of my English as a Second Language students find it easy to use the subjunctive but are discouraged when they hear English speakers contradicting what I just taught them. Sure, I let them know that as in all languages, there are dialects and mistakes are made innately...but I don't know what else to say. So help me out. What's with this epidemic, and how can we stop it?
  2. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    What makes you think that the use of "was" where you would prefer "were" is either a mark of ignorance or a recent trend?


    if clauses—the reality. In practice, of course, many people ignore the rules. In fact, over the last 200 years even well-respected writers have tended to use the indicative was where the traditional rule would require the subjunctive were. A usage such as If I was the only boy in the world may break the rules, but it sounds perfectly natural.

    Pay careful attention to that last statement: "but it sounds perfectly natural".

    This is where disagreement starts. It does not sound "prefectly natural" to me. I would use "were" there.

    To me it is a matter of style. I would recomment to stick with the tradiational approach when trying to pass tests though. :)

  3. CiegoEnamorado Member

    Tokyo, Japan
    America and American English
    Throughout all of high school, I'd always been made to do grammar exercises, but they were not very strictly enforced until my junior year of high school, and the 'nitty-gritty' came my senior year. Apparently, according to my teacher that year, schools stopped caring about what was considered the proper usage of grammar and no longer taught it. Thus came our current problem. I was once quite horrid with my grammar, of which I did not become painfully aware until I began learning Spanish. At that point I dedicated myself to learning proper usage of English language grammar, and was pegged as a grammar nazi in high school because I, too, found it bothersome that my classmates (and people in general) misused the subjunctive, adjectives as adverbs, and didn't know how to make the subject and verb agree. I continue to find these bothersome, and I think that the best way that we can help correct these issues is by enforcing a stricter regimen of grammar lessons from an early age and keeping it in force until the students graduate from high school.
  4. . 1 Banned

    Ferntree Gully
    Australian Australia
    Sorry to out snob your snobbiness but I find the construction;'If I was/were' to be inellegent and prefer 'Were I' to smooth the bumps.
    "Were I president" or "were she there".

  5. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    Why all the fandango about the evolution of language?
    Grammar rules follow usage. I use the subjunctive, because I like the small but often very meaningful difference in nuance it allows. Most English speakers don't bother. That's ok. They express themselves.

    Spanish once had and used the future subjunctive. It still has it, in theory, but it has dropped out of use. Portuguese keeps on using it. People are able to communicate with more than adequate precision in both languages.

    If you, like me, find value in the subjunctive, use it. Don't pester other people about it too much unless they are you own children.
  6. Ms Missy Senior Member

    U.S. Virgin Islands
    USA English
    Re: "if she was there..." Don't you think that's stretching it a bit when it comes to the English subjunctive? That could well end up meaning If she was there, I didn't see her! So are you suggesting that it should be if she were there, I didn't see her. I think not. In English, just because a sentence begins with "If" ... it doesn't mean that it's automatically a subjunctive construction.
  7. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    The only people who have an appreciation of the grammar of their own language are those who have studied other languages.

    {paraphrased translation of Goethe: "Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen".}

    In English-speaking countries, foreign languages are studied by a relatively small part of the population. A lot of what passes for LOTE [languages other than English] is cultural studies. So Japanese consists mostly of origami, sushi and dress-ups in kimonos.

    Education in English-speaking countries is also infected by the philosphy that children must not be told they are wrong, as their ultra-fragile self-concept will be damaged. So teachers don't correct spelling, punctuation or composition mistakes, let alone grammatical errors.

    In Australia, many teachers are not competent to correct language errors, as they are the products of the above system. Currently, in Australia, the entry requirement for education courses is much lower than for almost any other.

    There is also an element of anti-elitism, and "jack is a good as his master". Non-standard language is elevated to being merely a different, but equally valid, register.

    Interestingly enough, the same people who sneer at prescriptive grammar will pounce on what they see as sexism or racism.

    The only error they'll see in "Every won shud of did his homework" is the use of the sexist "his". Do that three times and you'll be suspended.
  8. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    Ms Missy,

    Let's give Bienvenidos the benefit of the doubt that she was referring to "If she was there she would have eaten all of the food." as being incorrect rather than "If she was there, I didn't see her.". The latter of course is correct whereas the former is incorrect because "she" wasn't there, therefore this is a hypothetical situation.

    Lastly, when I hear someone say "If I was you I would buy it.", thus using the subjunctive incorrectly, this sounds low-class to me. :)

    Let's spread the correct usage of the subjunctive. It allows us to express nuances that would not otherwise be able to be expressed. :thumbsup:

  9. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    One way I use to politely correct someone is to counter with the subjunctive when someone fails to use it correctly. For example,

    Person X: "If I was president, I would rid the world of hunger."
    Me: "Really, if I WERE president, I would end all war."

    I emphasis the word WERE in a subtle manner so that it is not to short to go unnoticed and not too long to sound rude. In other words, I slip it right into the conversation. My hope is that it will soon spread throughout the population. :)

  10. winklepicker

    winklepicker Senior Member

    English (UK)
    Hooray! Native speakers don't make mistakes: they have usage...!
  11. Bienvenidos

    Bienvenidos Senior Member

    Great theory :) I will have to employ that sometime. :)
  12. Bienvenidos

    Bienvenidos Senior Member

    Thanks Drei. Yes, I was referring to the use of "was" as a condition of presence.

    If she was there, she would have ruined the party.
    This sentence is incorrect.

    This--however--is correct with was:

    Margaret: What are you talking about, Nancy? Susie was at the party.
    Nancy: Well, if she was there, then she knows everything!
    Margaret: What can I say, the secret's out. Everyone knows that I stole the diamond. If only I were invisible......
    Nancy: If only Susie were deaf....

    I love the subjunctive so much :)
  13. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    Right you are, and they have so much usage in the BE speaking world that, according to English grammarians, the subjunctive is more easily found among AE speakers. If you were to believe grammarians, you would likely give a double hurrah!;)
  14. It's a great theory. It truly is. Although, I have had experience with it. On some people it goes without notice. And on some people, pointing out their mistake and saying "It's I'm not going to do ANYthing. It is NOT I'm not going to do nothing. That would mean that in fact, you ARE going to do something as it is a double negative." It hasn't got through after many years on someone I know....

    On the subjunctive...It exists and people use it, but they don't realize that they are using it. People say, "If I were an animal, I would be a horse." And they think nothing of it. So when they see the subjunctive in another language, it looks weird and freaky. "I've never seen anything like that! English doesn't have it! Oh my god, what is a person to do?!" And it is a difficult model for other languages, especially regarding conjugations.
  15. Bienvenidos

    Bienvenidos Senior Member

    I completely agree. :) That's why I say if you are native in two languages AND you realize what the subjunctive is, then life is easier for you. But not many people have that luxury so the subjunctive goes...I dunno. I hate to sound like America is far-behind in comparison with the rest of the world, but the emphasis on the acquisition of multiple languages is so much stronger elsewhere that it hurts us in the end....we don't even know what our own subjunctive looks like.
  16. Macunaíma

    Macunaíma Senior Member

    Um ninho de mafagalfinhos
    português, Brasil
    I have noticed that the British tend to use should+infinitive where Americans would normally use the subjunctive: "The doctor recommended he should go on a diet" vs. "The doctor recommended he go on a diet". However, in very rare occasions I have seen a British fail to use the subjunctive in clauses started by If : "If I were you...".
  17. Vikorr Senior Member

    Australia, English
    Is it really surprising that 'were' isn't a commonly understood subjunctive?

    If I was there...
    If they were there...

    You will always hear 'were' as the subjunctive in the plural, and any rule that says 'were' must be used as the subjunctive in the singular (Eg. If I was/were president) contradicts the rule about 'was' being used for the singular and 'were' being used for plurals in normal circumstances.

    Of course if you left off the 'if', then everyone would say 'Were I president' (or at least, I've never heard 'Was I president..., as the start of a sentence)

    edit : sheesh, made a lot of spelling mistakes in that one.
  18. That is so true, that we are behind the rest of the world in acquisition of languages. My cousin is now going to a public school and learning Chinese, he's five I think. The public schools in my area don't teach a foreign language yet, but it's a great thing and maybe some areas are starting to realize that the US is behind and are trying to teach younger children earlier. I was talking to someone about it and they (are xenophobic) thought that it was stupid. He thought that starting people younger at learning languages was stupid. I had to tell him that we are far behind the world and the rest of the world learns languages at a younger age because it is easier.

    Onto the subjunctive as a student of Spanish. I have to admit, when I first learned the Spanish subjunctive; it was so difficult because I wasn't able to think of what the English subjunctive equivalent, so to speak, as I had never learned it in grammar classes. I read a Spanish paper on the subjunctive this year in my Spanish linguistics class. It had stated that it is less used in the United States by bilinguals who aren't natives of Spanish or even Spanish natives living in the United States because of the prevalence of English and the fact that English 'doesn't use the subjunctive'. The non-natives have a model language, and therefore they don't use the subjunctive because English doesn't model well with regard to the subjunctive. And it is very possible to avoid the subjunctive in Spanish. I think I wrote a ten page paper in Spanish without using the subjunctive. I didn't purposely avoid it, but it happened. Give or take a few sentences of course, I can't exactly remember. I have to think more when I write Spanish subjunctive. I can write much quicker without it.
  19. Pedro y La Torre Senior Member

    Paris, France
    English (Ireland)
    I guess it's hard for monoglot English speakers to master other languages because very few have a firm grasp of their own. In Ireland for instance, they don't teach grammar rules for English so most people don't know what the present progressive means or the subjunctive etc.
  20. Vikorr Senior Member

    Australia, English
    ...being taught doesn't mean people know what the words mean either. I was taught grammar (ie the grammar words, subjunctive etc) when I was 8 or 9...and that was 26 or so years I don't remember what many of the terms mean :(
  21. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Most people I've talked to in other countries who have learned at least one additional language have told me that most of what they learned about grammar in their own languages came from studying other languages. :)
  22. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    You could also say, to REALLY make a point:

    "Were I president, I would…" ;)
  23. . 1 Banned

    Ferntree Gully
    Australian Australia
    Were I adjudicating, I would award the award to this point.

  24. Ms Missy Senior Member

    U.S. Virgin Islands
    USA English
    Bienvenidos & drie: Your comments to my post are very well taken, and I can respect both of your "opinions" while adhering to my own.

    I also happen to love the subjunctive, but not to the extent that I'd consider organizing a crusade to "put it back" into the English language so that it will make it easier for English speakers to learn a foreign language, or so that it won't "really get to me" when other English speakers don't use it.

    But as the saying goes ... Different strokes for different folks!

  25. former_chomsky_advocate Member

    English, USA (Great Lakes)
    Such rampant prescriptivism is alarming, and depressing.
  26. former_chomsky_advocate Member

    English, USA (Great Lakes)
    The word "any" as your "anything" in the above sentence *is* a negative.

    Modern linguists distinguish between "free choice any" and "negation any." The post verbal use of "any" or a variant, as a negation, requires a verbal negation.

    The rampant prescriptivism of this forum could benefit greatly from an accurate analysis and a deeper understanding of the language use that the majority seek to criticize.

    Closely related to the Jespersen Cycle, but not necessarily studied diachronically, is the phenomenon of negative concord, a.k.a. double negation, negative doubling, negative spread, etc. Example: I didn't do nothing. Though often frowned upon by prescriptive grammarians, double negation is actually extremely common in natural language.

    <<Excess quoted text deleted by moderator>>
  27. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    That seems to me to be a curious statement to make. As a long-term observer of this forum it seems to me to have a reasonably balanced mix of opinions. Naturally, it may appear rampant to extremists on either side, and may from time to time be rampant on either extreme depending on the current on-line blend.

    Although off-topic for this thread (which is about the subjunctive in English), you might find the discussions elsewhere in this forum about double negatives to be illuminating.
  28. Saurabh

    Saurabh Senior Member

    New Delhi City
    English-British, Hindi
    Hi , Ms Missy
    I would rather say "I didn't see her, was she there?" .... why at all "If" is necssary here? I agree with your given view though.
    It would have to be " if she was there, I didn't see her" if if were to be used here and would not be read as "if she were there, I didn't see her."

  29. mplsray Senior Member

    The if is necessary because that is how native speakers would ordinarily express the situation. "If she was here, I didn't see her." is the idiomatic way to express the thought. Those who say "If she were here, I didn't see her." presumably do so as the result of hypercorrection. It is possible, I suppose, that some people learned from others to say it that way, just as many of those who say "between you and I" learned to say it that way from others. Unlike the latter usage, however, the pseudosubjunctive were of the sort found in "If she were here, I didn't see her." seems to me to be quite rare, and it is certainly not a reason to avoid saying "If she was here, I didn't see her."
  30. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    I don't think grammarians teach the people a new grammar rule (or restore an old one); it is the other way around. When (enough of) the people have changed their usage, the grammarians re-write the book of current grammar. Unless of course, one considers language to have been created in an instant as a complete system, rather than having evolved over time. "When enough of them are wrong, they're right!"
  31. Saurabh

    Saurabh Senior Member

    New Delhi City
    English-British, Hindi
    Hi Mplsray!
    The blue part might be your(native's) way of saying but it seems to me idiomatic only. As I posted in my previous quote no 29 (in this thread )too that I would say " I didn't see her, was she there?. So, I just put it in a grammatical way i.e. the way it would have to be. Further, please refer back to my previous quote no.29 , I agreed there that if it were only a real past situtaion being described it would then be "if she was there, I didn't see her" instead of "if she were there, I didn't see her." The later sentence( i.e. with were) would be used when we were to describe a hypothetical situation, here it could mean that the speaker wasn't sure whether she was there or not. In former sentence (i.e. with was) use of IF is not needed at all. It would rather be said as "I didn't see her, was she there?" as here speaker knew that she wasn't there and just confirming that.
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2009
  32. liliput

    liliput Senior Member

    U.K. English
    The use of was in place of the subjunctive were is an extremely common error, almost to the extent of being accepted usage. In fact in some places it's quite common even outside the context of subjunctives, at least among teenagers - I certainly heard phrases such as "You was there, wasn't ya?" when I was in school.

    Having been taught very little formal grammar in school, I didn't even know what a subjunctive was until I started to learn Spanish and to teach English. However, like many other grammatical points that non-natives find difficult, I used the subjunctive instinctively (although only in certain structures), having learnt English in a natural way from the people around me, principally from my family.
    For adults who say "If I was you...", for example, it may be too late to get them out of this habit and they will probably pass it on to their children. So the only way to prevent the spread of this usage is to have more children of your own. Or if you are fortunate enough to teach children, keep drilling correct grammar into them everyday.
    I am of the opinion that it is not fair to inflict your own errors or the errors of your peers on your students. Apart from the fact that your students expect to be taught correct English, native speakers can often get away with things which sound much worse coming from a non-native. I always teach the use of were instead of was in conditionals and phrases such as I wish... and always correct students when they don't use it.
  33. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    mplsray wrote: If she was here, I didn't see her.
    These two sentences do not mean the same, mostly because of the context in which they might be used.

    mplsray's statement could arise in a conversation where two people have been disagreeing about whether "she" had been here or not. The speaker is suggesting that she hadn't been - and in support of that point of view saying that he didn't see her.

    I'm having some trouble developing a logical context for Saurabh's question.

  34. Saurabh

    Saurabh Senior Member

    New Delhi City
    English-British, Hindi
    Hi Panjandrum,
    Let me re-explain my view. Please get back to my quote no. 31 (of this thread) and you may note that I wrote what you are holding (at last) in your previous quote(the part which has been highlighted in red).
    Let me extract that part from my quote no. 31. Here it is:
    In former sentence (i.e. with was) use of IF is not needed at all. It would rather be said as "I didn't see her, was she there?" as here speaker knew that she wasn't there and just confirming that.
  35. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I didn't see her, was she there?

    I understand your reference to the earlier post, Saurabh, but I don't see how it could mean the same as the original sentence and I can't imagine any real-world context in which the question would make sense.
    It can't stand alone - there must be precedent for "her" and for "there".
    What could have been said in the preceding conversation for this question to make sense?
  36. Saurabh

    Saurabh Senior Member

    New Delhi City
    English-British, Hindi
    Okay, Panjundrum.

    What if, I modify my sentence a bit though to " She wasn't there as I did not see her. Was she there?"
    or" She couldn't have been there as I did not see her."
    However, stick back to if here seems odd to me, I agree that use of if is in use as an idiomatic expression by natives though. It would be hard for me to say that sentence as "If she was there, I did not see her."
  37. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Can you explain why you find "If she was there, I did not see her," difficult?
  38. Saurabh

    Saurabh Senior Member

    New Delhi City
    English-British, Hindi

    IF is used to express sentence(s) with a condition followed by an event and that event may either be certain( say Will) or uncertain(say Would).
    Please consider these examples:
    1) If she is there, I will congratulate her.
    2) If she was there, I would congratulate her.
    3) If she is there, I congratulate her.
    4) If she was there, I congratulated her.

    Sentences 3) and 4) do not make much sense to me, I agree that these could be in use though.
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2009
  39. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Saurabh, "If she was there, I did not see her" is perfectly grammatical.

    Perhaps this Wiki article will help you understand the construction:)

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