Linguistic therapy

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Today's SinFest:

But in fact there's more here to distract Monique from her depression than the simple question of whether to say "I wish I were" or "I wish I was". As Geoff Pullum noted in a comment on a Language Log post back in 2004, this use of were

… isn't actually the subjunctive. People often call the "were" of "I wish I were" subjunctive, but that term is much better used (as in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) for the construction with "be" seen in "I demand that it be done." The "were" form is often wrongly called a past subjunctive, but of course "it were done" is not a past tense of "it be done". The difference between the two is that the subjunctive construction occurs with any verb: "I demand that this cease" is a subjunctive (notice "this cease", not "this ceases"). The relic form in "I were" is only available for "be". For all other verbs you use the preterite: "I wish I went to New York more often." The Cambridge Grammar calls the "were" form the irrealis form. It is surviving robustly in expressions like "if I were you", but even there it has a universally accepted alternate "if I was you", and there is no semantic distinction there to preserve.

And she should feel OK about her original mode of expression, as I noted in the same post, quoting the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

… 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.

In fact, rather than looking up the "rule" in some grammar scold's list, she could have discovered this puzzling graph of her choice's history:

This is turn would raise a host of other questions: Why did "wish I was" surge to the front in the late 1860s? Why did "wish I were" regain the lead, peaking in 1900? And what about the larger shape of the  Great Victorian Wistfulness Bubble, with that long climb from 1830 and the subsequent decline in both of these expressions?

With any luck, by the time Monique  finished exploring these questions online, she'd be too tired to be depressed.

Update — Well, if we're going to get serious about this (and LL commenters are a pretty earnest and sober bunch, it seems), then we should start by reading what Arnold Zwicky had to say in response to Geoff's comment: "'Losing' 'the subjunctive'", 7/11/2004.

Update #2 — Brett at English, Jack has posted some fascinating additional data on the Great Victorian Wistfulness Bubble.


  1. HP said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 7:50 am

    Why did "wish I was" surge to the front in the late 1860s?

    Perhaps it had something to do with the wartime popularity of the song "Dixie" ("Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton . . ..").

    Google Ngram shows a similar peak for "in the mood" around 1940 – 1945.

  2. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    I find it a bit strange for Dr. Pullum to claim that the irrealis "isn't actually the subjunctive". People often write as though scientists owned the terminology of their field, but I'd expect a descriptive linguist to recognize that widespread traditional usages don't become wrong the instant a scientist decides that a different nomenclature is superior, any more than restrictive "which" became wrong the instant Fowler decided that it would be preferable to use "that".

  3. David Donnell said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 8:38 am


    Contrast "Dixie" with a song popular in the 1960's, one century later: "If I Were A Carpenter". (I only know it as a Johnny Cash song, but apparently Bobby Darin popularized it first.)

  4. John said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    I wish it were possible to trust the Google n-grams to the degree you seem to.

    [(myl) Our motto, in general, is "Trust but verify". And it's true that verification is difficult with this data, for reasons discussed here among others. But the threshold of verification for jokes is usually considered to be lower. ]

  5. Tom S. Fox said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    “The relic form in "I were" is only available for "be". For all other verbs you use the preterite: "I wish I went to New York more often."”

    Wouldn’t it be more logical to say that for all other verbs the irrealis is identical to the preterite?

  6. John Cowan said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    Ran Ari-Gur: Amen.

  7. Jimbino said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    Folks who say "I wish I was" have no appreciation of English tenses and have their mouths directly connected to their ears, with no processing, but only a memory buffer in between.

    For example, "If I was there, I spoke to him" is in the indicative because it is a simple statement of fact.

    "If I had been there, I would have spoken to him" is something quite different, expressing a contrary-to-fact situation.

    So is "If I were there, I would speak to him."

    "I would be sad if our new love was in vain" is an example of low-class English and, as such, should be avoided by those who want to be appreciated for their discernment in English, if not music.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    "The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics" says the following under the entry for 'subjunctive':

    "Forms such as 'be' in 'I ask that he be told,' or 'were' in 'If he were here, he would help' are traditionally called 'subjunctive' in English."

  9. Dean said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    Jimbino, you're just trolling, right?

    [(myl) The evidence, alas, suggests otherwise. Or at least, the combination of intolerance and ignorance that his comment displays is sincere, even if his display of these qualities was probably calculated to offend. For more on his particular constellation of misunderstandings, see (the second half of) "Starting off on the wrong foot", 10/31/2008.]

  10. Leonardo Boiko said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 10:32 am


    > Folks who say "I wish I was" have no appreciation of English tenses and have their mouths directly connected to their ears, with no processing, but only a memory buffer in between.

    Do you have any scientific, large-scale psychological or neurological study to back up such a tall claim?

    > "I would be sad if our new love was in vain" is an example of low-class English

    Again, do you have any sociolinguistic study of spoken English to prove the claim that forms like “if… was” are in fact more frequent in the lower classes?

    And even if that was true, what’s keeping me from speaking “low-class” English, should I wish to? What if I dig working-man æsthetics and find “if… were” pretentious? Your particular private subjective preference for one form over the other does not mean the form is more “discerning” nor that everyone “should” use it. People are entitled to speak however they want.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    @ Jimbino

    I'm not sure I understand your point.

    Firstly, the difference between the forms of be in I wish I was and I wish I were is surely one of mood, not tense.

    Secondly, would you dispute that with other verbs, the ordinary preterite can be used to indicate modal remoteness? For example,

    If I saw him again, I'd kill him.

    If that is perfectly good English, what is so bad about If I was…?

    Pending further evidence, I think I'll go with the CGEL's view that was and were have been in open competition among native speakers for the past 3-4 centuries (aside from in inverted conditionals and the fixed phrase as it were) – rather than your subjective and seemingly class-based judgement.

    @ GeorgeW

    But do you reckon the OCDL is right to say that the form of be is subjunctive in I ask that he be told? Or that it is the plain form in a subjunctive construction?

  12. the next Prescott Niles said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    I second John Cowan's "amen."

  13. GeorgeW said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    @Pflaumbaum: I am not arguing the OCDL's point, only citing it. I think they would contrast this with "I ask that he is told."

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    @George – I know you weren't, I was just wondering.

    I think the relevant contrast (for deciding whether the subjunctive is an inflectional property of the verb as well as a syntactic property of the construction) is not that between, say,

    (1) I ask that he be ready
    (2) I ask that he is ready

    but that between

    (3) I ask that he be ready

    (4) He has to be ready
    (5) Be ready!

    – where there is no difference in morphology in any verb, even be. But I'm not a linguist, I'm just following CGEL's argument which seems quite persuasive, but am open to other views…

  15. Brett said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur: I agree with you in principle, but in practice, there are often good arguments to be made that scientific or expert usages can trump the older meanings of words. Words that are adopted into scientific usage often make precise distinctions that were generally recognized, but whose boundaries were not previously examined. I think this is actually a fascinating linguistic matter, and I wonder if someone has studied it in detail.

    Consider the example of "ape," which once meant something like "large monkey." Contained within the idea of ape was the germ of an important distinction; people could recognize that there was an important difference between gorillas and chimps (which are apes) and tamarinds and marmosets (which are not). When the evolutionary tree of the primates was mapped out, the word "ape" was applied in a more precise sense to a particular taxon. There was a great deal of overlap between the older meaning and the new one but by no means complete agreement. Yet over time, the scientifically useful definition has taken over completely; I (and many other people) would never accept "ape" used to refer to, say, a hamadryas baboon.

    (Of course, along with the change in meaning of "ape" has come a change in "monkey." Many educated persons would not accept "monkey" to refer to an orangutan. They want to draw a strict distinction between "apes" and "monkeys," which is contrary in this case to the biologically meaningful definition, which has the former as a subgroup of the latter.)

    Many scientifically educated individuals will sneer at the "misuse" of terms like "force" and "energy," which have precise meanings in physics (which is my field). Again, the scientific community adopted these preexisting words with meanings clearly related to the physical concepts involved. However, the earlier meanings of "force" and "energy" are still around and important in language, and I don't personally object to them (unless the person using them is invoking them in an attempt to sound scientific, which is common problem in the realm of pseudoscience).

    I have veered far off topic, but this is a linguistic question that I have often thought about and wanted to understand better.

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    @ Brett

    The biologically meaningful definition has apes as a subset of monkeys? Do you mean primates, or did something go wrong with that paragraph?

    I think Ran Ari-Gur's point is that there's not yet sufficient academic consensus in favour of the CGEL taxonomy, with subjunctive as a construction and irrealis as a mood, to license GKP's 'isn't actually' comment.

  17. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    Under the heading "irrealis," that always reliable fount of wisdom known as Wikipedia distinguishes the subjunctive from the conditional, which seems to be the fine point under scrutiny here. Reliable or not, the distinction made there makes sense to me. (And I feel rather chagrined, because I'd long believed I was one of the few people who knew what the English subjunctive was!)

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    To build on Pflaumbaum's point re preterit indicating modal remoteness, I do think there's a semantic contrast between, e.g., (perhaps-now-more-archaic-sounding) "if he be a married man" and "if he were a married man" that fits that pattern pretty well. Indeed, if you abandon special verb forms altogether you can see the same contrast between "if he is a married man" and (in a context where's it's not plausibly referring to a past time) "if he was a married man," with the former tending to imply that this is an open question and the latter tending to imply "which he isn't." Now, maybe that's a different "be" than what the CGEL is treating as the "be" that it's willing to call subjunctive, but I don't think it's obvious that it should be.

  19. Brett said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: What I wrote was correct, and your confusion illustrates exactly the point I was making in that paragraph. While "ape" has developed a scientifically meaningful specific definition, "monkey" has developed in parallel an equally specific definition, but one which is scientifically incoherent. To quote Wikipedia:

    "Scientifically speaking, monkeys are paraphyletic (not a single coherent group) and Old World monkeys are actually more closely related to the apes than they are to the New World monkeys."

    The main definition of "monkey" that is currently in educated use seems to be "a simian that is not an ape," or "a simian that is not an ape or a human." Which one applies depends on whether one considers humans to be apes. (Whether humans are apes is, of course, perfectly analogous to whether apes are monkeys.)

    The word "simian," which (as I understand it) originally referred primarily to apes, has become much broader in meaning, to refer to the evolutionarily meaningful monophyletic group of monkeys, apes, and hominids. However, I know many biologists who intentionally refer to apes and humans as monkeys, to emphasize that as correct cladistic category.

  20. KevinM said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    @David Donnell. That would be Greenwich Village folkie (with jazz overtones) Tim Hardin.
    But it probably took the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle to really drum the subjunctive into our heads.
    As it were.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    To mostly agree with the Cowan/Ari-Gur "Amen": the CGEL uses (and vigorously argues for) in many places for a taxonomy of English grammatical phenomena that differs in various details from earlier frameworks. Because they're often using a somewhat different schema, they needed to either make up new labels for their categories or use existing words (either common or technical-sounding) with somewhat different (and thus potentially confusing) meanings. I think they mostly did the latter, but when one reads Huddleston's pre-CGEL work one wonders (or, at least, I wonder) how several centuries of other scholars somehow managed to talk about English grammar without such heavy use of the word "jussive," which even the solons of wikipedia seem to still mostly treat as "something confusing you will need to understand if you try to learn Arabic." (OK, Jesperson may have used it in talking about English . . .) Maybe if the CGEL taxonomy ultimately becomes dominant, their accompanying terminology will crowd out rival uses of the same words, or maybe if it becomes dominant the terminology will itself evolve as other scholars jump on the bandwagon while fiddling with the details of the framework. (Out of courtesy to the authors, I'm not going to recast the if-phrases in that last sentence to emphasize irrealis, contrafactuality, or modal remoteness with respect to the future success of their project.)

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    @ Brett –

    I know what you're saying but I think you put it a bit strongly. The fact that monkeys are paraphyletic, and that old world monkeys are more closely related to apes than they are to new world monkeys, doesn't mean that apes are a sub-group of monkeys, or that the term 'monkey' as commonly understood (including by primatologists) is biologically meaningless.

    Fish are also paraphyletic, but even if herrings are more closely related to you and me than they are to sharks, that doesn't make us fish. The term 'fish' may not be cladist-proof but it's not biologically meaningless either, and is of course used all the time in peer-reviewed papers.

  23. Bob Moore said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    Here is a pair of examples attributed to the Berkeley philosopher Ernest Adams:

    If Oswald didn't shoot Kennedy, someone else did.

    If Oswald hadn't shot Kennedy, someone else would have.

    Clearly in this case, it matters which verb form is used. The indicative is said to express epistemic possibility, and the subjunctive, metaphysical possibility. My belief is that when both kinds of possibility are reasonable, given the circumstances of utterance, and they differ in truth-value, native speakers instinctively use the appropriate form. In circumstances where only metaphysical possibility makes sense (usually because there is clearly no epistemic uncertainty, as in "if I was/were you"), then the indicative is often substituted for the subjunctive.

    In other words, the subjunctive is not completely dying out; it is just reserved by many people for cases where the indicative would be taken to mean something else.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

    @Bob Moore. I don't get how your point is relevant to was/were counterfactually. That's the only verb that makes that distinction, and only for first or 3rd person singular. We seem to do just fine without making a distinction for "you", "we", "they", and for other verbs.

    And looks to me like the difference in forms in your examples (didn't versus hadn't) is one of tense, not mood.

  25. James said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

    Ellen K., the difference does seem to be one of tense, but on the other hand the semantic difference seems to match the difference between indicative and irrealis. That is, to think about whether the second is true, we have to think about a modally remote (though presumably not too remote) world, whereas to think about whether the first is true we think only about our own, actual world.
    If there are compelling arguments that the difference must be merely a difference in tense, I would really like to see them. Dorothy Edgington has suggested that contrary to popular (philosophical) belief, the difference is indeed a difference in tense only.

  26. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    @ Ellen –

    I think maybe Bob is referring to the 'subjunctive conditional' referred to in the footnote on p751 of CGEL:

    Philosophers sometimes use the terms 'indicative conditional' and 'subjunctive conditional' for open and closed conditionals respectively.

    It goes on to say:

    These terms reflect the way in which the distinction is characteristically marked in Latin, but in English it is marked quite differently. Given that the grammatical marking of the distinction varies considerably across languages, appropriate general terms should be based on the common meaning difference.

    The two options for the protasis, then, are the preterite tense used to express modal remoteness, as in Bob's example 2, or, in the case of be, the were form, whether you call it 'irrealis' or 'subjunctive' or something else. But you're surely right that there's nothing that could be called a subjunctive verb-form in his examples.

  27. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

    Sorry, I meant open and remote conditionals, not open and closed.

  28. Melissa Dow said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    Oh, I'm so glad to learn that English actually has a category called the irrealis. I learned that term in Latin (for a particular usage of the subjunctive), and kept telling myself that there had to be an equivalent name for the construction in English. Phew!

  29. army1987 said,

    March 21, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

    Somewhere I saw a claim that English has no subjunctive, and that in sentences such as "It was suggested that it be done" or "God save the queen" there's a zero modal verb before "be" and "save" respectively.

  30. John Cowan said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 1:11 am

    Most (anglophone, at least) linguists don't believe in zero morphs, but if they did, treating the subjunctive form as having a zero morph would be quite reasonable, since it alternates with should, a non-zero morph.

  31. John Walden said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 3:43 am

    Michael Lewis in "The English Verb" made the point that the thing which the preterite, or whatever you choose to call it, and the "past subjunctive" have in common is what they aren't, which is now-ness. "I had money" suggests that now I don't, and "I wish/If Only/Supposing I had money" does too. He called it "the remote form".

    It makes sense to me to think of it as the first two columns in foreign learners' lists of irregular verbs. The first column has a number of names, which unhelpfully refer to what it is only some of the time: Present Simple or Present Indicative or Infinitive. It's also the Imperative but no writer or publisher labels it as that, even though it may be students' first contact with the first form. The more enlightened call it Base Form, which is the best of the bunch. I can't see anything wrong with "First Form".

    The second column, always labelled "Past Simple", is really only that some of the time. So it could do with a better name: it is unnecessarily confusing to say that "If you came tomorrow" is formed by a 'past' and a 'future' time reference. So this "Second Form" has two main uses, both of which refer to how the present isn't: either how it was or how it would be in another reality-

    So I can't see why 'be' gets any special treatment: Why should "If I was/were rich" be analysed differently from "If I got rich"? It's really only a tiny fossil from a fully fledged past subjunctive which differentiated between 'wert' and 'werst' amonst other things, if I remember correctly. While rumours of the death of "If I were" may be exaggerated, it hardly seems worth it having any special status.

    Me, I'd rip up the whole terminology and start again.

  32. Colin Reid said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 5:06 am

    I thought English had two simple subjunctive tenses, 'be' and 'were'. Neither refers to the past particularly: even though the second one has almost entirely merged with the simple past in form, I don't think it's helpful to refer to the 'did' in 'If I did…' as 'preterite' because the meaning is clearly not preterite. Then again everything I've said so far could equally well be said about German, which everyone agrees has two simple subjunctives. Like English, the second of these resembles the past indicative (and is indeed identical for many verbs, though German gets round this by using an auxiliary for these verbs), but it clearly isn't a past tense. You also never hear the claim that 'würde machen' is automatically 'future subjunctive' on the basis that 'werde machen' is future indicative and 'würde' is a subjunctive form of 'werde'.

  33. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 6:06 am

    @ Colin –

    I don't think it's helpful to refer to the 'did' in 'If I did…' as 'preterite' because the meaning is clearly not preterite.

    You could equally say that the tense of travel and tell in

    (1) Next spring we travel to Minsk

    (2) Your teacher tells me you've been disruptive in class

    should not be regarded as present, on the grounds that they refer to future and past time, respectively. But tense isn't time. Since the same form is used for modal remoteness and backshift, among other things, without any inflectional change from the preterite, it seems wasteful to analyse it as a separate mood of the verb in those positions.

  34. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    Just some evidence that the subjunctive/irrealis "be" occurring with "if" is not yet obsolete in American English in at least the limited domain of book and song titles: in addition to V.C. Andrews' novel "If There Be Thorns" (quite popular with the girls I went to high school with three decades back), googling "if there be" turns up, e.g., a 2Pac song titled "If There Be Pain" and a 2008 novel titled "If There Be Dragons," which is described as "A bestselling author weaves suspense and the paranormal into a romance centered on an enigmatic woman and the man whose touch threatens to expose her most intimate vulnerabilities." Not to be snooty, but that blurb suggests that the form is in use for mass/genre/pulp/lowbrow works aimed at a readership rather broader and less formally educated than, e.g., the David Foster Wallace cult following. Now, it's quite possible that this is taken to be a "poetic" usage that the readers of these books are never going to use in ordinary conversation. But they, presumably, find it nonetheless acceptably coherent and understandable, and might even take "If There Be Dragons" to mean something identifiably different than "If There Were Dragons" would.

  35. Ellen K. said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    Not that I'm the target market for any of those (in the above comment from J.W. Brewer) (though I'm American), but I take "If there be N" to mean there might be, or might be in the future. I would use "if there are N" or "if there are going to be N" to express this, since that's not a form I use. Quite different from "if there were N", which would be used when there aren't any N. (Though, come to think if it, that can also be used when talking about a past time when there might or might not have been N.)

  36. Atmir Ilias said,

    March 24, 2011 @ 12:42 am

    It is a combination of the future with the past that makes possible the mining of something that I’m going to call “the future in the past”, which is a not realizable event, etc. So, I think it is wrong to be used *I wish I were., *If I were ., which is not the logical form of "I+ verb" in the past. No logic on it. It is fairly not clear. Well, It is the same verb form in the past, but there are “if, I wish” that give the specific wish-conditional performance of the whole future-past combination.

  37. Jack Freeman said,

    March 25, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    This had me intrigued. I have always regarded myself as a grammarian, having specialised in languages in my profession, but I have only ever heard the term "preterite" used in French grammar, but this seems a field of its own. For instance, it has only recently been pointed out to me that the so-called "imperfect" tense has a different function in German than in French.

  38. Darlo Paul said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 6:10 am

    Oh dear! Jimbino is (and some others are) perfectly correct. For the nth time, it doesn't matter who, or how many people, use an expression; usage does not confer correctness. The irrealis is indeed what is called in some languages the subjunctive, and is used in much the same way, to express possibility, hopes, wishes, unfulfilled desires &c. The realis and irrealis may just as usefully be called the actual and hypothetical; it matters not. We say "Long live x", not "Long lives x" because it is a hope or wish, not a fact, "if I were younger" because I am not, "had he read a Grammar book" because he did not (obviously). There is neither dilemma nor doubt, and if they have the same form, it bespeaks the extent to which grammatical endings have been lost, not a transition to a different tense.

  39. Faldone said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    Darlo Paul: For the nth time, it doesn't matter who, or how many people, use an expression; usage does not confer correctness.

    If this were true no one would have spoken grammatically correct English for the last thousand years.

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