Fact v. Assertion

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It is asserted that the following passage contains an elementary grammatical error:

When I called to see her in June, 1842, she was gone a-hunting in the woods, as was her wont (I am not sure whether it was a male or female, and so use the more common pronoun), but her mistress told me that she came into the neighborhood a little more than a year before, in April, and was finally taken into their house; that she was of a dark brownish-gray color, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flatted out along her sides, forming stripes ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. [Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854.]

The same error, we're told, can be found in the following quotations:

Being asked, Whether it was the general opinion of the settlement? he said, He cannot say that it was the general opinion, but it was the opinion of a considerable part of the settlement. [Edmund Burke, "Speech on Nabob of Arcot's Debts", 2/28/1785.]

Whether it was worse to stay with my co-inmates, or to sit alone, I had not considered. [Charlotte Bronte, Villette, 1853.]

Charlotte thought her very strange-looking and singularly dressed; she could not have said whether it was well or ill. [Henry James, The Europeans, 1878.]

Whether it was that they naturally liked that noise, or whether it was that they had learned to like it by getting used to it, I did not at that time know; but they did like it, — this was plain enough. [Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880.]

Poland, Roumania, Finland, and the three Baltic States did not know whether it was German aggression or Russian rescue that they dreaded more. [Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 1948.]

Americans gravely asked themselves whether it was right to cast away any of their own severely-limited resources to indulge a generous though hopeless sentiment. [Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 1949]

The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice" — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. [William J. Brennan, Opinion of the Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan 376 U.S. 254 (1964).]

[O]ur Nation has a longstanding history of laws prohibiting sodomy in general — regardless of whether it was performed by same-sex or opposite-sex couples. [Antonin Scalia, Dissent in Lawrence v. Texas (02-102) 539 U.S. 558 (2003).]

By now, you should have figured out what the error is supposed to be, purely on the basis of string-matching in the alleged instances of it — but here's the original complaint, from Eugene Volokh's post "If Only There Were No Assertionism", 10/22/2011:

I started my post with, “A student saw ‘wilful’ used in an opinion, and asked whether it was a typo.” A commenter then responded that the sentence

does not conform to proper English usage. The “whether” indicates that what follows is speculative, requiring that the verb be rendered in the subjunctive mood. “Was” is always indicative.

And the commenter then gave several assertedly “proper renderings of the sentence,” the first of which was:

A student saw “wilful” used in an opinion, and asked whether it were a typo.

The grammatical issue in question is the use of were with first- or third-person subjects, which CGEL prefers to call "irrealis" rather than "subjunctive" for reasons explained by Geoff Pullum in "Real debate about unreal worlds", or in his comment on a post in 2004:

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.

CGEL explains (p. 88) that

… irrealis were is an unstable remnant of an earlier system — a system which has otherwise been replaced by one in which the preterite has expanded its use in a such a way that it now serves to express modal remoteness as well as past time.

CGEL goes on to list four contexts where irrealis were remains in (optional) use: remote conditionals; the complement of wish; the complement of would rather; the complement of it (be) time.

Note that ask whether is not in this list — and in fact my own judgment is that the use of irrealis were in contexts like

?He asked whether it were a typo.

is not even grammatical, much less required, in contemporary formal written English — though I have less trouble when the same phrase uses ask if:

He asked if it were a typo.

However, unlike Eugene's correspondent, I don't take my own prejudices for gospel truth, so I thought that I'd check. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are 92 occurrences of the pattern

[ask] whether I|it|he|she was

compared to two hits for the pattern

[ask] whether I|it|he|she were

The two examples of "were" strike me as acceptable (though perhaps only because they are complex enough that I lose track of whether they involve ask whether or ask if):

Asked whether she were pursuing such a change in the contract under negotiation with the union, Rhee declined to comment.
He asked whether I were not some "displaced uppercrust Englishwoman," because my accent struck him that way.

So I withdraw my assertion that irrealis were is never grammatical in the complement of ask whether — but I continue to think that it sometimes isn't, as in the original example, and that it's definitely not preferred.

And this is not a recent development. Here's a graph showing a two-century history of was/were mindshare in the complement of ask whether, according to the Google Books n-gram dataset:

This gives essentially the same result for recent material as the COCA corpus does — 92 to 2 is 97.9% was; 3,555 to 60 is 98.3% was.

The quotations with which we opened this post show that esteemed writers over past couple of centuries have often used was to indicate modal remoteness after whether. It's worth noting that these authors — and others like them — consistently preferred was to were in such cases. The pattern with ask whether is not common enough to use for investigation of the practices of individual authors, but the strings "whether it was" and "whether it were" will do as a proxy:

whether it was whether it were
The Bronte sisters 24 12
Charles Dickens 184 16
Anthony Trollope 106 8
Mark Twain 17 1
Winston Churchill
(Speeches and WWII History)
14 0
Literature Online
(Prose published 1477-2011)
2137 645

There is little reason to believe that the original commenter will be persuaded by this compilation of evidence. He has continued to maintain his assertion in the comments at the Volokh Conspiracy and now here on Language Log, in the face of a less concentrated but still considerable dose of facts. As far as I can tell, his only argument in favor of his view is to repeat his original contention that ask whether ___ is "speculative" and therefore requires the "subjunctive"; and his only argument against the various quotations indicating the contrary is that the authors are not Ronald Reagan, nor George Will, nor his father, and that he would not hire them.

In fact, he's playing his role so perfectly that I half-suspect him of having been engaged as a shill to illustrate Eugene Volokh's point:

Usage X is wrong, they say. Why? Because it violates this rule. What’s your authority for the proposition that this is a rule? Well, it violates the rule.

No doubt he will continue to play his appointed part in the comments below, as he has ably done in the past.

[For a history of what usage authorities from Noah Webster to the brothers Fowler and H.L. Mencken have had to say on the subject, as well as some additional historical perspective, see the entry for subjunctive in MWDEU, which covers both what CGEL calls subjunctive and what it calls irrealis were.]


  1. DonBoy said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

    To repeat my theory on all this: if you view grammar pedantry as an excuse for looking down on others, the most useless possible rule is one that all speakers follow without controversy; the most useful rule is the one that's flat-out wrong, because you get to look down on everybody in the world except, of course, for your dear old 7th-grade English teacher Mr. Whatsis, who would never stand for this kind of thing.

    (Seriously, it's amazing how often it comes down to "Someone told me this way 40 years ago and THAT'S THAT.")

  2. mike said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    I'm not sure if your-all stringent comment policy permits me to say this, but on Volokh's post, the commenter "Cornellian" says "The subjunctive is gradually disappearing from English anyway, with no clear rule for the few remaining instances in which it should be used." This seems to be a variant on this discussion, in which the "were" of "If I were" is deemed to be subjunctive (pace Pullum) and "I I was" is deemed to be, er, unsubjunctive, its irrealis character (contextually derived) notwithstanding. I would posit that Pullum et al. at the CGEL would beg to differ about the "no clear rule" part of the use of this marker. (?)

  3. Andy Averill said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    "Asked whether she were pursuing such a change in the contract under negotiation with the union, Rhee declined to comment."

    This just sounds wrong to me. "Whether" is used here because there are exactly two possibilities, either of which could be true. I'd be more willing to find "were" acceptable if the sentence said something like:

    "Asked whether she were planning to fly over the rainbow after the negotations, Rhee declined to comment."

  4. Jimbino said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    The correct construction in Thoreau's piece is, of course:

    "I am not sure whether it had been a male or female, and so use the more common pronoun." This has nothing to do with the EV's "was/were" confusion; though "had been" is in the subjunctive, its form is identical to that of the present-perfect indicative.

    I could offer further commentary, but I fear that the Web might be shut down by all the descriptivist blogs' opening new threads full of old canards.

  5. marie-lucie said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 11:09 pm

    No, it is not "of course". When Thoreau went to enquire about the animal, she was part of the household, just not home at the moment, so there was no reason for him to use the pluperfect as if the animal had been gone for a long time or dead. His choice was between was and were, period.

    I could offer further commentary, but I fear that I might lose my cool.

  6. Matt_M said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    @ Jimbino:

    Why do you say "of course"? You're applying a "rule" of English grammar that seems to be known only to you, and to be reflected in the speech and writing of no-one else but you (and perhaps your father). You could, of course, offer further commentary regarding this rule, but of what interest is commentary about a rule that exists only in your own head?

    What we're waiting for is for you to offer even an ounce of evidence, or to cite even one scholar that you consider to be an authority on the matter, in support of your eccentric theory about English grammar.

  7. Jimbino said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

    Unfortunately, in dealing here with proper use of the subjunctive mood in sentences with dependent clauses of the form "he asked whether it was/were a typo," one has to deal not only with inapposite examples by HD Thoreau, the OP and various commentators but also with "sequence of tenses" confusion like that of Marie-Lucie. It appears that I might have to write and post a Systematic English Grammar.

    [(myl) I look forward to it. Perhaps the example of Peter Porcupine will inspire you.]

    Is there room on the Web for a prescriptivist blog?

    [(myl) There are already several, as you should be able to discover for yourself.]

  8. DW said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 12:07 am

    [My own initial impression, in case anyone is curious, is that "He asked whether it was a typo" is perfectly usual and fine, while "He asked whether it were a typo" is archaic at best and a very poor choice except perhaps in historical dialogue or reproduction of an unusual dialect.]

    Following the assertion that "He asked whether it was a typo" is 'incorrect' because "was" is plain indicative and the 'speculative' situation requires a subjunctive/irrealis form, I guess one would also object to "He asks whether it is a typo", because the 'speculative' character should not depend on tense and "is" is also plain indicative. So how should "He asks whether it is a typo" be expressed? "He asks whether it were a typo"? If this is the choice then I suppose "I ask whether he is or was a member" should be "I ask whether he were [now] or were [previously] a member", or something like that?

    Or maybe one would prefer "He asks whether it be a typo"? [This can be supported by many analogous (old) citations.] Or something else?

    Or is it asserted that this irrealis "were" is required only in past tense, with the indicative OK otherwise?

  9. D.O. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:14 am

    Is there room on the Web for a prescriptivist blog?

    [speaking with artificially high voice and a note of fake indignation]: Mr. Jimbino, I'm shocked, shocked! It must be perscriptivist's blog. I will never, ever hire you!

  10. Michael Johnson said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:29 am

    I call Poe. No native English speaker thinks "sequence of tenses" requires the past perfect (while calling it the present perfect) after every past tense embedding verb.

    "John all of a sudden fell down the hole. I screamed. He called up and said he had been alive."

    No way, no how. Poe.

  11. Craig said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:50 am

    Being a student of Greek and Latin, I can't help but describe English grammar using the regular terms for those languages. This would describe all these clauses we are talking about as "indirect questions". Essentially, that means that it takes a sentence like:

    He asked whether it was a typo.

    and treats it as an "indirect" version of what could be expressed as a direct question:

    "Is it a typo?" he asked.

    In order to allow the question "Is it a typo?" to act as a subordinate clause (says Greek/Latin grammar explanations), you need (potentially) a special introductory word (like "whether"), and a change in the verb to mark the clause as subordinate. (This is handled very differently in Latin, which requires a change in the mood of the subordinate verb to subjunctive, and Greek, which does not. In Latin, the verb is not subjunctive because of some "potentiality", it's subjunctive because one of the primary uses of the subjunctive mood is to mark a verb as part of a certain type of subordinate clause.)

    By this logic, a sentence like "He asked whether it was a typo" follows rules similar to "He said that it was a typo." That is, both sentences take what would have been a direct statement ("Is it a typo?" "It is a typo.") and make them subordinate to an introductory verb (asked, said). Both sentences use a special conjunction to mark the beginning of the subordinate clause (whether, that). Both sentences knock the subordinate verb one step back in the past to show that it is subordinate to a past tense main verb.

    I think understanding the construction this way allows for a logical grammatical explanation the describes the way English is actually used. In all cases "whether" clauses are parallel to "that" clauses:

    I wonder whether she is my friend.
    I know that she is my friend.

    I wondered whether she was my friend.
    I knew that she was my friend.

    By this logic, saying "I wondered whether she were my friend" is no more necessary or correct than "I knew that she were my friend."

  12. UK Lawyer said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 2:34 am

    This seems to be American-flavoured pedantry. We have plenty of subjunctivitis in the UK, but I haven't heard this one (except on LanguageLog).

    Most famous "whether" ringing in my head: "whether it be nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…"

  13. pj said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 4:54 am

    This is as novel to me as to my compatriot, UK Lawyer. Even recognising that all the examples had 'whether' in common, it didn't occur to me that the tense of the subsequent verb could possibly be the problem.

    I've known people to object to 'whether or not' (on 'omit needless words' grounds, I think, rather than strictly 'that's not grammatical' grounds) – so the Brennan example at least would have them itching to strike out the last couple of words; I was half-wondering (before the 'reveal') if there was some imagined objection to specifying rather than leaving implied the contrastive alternatives in 'whether it was male or female', 'whether it was well or ill', etc. – but some of the examples are blameless even in this respect.


    It appears that I might have to write and post a Systematic English Grammar.

    Is there nothing about threats in the comments policy?

  14. Dan H said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 5:13 am

    Another Brit here who's never heard of this particular "rule" outside of these fairly recent blog posts.

    That said, I guessed that "was" was probably the "error" here because self-proclaimed usage-pundits seem to be *completely obsessed* with the word "was".

    If it's not improper use of the "subjunctive" then it's the "passive", if it's not "passive" then it's just bad on principle.

  15. JB said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 6:12 am

    I think Craig has it just right on this one. An analysis of English grammar indicates that 'was' works just fine in complements of 'whether' and that 'were' sounds archaic because it is. Also, this is another case of Latin grammatical notions being inappropriately applied to English.

  16. Faldone said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    UK Lawyer: Most famous "whether" ringing in my head: "whether it be nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…"

    But then Shakespeare was a Great Writer and, as such, allowed to violate the rules.

  17. Thomas said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 7:42 am

    So how should "He asks whether it is a typo" be expressed? "He asks whether it were a typo"?

    I was hoping The Fool himself would answer you, but since he didn't, my guess was going to be that he'd keep with the subjunctive nonsense and go for "He asks whether it be a typo."

    I don't think this is any sort of typically American peevery; I think it's specific to this one weirdo. Though the point about "were" being a common target is well taken.

    [(myl) According to his comment on an earlier post, Mr. Jimbino is actually Paraguayan.]

  18. Rodger C said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    Anybody for "He asks were it a typo"?

  19. Dan H said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    I'm pretty sure "whether it were" is the prescribed construction (as in, the construction prescribed by this made-up non-rule).

    While this sounds silly to me, I suspect that if I'd spent my whole life believing that "whether it was" was ungrammatical (or should that be "were ungrammatical") that I'd have long since trained myself to accept constructions that sound awkward to other English speakers.

  20. Eric P Smith said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    @Craig: Jumping on the pre- (per-?) scriptivist bandwagon, I deplore your clause I can’t help but describe English grammar. It should be I can’t help describing or, I cannot but describe. Fowler said so in 1926, which is less than 100 years ago.

    Before anyone shoot me down in flames (and that’s a subjunctive verb, not a plural ‘anyone’), I beseech him (or her) think it possible that I may be being sarcastic. Any debate between a die-hard prescriptivist and a die-hard descriptivist is like the two women shouting at each other from houses on opposite sides of an Edinburgh street reported by Rev Sydney Smith. They are arguing from different premises.

    More seriously, Asked whether she were pursuing such a change in the contract under negotiation with the union, Rhee declined to comment sounds wrong to my ears, precisely for the reason given by Andy Averill, with whose comment I agree fully.

    @Roger C: believe it or not, I’m happy with He asks were it a typo, though I recognise it as old-fashioned.

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    Poe, troll, whatever. Don't feed him. Unless he actually has some basis besides his own self-regard (see Mark's link) for his assertions, I think the proper response is to mentally killfile him. Add eyeroll to taste.

  22. Ellen K. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    JB wrote: I think Craig has it just right on this one. An analysis of English grammar indicates that 'was' works just fine in complements of 'whether' and that 'were' sounds archaic because it is. Also, this is another case of Latin grammatical notions being inappropriately applied to English.

    I'm curious. Craig is the only one who explicitly applied Latin grammatical notions to English, and you agree with him. How does the original quoted assertion come from applying Latin grammar to English, and what makes it inappropriately done, in contrast to Craig's doing so?

  23. Ben said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Idea for a T-shirt/button: "Prescriptivism makes me literally nauseous."

  24. Nathan said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    Jimbino did refudiate the "Paraguayan" comment as written by an imposter. I can tell you that Spanish doesn't require the "past subjunctive" in such a construction (although it may lack an unequivocal equivalent for whether). Anyone know how Guaraní handles it?

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    What does "subjunctive" mean, anyway? I tend to view it as mainly a structural thing–one verb/clause is "subjoined" to another–rather than a semantic one (thus CGEL's use of "irrealis" instead to describe the semantic notion). And there's no reason to expect that that structural configuration would map to exactly the same semantic or morphological properties in English and Latin any more than the things called "aorist" in various languages are the same. So why would Latin terminology be relevant at all? Does modern English even *have* a "subjunctive", any more than it has an ablative? Anyone who has suffered through missionary grammars of languages that don't fit the Latin mold ("the gerundive in Kipsigis") has surely bumped up against that issue.

  26. scav said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    @Rod Johnson

    Yeah. The main reason for engaging with a prescriptivist troll is to clarify the situation for those who are anxious about their own writing style and would be helped by exposure to reason and evidence (unlike the trolls).

    When those of us whose jobs involve some writing of English prose are done dissecting, disparaging and ultimately disregarding the troll's crazy pet theories, we will get on with our writing — thus adding more (descriptively) acceptable usage to the corpus and thereby transferring a little angst from the innocent bystanders to the prescriptivists.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    Can someone define "grammatical" for me and discuss what sort of evidence shows that a locution is or isn't grammatical? Or, as a more reasonable request, point me to a definition? If anyone's going to be so kind, I'd prefer one on the Web and not too technical.

    @UK Lawyer: I'm an American who's interested in usage disputes and the like, and I've never seen anyone claim that there was anything wrong with "whether it was", or that "whether it were" was even grammatical (much less required in some situation).

  28. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    In the archaic English dialect (frozen about 1780) that my maternal Grandparents spoke, "were" would be the form for past and "be" for the present, as a complement of "whether."

    In the contemporary dialect spoken by my paternal grandparents and essentially everyone else on the planet, "was" and "is" would be more likely to be used, "were" would be understood as 'also correct' for the past, and "be" would be understandable but seem strange and possibly ungrammatical for the present.

    Thus, if it were my Grandpa Reuben speaking, I would expect to hear something like,
    "He asked whether it were a problem" or "He asks whether it be a problem" or "He is asking if it be a problem."

    But if it were my Grandma Beryl on the other side of the family, I would expect to hear something like "He asked whether it was a problem" or "He asks whether it's a problem."


  29. Ellen K. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    @Nathan, I'm surprised you say Spanish doesn't require a past subjunctive there. I certainly would use the past subjunctive (imperfecto de subjuntivo) there. Though I'm not a native speaker, nor a frequent user of the past tense when I have occasion to use Spanish.

    As for "an unequivocal equivalent for whether", I don't think that in English the difference between "if" and "whether" affects the grammar of what follows, so whether or not another language distinguishes them is not relevant to making a comparison between the languages.

  30. Joe said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    I think people have talked about the use of "were" after "whether" in these examples as an example of the "pseudo subjunctive" (Algeo discusses it British or American English). He says it's likely with "whether or not," and the examples do sound better to me when the "or not" is added or strongly implied. (of course, pseudo subjunctive goes against the traditional prescriptivist strictures)

  31. Chester Burton Brown said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    I was raised to use the "were" under discussion, so to my ear the "whether…was/is" sounds awkward. While I accept the argument that "whether…were" is archaic, dollars to doughnuts I'll still find myself using "whether it might be" in order to appease the monkey on my back who pulls my ears when sentences strike him as grammatically impoverished. I guess the first step is admitted I have a problem.

  32. Chester Burton Brown said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    Joe: isn't "whether or not" redundant? Like "whither did he come from?"

  33. Matt said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    @Thomas: And "He asks whether it be a typo" is doubly good on talk-like-a-pirate day.

  34. Rodger C said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    Another t-shirt/button: "Assertionism begins with an ass."

  35. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    If the claim were simply 'The subjunctive should be used for indirect questions' it could indeed be seen as a following of Latin, but the claim that speculation is always subjunctive seems to go further than this – it would imply, for instance, that the subjunctive should be used for (simple, non-counterfactual) conditionals, which are always indicative in Latin, as they are in modern English – even those dialects which use 'if I were' for counterfactuals.

    There is a historic English usage which does use subjunctives in some such cases; this does not derive from Latin. For instance, John 20.15 in the Authorised Version (Mary Magdalene addressing Jesus in the belief that he is the gardener) has 'If thou have' [not 'hast'] 'borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away'. Both Latin and modern English would have the indicative here. (Well, modern English would have difficulty doing anything else in this case, lacking a distinct subjunctive form for 'have', but consider a parallel case with 'be'. We would say 'If you are', not 'if you be'.)

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    Check out http://tinyurl.com/3g7o6f8 in which google's n-gram corpus indicates that "whether it be" predominated over "whether it is" until about 1870 and still seems to be more of a respectable minority usage than "whether it were" (already the minority usage in 1800) is as compared to "whether it was." Theories as to why "subjunctive be" ought to have fared better than "subjunctive were" (I'll favor MWDEU over CGEL for the present) in this context are welcome. Apparently not everyone was like Ray Dillinger's grandparents where the usages stood or fell together.

    Many recent uses of "whether it be male or female" seem to be from sources that I doubt are seeking to emulate George Will in all things, e.g. (from the first page of google results) "Each one of us, whether it be male or female, must reach into ourselves and find the feminine that is being smothered in this masculine, material world."

    [(myl) CGEL offers a theory about why "subjunctive be" might have fared better — because it's an instance of a completely general pattern that is available for every verb, whereas "irrealis were" is an isolated remnant. As Geoff Pullum put it (see the post above for more of the quote):

    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."

    This doesn't account for your "if" results below.

    As for Those Who Are Not George Will, it shouldn't be surprising that some of the people who aim to display archaic features in their writing are somewhat confused about what those features actually are.]

  37. Nathan said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    @Ellen K.: I'm not a native Spanish speaker either. I would translate "whether it was a male or female" as "si era macho o hembra". The speaker is referring to a real past event, so no need for irrealis fuera.

  38. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    But if you swap "if" for "whether" for the same four-way comparison mentioned in my prior comment http://tinyurl.com/3cggv4t
    the n-gram results indicate that "if it were" has had a much better run over the last two centuries (gradual, manageable decline) while "if it be" has suffered a more dramatic collapse from its erstwhile prominence. This is the opposite of what was observed with "whether." Who's got an explanatory theory? I certainly don't.

  39. Tim Martin said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    Is "irrealis" pronounced like the word "real," or does "real" become two syllables?

  40. Mark F. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    There are several comments from the UK and (in response) the US saying that this is the first they have heard of the purported rule requiring "whether it were". I think that's part of Volokh's original point – the guy was asserting this rule based on no authority but his own. So of course not many have heard of it.

  41. Eric S said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    > Is "irrealis" pronounced like the word "real," or does "real" become two syllables?

    FWIW my semantics professor pronounced the word in four syllables, stress on AL.

  42. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    It is absolutely not true that Jimbino is the bastard son of Mark Halperin and Lynn Truss.

  43. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    I am going to have to name a roleplaying character Irrealis–what a pretty word!

    To keep this tangent slightly on topic, I use irrealis forms like the ones being discussed here, including the rather stilted ones, more or less naturally when I am trying to roleplay someone whose language is highly archaic or foreign, and especially when the speaker is an elf or a dragon. They're clearly within my production vocabulary. But I'd never consider using them in, say, scientific writing.

    When I was studying Russian I fell in love with the distinction between (pardon the rough transcription here) "yesli" meaning "if" and "yesli bui" meaning "supposing, though we know it's not so." English could use that distinction, and if that's what the irrealis forms were supposed to give us, it's a pity they didn't do it more thoroughly–I suspect they are getting lost because there were too many places you couldn't use them anyway. In family arguments I have been known to say "Supposing, counterfactually" but my family's tolerant of my pedantry….

  44. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    Can someone define "grammatical" for me and discuss what sort of evidence shows that a locution is or isn't grammatical?

    I know naff all about the technical side of Linguistics, but I'll have a vague try at answering this one.

    By my very, very, very nontechnical understanding, grammar is the rules which govern the structure of a language (and is not the same as usage, which I non-technically understand to be about "what words mean").

    I think a problem arises because a lot of amateur linguists and armchair pedants use the word "grammar" to mean a more general concept of "saying stuff right" (in extreme cases this gets mixed up with "style" and you have people insisting that it is ungrammatical to begin a sentence with the word "it").

    The vast majority of grammatical rules (as I understand it) are entirely uncontroversial and are followed almost all the time by everybody. I have zero technical understanding of linguistics, but as a native speaker of English I know immediately that "I have no understanding of linguistics" is a grammatical sentence, whereas "Linguistics understanding I no have of" is not.

    When it comes to *evidence* it gets a bit trickier. Basically nobody disputes that there *are* rules to grammar (which I as a native speaker of English understand *intuitively* but would be completely at a loss to describe) and pretty much everybody agrees on what these rules *are*, and they are in fact compiled in big chunky books like the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Again I think some confusion is created here because of the amateur pedant's use of "grammar" which is actually rather different (combining all sorts of bits and bobs).

    Descriptivist linguists would argue that the evidence for the rules of grammar comes from the way that language is used in practice by competent speakers. It is provably the case that a native speaker of English will (for example) always – or almost always – say "a big bus" and not "a bus big" which in comparison with thousands upon thousands of other examples allows us to conclude that adjectives in English are placed before the nouns they modify rather than afterwards, and this allows us to state with confidence that sentences like "I am wearing a shirt black" or "I had a cake delicious after my supper" are not grammatical.

    Or something. Again, I should stress that I know virtually nothing about the formalities of grammar, and my knowledge of the technical language of linguistics is abysmal, I'm sure somebody with more technical knowledge can point out my mistakes, which I am sure are many.

  45. Nathan Myers said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

    It is absolutely not true that Jimbino is the bastard son of Mark Halperin and Lynn Truss.

    But it would be funny if it were. If he was. If it had been. If he might be. Had it been.

  46. Eric P Smith said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    @Eric S:

    I’ve heard both /ɪˈriəlɪs/ and /ɪrɪˈalɪs/.

    Some of us give the adjective real its older pronunciation /ˈriəl/ with two syllables anyway!

  47. Rod Johnson said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    I think the argument over "grammatical" comes in part from a confusion between the individual and social realms of language. In generativist (and, more or less, structuralist) linguistics, language is something that an individual knows. My use of English can have a grammar—an internalized system of rules that has some indeterminate but real relation to my language judgments and productions. That lives in my brain, has some genetic component, has rules, is learned, etc. All the stuff that linguists have been exploring since Chomsky (or Saussure, or Priscian, or Panini). Grammaticality at that level is just an empirical issue about people's language habits.

    But "English" as a thing that's spoken by millions of people is more or less an abstraction, and so is "English grammar." Where does it live? How does it interact causally with anything? There is no superorganism that "knows" a language—just lots and lots of individual speakers. So if there's anything to say about English at that level, it's basically a social fact, not a cognitive one, and like all social facts, it's contestable. The "rules of English grammar" can't really be understood without thinking about power, identity, norms, roles, all that sociological stuff. The prescriptivist desire for a clear, fixed set of rules is really based on a picture of social life that just isn't realistic. Claims about how the subjunctive should be used are really the same kind of proposition as "people should be nice" or "children should be seen but not heard" or or "men should hold doors for women." They may be important, but they're not empirical.

    We should frame statements about English, or any language, very carefully. In a real sense, there's no such thing as English—there's just a very complex set of languagey stuff going on with some idealization called "English" in the mix there somewhere.

  48. Aaron Toivo said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    A point about something else in the post:
    It really bothers me when a respectable, non-quacking, generally solid work such as CGEL makes false claims about my use of English. *If I was you is "universally acceptable"? WTF? I have to say that I could not so much as bring myself to type that phrase without the asterisk, as my internal grammar judge finds it as seriously ill-formed as any other blatantly misinflected verb. (Hitherto I had assumed it was an occasional feature of rural-register speech that counts as an error everywhere else, like *I seen her for I saw her.) Now, I could perhaps be wrong about everyone else but me, and CGEL describing a general case would of course be fine, but "universally acceptable" my sweet petard.

  49. Skullturf said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

    Wait, there are people who don't pronounce "real" with two syllables?

    (I say /ˈriəl/, like Eric P. Smith above. This contrasts with "reed" and "reek", which are one syllable. "Feel", "peel", etc. are two syllables and rhyme perfectly with "real". However, it's possible that the second syllable takes up significantly less time than the first syllable.)

    In my idiolect, *no* English words end in the "reed" vowel followed by an L. That way of ending a word only exists, for me, when speaking French (e.g. "Lille").

  50. Ellen K. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    Some of us pronounce real so that it rhymes with "ill" instead of "eel". Thus, like ill, one syllable. (Exception, "real estate".)

  51. Ellen K. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    @Aaron Toivo. Read again… that's not a quote from CGEL, but from a Language Log post.

  52. Eric P Smith said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    @Skullturf: Your words strike a chord with me.

    I have fallen out with people over the pronunciation of real. So here I will politely restrict myself to pointing out the difficulties, without pretending to resolve them.

    1. Many dictionaries, especially the older or more traditional ones, give real as two syllables but reel as one.

    2. Some online dictionaries (eg macmillandictionary.com) give real as two syllables and reel as one, and yet use virtually indistinguishable sound files by the same speaker for the two.

    3. In many parts of the English-speaking world, an ‘l’ at the end of a word is pronounced dark, as /ɫ/. There may be little or no audible difference between /riɫ/ as one syllable, /riɫ̩/ with a syllabic ‘l’, and /riəɫ/ with a second vowel.

    4. It is quite possible for a speaker to consider that he pronounces real with two syllables and yet for his hearer to hear two, or vice versa.

    I do not know where you are from, but from what you say I would guess that it is from somewhere with a dark ‘l’. For myself, I consider that I say ‘real’ with a semi-dark ‘l’, and with a second vowel, not merely a syllabic ‘l’. That is what I hear myself saying in my own head. Hearers external to me may hear me differently.

  53. Eric P Smith said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    I meant, of course, it is quite possible for a speaker to consider that he pronounces real with two syllables and yet for his hearer to hear one, or vice versa.

  54. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

    @Aaron Toivo, one cool thing about the internet is that you can potentially push back in an evidence-based way against even the awesome authority of Geoff Pullum. You could, for example, look at the hits for "if I was you" from COCA (there are 58, so you can scan them pretty quickly), which are very heavily concentrated in transcripts of movies/tv-shows and character dialogue in fiction (often, but by no means always, characters who are obviously supposed to be speaking an uneducated/non-prestige dialect). So there's at least some evidence-from-silence that it's not "universally accepted" (gkp's phrase, which may or may not be synonymous with your "universally acceptable") in edited formal prose, for at least some values of "universally accepted," but on the other hand (contra your intuitions) it's sometimes used in speech by people (real or fictional) who do not overtly appear to be rustics/hayseeds.

  55. Chh said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

    re: 'real' syllable count
    Here's a link to a paper by Abigail Cohn that discusses some ideas about syllable weight as relates to words like 'real'. She uses 'superheavy syllables' to describe syllables containing certain vowels with 'r' and 'l' rimes. The set of vowels it happens with is not completely straightforward. The relevant pages are 12 and 13 of the pdf.


  56. marie-lucie said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

    if it were vs whether it was X (or Y)

    "If" introduces a possibility, a hypothesis, which may not be or come true. I think that "whether" originally introduced a choice: whether (something is true) or not, whether it was X or Y, as in Thoreau's whether it was a male or female: there is no hypothesis, one of the two choices is true. This, I think, is why "whether" triggers the indicative, not the subjunctive, unlike "if". In modern English, "whether" has tended to be used without an element of choice (unless "or not" is tacitly understood), and therefore to come closer to the meaning and usage of "if" (and vice versa), hence the present confusion about "was" or "were" after either of these subordinators.

  57. Eric P Smith said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    @Chh: Thank you, a fascinating paper.

    The paper categorises file, foul, foil, feel, fool and fail as superheavy. Whether these are “words like real” remains a matter of debate. Many people would regard file, foul, foil, feel, fool and fail as monosyllabic and yet real as having two syllables, just as realistic to many (most?) speakers has four syllables.

  58. Nyq Only said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    I think the simplest explantion is that there is, coincidentally, another language known as 'English' which really does have a rule on the use of the subjunctive mood after the use of the word 'whether'. Clealry this other language is not the language more commonly known as 'English' as spoken (and written) by a substantial fraction of humanity.
    I find it remarkable that the explanations of, for example, aspects of Chinese languages on this blog are comprehensible and yet the explantions of grammatical rules from prescriptivists are almost wholly opaque.

  59. Adam said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 4:27 am

    With regard to the statement that "the preterite has expanded its use in a such a way that it now serves to express modal remoteness as well as past time", I've always assumed that this was a consequence of the loss of most of the inflectional endings, so that the preterite indicative and preterite subjunctive just happened to end up indistinguishable for all verbs other than "be" (and even there only for 1st & 3rd person singular). Is that right?

  60. Dakota said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    "If it be your will
    If there is a choice
    Let the rivers fill
    Let the hills rejoice
    Let your mercy spill
    On all these burning hearts in hell
    If it be your will
    To make us well "

  61. Dan Curtin said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

    I believe I pronounce real as two syllables (or maybe one and a half?) but reel, as in the Irish dance as one. I probably should have a phonologist check me- it my be a delusion!

  62. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    @Dan Hemmens and Rod Johnson: Thanks for the answers!

    Maybe I should ask MYL: When you talk about whether "whether it were" is grammatical in your judgement, do you mean something like "grammatical in your idea of English", or are you talking about English as a whole, millions of Englishes? Or something else?

    @Aaron Toivo: I don't say "If I was you" either, and I agree with you about "universally acceptable". However, I should point out that Tolkien uses it in the narration of The Lord of the Rings, e.g., "At length he spoke again, softly, as if he was debating with himself."

    As if anyone cares dept.: I pronounce "real" and "reel" the same way, in two syllables (at least 1.9), as far as I can tell. I've tried to write iambic pentameters with these traditional monosyllables as disyllables: "The world-chasm's frail fire burned." ("Fool" is one syllable for me, and for most Americans, I'd have thought, but I do often hear trisyllabic "schedule".)

  63. Steve F said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 8:06 am

    This is a rather late correction, but @ UK lawyer and Faldone above, you may well have 'whether it be nobler in the mind' ringing in your head, and Shakespeare may, as a 'great writer', be allowed to 'violate the rules', but what he actually wrote – or, at least, what was actually printed in both the 1604 Quarto and the First Folio – was 'whether 'tis nobler in the mind'.

  64. Mr Punch said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    Interesting. My initial reaction was that the first quotation should have read "she had come into the neighborhood," the second "he could not say" – and then the others were okay. Wrong issue.

  65. marie-lucie said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

    Quotations: Mr Punch's quotations seem to be using the tenses as spoken directly by the persons whose speech is reported, as in "She said: 'She came …' " and "He said: "I cannot …' ". I am not familiar enough with 18th-19th century English to know whether this preservation of the original tenses within reported speech is typical of the period or not.

  66. Rodger C said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I recall, as a 17-year-old American, being rather shocked by Tolkien's use of this construction. Or should that be "having been rather shocked"?

  67. blahedo said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 12:46 am

    I can't read the phrase "whether it were" without hearing it pronounced in my head as "whether 'twere" and interpreting it as a conscious archaism (or possibly an actual old source). A cursory search doesn't turn up any specific famous quote that I might be thinking of there, so I'm not quite sure where my brain is conjuring this from exactly.

  68. John Burgess said,

    October 30, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    October 30, 2011… a date marked in infamy, when I learned that I am archaic.

    The good Sisters of St. Joseph, lo, these many years ago, drilled into my head the use of subjunctives for counter-factuals and conditionals. I guess it is now time, though, to start wrapping up my affairs. My tenure on this mortal coil cannot be long.

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