What he wishes he'd been told about cancer

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Jeff Tomczek has an article in the Huffington Post on the things people didn't tell him about getting cancer and undergoing the treatment. It's very good (those who have been through it or are very close to people who did will find much that resonates). But his title is a botch that I think must be due to the myth that English has a "past subjunctive" (which it does not). Here is the title under which his article was published:

The Things I Wish I Were Told When I Was Diagnosed With Cancer

That isn't well-formed English as I understand it. And I have used this language for quite a few years; I'm kind of used to it. I realize that your mileage may differ, but I would judge the above to be actually disallowed by the grammar.

Consider how were is normally used in the 1st person singular and 3rd person singular. When I say I wish I were with you right now, I'm talking about the situation in an alternative unreal world. (Hence the term "irrealis mood" in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language; we'll come back to that.) The were in such cases is not a past tense form. What I'm saying is that I wish the actual world could be modified to an alternative one, mostly the same as here, except that in the alternative one I'm with you right now. The verb were is talking about the present time in an alternate universe that realizes my wish.

How could we put the statement, I wish I were with you into the past? How to describe that same wish as experienced way back when? There isn't a suitable past tense form corresponding to the irrealis. (Intuitively that's because its uses tend to be future-oriented: what's in the past is already fixed and the wishes either came true or they didn't. Wishes are mostly about possible futures.) There is a long tradition of incorrectly calling irrealis were the "past subjunctive", but it is nothing of the kind.

This does not mean it is impossible to talk about wishes you once had that came true (or failed to come true) at a later point in the past. It seems to me that you could say When I was a child I wished I was a bird, and slightly better (because it expresses the habitual character of having a wish at an earlier age) would be When I was a child I used to wish I was a bird). For a slightly different meaning, where you are looking back to an early wishing period about an even earlier longed-for birdhood, you could say When I was a child I wished (or used to wish) I had been a bird.

What does not sound like idiomatic English to me (in fact I think it might actually be grammatically impermissible, so I'll prefix it with "?*") is: ?*When I was a child I wished I were a bird (or ?*When I was a child I used to wish I were a bird).

I think someone, either Tomczek or his editors at the Huffington Post, had a little moment of panic about was and were, a moment of nervous cluelessness, and plumped for the wrong one. He means to talk about the things he wishes now that people had told him back then.

Nervous cluelessness of this sort is a strange phenomenon: what could make someone uncertain about how to say things in their own language, the one that they think in, the one they have been using fluently and effortlessly for decades? I think I can go some way to explaining what triggered it.

It is only the verb with the basic stem be that has a special form for the irrealis. Other verbs use the preterite form in the relevant contexts (the one that also serves to express the simple past). And even be only has a distinct irrealis form in the 1st and 3rd singular, because in all other person and number combinations the irrealis and the preterite have the same shape.

Moreover, in less formal styles, and for some people all styles, that's true even for be. Some people never say I wish I were a bird or I could make the meeting if it were tomorrow; instead, they say I wish I was a bird or I could make the meeting if it was tomorrow. They don't have a special irrealis form for any verb, not even be in the 1st and 3rd singular. They just have a special use of the preterite, which can do either the past time reference job or the irrealis job.

Now, it is a tradition among very bad English teachers to teach something completely false about informal style: they teach (though they don't put it this way) that everything informal is ipso facto incorrect and you should never use it at all. This is the sort of idiocy that leads to Americans believing that you mustn't ever put a preposition at the end of a clause. Who did you talk to? is informal, and sounds like an ordinary person talking; To whom did you talk? is very formal, and sounds like a stuffy prig talking. It is a tradition among very bad English teachers to regard sentences with stranded prepositions as simply bad. (Serious usage books never actually say this; but apparently, somewhere out there, a lot of teachers do.)

Such prejudice against ordinary less-formal English leads to similar banning of the preterite as substitute for the irrealis. Because if I was the president is more informal than if I were the president, the former is tagged as "wrong".

Somehow, I conjecture, the feeling that was is sometimes "wrong" led to either Tomczek or a subeditor looking at "wish I was told" and changing it to "wish I were told". That's my guess. I can't prove it. (And of course, it's still a puzzle why anyone was considering "wish I was told" when "wish I had been told" would make more sense.)

I'd love to know the sequence of events (email me, Huffington Post editors: Gmail, surname as username). But I do know that the headline as it was published is not grammatical in Standard English as I know it, and we need an explanation of why competent native speakers write things that are not grammatical in their own language, because that's what I think must have happened here.

[Thanks to Language Log reader Rod Johnson for the tip. Notice, the first person who noticed that the were sounded funny was not me; it was Rod.]

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