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  1. #41
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    1. The number of instances is irrelevant. Either a construction still exists or it doesn't. And this one does!
    This point is difficult for me to understand. Do you mean that if one person says something once, then what they said becomes an existent construction?

    We had that interesting discussion on the use of "come" in

    Come January..


    What is the difference between the use of "come" here and the use of "were" in "if I were" in BrE? Both have been uttered and written, and both are instances of constructions otherwise difficult to encouter. I understand that you see an important difference between them, other then just in the number of instances, but I'm not sure what the difference is.
    Last edited by birdeen's call; 23-Dec-2010 at 00:03.

  2. #42
    5jj's Avatar
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Or do you now simply deny the existence of verbal mood altogether?
    I consider that the idea of 'mood' is not essential when one is considering the verb system of English.

    I wonder which other grammatical "contrasts" you consider irrelevant.
    So do I, sometimes. However, I don't allow my thoughts on other areas to get mixed up with my thoughts on verbs

    Given that only BE has a separate form for hypothetical/counterfactual situations, a form by no means used by all speakers,
    Only BrE? You have lost me! I think you'll find that it is actually AmE that insists most strictly on the indicative-subjunctive distinction in counterfactuals. BrE accepts either.
    'BE', not 'BrE'. Unfortunately this forum does not appear to allow the slightly smaller font size which would enable me to give the citation form of the verb the appearance it should ideally have.
    I'll return to other points later.

  3. #43
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    konungursvia is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Not that it really matters in the least, but a quick check has confirmed my suspicion that the lyrics of the song in question are actually If I were a rich man.... It would appear that Topol's mastery of English syntax was better than he was being given credit for!

    Good fact check. But many Americans and Brits use "If I was" (though not in the song) which is consistent with my assertion the verb is a past form. Thus "If I was" is not incorrect, just less common in many milieux.

  4. #44
    5jj's Avatar
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Response to Post 37:

    Philo: The claim that 'were' in If I were a bird, I would fly away. is a form of the past subjunctive, but that 'had' in If I had wings, I would fly away. […] is not […] violates that most basic of all axioms, namely that grammatical function is not reckoned on the basis of coincidences of form.
    5jj: As I don’t make that claim, I feel no need to respond to it.

    Philo: I would ask you to consider the following examples of erroneous grammatical reasoning: […]
    5jj: I don’t see that the first two are particularly relevant to this discussion, but I have considered them. I agree with you. They are mistaken. Actually, I agree with you about the third. But As I have never made the mistaken conclusion, this is, once again, irrelevant.

    Philo: I think that a discussion of sound analytical procedure is in danger of being usurped by the - albeit very interesting - quite unrelated topic of EFL pedagogy.
    5jj. I concede that pedagogic matters led me into analysis. My own thoughts, supported by my reading, suggested that the traditional analysis of such forms might be inappropriate to English (BrE, at least) as is it used today.

    Response to Post 39:

    5jj: So a major grammatical category seems to have ceased to exist in the course of a few decades.
    Philo:No, it ceased to exist approximately one thousand years ago. The authors you cite simply seem not to have realized the fact.
    5jj: I could make the facile (but possibly true) response that the relevance of the past subjunctive as a category ceased some time ago, but some people simply seem not to have realised the fact.

    Philo: 1. The number of instances is irrelevant. Either a construction still exists or it doesn't. And this one does!

    5jj: How many times do I have to repeat that I have never claimed that it doesn’t exist? All I am saying is that I don’t think it is particularly helpful to label this ‘past subjunctive’.

    Philo: 2. I think you'll find that AmE speakers, who, in general, regard counterfactual 'was' as substandard, constitute a far more sizable proportion of the world's native-user population than do BrE speakers (most of whom in any case still recognize and accept 'were' in this sentence-position as a grammatically correct, and often stylistically preferable, alternative.)
    5jj: I have been talking about BrE, not AmE. I accept 'were' as grammatically acceptable. Whether the majority of Br speakers accept it as 'stylistically preferable' is a matter of opinion.

    5jj: Could you please give me an example of an indicative conditional 'were' with a first or third person subject? I have not come across this idea before.
    Philo:The term 'indicative conditional were' would therefore, in that sense, be a contradiction in terms. I apologize if this was in any way misleading.
    5jj. No apology necessary. I just wondered if I were missing something.


    Philo, I believe that we do not disagree on much except whether there is any value in labelling the forms we are discussing ‘past subjunctive’, or whether there is a simpler way of looking at modern English. Unfortunately, we keep getting side-tracked because you point out the flaws in claims I have not made.

    I think I have an idea that is at least worth considering, particularly as it is an idea arrived at after years of thought, discussion and reading. As a result of my reading, I have discovered that ‘my’ idea has been discussed in serious academic circles for some time. If you don’t think it’s worthy of serious consideration, that is entirely up to you, but please stop misrepresenting what I am saying.

    Incidentally, as a product of my own age, background and education, I normally use the construction that you call the subjunctive (as I observe the shall/will difference and the usage of whom). I do not think that entitles me to consider myself more ‘correct’ than the majority (my opinion) of speakers of BrE who do not use these forms. I also know many literate and articulate speakers who do not use these forms. I note that you write of what you call ‘conditional ‘were’ that it “is the only form that many of its most literate and articulate speakers actually consider formally correct in that particular sentence-position.” ‘Formally correct’. Now I wonder what that means, exactly.


  5. #45
    5jj's Avatar
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by konungursvia View Post
    Good fact check. But many Americans and Brits use "If I was" (though not in the song) which is consistent with my assertion the verb is a past form. Thus "If I was" is not incorrect, just less common in many milieux.
    As must be clear from what I have said elsewhere, I don't agree that it's a 'past' form*. I do broadly agree with the sentence I've underlined.

    * I write that as a re-statement of my own opinions, not in any way as a claim that you are wrong.

  6. #46
    MrPedantic is offline Moderator
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Since, however, such locutions are considered either incorrect or, at best, poor style, by many AmE speakers, learners are probably best advised to use the distinctively subjunctive forms where appropriate.
    I would agree that it is probably easiest for learners to opt for the "were" form in standard conditional structures of the "if X were the case, Y would happen" kind, since it will never be "wrong" (though it does puzzle some native speakers who are unfamiliar with the grammar, and so may be considered wrong).

    On the other hand, the "was" subjunctive can be found in writers who are not generally considered poor stylists (recently I noticed instances in Berkeley and A.J. Ayer, for example).

    Also, possibly, there is a distinction between the two forms (at least for some BrE speakers) which is not often discussed, but which can often be detected in e.g. radio interviews with public figures:

    1. If it wasn't for the fact that X is the case, Y would happen.
    2. If X were the case, Y might happen.

    In the #1 structure, Y is presented as remote from actuality; whereas in #2, Y is still possible. My impression is that some BrE speakers (probably unconsciously) do tend more towards the "were" form when entertaining an open hypothesis, and "was" for a closed possibility.

    (I use the example of interviews with public figures, because they involve frequent hypothesising.)

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  7. #47
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    It might also be simply having learned If x were- some people who say If I were also say I wish I was, which is a bit confusing.

  8. #48
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
    Frank Antonson is offline Senior Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    I immediately confess that I have not read this entire thread, but I still might be able to contribute by saying that I can remember when I was studying German as a young man, how satisfying and easy it was to deal with the modals in that language.

    The Romance languages, by comparison, that use verb endings, i.e. inflections for many of these differences, I, as a native English speaker, did not find so easy.

    I have always found that German is SO friendly to an English speaker.

  9. #49
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by birdeen's call View Post
    This point is difficult for me to understand. Do you mean that if one person says something once, then what they said becomes an existent construction?
    Saying that a construction 'exists' in a language means that it is recognized as acceptable by the majority of its speakers - no more, no less.

    I don't think it's all that difficult to understand...

  10. #50
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by konungursvia View Post
    But many Americans and Brits use "If I was" (though not in the song) which is consistent with my assertion the verb is a past form. Thus "If I was" is not incorrect, just less common in many milieux.
    Regarding the classification of 'was', that is not the issue here and never has been. Of course it is a past tense form (of the indicative mood). The issue is whether it is appropriate/acceptable to employ a past indicative in that particular sentence position, which leads directly on to your final point, to be absolutely sure about which we would, I suppose, have to conduct a poll. Meanwhile - in the absence of any evidence to the contrary - I maintain my assertion that, for most educated AmE users (the majority of the world's native English-speaking populace), hypothetical 'was' is substandard, while it is beyond doubt that no educated speaker of any variety of English would ever reject hypothetical 'were' as ungrammatical!

    There is, however, also the argument based on the common sense linguistic principle that potentially ambiguous constructions are naturally less acceptable than unambiguous ones.

    Consider the following:

    [1] If I was a policeman, I would wear a policeman's uniform.

    [2] If I were a policeman, I would wear a policeman's uniform.

    Of these two sentences, ostensibly identical save what you term a 'difference of milieux', only [2] is unambiguously a (counterfactual) second conditional. [1] could occur as a variant zero conditional relating to the past, as in the following context:

    When I was young, I used to like playing various roles in my local amateur dramatics group. Sometimes, I would be a doctor, sometimes a fireman, and sometimes a policeman. If I was a doctor, I would wear a white coat. If I was a fireman, I would wear a fireman's uniform. If I was a policeman, I would wear a policeman's uniform.

    There is, however, no way in which [2] could be substituted here, since the past subjunctive form 'were' - which only ever refers to present or future counterfactuals - would have no place in this past narrative.

    Therefore, on grounds of clarity of expression alone, hypothetical 'were' is clearly preferable to hypothetical 'was'.

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