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  1. #1
    KEN JPN is offline Junior Member
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    Default The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    In the past subjunctive, the predicative verb takes a past form.
    Among such verbs, only WERE looks exceptional in that WERE was used even with "I". In modern English, "I wish I was" is also heard in colloquial English but lately there is a tendency that more people regard WERE to be strictly correct and WAS to be vulgar.

    What is the reason that WERE, not WAS, was/is used for past subjunctive regardless of the subject?

    Thank you in advance, as always

  2. #2
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    Exactly the same reason we say "I am" rather than "I is" in the present, and "he is" rather than "he are": historical usage. Why does the Japanese dictionary form of verbs end in -u? Why not -ta?

  3. #3
    KEN JPN is offline Junior Member
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    The reasons why English speakers say "I am" rather than "I is" can be historically explained, which I am not asking.
    However, even reflecting such history the usage of WERE still remains exceptional, out of patterns.

    If only one Japanese verb does not end in -u, there must be some reason there, which can be explained.

    "It is so because it is so" cannot be the answer.
    "It is so though why it is so is unknown" could still be accepted, though.

    I hope people understand what I am asking here.

  4. #4
    abaka is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    I'm sorry, but my point, although perhaps put too strongly before, remains.

    There is no particular reason why a form called the past subjunctive exists, but the fact is that it does and is used in certain identifiable cases.

    There is no particular reason the form of it for the third person singular of "to be" should look like a plural, but the fact is it does, although in the remote past this was not the case. [ I suppose a full investigation of historical English phonology may identify certain patterns of evolution that will explain why "if he were" came to be. Is that really the explanation you are looking for?]

    The language has evolved to make it so. It trends continue then in a couple hundred years our descendants probably won't have to worry about it, just as we no longer worry about distinguishing the dual number from the plural.

    But for now, just remember that "if he were" is the set phrase that considers the possibility of him being something he actually is not.
    Last edited by abaka; 05-Jul-2012 at 15:58.

  5. #5
    Barb_D's Avatar
    Barb_D is offline Moderator
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    Any discussion about "why" something happens rather than "what is the [currently accepted] way to say something" belongs in the general language discussion forum, not ask a teacher, so I'm moving it there.
    I'm not a teacher, but I write for a living. Please don't ask me about 2nd conditionals, but I'm a safe bet for what reads well in (American) English.

  6. #6
    KEN JPN is offline Junior Member
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    Thank you for your additional comment.

    I checked the Online Etymology dictionary:

    were

    Online Etymology Dictionary

    O.E. wron (past plural indicative of wesan) and wre (second person singular past indicative); see was. The forms illustrate Verner's Law (named for Danish linguist Karl Verner, 1875), which predicts the "s" to "z" sound shift, and rhotacism, which changed "z" to "r." Wast (second person sing.) was formed 1500s on analogy of be/beest, displacing were. An intermediate form, wert, was used in literature 17c.-18c., before were reclaimed the job.

    I understand how WERE took its form from WAS.
    I still wonder, if "he was" is the past form of "he is", why "he WERE" is used only in the Subjunctive.
    Regarding other verbs like 'go, have, etc', there is only one past form 'went, had', so there is no wonder English speakers say, "If I went" or "If I had". Then why not "if I was" but "if I were". There must be a historical, or psychological or whatever, reason behind it, which I want to know.
    Last edited by KEN JPN; 05-Jul-2012 at 23:03.

  7. #7
    KEN JPN is offline Junior Member
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    Thanks for your advice. I will check out that forum too and open a thread if it seems appropriate.

  8. #8
    Raymott's Avatar
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    Quote Originally Posted by KEN JPN View Post
    I understand how WERE took its form from WAS.
    I still wonder, if "he was" is the past form of "he is", why "he WERE" is used only in the Subjunctive.
    Regarding other verbs like 'go, have, etc', there is only one past form 'went, had', so there is no wonder English speakers say, "If I went" or "If I had". Then why not "if I was" but "if I were". There must be a historical, or psychological or whatever, reason behind it, which I want to know.
    I would say it's because the forms of "to be" are notoriously irregular in most languages. So the normal past tense of "to be" is "I was, you were, he was, we were ..." whereas for most verbs, the past tense is the same for all persons, "I went, you went, he went ..."
    My hypothesis is this: the subjunctive form is always the same and is based on the simple past of the 2nd person (or any of the plural forms) - thus giving "were" for "to be". What you point out as an apparent irregularity is actually a regularity.

  9. #9
    KEN JPN is offline Junior Member
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    Quote Originally Posted by Raymott View Post
    I would say it's because the forms of "to be" are notoriously irregular in most languages. So the normal past tense of "to be" is "I was, you were, he was, we were ..." whereas for most verbs, the past tense is the same for all persons, "I went, you went, he went ..."
    My hypothesis is this: the subjunctive form is always the same and is based on the simple past of the 2nd person (or any of the plural forms) - thus giving "were" for "to be". What you point out as an apparent irregularity is actually a regularity.
    Thank you very much for you very interesting comment.
    If your hypothesis that "the subjunctive form is always the same and is based on the simple past of the 2nd person (or any of the plural forms) " applies, it can be regarded as a regularity, yes.

    However, I have to hold another question here:
    Why was "2nd person (or any of the plural ) form" used for Subjunctive, not 1st or 3rd person, not singular?

  10. #10
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: The reason of "I were" in first person singular past subjunctive

    Quote Originally Posted by KEN JPN View Post
    In modern English, "I wish I was" is also heard in colloquial English but lately there is a tendency that more people regard WERE to be strictly correct and WAS to be vulgar.
    I'd say, at least in BrE, that the tendency is moving in the opposite direction- towards a wider acceptance of was. Exam boards like Cambridge dropped testing it years ago, for instance.

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