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Thread: Were vs Was

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    #1

    Were vs Was

    When writing about a movement, which is correct:
    If the Civil Rights Movement were not successful..., or
    If the Civil Rights Movement was not successful...

    My instinct tells me the use of 'was' is accurate as it is referring to a single movement. However, I have seen it written using 'were' in a professional document.

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    #2

    Re: Were vs Was

    If it's a second conditional, then were is the favoured form in formal language. If it's not a conditional, then it could be singular or plural depending on the preferences of the variant. What's the wider context?

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    #3

    Re: Were vs Was

    Quote Originally Posted by Tdol View Post
    If it's a second conditional, then were is the favoured form in formal language. If it's not a conditional, then it could be singular or plural depending on the preferences of the variant. What's the wider context?
    Hi Tdol,
    Thank you for your reply. The sentence reads as follows:
    "IF THE civil rights movement were as unsuccessful as the environmental movement has been, Rosa Parks' granddaughter would still be sitting in the back of a segregated bus."
    .




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    #4

    Re: Were vs Was

    It's subjunctive. A "contrary to fact" hypothetical.

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    #5

    Re: Were vs Was

    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Geremia View Post

    "IF THE civil rights movement were as unsuccessful as the environmental movement has been, Rosa Parks' granddaughter would still be sitting in the back of a segregated bus."
    .



    ***** NOT A TEACHER *****


    Hello, Ms. Geremia:



    1. I believe (repeat: believe) that most people today would not use the so-called subjunctive when referring to the

    past.

    2. As we now know, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's was not unsuccessful. It was very successful. We are talking

    about reality.

    3. According to the greatest grammarian of all time (my opinion, of course):

    "The past subjunctive ... for reference to the past is much less common than the present subjunctive for reference to the present and future, for it is contrary to the now almost universally recognized principle that the past subjunctive refers to the present or future."

    And he was writing in the year 1931!

    4. That great scholar does say that in older English, the past subjunctive "were" was, indeed, used in sentences such as yours ( as SoothingDave reminded us).

    5. I do not know how much you know about the subjunctive (I know very little), but it is still used here in the United States

    for the present and future. But many books advise against using it to refer to past events.



    James


    P.S. Your sentence has nothing to do with singular or plural. As you know, the verb depends on the word "movement." For example, "The Civil Rights movement is studied in the public [state] schools." / "If the Civil Rights movement were taught in your school, would you take the class?" [As Tdol reminded us, some English speakers would use "was" here. Just as some people say, "If I was rich, I would fly to the moon," instead of "If I were ...."]


    James

    That great scholar was Professor Dr. George Oliver Curme. He explains this on pages 424 - 425 in the second volume of his 1931 masterpiece A Grammar of the English Language.

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    #6

    Re: Were vs Was

    Wow, this explains it all very well. Thank you, James. I do not know much about the subjunctive. As a matter of fact, I enjoy writing a great deal but when it comes to explaining grammar, I draw a blank most of the time. This is exactly why I joined this forum.

    Thank you all for your replies.

    -Gina

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    #7

    Re: Were vs Was

    "IF THE civil rights movement were as unsuccessful as the environmental movement has been, Rosa Parks' granddaughter would still be sitting in the back of a segregated bus."
    .

    I think there is a mistake here. It should read, "If the civil rights movement had been ..."

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    #8

    Re: Were vs Was

    I agree. My problem is, I can't explain why. Is it to keep consistent with '...as the environmental movement has been...' part of the sentence? And what is the 'had been', is it past subjunctive like 'were'?

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    #9

    Re: Were vs Was

    Quote Originally Posted by Gina Geremia View Post
    I agree. And what is the 'had been?
    ***** NOT A TEACHER *****


    Hello, Ms. Geremia:


    1. Yes, I agree that "had been" is better, too.

    2. I think that we are dealing here with a so-called "mixed conditional."

    a. "If the movement had been unsuccessful [third conditional], her granddaughter would still be riding in the back of the bus." [second conditional].

    3. If it were ("were"!) all third conditional, it would read: "If the movement had been unsuccessful, her granddaughter would still have been riding in the back of the bus." Presumably, that is not the meaning intended by the author of the sentence.



    James

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    #10

    Re: Were vs Was

    Let's say I have an uncle who is still alive. He is a plumber. I could start a sentence with "If my uncle were a teacher ..." because he exists and it is perfectly possible to consider/imagine a different profession for him. In fact, he could still become a teacher.

    Now assume my uncle is dead. He was a plumber. I would not be able to say "If my uncle were a teacher ..." I would have to say "If my uncle had been a teacher ...", or "If my uncle had not been a plumber ..."

    The Civil Rights movement has happened. It's over. (Please don't take that as a political statement!) Therefore, anything we say about it has to refer to a hypothetical past not a hypothetical present or future.

    The Civil Rights movement was successful. Had it not been successful, the world would be a very different place.
    The Civil Rights movement was successful. If it had not been successful, the world would be a very different place.
    Remember - correct capitalisation, punctuation and spacing make posts much easier to read.

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