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    • Join Date: Feb 2008
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    #1

    was or were?

    Hello

    Just when I thought I have mastered the use of "was-were", a line I found on a song has left me bemused. Especially as this song was written by the great song writer Tim Rice.

    The song is "Close Every Door" and in one sentence it says:

    If my life were important I will ask...

    Is the use of "Were" correct??? I thought it should have said "was" as he is talking about himself?

    Thanks for any replys
    Carlos


    • Join Date: Feb 2008
    • Posts: 29
    #2

    Re: was or were?

    If my life were important I will ask...

    Hi. I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong, but I think Mr Rice must have been using poetic license here.

    I think it should read: If my life was important I would ask...

  1. buggles's Avatar
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    #3

    Re: was or were?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ingles_4u View Post
    Hello

    Just when I thought I have mastered the use of "was-were", a line I found on a song has left me bemused. Especially as this song was written by the great song writer Tim Rice.

    The song is "Close Every Door" and in one sentence it says:

    If my life were important I will ask...

    Is the use of "Were" correct??? I thought it should have said "was" as he is talking about himself?

    Thanks for any replys
    Carlos
    I think we should put this down to "artistic licence".
    Being a good songwriter doesn't necessarily make your work a reliable or accurate reflection of correct English. Songwriters and poets often seem to make up their own rules to suit the mood of the song or poem.
    I would certainly think that this use of "were" is grammatically incorrect.


    • Join Date: Feb 2008
    • Posts: 12
    #4

    Re: was or were?

    Thank you so much for your replies, it has left me much happier knowing that what I thought was correct. Thanks for the quick replies.
    All the best
    Carlos


    • Join Date: Aug 2006
    • Posts: 3,059
    #5

    Re: was or were?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ingles_4u View Post
    Hello

    Just when I thought I have mastered the use of "was-were", a line I found on a song has left me bemused. Especially as this song was written by the great song writer Tim Rice.

    The song is "Close Every Door" and in one sentence it says:

    If my life were important I will ask...

    Is the use of "Were" correct??? I thought it should have said "was" as he is talking about himself?

    Thanks for any replys
    Carlos
    Hello Carlos.

    I'm sure that someone will correct me if I'm mistaken.

    The lyrics actually say,

    "If my life were important I
    Would ask will I live or die
    But I know the answers lie far from this world"

    Is he not, in the theme of the song, expressing a counterfactual?

    Factual: My life isn't important

    Counterfactual: If my life were important

    For that counterfactual, he chose the subjunctive form, 'were', which isn't absolutely necessary, 'was' can be used, but surely, the subjunctive form can also be used.

    Further lyrics illustrate that he views his life as unimportant, likely in the grand scheme of things.

    Close every door to me
    Keep those I love from me
    Children of Israel are never alone
    For I know I shall find
    My own peace of mind
    For I have been promised a land of my own

    Just give me a number
    Instead of my name
    Forget all about me and let me decay
    I do not matter
    I'm only one person
    Destroy me completely then throw me away
    Why do you think that because "he is talking about himself" that it should make a difference, Carlos?
    Last edited by riverkid; 25-Feb-2008 at 01:02.


    • Join Date: Feb 2008
    • Posts: 21
    #6

    Re: was or were?

    Exactly. It is counterfactual. But I try not to listen for grammar in music, because it would drive me crazy. Take for example Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars": "If I lay here, if I just lay here..." It should be "lie" and not "lay," of course. You can find an example of poor grammar in almost any song, I'd imagine.


    • Join Date: Aug 2006
    • Posts: 3,059
    #7

    Re: was or were?

    Quote Originally Posted by verso View Post
    Exactly. It is counterfactual. But I try not to listen for grammar in music, because it would drive me crazy. Take for example Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars": "If I lay here, if I just lay here..." It should be "lie" and not "lay," of course. You can find an example of poor grammar in almost any song, I'd imagine.
    That's just an old saw, Verso. The distinctions between lie and lay are much more complicated than the prescription suggests. Hasn't it always been so.


    M-W:

    lay

    usage lay has been used intransitively in the sense of “lie” since the 14th century. The practice was unremarked until around 1770; attempts to correct it have been a fixture of schoolbooks ever since. Generations of teachers and critics have succeeded in taming most literary and learned writing, but intransitive lay persists in familiar speech and is a bit more common in general prose than one might suspect.

    Much of the problem lies in the confusing similarity of the principal parts of the two words. Another influence may be a folk belief that lie is for people and lay is for things. Some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do so slowly: many people have invested effort in learning to keep lie and lay distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.


    • Join Date: Feb 2008
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    #8

    Re: was or were?

    Hi!

    I think it's correct because the song-writer is talking of a hypothetical situation.


    • Join Date: Feb 2008
    • Posts: 12
    #9

    Re: was or were?

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    Hello Carlos.

    I'm sure that someone will correct me if I'm mistaken.

    The lyrics actually say,

    "If my life were important I
    Would ask will I live or die
    But I know the answers lie far from this world"

    Is he not, in the theme of the song, expressing a counterfactual?

    Factual: My life isn't important

    Counterfactual: If my life were important

    For that counterfactual, he chose the subjunctive form, 'were', which isn't absolutely necessary, 'was' can be used, but surely, the subjunctive form can also be used.

    Further lyrics illustrate that he views his life as unimportant, likely in the grand scheme of things.



    Why do you think that because "he is talking about himself" that it should make a difference, Carlos?
    Hi Riverkid,

    Thanks for your detailed explanation. I can now understand it better now. I did have trouble understanding this counterfactual situation as my grammar isnīt so advanced.

    I just thought that he was talking about himself, so thought he should have used "was".
    Thanks again, and to everyone else who has replied. Great site!

  2. RedMtl's Avatar
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    • Join Date: Feb 2008
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    #10

    Smile Re: was or were?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ingles_4u View Post
    Hi Riverkid,

    Thanks for your detailed explanation. I can now understand it better now. I did have trouble understanding this counterfactual situation as my grammar isnīt so advanced.

    I just thought that he was talking about himself, so thought he should have used "was".
    Thanks again, and to everyone else who has replied. Great site!

    Riverkid has done a nice job!

    It might help, for those who use grammar texts, to add that "counterfactual situation" is, in many grammar books, explained as "a condition contrary to fact."

    As such, regardless of which wording is encountered, it calls for the use of the subjunctive of the verb "to be."

    In English (bless us!) it is irregular. Thus: "If I were there, I would bend over backwards to help." (But, I'm not there -- thus, it is contrary to fact, and requires the subjunctive. "IF" is often a dead giveaway that the clause is contrary to fact.)


    Note, it is not "If I was there" which is all too commonly what is used, especially orally.

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