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    #1

    Were or Was?

    I am reading Wuthering Heights, and the sentence is: "We entered the farm-house by the kitchen way to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff were really absent."

    Would the sentence be correct if it had been written: "... to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff was really absent."

    Would the meaning of the sentence be changed?

    My understanding is that "were" is often used to indicate that there is no possibility of something happening or that something is unlikely (ex: "If I were a girl, then..." or, "I wish that Mr. Smith were more friendly.")

  1. tareq10's Avatar
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    #2

    Re: Were or Was?

    Quote Originally Posted by verso View Post
    I am reading Wuthering Heights, and the sentence is: "We entered the farm-house by the kitchen way to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff were really absent."

    Would the sentence be correct if it had been written: "... to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff was really absent."

    Would the meaning of the sentence be changed?

    My understanding is that "were" is often used to indicate that there is no possibility of something happening or that something is unlikely (ex: "If I were a girl, then..." or, "I wish that Mr. Smith were more friendly.")
    Well, It has been said that the old English used to have 'you' and 'were' to talk about a single person to show some kind of veneration. As it is the case in French language.
    so Mr. Heathcliff is an important charactor in the story who the narrator refers to using 'were absent'.

  2. Monticello's Avatar
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    #3

    Re: Were or Was?

    Quote Originally Posted by verso View Post
    I am reading Wuthering Heights, and the sentence is: "We entered the farm-house by the kitchen way to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff were really absent."

    Would the sentence be correct if it had been written: "... to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff was really absent."

    Would the meaning of the sentence be changed?

    My understanding is that "were" is often used to indicate that there is no possibility of something happening or that something is unlikely (ex: "If I were a girl, then..." or, "I wish that Mr. Smith were more friendly.")
    Hi verso,

    What an interesting usage question you pose here!

    tareq10 may have some insight -- of which I'm not aware -- into Bronte's subtlety in highlighting the importance of the character of Mr. Heathcliff through the use of an Old English construction -- using "were" in place of "was" -- that is tied to the French language.

    Aside from this possibility, however, it is likely that Bronte is using a subjunctive construction that is usually triggered by the conditional word "if." Of course, Bronte's triggering word here is "whether."

    Please see the following entry for "if" (which also applies to cases of "whether") in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition) (AHDEL). Within the USAGE NOTE commentary for this entry, you will read about the subjunctive construction and its implications. The most telling comment found here, especially as it may relate to Bronte's usage here in question, is the following:
    According to the traditional rule, the subjunctive should be used to describe an occurrence that is presupposed to be contrary to fact, as in if I were ten years younger or if Napoleon had won at Waterloo.
    Based upon this "traditional rule," then, Bronte would be suggesting to the reader that those concerned about Mr. Heathcliff's whereabouts are presupposing that he WILL NOT be "really absent." In other words, they expect to find him present.

    Now whether Bronte, an English woman writing in the 1840's, is in fact observing such a "traditional rule" could, of course, only be determined through further research involving more than just this brief usage AHDEL commentary.

    Nonetheless, bear in mind that even though the first edition of the AHDEL dates back only to 1969, its esteemed Usage Panel includes scholars who would be very familiar with such a "traditional rule" governing the use of the subjunctive.

    Interesting further reading that provides background on just how the AHDEL Usage Panel operates, can be found in this December 23, 2006 New York Times article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/23/books/23word.html?fta=y

    entitled: Wordsmiths: They Also Serve Who Only Vote on ‘Ain’t’
    Last edited by Monticello; 11-Mar-2009 at 04:00.

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    #4

    Re: Were or Was?

    Quote Originally Posted by verso View Post
    I am reading Wuthering Heights, and the sentence is: "We entered the farm-house by the kitchen way to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff were really absent."

    Would the sentence be correct if it had been written: "... to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff was really absent."

    Would the meaning of the sentence be changed?
    No, it would simply be rendered acceptable by contemporary English standards!

    Bronte, a 19th-century author, here employs a construction (past subjunctive in a nominal whether-clause) that is now obsolete.

  3. Monticello's Avatar
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    #5

    Re: Were or Was?

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    No, it would simply be rendered acceptable by contemporary English standards!

    Bronte, a 19th-century author, here employs a construction (past subjunctive in a nominal whether-clause) that is now obsolete.
    Hi philo2009,

    There is no argument that "here [Bronte] employs a construction (past subjunctive in a nominal whether-clause) that is now obsolete."

    As to whether or not her use of this subjunctive construction rules out the possibility that she may be signaling to the reader the expectation that Heathcliff is expected to be present, remains open to question for me.
    "Before you asked me, I understood just what time was. Now I'm not so sure..." —Socrates
    In cases such as this, I find myself, like Socrates, being "not so sure." -That is, until convinced otherwise.

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    #6

    Re: Were or Was?

    Quote Originally Posted by Monticello View Post
    Hi philo2009,

    There is no argument that "here [Bronte] employs a construction (past subjunctive in a nominal whether-clause) that is now obsolete."

    As to whether or not her use of this subjunctive construction rules out the possibility that she may be signaling to the reader the expectation that Heathcliff is expected to be present, remains open to question for me.
    "Before you asked me, I understood just what time was. Now I'm not so sure..." —Socrates
    In cases such as this, I find myself, like Socrates, being "not so sure." -That is, until convinced otherwise.
    Clearly, only a detailed context-based examination of comparable structures in literature of the same period employing indicative forms would shed any light on this, something that I have neither the time (nor the inclination) to pursue, although others perhaps may!

    My answer was predicated on the possibility that the questioner may have believed the construction still to be extant, something I wished to emphasize was most definitely not the case.

    EOC

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    #7

    Re: Were or Was?

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Clearly, only a detailed context-based examination of comparable structures in literature of the same period employing indicative forms would shed any light on this, something that I have neither the time (nor the inclination) to pursue, although others perhaps may!

    My answer was predicated on the possibility that the questioner may have believed the construction still to be extant, something I wished to emphasize was most definitely not the case.

    EOC
    Hi EOC,

    Thanks for your interest and input here. I should let you know that I probably misunderstood your previous post:
    "No, it would simply be rendered acceptable by contemporary English standards!"
    - only realizing after having responded to your post, that your reply was probably intended to be directed specifically to verso's question:
    Would the sentence be correct if it had been written: "... to ascertain whether Mr. Heathcliff was really absent."
    Taken in this context, your response is right on target.

    In regard to Bronte's exact intentions concerning her use of the subjunctive construction as cited, my first post to this thread already states the need for further research. - no disagreement here.

    Also, though I would agree that the construction is practically obsolete in current speech, I remain "not so sure" that it will not be found in the writings of some contemporary "traditionalists."

    In any event, I'm sure both of us will agree that the worth of such discussions is not to be found in any quibbling over the matter. This is not my intent here. Rather, the purpose that interests me here is the possibility of shedding some light on a potential subtlety within Bronte's writing.

    - All the best
    Last edited by Monticello; 06-Mar-2009 at 00:07.


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    #8

    Re: Were or Was?

    Although the subjunctive is still used, its going the way of the dodo. Few people would care to differentiate between "If I were a rich man" and "If I was a rich man". You will hear both in common use.

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    #9

    Re: Were or Was?

    Quote Originally Posted by thod00 View Post
    Although the subjunctive is still used, its going the way of the dodo. Few people would care to differentiate between "If I were a rich man" and "If I was a rich man". You will hear both in common use.
    Whether they be the near-equivalent of the Dodo, the Baiji Dolphin, the West African Black Rhino, the Golden Toad, the Spix's Macaw, the Hawaiian Crow, or the Pyrenean Ibex, users of the subjunctive are still to be found in both wild and tame environs.


    Oops! I think I may have inadvertently referred to myself as, among other things, an extinct bird.

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