was or were?

Status
Not open for further replies.

Ingles_4u

Member
Joined
Feb 24, 2008
Member Type
Student or Learner
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
 

gybbyr

Member
Joined
Feb 16, 2008
Member Type
English Teacher
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...
 

buggles

Key Member
Joined
Aug 20, 2007
Member Type
Other
Native Language
British English
Home Country
England
Current Location
England
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.
 

Ingles_4u

Member
Joined
Feb 24, 2008
Member Type
Student or Learner
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
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
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:

verso

Member
Joined
Feb 23, 2008
Member Type
Student or Learner
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.
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
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.
 

Ingles_4u

Member
Joined
Feb 24, 2008
Member Type
Student or Learner
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 isn´t 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!
 
R

RedMtl

Guest
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 isn´t 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!:up:

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.
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
Riverkid has done a nice job!:up:

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.

Thank you, RedMtl, for the kind words and for adding the clarification/expansion of counterfactual.

I'm afraid that I must disagree with you on the use of 'was'. The subjunctive is a moribund feature of English and every form that still exists has at least one other way of describing the same situation in other than the subjunctive form.

'were' is more formal, but grammatically and practically, 'was' works just fine.
 

David L.

VIP Member
Joined
Nov 7, 2007
Member Type
Other
"If my life were important" is correct grammatically, if we review Conditionals:

First conditional: what is said in the condition is possible.
This condition refers either to the present or to future time.
e.g. If he is late, we will have to go without him.
If my mother knows about this, we are in serious trouble.

Second conditional : unreal (impossible) or improbable situations.
Said in the present, but the TENSE is past, AND we are talking about the present, now.
e.g. If I knew her name, I would tell you.
If I were you, I would tell my father.
Compare: If I become president, I will change the social security system. (Said by a presidential candidate)
If I became president, I would change the social security system. (Said by a schoolboy: improbable)
If we win this match, we are qualified for the semifinals.
If I won a million pounds, I would stop teaching. (improbable)

So, Tim Rice emphasizes the utter despair of the song by the use of the Second Conditional - it is so improbable that his life could be important. Similarly, Fiddler on the Roof, "If I were a rich man" sung by a poverty-stricken Jewish man with not even the hope of winning the lottery.

Third conditional : unreal situations
The time is the past (so we are talking about a situation that was not so in the past.)
e.g. If you had warned me, I would not have told your father about that party.(But you didn't, and I have).

Quote: Rob De Decker
First, Second, and Third Conditional
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
"If my life were important" is correct grammatically, if we review Conditionals:

Of course, using 'were' is correct grammatically, David, as is the use of 'was'.

"If my life were important" - more formal

"If my life was important" - informal/day to day speech

The meanings for both are identical.
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher

I long ago, warned Casiopeia about this site, David. It's a terrible site for grammar. It is littered with errors and misleading statements. You really have to take anything they say with a grain of salt.

Here's one. They were warned about these errors years ago and though they agreed that there was a problem, they have yet to fix it.

Allowed that the original author of the site has passed on, but still, how hard would it be to make the necessary corrections?


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Uses of May and Might

Two of the more troublesome modal auxiliaries are may and might. When used in the context of granting or seeking permission, might is the past tense of may. Might is considerably more tentative than may.

* May I leave class early?
* If I've finished all my work and I'm really quiet, might I leave early?

In the context of expressing possibility, may and might are interchangeable present and future forms and might + have + past participle is the past form:

* She might be my advisor next semester.
* She may be my advisor next semester.
* She might have advised me not to take biology.

Avoid confusing the sense of possibility in may with the implication of might, that a hypothetical situation has not in fact occurred. For instance, let's say there's been a helicopter crash at the airport. In his initial report, before all the facts are gathered, a newscaster could say that the pilot "may have been injured." After we discover that the pilot is in fact all right, the newscaster can now say that the pilot "might have been injured" because it is a hypothetical situation that has not occurred. Another example: a body had been identified after much work by a detective. It was reported that "without this painstaking work, the body may have remained unidentified." Since the body was, in fact, identified, might is clearly called for.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++
 
Last edited:
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top