Monday, March 12, 2007

If I were, if I was

[A note to the visiting reader: There's nothing idiosyncratic or unusual about making a distinction between "If I were" and "If I was." Countless speakers and writers make this distinction, and explanations of it can be found in numerous writing handbooks (the kind of book usually used in a college writing class). I've tried to make an explanation of the distinction that's engaging and memorable. Happy reading and writing.]

A reader asked in an e-mail if I could explain when to use "if I were" and "if I was." Here are some examples to make the difference clear:

"If I were" (the past subjunctive) is appropriate in stating conditions that are contrary to fact:

If I were a bell, I'd go ding dong ding dong ding. (Frank Loesser)

If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway? (Tim Hardin)

If I were a rich man, [yadda, yadda, yadda]. (Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock)
Each of the above sentences states a condition that is not the case: I'm not a bell, not a carpenter, not a rich man.

"If I was" (the past indicative) is appropriate in stating conditions that are not contrary to fact. Here you might say that the truth or falsity of the condition is not certain:
Was I rude? I'm not sure that I really was. But if I was rude, I'm sorry.

If I was to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles.
The was/were distinction can be tricky to get right. In that last sample sentence, was somehow sounds wrong to me, and if I were doing something other than writing this post, I'd probably choose were or recast the sentence:
If I train as a carpenter, I will get to wear safety goggles.
Why, incidentally, did I write "if I were doing something other than writing this post"? Because the condition stated is contrary to fact: I am writing this post.

The most awful blurring of was/were probably occurs when people say "If I was you." "I," whoever I am, never was "you." Here's another song lyric, which I know from a Fats Waller recording, to help keep the was/were distinction clear:
If I were you, here's what I'd do:
I'd stick to me my whole life through,
If I were you. (Buddy Bernier and Robert D. Emmerich)
Update, July 17, 2011:

One sample sentence in this post has continued to bug me: “If I was to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles.” Should the verb be was or were? Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (1965) supports the indicative was in such sentences:
Difficulties do arise, however, from making the unwarranted assumption that if always introduces a condition that is contrary to fact and thus should always be followed by a subjunctive. If may introduce clauses of supposition or concession, as well as conditions that are not true or are hypothetical, and in such clauses the verb is usually in the indicative, not the subjunctive, mood.
A sample sentence from The Careful Writer: “The Egyptian declared that if there was more trouble the U.A.R. would ‘exterminate Israel.’”

More recently, the American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) also supports was:
Remember, just because the modal verb would appears in the main clause, this doesn’t mean that the verb in the if-clause must be in the subjunctive if the content of that clause is not presupposed to be false: If I was (not were) to accept their offer — which I’m still considering — I would have to start the new job on May 2.
The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005) makes the same point, with a different sample sentence. Both AH volumes point out that many people dispense with any distinction between if I was and if I were. If I were you though, I wouldn’t go along with them.

Still more recently, Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) recommends the use of the subjunctive in contexts that involve supposition. Garner’s sample sentence: “if I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project.” It seems to me that the use of the subjunctive here might erase the useful distinction between supposition and what’s contrary to fact: if I were to go seems to suggest that the speaker has already decided not to do so. (Think of a politician refusing to step down: If I were to resign, I’d be betraying, &c.) Another sentence or two might be needed to clarify things: If I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project. But I can always get Fred to do that for me. So I’ll go.

When it comes to supposition and the subjunctive, there is no single answer. If one is considering whether to train as a carpenter, the wise choice, as I have suggested above, might be a sentence that avoids any appearance of error by keeping clear of was and were:
If I train as a carpenter, I will get to wear safety goggles.
Reader, the choice is yours.

Other useful stuff
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences

comments: 132

Anonymous said...

Thanks for addressing my question so quickly and clearly.

Michael Leddy said...

You're welcome. I'm happy to do so.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a clear explanation.

Anonymous said...

I'm just a poor immigrant, but I would say "If I were to train as as a carpenter...", because I'm not training.

Stephan said...

I also don't quite understand why one would say "If I was to train as a carpenter"

Michael Leddy said...

"If I was to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles": there's nothing contrary to fact in this sentence, so "was" is correct. But as I said in my post, it sounds odd. The important bit is "to train," something that may or may not happen in the future, so it's not contrary to fact.

In contrast, "If I were training as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety googles" is a sentence that involves a condition contrary to fact (I'm not training as a carpenter). I hope this additional sentence helps make the difference clear.

Anonymous said...

If I weren't a native english speaker, I would've asked about the usage of was/were with being reliant on whether the subject was singular/plural. (analyze that).

However, I am not. My question involves the phrase, "I wish I ..." "I wish I was the president." "I wish I were the president." I'm not sure which is correct, and both sound correct to me. Can you clarify this?

Michael Leddy said...

With wishes, I’d follow Garner in choosing were. His example: “I wish that I were able to play piano.”

Anonymous said...

thanks ...

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for an excellent post, solved the puzzle for me.


Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Fragvis.

Anonymous said...

Ok, this is still confusing me...please help. Looking over an essay my son wrote for school and it reads, "If I was unable to pledge allegiance to our flag, I would feel worthless." Should it be was or were?

Michael Leddy said...

Since your son can pledge allegiance, I would say were — contrary to fact.

learningtogetolder said...

Hey, thanks for this post.

I wasn't quite sure about writing "as though it was" vs. "as though it were", but have now decided on the latter.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome. Yes, “as though it were,” contrary to fact.

angela spinney said...

I wonder if it feels wrong to use 'was' in the carpenter example simply because it negates the grammar lesson intended when the word 'were' is used. The sentence, "If I were to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles" seems to exemplify the difference between 'were' and 'wear'. I have nothing to reference here, but it reminds me of sentences I've heard in grammar lessons before. I may be pulling this from thin air, but I thought I'd note it anyways.

Michael Leddy said...

The difference between were and wear? I’m afraid I don’t follow.

Anonymous said...

I often wondered: If the ball were in my court rather than his to make the first move, where would I be?

is that sentence correct?

Michael Leddy said...

I think you would be on the court. But if the ball is in your court, someone else has already made a move, no? That’s one odd sentence.

Lauren said...

Thanks for this helpful post. It really cleared things up for me ... and don't forget the great example by Beyonce: "If I were a boy ..."

Michael Leddy said...

Lauren, thank you for adding the Beyoncé example, memorable and closer to the present tense than my musical examples. :)

Steve said...

Michael, I LOVED your musical examples, especially Tim Hardin's song "If I Were A Carpenter." I have several of his songs in my collection ("Black Sheep Boy" and "Lady Came From Baltimore"), but I've rarely seen anyone refer to him by name. He died in the early 1980s, but his songs live on. ANYWAY, I also appreciated your explanation of "If I were" and "If I was," a subject I was researching today because I'm grading a bunch of graduate student papers, and the writers often make the wrong choice. I will now send them to this web site.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Steve. Best wishes for your grading.

Anonymous said...

This was very helpful and Orange Crate Art is indeed a fantastic song. I live in SF and it gets absolutely embedded in my head every time I go up to Sonoma!

Thanks Michael!

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Anon.

Anonymous said...

There was about 6 hours of reconnaissance.
There were about 6 hours of reconnaissance.

Are both correct?


Michael Leddy said...

Garner’s Modern American Usage: “In AmE [American English], a plural noun denoting a small unit by which a larger amount is measured generally takes a singular verb.” One of his examples: “Five hours are [read is] enough time.” As they say on the Internet, hope this helps.

Jonathon said...

VERY helpful! Thank you for sharing all this information and the helpful examples.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Jonathon.

A.D.Trosper said...

Which one is right?

If what she said was true

If what she said were true

Michael Leddy said...

It depends on what you mean.

“If what she said was true”: what she said may be true.

“If what she said were true”: what she said is not true.

syakir mr said...

i want to ask you, which one is the correct form, "i was here" or i were here"? and may i know why. as if the word "you", it'll be "you were" never "you was", right?

Michael Leddy said...

“I was here” is correct. The verb to be is irregular:

I was
you (singular) were
he, she, or it was
we were
you (plural) were
they were

It’s always “you were,” whether the you is singular or plural. As they say on the Internet, hope this helps. :)

Anonymous said...

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! ^_^

Michael Leddy said...

That’s a helpful example, Anon.

And Anon., you’re welcome.

Agatha said...

Thank you for this and other posts, your tips will be really useful in my English exams. Greetings

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Agatha. Best wishes for your exams.

Anonymous said...

One of the HUGE problems with understanding proper English, and with grammar and writing, is that the names of various parts of speech are non-intuitive and intimidating. The "past participle"? WTF is that? "Pluperfect"? Whatever. The best types of names for things are those that tell what the things do or are. Toaster. Perfect name. Ice cream machine. Bingo. I know - proper nouns: you just have to know them. Still, there is a whole new world of English teaching to be opened up if you could invent an intuitive, non-specialist lexicon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Micheal!

Anonymous said...

OMG! Thank you!!!! :D

perplexedcdn said...

I'm having trouble with a sentence for an application (should be correct, but flow and phrasing are important).

"They spoke about me as if I wasn't in the room."

Is wasn't correct there or should it be weren't?

Michael Leddy said...

Counterfactual, so the subjunctive were is appropriate. It might sound better though if you remove the contraction. As they say on the Internet, “Hope this helps.”

Also, a belated “You’re welcome” to earlier commenters.

Alan said...

Hi there.

Ok. Here's something for you.

Was we rude? If we was rude, we're sorry.

If you was to train as a carpenter, You would get to wear safety goggles.

If you was to accept their offer —
If we was to accept their offer -

Why does either a 'plural' or a 'second person' seem to throw a wrench into your whole explanation?

Michael Leddy said...

I’ve explained a distinction between if I was and if I were, that’s all. The pronouns we and you never take was. Why? As Run-DMC once said, “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.”

Anonymous said...

Justin Bieber sings a song called if I was your boyfriend (I'd never let you go) Does he need a grammar lesson? Clearly he is not my it should be were...correct?

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, just as with the Beyoncé title Lauren mentions above.

Samir Sanghavi said...

Thank you. This really helped.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Samir.

haste said...

Back in high school, our teacher taught us that for conditional sentences, we should always use "were" regardless the form of the subject (singular or plural). So it became "If I were...", "If she were...", etc. There never was a clear explanation as to why that was so, nor was there an explanation of exceptions to the rule that may exist. So thank you very much for your article. It helps to know these things. :)

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Haste. Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great information, Michael. It was very useful.


Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Kimberlee.

Samir said...

I have to say that if I were born in the United States I wouldn't have grasped the concept of using were vs. was. My mother tongue is Arabic. Our 5th-grade teacher in Lebanon made damned sure we understood this were/was business pretty well. When I went to college in America I used the past subjunctive properly in my everyday conversation. People thought I was pompous.
Do you think "were" eventually will be replaced with "was," since most native English speakers in America use the latter incorrectly? Do you think it's a "Lost Cause," much like "I" vs. "me," "who" vs. "whom," etc.?

Michael Leddy said...

That’s a good question. For many speakers and writers, there is already no distinction between was and were. But there are many other speakers and writers who want to make the distinction and get it right. Some evidence of that: this post gets at least fifty visits a day. I think that the distinction will hold for a long time, at least in formal writing.

It’s common in the United States for grammar, punctuation, and usage to get little attention in writing classes. Growing online attention to these matters (for instance, recent New York Times and New Yorker columns on the semicolon) suggests to me that the Internet is making up for what’s often missing from classrooms.

Thanks, Samir, for your observations and question.

a_girl_feeling said...

Hello Michael!

But how about the negative form? Is it correct to say:

If I weren't a singer, I'd be a painter.


Michael Leddy said...

Hello Natalia. That’s an interesting example. If you are a singer, “If I were not a singer” involves a statement contrary to fact. So were seems right to me. Think of what Captain Renault says in Casablanca: “If I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.” “If I were a woman” = “If I were not a man.”

Anonymous said...

Not relevant, but credit should be given...

Thank you for the memorable clarification, although I will likely be back (poor memory & overall grammar on my part).

I don't know what's more impressive:
Your ability to make this discussion interesting... or your ability to pull grammatical examples from such a wide range of mediums. Thank you!

Michael Leddy said...

Kind words are always relevant. :) Thanks, Anon.

Shaw said...

Could you clear up one sentence for me?

It were Einestein himself that said that...
It was Einestein himself that said that...

Am I right in saying that it should be 'was' because Einestein did say it and therefore it is not contrary to fact?

Thanks, Shaw

Michael Leddy said...

It should be was. The sentence is just a matter of the simple past, no if involved. Using were here is not an option.

P.S.: If you’re writing about the physicist, it’s Einstein.

Jayshree K said...

all these comments and questions are in relation to the subject "i". my question however is in relation to "he" as the subject. Do we say
1) If he was a doctor,... Or
2) If he were a doctor,....
Thanks!! :)

Michael Leddy said...

The same reasoning applies:

If he was a good doctor, he has long since lost his skills. [Maybe he was a good doctor; maybe he wasn’t.]

If he were a good doctor, he would be able to help. [He’s not a good doctor.]

Jayshree K said...

So assuming he was never a doctor to begin with, it's 'if he were a doctor' right? Okay so Understanding that, is it safe to say that all hypothetical statements use the past plural form of the word.... as in all hypothetical sentences always use "were" not "was" or "are" or "is"? Thanks!! :)

Jayshree K said...

And thanks your explanations are super helpfull! ! :)

Michael Leddy said...

It’s not really the past plural though; it’s the past subjunctive. Many speakers and writers use it in stating conditions contrary to fact. (I think that’s what you mean by hypothetical, but I don’t think that word covers conditions contrary to fact.)

Not everyone uses the past subjunctive, and some see its use as finicky and outdated. I think the past subjunctive marks a useful distinction, so I think it’s smart to use it. I’m glad you found this post helpful, Jayshree.

Quantum Vision said...

I am writing something at the moment, and one of the sentences I had (which MS Word didn't like) was this :

'Little did I know how many nights lay ahead of me that were to be a lot more difficult than this one.'

This came very naturally and I wrote the sentence almost without thinking, then MS-Word underlined 'were'.

I know what you mean about the carpenter sentence, it sounds similar to how some of my friends from Essex speak ;+}

Michael Leddy said...

I’d say your sentence is fine. Word’s grammar checker is highly unreliable: here's some great proof.

John Coppersmith said...

Oh, wow, this difference in the two phrases has been a pea under the mattress of my brain for years— decades. Thank you for explaining it so clearly. I feel like I grok the matter and can go forward more comfortably.


Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, John. Thanks for writing.

Hershey said...

I would appreciate it if you could clarify this for me: "If I was/were interested..."


Michael Leddy said...

Consider the context. “If I were interested” means that I’m not interested. “If I was interested” would apply to past situations: “If I was interested, I would follow up,” &c.

Jack said...

Mr. Leddy - I read your posts and the replies with great interest. I must say that I'm in agreement with the Arab teacher who said that "if" is always followed by the copula verb "were". My mother was a grammar teacher (and other languages) in the late 1920s, and she was a grammar Nazi at home. Even with you carpenter example (safety goggles), the if necessarily imp;ies that one is not, regardless of intent. The person is not training as a carpenter, so there is a contrary factor, the future notwithstanding. Your thoughts?

Jack said...

yes; I see the point in "he wanted to know if I was interested" The "if" here refers back to "he" and not to the state that "I" was in. But I would say, turning it around: "If I were interested, I would have made it known to him". In that case again, there is a subtle implication to the contrary, or else I would have told him

Michael Leddy said...

I think that Samir likely meant that his teacher taught him to distinguish between was and were, not that were always follows if. At any rate, were doesn’t always follow, as in the example “Was I rude? I'm not sure that I really was. But if I was rude, I'm sorry.”

The safety goggles example involves the future, something hypothetical, not contrary to fact. The examples from The Careful Writer and the American Heritage Book of English Usage work in the same way. Garner prefers were with such sentences, which seems to me to remove a useful distinction. I think you are with Garner here, not a bad place to be. As the works I’ve cited show, there’s room for disagreement here.

But with “If I was rude,” where the past is in question, was is what works. “If I was rude” leaves it an open question — maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. With at least some sentences, it has to be was.

Michael Leddy said...

Jack, I wrote the above comment before seeing your second one. Yes, “if I was interested” leaves it an open question. “If I were interested” implies that there’s no interest.

Kevin Moulton said...

I would always use were if something were not currently the case. I don't agree that saying, "If I were to resign" implies that you will not. You may be just discussing your options.

Michael Leddy said...

As the sources I cited suggest, ther’s no consensus on this question. “If I resign” could be a way to dodge the problem.

Nualafrog said...

Love this post. Very interesting. I usually feel I'm quite clued up on my use of grammar but today something has made me think twice when someone else believed this following sentence was wrong...

"scenes of it [film] were filmed in..."

For my ears, this sounds correct. However someone was adamant that the use of was should be used here? I though if they were to say "some of this film were shot" then that then would be incorrect, but they didn't.

I was wondering whether if you could shed some light on this phrase and use of were/was when used with "I" beforehand. Many thanks!

Michael Leddy said...

You’re right. “Scenes were filmed” is correct: plural subject and plural verb. “Some of the film was shot” is correct too: singular subject and singular verb. If the sentence read “Some of the scenes were shot,” then the plural verb is correct, to go with the plural subject some. It’s the subject that determines the verb.

I is singular and always takes the verb was, unless it’s a matter of the past subjunctive, as in this post.

Anonymous said...

Which one of these sentences is correct: "These were the documents I received today," or "There are the documents I have received today."
Can you help?

Michael Leddy said...

Anon., I think “These are the documents” sounds right. If you’re done receiving documents, then “These are the documents I received today” would be right. If documents are still due to arrive, you might opt for “These are the documents I have received today.” But I think very few speakers or writers would see much of a distinction between the two sentences. As they say on the Internet, Hope this helps,

Novikov said...

This has always been one of my favorite grammatical rules, though every once in a while I find myself saying if and was and it ends up only sounding correct that way, as opposed to if and were. I'm not grammatically perfect, but I love to learn about it. An old post, but I'm glad you clarified it so neatly. It's still confusing a bit, but I'll have to practice some more.

Michael Leddy said...

I’m glad you found it helpful. I think this distinction has more importance in writing than in conversation. Go easy on yourself. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot. You just cleared up a bunch of confusion for me :)

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Anon.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so my brother just asked a question:

"Was Scott or Joe working?"

I'm pretty sure that should be "were"- who's right?

Michael Leddy said...

Your brother’s right. “With compound subjects joined with or or nor, make the verb agree with the part of the subject nearer to the verb”: Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, A Pocket Style Manual (the book closest to hand).

Anonymous said...

I love reading this blog!
Educative and entertaining!
Thank you- Angela Fowler

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Angela. I’m always happy to know that someone finds a post helpful.

Unknown said...

I found this post via Google search.

So, I'm reviewing a document with this sentence about vaccines for a student we've entered in our software: "If a student was 10 years old in 6th grade he/she would be considered compliant according to the software."

I think it should be "were 10 years old."


Michael Leddy said...

Since there’s nothing counterfactual, I would vote for “was” here (see the update to this post above).

Unknown said...

I like you, Michael Leddy.

I especially appreciate your earlier comment about the internet serving as our always-available English Usage Guide. ;)

Surprisingly, most references I've found are fairly consistent and accurate which is not like other types of sources in this cyber world. We grammar nerds want to make it right!

David Muir said...

Thank you so much for this helpful post.

I was taught the distinction about I was and I were by using an introductory if as the only clue. The full explanation of the difference between past indicative and past subjunctive was extremely helpful.

I also read Grammar Girl on the topic too. As you hinted, the Internet is not destroying our ability to communicate, but enhancing it.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for your comment, David. That this post gets many visits, every day, is evidence that lots of people care about writing well.

I didn’t know about Mignon Fogarty’s post. I have to admit that I like my explanation better. :)

Sadie Morris said...

IM currently having a debate with someone about whether to use "were" or "was" in this next sentence
"I've just realised that one of my closest friends were fake all along"
Is it "were fake" or "was fake"??

Michael Leddy said...

One was fake. Don’t be misled by the plural friends.

Anonymous said...

The use of were does not always require a statement contrary to fact:

"My boyfriend invited me to the ball. If I were to go to the ball, I would need a new dress." (I am still considering the possibility of going, though it is by no means certain; the element of uncertainty is implied by use of the word "were". However, use of the word "were" does not automatically mean that I will not be attending the event).
Equally, "Were I to go to the ball, I would need a new dress".

Further thoughts on If I were/was:

"If I were there, things would be done differently." (statement regarding a circumstance contrary to fact: I am not there, and so things are not being done my way).
Another way of saying this, as a commentary on a past occurrence, is "Had I been there, things would have been done differently".

I do not agree with regard to the use of was/were here:

"If I was (not were) to accept their offer — which I’m still considering — I would have to start the new job on May 2."

Here I think that the best way of parsing it easily is by substituting the following word order: "Were I to accept their offer.... I would have to start the new job on May 2." This renders the subjunctive in clearer language. When I see "If I was to...", I often see this as describing the past in terms of intention, fulfilled or otherwise: "He was to have attended the function (but fell ill and so could not)." "I was to have been the doctor in the family, but instead went on to become a juggler." Hence, "If I was to be given the award, it's clear that they considered me the best candidate." "If I was to accept the offer, it is because at the time nobody else wanted it." "If I was to accept the offer, I was certainly going about it the right way." The second clause explains or adds to, in some way, the main clause, as shown in the second following sentence:

"If I were you, I would have stayed home."
"Well, if I was to stay home, you could have made it easier by running the errands for me."

Of course, I could be in danger of over-parsing this, and the nuances are certainly elusive :-)

"If I was there, I do not recall it"; "If I was there, someone would have seen me." "If I was there, then all the witnesses who say they saw me here must be lying." (denying an allegation regarding a past action, for example).

Very good article, very informative. It's good to see clear explanations for proper use of speech so we can all understand each other :-)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Anon. I agree with you that was/were is tricky. It seems to me that the problems arise with statements that are not contrary to fact. Because usage guides are split on this question, such statements seem to me too easily misread. “If I were to go to the ball”: are you thinking about going, or have you already decided not to go? (As with my sentence: “If I were to resign.”) So my choice would be to change the verbs:

If I were to go to the ball, I would need a new dress.

If I go to the ball, I will need a new dress.


Were I to accept their offer. I would have to start the new job on May 2.

If I accept their offer, I will have to start, and so on.


If I was to accept the offer, it is because at the time nobody else wanted it.

If I accepted the offer, it was because, and so on. Or “it was only because.”

So one of my strategies for contending with was/were is to avoid them both. :)

Anonymous said...

Can i consider "was" is used for 'True or may be false' and "were" is false ?

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, if . . . was when what’s stated may be true or false.

Ellie said...

Question for you. I am writing a scientific paper.

I want to write this:

"It is also possible that there was some cracking of the bitumen, however were this the case, the effect would be expected to be greater in the higher power treatment rather than the lower power treatment."

I think that the use of "were" here sounds good. However, I wasn't sure, so I googled and came to your article. The condition I refer to is (as you can tell from the way I wrote it), in my opinion, unlikely but not impossible. So does that mean, because it MIGHT be possible, that I can't use "were"? I know I could rephrase, but I don't want to. Rereading, do I have to put a comma after "however"? In my opinion that would make the sentence ugly.

Thanks for your opinion!

Michael Leddy said...

Your sentence involves the question that prompted me to add to this post in 2011 — whether the subjunctive is a good choice with supposition. Your sentence has an added complication: “were this the case” is familiar phrasing; “was this the case” sounds strange and unidiomatic. But switching from “was” to “were,” as the sentence does, seems awkward too.

I would recast the sentence like so:

It is also possible that there was some cracking of the bitumen. But in that case, the effect should be greater in the higher power treatment, not in the lower one.

The revision gets rid of the comma splice (the original sentence needs a semicolon before however) and avoids the repetition of be (“would be expected to be”).

When however functions as a conjunctive adverb (the kind of word that often shows up after a semicolon), a comma should follow it. Many writers on writing recommend placing however later in a clause, with a comma on each side. I lean in that direction too. But the more I write, the more I prefer the conjunction but, which is much less ponderous. For instance,

We’re low on groceries; however, we can wait till tomorrow to shop.

We’re low on groceries, but we can wait till tomorrow to shop.

Here’s a post with more on however.

I hope my reply helps with your sentence. You mention not wanting to rephrase. Consider though this advice from Verlyn Klinkenborg:

“You can almost never fix a sentence —
Or find a better sentence within it —
By using the words it already contains.”

Several Short Sentences About Writing (2012).

The willingness to reimagine and recast a sentence is tremendously helpful. As you can guess, I spend a lot of time fixing my own sentences. : )

Babaylan Treasures said...

This article is very helpful. Thank you so much! I'll share this article with friends as reference.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome. I hope your friends find it helpful too.

Anonymous said...

If I were ever to think to use those two words, this was my wake up call.

By the way; everyone gets to wear safety goggles.

Michael Leddy said...

Especially if they take industrial arts (the class formerly known as “shop”). :)

Anonymous said...

I am cringing at the title of the new movie Wish I Was Here.

Michael Leddy said...


bullingtonm said...

I felt as if I was reading one’s opinion on how the internet “took over them” while learning about some of our history’s creditors.

In this case, how would it be clarified?

Michael Leddy said...

I’m not sure I really understand the context, but if that’s how you felt, use was. You can see the choice more clearly if you omit as if: “I felt that I was reading,” and so on. Nothing contrary to fact there.

As they say on the Internets, Hope this helps.

Lightning Rose said...

Hi, I'm pleased to see you're still answering questions.

I have a question that I think is slightly different due to word placement in the sentence.

Which is correct, or at least preferred?

I'm not nearly as dangerous as I wish I were.

or I wish I was.

Thanks in advance. BTW, that's a paraphrase of something I heard Arlo Guthrie say at a concert several years ago.

Michael Leddy said...

Well, it’s contrary to fact — he’s not that dangerous, so logic would dictate were. But was sounds more natural to me. Arlo could dodge the question: “I‘m not nearly as dangerous as I’d like to be.”

Anonymous said...

If I was a carpenter, I don't know if I'd care about such distinctions.

(Still a great post though)

Anonymous said...

Hi again,
Back to "If I were to go to the ball..." and the whole was/were statement-contrary-to-fact/uncertainty subjunctive debate. (I've been away from your blog for a while). Thanks for the reply, which was well-considered and thoughtful, and who doesn't love grammar?!

Nevertheless, it's actually far less confusing that it appears. Conditionality attaches to the use of the subjunctive here. I have an offer to go to the ball. I can only go if certain conditions are met. If they are met, I may go; if they are not met, I may not go or may not be able to go. Other conditions may also attach, but this condition of acquiring a new garment, at least, is specified. I'd like to go, but I have no dress. Perhaps I am hoping that my boyfriend will suggest buying me one, which will remove the obstacle preventing my attendance at said festive function.

[I did explain in my initial post that I have yet to decide:
"My boyfriend invited me to the ball. If I were to go to the ball, I would need a new dress." (I am still considering the possibility of going, though it is by no means certain; the element of uncertainty is implied by use of the word "were". However, use of the word "were" does not automatically mean that I will not be attending the event, merely that the result is not certain)].

The subjunctive here illuminates the utter lack of certainty to either end.

Yes, one could say "If I am to go to the ball, I will need a new dress", but this suggests greater certainty than I currently confidently possess, and could be interpreted thus: We are going to the ball. I need a dress. Therefore, we will go shopping this afternoon, acquire the necessary clothing and dance the night away at the ball.

It's a shame to have such a finely nuanced way of expressing a situation and finding it necessary to impoverish ourselves linguistically by circumventing the more subtle use of the language by taking "the easy route".

Thanks again for getting grammar out there :)

Michael Leddy said...

Suddenly I feel like I need a new wardrobe. :)

I think that the new dress can just as easily be seen as something that follows from the decision to go (instead of a condition that must be met). But again, I’d rather avoid the subjunctive and say “If I decide . . . , I will need . . . ,” something like that. I still go back to the ambiguity of Bryan Garner’s sample sentence: “If I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project.” Is the speaker debating, or has she or he already decided not to go? Because people understand the past subjunctive in different ways, both interpretations are plausible. So again, I’d dodge the subjunctive.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I take your point about clarity, so where a situation requires that there be no doubt whatsoever, perhaps it's best just to spell it out. A lack of understanding of the subjunctive might stem also from lack of further context, familiarity with the speaker and a whole host of other factors, and in the absence of these, simplest can often be best.

Something that occurs when I look at the sample statement is that it contains a negative in the second part:

'the ambiguity of Bryan Garner’s sample sentence: “If I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project.”'

The sample sentence, with its negative, does seem to imply a greater likelihood that the person will not go. The speaker doesn't seem to be so much debating as justifying.

It might be less ambiguous (or at least allow more flexibility for the speaker's plans) if the second part did not contain this negative - something along these lines, perhaps:
"If I were to go, I would have to work a bit harder and finish the project earlier" (or " extra hard tomorrow to finish it after enjoying the evening" or whatever event is being suggested). Again, less debate and more justification, but here with the opposite intention. Still, you are not certain what the outcome will be, only that a discussion is ongoing with strong hints in a particular direction.
More context is helpful in such instances.

Anonymous said...

And a new wardrobe, were it suddenly to appear, would of course be welcome :)

Michael Leddy said...

The Garner sounds to me as if the speaker has already decided not to go and is explaining why. Yes, more context — and more clothes — would be helpful.

Monica Thomas said...

this helped me a lot thank you. But then reading the comments has opened up a whole new can of worms!!! Can you help me? Which one is correct

It's not who I am that matters. It's who they wish I was.
It's not who I am that matters. It's who they wish I were.

I feel that it should be 'were' because 'I' will never be what they wish for. Can you help?

Michael Leddy said...

I’d follow Garner and choose were with a wish. (Search for wish and you’ll see some similar cases in the comments.) I think the problem though is that neither sentence sounds natural. I’d rewrite: It’s not who I am that matters. It's who they want me to be. Or: What matters is not what I am but what they want me to be.

Monica Thomas said...

You are right. It does sound better. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

If I were you, I would pat myself on the back. :)

You're a grammar wizard!

Thanks a bunch for the clarification!

- Will

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Will.

Genius to Burn said...

Firstly thank you for writing such a clear concise explanation - and thank you for continuing to answer questions about it (almost 8 years since your original post)!

I just have a couple of questions I’m still puzzling over:

What about hypothetical future events: an “if” that might come true one day? “If google glass was a threat to our privacy...” or if it “were a threat...”

Or something which may or may not be true (it’s not total fantasy, but it’s not a sure thing either) “If it was just a joke he was playing, we’d all have laughed.” / “If it were just a joke he was playing, we’d all have laughed.”

Sorry, they’re rubbish examples but hopefully you can see what I’m trying to ask!

Michael Leddy said...

With future events: How about “If Google Glass proves a threat” or “If Google Glass turns out to be”? I don’t think was or were works there.

If something may or may not be true, was works, as in the “if I was rude” example.

As they say on the Internets, hope this helps. : )

Genius to Burn said...

Thanks so much! That helps a lot :-D

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome. : )

Matthew Grove said...

Glad to see this post and comments are still active . . .
I want to use a text, that my college age daughter sent to my wife, and have a T-shirt made.
The text read: If my pony were any more awesome he would be a unicorn ! !
I am confused in this example as to which is correct.
"If my pony were...", or
"If my pony was..."

I am leaning toward "were", but would be very embarrassed if the T-shirt contained a grammatical error.

Thank You

Michael Leddy said...

Were makes sense here. The pony isn’t any more awesome than it is, so were is right: contrary to fact.

I don’t mean to insult the pony though. : )

Matthew Grove said...

Thanks, Michael

Appreciate your insight and the quick response.