Grammar Gremlins: I Wish I Were . . .

The esteemed newsletter editor who’s been bugging me to write a grammar piece now and then cornered me at lunch the other day and even gave me a starting topic: Is it I wish I were or I wish I was, and what’s the grammar rule?

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I thought I knew the answer, but it’s been a very long time since I learned the technical stuff, so the first question really was what do I look up? I was fairly sure the term subjunctive was involved, but subjunctive what? Tense? Case? Voice? Plowing through the indexes of several of the grammar books on my reference shelf finally led me to the answer: subjunctive mood.

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gremlin-2About half of the books I checked didn’t even mention the subjunctive. The Meriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers (1991, p. 176) gives it one sentence (concise indeed!): “The subjunctive mood expresses condition contrary to fact (I wish that he were here).”

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By far the most common subjunctive usage in modern English is the one my friend asked about: thoughts beginning with if I . . . or I wish I . . .

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If I were Queen, I would make everyone comfortable (but, alas, I’m not, and can’t).

I wish I were half as good a writer as [insert your own favorite here].

If I were you, I wouldn’t adopt a baby gorilla.

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The Wordwatcher’s Guide to Good Writing & Grammar (1990, p. 136) addresses the subjunctive under the heading IF, explaining that not all “if” sentences call for the subjunctive. The subjunctive (were) “expresses a wish or a contrary to fact,” while the indicative mood (was) expresses “a simple condition relating to the past.” In other words (my examples):

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If Alice were at the meeting, she would have raised the question (but she wasn’t there, so go with the subjunctive).

If Alice were not at the meeting, the question would not have been raised (but she was there, and raised the question—again, contrary to fact, therefore subjunctive).

If Alice was at the meeting, I didn’t see her (she might well have been there, someone said she was, so go with the indicative for this one).

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There are other uses of the subjunctive mood that seem to be fading from modern English usage; if you’re gremlin-3interested, Theodore M. Bernstein goes into some detail in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (1965, pp. 430-432). He identifies the subjunctive as “the form associated with condition, command, wish, doubt, desire, possibility and the like,” and marked by a verb change, was to were being the most familiar. Standard phrases like Far be it from me . . ., The public be damned, Lest it be thought . . ., God forbid, and Come what may are also remnants of subjunctive mood.

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Remember that anything goes in dialog, depending on how you want your characters to be perceived: they might be highly educated and adhere to the rules even in everyday speech (few people do), or they might have little or no education. They might make an effort to speak standard English, or they might be happily colloquial in their speech. That part is up to you.

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Please note that Kay Hudson bit her tongue (or gripped her mouse) and refrained from making any political jokes in this article. It wasn’t easy. The word index has two acceptable plurals, indexes and indices. She looked it up so you won’t have to.

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