If I were Justin Bieber…

If I was your boyfriend, never let you go
Keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone
I can be a gentleman, anything you want
If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, I’d never let you go

Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

Truly stirring.

According to English grammarians, “If I was your boyfriend” should read “If I were your boyfriend.” Bieber is describing something that isn’t true — he isn’t the girl’s boyfriend — so he needs to use the subjunctive mood. Here is a lengthier description of the subjunctive. (Not all big pop stars get it wrong, though: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” follows the rule correctly.)

My problem with substituting “if I was” for “if I were” in songs is that it doesn’t cost anything to be grammatically correct — you end up with the same number of syllables and stresses. Why not follow the rule? Is there a social cost to using the subjunctive? Like, is it automatically less cool?

There’s some evidence to suggest that the use of “if I was” is on the rise. Here’s the Ngram data for “if I was” (blue) versus “if I were” (red):

When “if I was” occurs in the middle of a sentence, writers are almost as likely to use it versus “if I were.” But writers are less likely to use “if I was” if it occurs at the beginning of the sentence (second graph).

The problem with this data is that “if I was” is occasionally grammatically correct, as in “If I was rude to you yesterday, I’m sorry.”

So I tried narrowing the searches to eliminate correct instances of “if I was.”

First, I thought of “if I was you” (blue) versus “if I were you” (red). But saying “if I were you” is pretty much idiomatic at this point. The data confirm that suspicion.

Here is “I wish I was” (blue) versus “I wish I were” (red). They’re nearly convergent now. I thought that “I wish I were” was idiomatic, just like “if I were you,” but apparently that’s not the case.

But maybe the subjunctive “was” isn’t really entirely encroaching on the territory of “were.” I compared the phrase “if I was your” to “if I were your,” thinking that a grammatically correct instance of “if I was your” was unlikely to occur. The difference is greater:

Separating the correct instances of “if I was” from incorrect instances is a challenge. Does anyone have other/better ideas on how to eliminate grammatically correct instances of “if I was” to compare it to “if I were”?

On a similar note, does anyone know of any studies that look at the loss of the subjunctive in English?

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