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  • Sandeep Prasanna 9:00 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammar, if i was, if i were, mood, , pop music, , subjunctive   

    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?

    • johnwcowan 11:51 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I think it’s hopeless to tease apart irrealis was from ordinary past-tense conditional was on the basis of string searches alone; you need too much real-world knowledge. For every If I were/was President, I’d balance the budget there is an If I was President, it was because the people voted for me as said by a former President.

      In any case, I don’t think you can call irrealis was ungrammatical any more. The language has moved on; objections to irrealis was are mere prescriptivist heel-digging.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:15 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        I sort of suspected that it wouldn’t be possible to fully parse out was/were, which is why I tried to get as close as possible. But I agree with you that we really shouldn’t care about the rise of the subjunctive “was” — but the prescriptivist tendencies latent somewhere in me still cry out.

      • stuartnz 3:33 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        I agree totally and, thanks for introducing me to “irrealis”. I think it quite possible that “were” will survive as a “museum piece”, perhaps particularly in lyrics and poetry. A fate similar to that which seems to be happening to “whom”, as discussed by Stan Carey at sentence first recently.

        • markonsea 9:06 pm on April 11, 2012 Permalink

          You think the particular loss of the subjunctive you complain about is bad? What about its loss – almost total here in the UK – in what I shall call an agendum clause? Standard usage here is eg “She insisted all her guests left before midnight”, which I’m willing to bet any North American reader would misunderstand as speaking about events in the speaker’s past rather than laying down a rule. Similarly, “The bank demands that all debts are paid.” Begins to sound Pythonesque, doesn’t it? (But you can’t halt Language Change …)

        • johnwcowan 3:31 pm on April 12, 2012 Permalink

          Markonsea, the nearly-complete loss of the mandative or jussive subjunctive in the U.K. is pretty well known. However, if there is a genuine ambiguity, as in this case, it can be solved transatlantically with “She insisted all her guests should leave before midnight”, which works for everybody. In North America, the mandative subjunctive forms are still current and well understood (for me, automatic); I don’t know what the story is in the other anglophone countries.

    • Lauren 6:13 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      The subjunctive has been losing ground in English for a while now. As another datapoint see “If I were a rich man” from the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof and then Gwen Stefani’s 2004 cover “If I was a rich girl.” In Australian English at least the subjunctive construction these days sounds slightly forced and archaic to most speakers.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:48 am on April 11, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Right — I had forgotten about the difference between Gwen Stefani’s “cover” (to use the term loosely) of the Fiddler song. I wonder why the word was changed. Perhaps it was for a reason similar to what you note — that “were” just sounds too archaic to use in a radio-ready song.

    • Hannah 11:37 am on April 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Here is a small piece on the subjunctive mood from the New Oxford English Dictionary. It displays well why the subjunctive is vanishing. I agree with you that it ought to be retained for its own sake.
      “… if I were you; the report recommends that he face the tribunal; it is important that they be aware of the provisions of the act. These examples all contain a verb in the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is used to express situations that are hypothetical or not yet realized and is typically used for what is imagined, hoped for, demanded, or expected. In English, the subjunctive mood is fairly uncommon (especially in comparison with other languages, such as Spanish), mainly because most of the functions of the subjunctive are covered by modal verbs such as might, could, and should. In fact, in English, the subjunctive is often indistinguishable from the ordinary indicative mood since its form in most contexts is identical. It is distinctive only in the third person singular, where the normal indicative -s ending is absent ( he face rather than he faces in the example above), and in the verb ‘to be’ ( I were rather than I was , and they be rather than they are in the examples above). In modern English, the subjunctive mood still exists but is regarded in many contexts as optional. Use of the subjunctive tends to convey a more formal tone, but there are few people who would regard its absence as actually wrong. Today, it survives mostly in fixed expressions, as in be that as it may; far be it from me; as it were ; lest we forget ; God help you; perish the thought; and come what may.”

    • llanarth 9:01 am on December 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      One problem with this research; you don’t distinguish between written and colloquial English. So while this is beautifully researched for written word, what about colloquial English? Personally, I haven’t got a problem with ‘if I was your….’ not that I particularly like Bieber’s songs. This is an interesting discussion, For another perspective look on Crystal’s blog http://david-crystal.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/on-if-and-waswere.html

  • John Stokes 9:15 pm on January 8, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: E.B. White, , grammar, , quote, , taxes, White   

    Advice from E.B. White (especially good for aspiring lawyers…) 

    “Some day I mean to have a fireside chat with my government, that we may come to know each other a little better, for it is by a better understanding of the other’s traits that a government and its citizens must fulfill their mutual destinies. In my chat I want particularly to take up the first sentence under Section G of Form 1040, which is called ‘Items exempt from tax’ and which starts this way:

     ‘The following items are partially exempt from tax: (a) Amounts received (other than amounts paid by reason of the death of the insured and interest payments on such amounts and other than amounts received as annuities) under a life insurance or endowment contract, but if such amounts (when added to amounts received before the taxable year under such contract) exceed the aggregate premiums or consideration paid (whether or not paid during the taxable year) then the excess shall be included in gross income. . . .’

    I want to ask my government what it thinks would become of me and my family if I were to write like that. Three sets of parentheses in one sentence! I’d be on relief inside of a month.

    That sentence, above, was obviously written by a lawyer in one of his flights of rhetorical secrecy. There isn’t any thought or idea that can’t be expressed in a fairly simple declarative sentence, or in a series of fairly simple declarative sentences. The contents of Section G of Form 1040, I am perfectly sure, could be stated so that the average person could grasp it without suffering dizzy spells. I could state it plainly myself if I could get some lawyer to disentangle it for me first. I’ll make my government a proposition: for a five-dollar bill (and costs), I will state it plainly.”

    -E.B. White. “Fro-Joy.” One Man’s Meat.

  • The Diacritics 5:49 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AAVE, colloquial, descriptive linguistics, ebonics, , grammar, , , where you at   

    Where you at, man? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I have a sordid confession, grammar nerds. I use the phrase “Where you at?” on a regular basis.

    That Boost Mobile commercial just got to me. And then Jennifer Hudson came out with a song called “Where you at?” and I just couldn’t resist anymore. “Where you at?” is a phrase associated with African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but plenty of my non-African American friends use it. And then there’s me, too.

    So what’s with this phrase? From a prescriptive standpoint, there are just so many grammatical issues.

    First, there’s no verb (called a copula in this instance, since we need a form of the verb “be”). But let’s give speakers a little break. Maybe the “are” just got swallowed up in the “where.” When many speakers casually say the two words “where are,” the “are” usually gets contracted into the “where,” resulting in “where’re.” That’s a pretty hard word to pronounce, so it may get reduced to a simple “where” when we’re speaking. Also, in AAVE, the copula is generally omitted altogether, anyway.

    So, okay, there’s no verb — fine. We’ll allow it.

    But what about that pesky “at” at the end? The word “where” literally means “at what place,” so saying “Where you at?” effectively results in “At what place (are) you at?” Repetition is usually no good. There shouldn’t be two instances of “at” when they are used for the same purpose.

    There’s also a prescriptive argument that a preposition like “at” shouldn’t be used at the end of a sentence. I generally avoid subscribing to that view, especially when it creates awkward sentences. There might be a case for that argument here, though: If we place the “at” somewhere else in the sentence, we see that it doesn’t really belong in this sentence. “At where (are) you?”

    But maybe that “at” serves another purpose. I find “Where you at?” to be a more useful phrase than the standard “Where are you?” because it requests something deeper than a simple GPS location. I want to know where you are, what you’re doing, whom you’re with, and whether it’s fun. Can I come to where you’re at? Can I bring friends? Maybe the simple word “at” holds much more meaning than we give it credit for.

    I also like the phrase because it’s more casual and less creepy than an out-of-the-blue “Where are you?” — it has all the functionality of the “proper” phrase and none of the stalker undertones. Maybe that reason alone is enough to welcome the sentence into my regular speech.

    In addition, the social implications of the phrase — cool, hip, urban — probably play into my and others’ decision to use the phrase. You don’t want to be lame and use “Where are you?” when a more proper “Where you at?” would do the job in certain contexts.

    Sure, I probably won’t use it when I’m speaking to my elders or in a professional context, but I like using it with my friends and peers.

    And after all, for descriptive linguists, utility and popular usage is where it’s at.

    • johnwcowan 8:39 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Quoth the OED2 under at sense 1d:

      Used superfluously after where. U.S. and Brit. dial. (see E[nglish] D[ialect] D[ictionary]).

      1859 J. R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (ed. 2) , At is often used superfluously in the South and West, as in the question ‘Where is he at?’

      1899 A. Nicholas Idyl of Wabash 34 Where does he live at?

      1903 N.Y. Sun 8 Nov. 6 The business world wants rest. It wants to know where it is at.

      1911 E. Ferber Dawn O’Hara xx. 294 This is where I get off at.

      1914 G. Atherton Perch of Devil i. 8 She‥disliked‥not knowing where she was at.

      So we see that Where are you at? and similar expressions have been in use for at least a century and a half in American English and probably much longer in England.

    • Lane 4:52 pm on September 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Don’t forget that it means “how are you?” in New Orleans, among the whites who, as a result, are called “yats”.

      Short story: In college, I worked in our Junior Year Abroad office, and we put up a map with pictures of where all our JYA students were studying. We thought it a fun idea to put up a banner above it reading “It’s not where you’re going – it’s where you’re at”, in a nod to the local slang. (This was Tulane.) One sleepy summer day when nothing was happening in the office, a gray-haired woman stormed in and denounced the sign in what felt like a three minute monologue: “People pay a lot of money to send their children to this university to learn how to use the language, and then here – a university office, no less! – you are ending a sentence with a preposition! I realize you probably consider it tongue-in-cheek, but I consider it inappropriate.” She finished by giving her name, her title (“professor emerita> of French”), turned on a heel, and stormed out. I hadn’t said a word the entire time.

      For those who think there aren’t still neanderthal prescriptivists out there. This was a language professor!

    • John Cowan 11:34 pm on September 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      My experience (limited, but not zero) with professors of Romance languages is that that’s their customary attitude.

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