The Past Subjunctive and Standard Written English

The Past Subjunctive and Standard Written English
 

“If I was rich girl (na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na nah) . . .”
—Gwen Stefani, “Rich Girl” (2004)

“If I was your boyfriend, I'd never let you go . . .”
—Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend” (2012)

“I know murder, conviction
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption,
Scholars, fathers dead with kids,
And I wish I was fed forgiveness . . .”

—Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.” (2017)

“If I were a boy
I think I could understand . . .”

—Beyoncé (2008)

 

It’s common knowledge that people today just do not read as much literature as they used to. The potential rewards of reading a Victorian novel or a Shakespearean tragedy don’t stand a chance against the instant gratification of Netflix and Hulu, of Snapchat and Instagram, of video games and YouTube.

And yet most of us do read, perhaps more than ever before. And we are all authors. It’s just that most of us don’t read and write “literature.”

We read text messages. We read Tweets, Facebook statuses, and Instagram captions. We write these things, too. And these forms of reading and writing are, perhaps without our full awareness, having a profound effect on the English language—one that we won’t be able to fully gauge for years to come.

But this steady stream of words read and written exists in the shadow of an old, musty measuring stick called Standard Written English. It’s mostly unheard of during regular hours, as we pepper the world freely with slang, abbreviations, and emoji. Because we don’t live our day-to-day lives within the parameters of Standard Written English, it presents problems when we’re judged according to its standards—by standardized tests, high school teachers, university professors, and the otherwise well-read.

 

 

Because we don’t live our day-to-day lives within the parameters of Standard Written English, it presents problems when we’re judged according to its standards . 

 

 

In addition to all the words flashing before our eyes—on cell phones, laptops, and billboards—we’re immersed in the words of popular music, today more available than ever thanks to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Like text messages, pop songs aren’t usually grammatical, at least according to the strict parameters of Standard Written English.

This isn’t to say they’re “wrong”—language changes and evolves with time, and popular music is as good a record as any of how the English language lives and breathes today. It is to say, though, that the words we take in every day do not typically follow the capital-R “Rules” that still largely dictate academic standards.

Take the pop songs I quoted above. All four examples use what is called the “past subjunctive mood.” You can spot it with words and phrases like “if,” “wish,” “suppose,” and “as though,” words and phrases often used to describe situations that are counterfactual, or contrary to fact.

When Gwen Stefani sings “If I was a rich girl,” she’s imagining how life would be if she were rich. (Gwen Stefani is, of course, rich, but she’s singing from the perspective she had before achieving fame.)

When Justin Bieber sings “If I was your boyfriend,” he’s explaining how he would behave if he were, but, of course, he (probably) is not.

When Kendrick Lamar sings “I wish I was fed forgiveness,” he is wishing for a life he didn’t have.

And when Beyoncé sings “If I were a boy,” she’s imagining an alternative reality.

She’s also the only one among the four who uses the past subjunctive according to the rules of Standard Written English.

The past subjunctive is a grammatical mood in English used to describe situations that are contrary to fact; Beyoncé is not a boy and Justin Bieber is not your boyfriend (probably).

The past subjunctive uses the past tense verb “were” no matter what the subject is: “If I were,” “Suppose they were,” “If she were,” “I wish he were,” etc. If you are using a word like “if” or “wish” to describe a situation that is not actual, then Standard Written English dictates that you use the verb “were.”

 

 

The past subjunctive is a grammatical mood in English used to describe situations that are contrary to fact; Beyoncé is not a boy and Justin Bieber is not your boyfriend (probably).

 

 

If the situation is not contrary to fact, then you would use whichever verb matches the subject. For example, if you said something potentially offensive to a friend, you might say, “I’m sorry if I was rude earlier today.” Here, you would use “was” because it is possible that you were actually rude (i.e. this statement is not necessarily contrary to fact).

(There is also a mood called the “present subjunctive,” but that’s a subject best covered in another blog post.)

If “If I were” sounds strange to you, you’re not alone. But if you want to slay the albatross known as Standard Written English, you’d be wise to master its sometimes arcane rules and to locate them at work in the text messages, statuses, captions, and lyrics that populate your everyday life.


LA_Stephen_P_2017_1.JPG

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.

Posted on November 7, 2017 and filed under Grammar, SAT, ACT.