If I were / if I was

I was hit by a sudden pang of fear today as I wondered whether I should have been posing the question “If I was elected to office” instead of “If I were elected to office”. A check of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that “were” is the past tense plural of the verb “to be”, which would indicate that the correct usage for the singular case would be “If I was elected …

“Further checking (thanks to my mother-in-law’s 1952 copy of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage”) shows that “were” also acts as the singular utopian subjunctive – which expresses a non-time-specific desire for something in the realm of non-fact or the imaginary – which is exactly what I want to communicate when posing the question “If I were elected to office …”. Phew. I can relax again.

Singular utopian subjunctives … who would have thought that political engagement could be so educational?

Update: Henry Watson Fowler was obviously a repressed blogger living in the pre-internet era. In the middle of his discussion on subjunctives he bemoans the fact that many uses of the subjunctive are

“antiquated survivals in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness”

I’m sorry Henry, despite your best efforts, pretentious journalism still abounds.

[This content was originally posted to Google Buzz, #53]

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