Grammatical Relationship Counseling Needed

When you find yourself fighting the same battle over and over again, and it’s about something of no real importance, and you’re battling someone you really shouldn’t be at war with, and you never win, you just reactivate the painful scars of previous fighting and set up for the next pointless round, it’s time to get counseling. You need to break the cycle.

Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards over at The New York Times, is locked into an iterative dispute with the writers for the paper. Not about some important domestic matter, like who keeps forgetting to leave the toilet seat down, but about a tiny matter of optional inflection. Required as he is to enforce the edicts of the paper’s style manual, he feels he has to struggle to stop writers using a very familiar stylistic option.

This relationship needs help. Let me try to offer a little therapy.

Corbett is quarreling with the Times staff (here and here in the two most recent cases) over sentences of a sort that he often seems to find in the sports section, with its deliberately informal style:

The Yankees would have an easier time scoring if Cano was more like his usual self.
If there was no lockout, Kreider would have been playing in Los Angeles on Friday when the Kings raised their Stanley Cup banner.

The alleged offense is failing to use were instead of was in counterfactual conditionals or complements of verbs of wishing. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls the were version the irrealis form; Corbett calls it the subjunctive.

Here are the facts. For concreteness, I’ll assume you know exactly 5,000 verbs (it’s a plausible estimate). With exactly 4,999 of those verbs, the correct form to use in counterfactual conditional clauses and complements of verbs of wishing is the preterite (often known as the past tense form). For example:

If I committed a crime, would you still love me?
I wish she came to see us more often.

The 5,000th verb is the one whose plain form is be. In the first-person and third-person singular, there are two alternatives: either the preterite form was or the special irrealis form were.

If I was / were a criminal, would you still love me?
I wish she was / were able to come and see us more often.

The was option is common in normal style, e.g. in conversation; choosing were is more formal, and might be preferred in serious writing.

Not all English speakers show this variation. Many, perhaps most, virtually always use the form found in ordinary past-tense conditionals (e.g., If John was on the flight, he’ll be in the baggage claim area by now): they use the preterite with be just as with their other four or five thousand verbs.

It’s educated professionals, like me and Philip Corbett and probably you, who tend to vary their choices according to style. And even for us, usage is not fixed: hardly anybody uses the were variant in all the relevant contexts, whether in conversation or writing (though in a few phrases like if I were you, the were form seems especially well established).

It’s important that no issues of misunderstanding or ambiguity arise here. If the meanings of counterfactual conditional clauses and simple past tense conditional clauses were easy to confuse in context, the behavior of 99.98 percent of the verbs in the language (the ones that don’t have a special irrealis form and always use the preterite) would cause a cataclysm of misunderstanding. But no such cataclysm occurs.

People are quite right to choose normal style for be when trying not to sound inappropriately pompous. It is not an error to make that choice. Nagging at them only encourages the kind of anxiety that leads to hypercorrection. (Corbett cites a couple of examples of this, where people have written genuinely ungrammatical sentences by mistakenly using were in noncounterfactual contexts.) Yet the complaints about this supposed “error” go on.

Corbett is demanding that everyone writing for the Times should use were in all the cases where formal style permits it. There are vanishingly few people who naturally comply with this stringent directive, which is why he has to keep returning to this trivial topic.

Chill, Phil! The Times will not be demeaned or degraded by allowing normal rather than formal style here and there. It already allows contracted negative auxiliaries, even in editorials. I like correct grammar too, and I’d be on your side if this was an issue of correctness. But it isn’t. And it’s not like requiring everyone to drive on the right, which is a vital safety convention. It’s like demanding that everyone should position their bumper stickers on the right hand end of the bumper, which would be just a needless intrusion on freedom of personal style.

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