Friday, November 9, 2012

Fighting off the 'were'-wolves

It's a good day, with the sun shining again and, over at Lingua Franca, a post by Geoff Pullum addressing Philip Corbett’s unnecessary anxiety about the was vs. were choice in the New York Times's columns.

As Pullum notes, many of us waffle on the choice of was or were in the subjunctive, or irrealis, construction. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes Swift, Byron, Thackeray, Frost, and other worthies opting for was where a purist would use were. (Byron: "I wish H. was not so fat.") 

Like these august writers, and like many educated users of English, I go back and forth in actual usage. I learned early on that it was OK to be blasé about was vs. were, thanks to Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957). Back in the mid-20th century, a lot of language authorities thought the subjunctive were was dying, and the Evanses were among them: "Was has been used as a past subjunctive in literary English for more than three hundred years and is the preferred form today." 

It's unlikely the Evanses had statistical proof for that "preferred form" judgment, and I doubt that it's even true. But given the number of subjunctive wases they saw in educated writing, they were confident in saying there were only two constructions in which were was clearly preferred: "If I were you," more or less a fixed phrase, and the literary "were I in a desert." 

We haven't abandoned subjunctive were as quickly as the midcentury mavens predicted. But if it disappeared overnight, as Pullum points out, there would be no loss of clarity; for other English verbs, the irrealis form is already the same as the simple past, or preterite: "If he had the money, he'd buy a generator." Is there any example in print of a failure to use the irrealis were causing genuine ambiguity? I don't think I've ever seen even a made-up example.*

By contrast, the recent blending of may and might – saying “if he had a raft, he may have survived” when you know that he didn’t survive -- can cause actual misunderstanding. (Way back in 2002 and 2003, Language Hat was bemoaning the development: "One of the changes going on in English that distresses me the most ... is the obsolescence of the contrary-to-fact past 'might have.'") Yet the takeover by may continues, and few notice the ambiguity. 

Why, then, should the meaningless was/were distinction persist, where no ambiguity ensues? I guess it's just one of those quirks of peevology.

*The myth of the "misplaced" only, on the other hand, has inspired dozens of made-up examples of alleged ambiguity, of the "I ate only the almonds/I ate the only almonds" genre. Yet I''m still waiting for a reader to show me an edited, printed example of an ambiguously placed only.

11 comments:

Jonathon Owen said...

I keep an eye out for truly ambiguous cases of misplaced "only", but I haven't found any so far. The fact that editors can immediately identify where the "only" should go shows that it's not really ambiguous or confusing. We all know exactly what it means the first time; it's only a forced misreading that motivates the movement of "only".

Gregory Lee said...

I don't understand why any language change would have anything to do with ambiguity. Is the idea that languages change so as to avoid ambiguities? If so, is there any reason to believe that this is actually true?

Bryan M. White said...

@Gregory: I'm sure that language changes for a whole variety of organic reasons.

I think that the issue of ambiguity and clarity is raised to address the question of whether or not the change should be embraced.

empty said...

Somehow this is one of those areas where I am happily able to think of both options as correct instead of feeling that, whichever one I go with, someone is going to think I'm ignorant.

davidly said...

I couldn't care less, but continue to use were in third person anyway.

If he was here, I didn't see him.

If he were here, he'd appreciate your comment.

Gregory Lee said...

In Davidly's examples, I understand the was to be a factual past tense, but the were to be a counterfactual present tense:

If he was here, I didn't see him.

If he were here, he'd appreciate your comment.


We can test for the tense by adding right now to the if-clause, since this will be unacceptable in the past tense. When it is added to the first example, you get a bad sentence, showing that the was is a past tense form (no surprise there). But it can be added to the second example, showing that were is not a past tense form (and hence, for those of us who allow for only two tenses in English, it must be a present tense form). Expressing a past tense counterfactual requires a perfect form:

If he had been here, he'd have appreciated your comment.

davidly said...

@Gregory Lee
With the example sentences, my intention was to illustrate why I use were in first and third person subjunctives, which is not to avoid ambiguity, but as a preference to a fuller flavor of clarity.

Contextually, either use (was or were) is going to be clear in my second example, and "was" would highly unlikely be confused with the expression of a factual, albeit uncertain past.

But the flavor of the if clause in a counterfactual would be identical to that of the uncertain past if it were to employ "was" instead or "were".

"If he were here" signals the flavor earlier. I prefer the consistent taste of "were".

Obviously, I know what people mean when they say, "If I was you..." which people say that a lot more than this blog post might have you believe. Still...

Nixon: Were you me at the costume party?

Anonymous said...

"In the aftermath of his suicide, Relin’s family said through his literary agent only that he suffered from depression." -- Michael Daly, The Daily Beast, December 6, 2112.

Does the above qualify as an ambiguous "only"?

Anonymous said...

"In the aftermath of his suicide, Relin’s family said through his literary agent only that he suffered from depression." (Michael Daly, "The Death of Co-Author of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ Is Ruled Suicide," The Daily Beast)

The above "only" appears to me to be ambiguous.

I believe the author meant to say that the family made only one statement, that that statement was made through the agent, and that was that Relin had been depressed.

The other possible readings are that the family is making statements only through the agent, or that they knew Relin was depressed, but not suicidal.

Gregory Lee said...

Following James McCawley's analysis of contrastive "only", in some context called the scope, "only" contrasts some constituent called its focus with some alternative to the focus in that scope. The rule for determining possible focuses requires merely that "only" be attached to a following constituent which contains its focus, and since often there will be several potential focuses meeting this requirement, this is a source of ambiguity.

In the example "In the aftermath of his suicide, Relin’s family said through his literary agent only that he suffered from depression.", the two most obvious potential focuses are (1) "that he suffered from depression", and (2) the contained constituent "depression". (1) means that other more informative things might well have been said to explain his suicide. (2) means that there might well have been other things he suffered from, in addition to depression, that better explained what happened.

-MG said...
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