Monday, February 2, 2009

If I Were You...

Recently, someone asked about the difference between, “If I were you…” and “If I was you…” In short, you use “were” to indicate the past subjunctive of “to be”. I doubt that that answer clears up the question, however, so let’s consider the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive mood arises in sub-conjunction use of a verb, that is, when you use a verb after a conjunction as part of a dependent clause. As with so many English grammar rules, you can find exceptions to prove this one but it holds true for almost every example. If that doesn’t confuse you enough, consider that the labels “past” and “present” subjunctive refer to the form of the verb used rather than its meaning.

Thus, “If I were you, I’d let it go” uses the past subjunctive as a part of the dependent clause at the beginning of the sentence. In this case, the phrase points out something that the speaker or writer knows to be not the case. You could imagine the sentence prefaced with, “I know that we are two different people,” or even, “I know it’s none of my business.” You can express all of that in the simple phrase, using the past subjunctive.

As to the original question, many people either don’t know about or choose to ignore the subjunctive mood. It has become very common for people to use the perhaps-less-formal-sounding “if I was you” form. Grammatically, that form remains incorrect. Colloquially, however, it has gained widespread acceptance. If I were the person who asked the question, I’d keep using the past subjunctive.

I think it's high time I did a post or two on verb mood and voice. In the meantime, for an brief but informative review of verb mood and voice, including the subjunctive mood, try the Purdue English Lab.