Monday, March 19, 2007

If Murdock was right...

Listen to this article

Back in February, Deroy Murdock wrote an article in which he quotes and then incorrects John Kerry.
"If I was president, this wouldn't have happened," John Kerry said during Hezbollah's war on Israel last summer. As 2004's Democratic presidential nominee should know, he should have said, "If I were president ..."
I wrote to ask Murdock what he bases his claim on, but I'm shocked to say, didn't hear back from him. So, I'll explain here why I think Kerry is right both grammatically and politically.

Murdock asks, "is it pedantic to expect linguistic excellence?" "No!" he says, and I agree, no. It does, however, seem pedantic to insist that were in counterfactuals is the excellent option.

We have been using was here for over 400 years, among the earliest-known instances being in the writings of Christopher Marlowe. It was common by the end of the 17th century and was thought acceptable enough to be employed by Defoe, Swift, and Addison and many other great writers.

A search of the British National Corpus (sorry, the American National Corpus isn't completed yet) shows if I was to be about 35% more frequent than if I were, though I have no automatic way of identifying which are actually counterfactuals. Still, it seems safe to say that counterfactual was is common both in speech and in edited prose.

Even prescriptivist usage guides support it. H.W. Fowler wrote, "Subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, inflecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial."

In fact, Kerry may have carefully chosen was over were. Where the present tense is the natural choice for clauses we view as facts, the past tense, when it is not indicating past time, often presents hypotheticals. Indeed, since be is the only modern English verb with a distinct irrealis form, most verbs actually rely on the past tense to indicate that the predicate does not currently obtain. But be, with its multiple possible forms, presents us with options. These options may simply be the choice between a formal were and a more colloquial was. But it may be more insidious than that. Formality is distancing, and such distance may create a perception not only that Kerry isn't president, but that he has no hope in hell of ever actually taking office. Possibly true, but not a proposition Kerry would be keen to voice.

1 comment:

Nancy Ruth said...

I found this interesting because I automatically would use "were" and wonder why. I'm not being pedantic -- it just sounds right.