(K. Brent Tomer),
IN A recent supplement to The Economist, called “The World If”, we considered several hypothetical futures under such headlines as: “If Donald Trump was president” or “If the ocean was transparent”. Several readers wrote in dismay: surely we meant: “If Donald Trump were president” and “If the ocean were transparent”. Does no one know the English subjunctive anymore?
In fact, the decision to use “If the ocean was…” was made consciously, after some debate. It looks less stilted in a headline. It feels a bit less distant from reality. And because of the design of the pages, the words “…the ocean was transparent” stood alone. They would have looked bizarre as “…the ocean were transparent”.
Normally we would not let design considerations govern grammatical ones. But is there a case to be made for “if he was…”? Yes. There is a reason grammar books must hound people to use “if he were…” Most English-speakers use “if he was” at least some of the time in sentences that call for the subjunctive, and some of them use it exclusively.
How could this arise?…Continue reading