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 Post subject: Was and Were in Popular Culture
PostPosted: Sun Sep 14, 2008 2:26 pm 
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Joined: Mon Jul 10, 2006 6:57 am
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Location: Sydney, Australia
On Nutters.org, I have a short article on the use of "was" and "were" in the English language. This is one of those areas where we may as well give up and stop protesting the errors. Why? Because popular culture killed the language a long time ago. Here I post some samples of popular culture's crimes against the English language, as relates to "was" and "were".

Before we get started, a reminder as to the difference between "was" and "were": "was" is exclusively used for the past tense, as in "used to be" (or similar), whereas "were" can be used to express a present hypothetical.

So let's start with one that gets it right -- in the title, even. "If I were a rich man." Lovely. It's a hypothetical situation, correctly phrased in the subjunctive mood.

"I could safely walk if I was in L.A." Quoted from "California Dreamin'", and I suppose it's too much to ask of a title that drops a "g" to get its grammar right. Does the singer really mean to say, "I could safely walk if I used to be in L.A.?" I think not. I'm not too keen on the placement of the adverb "safely", either, but let's not go overboard. This "was" should have been a "were".

"What if God was one of us?" Quoted from "One of Us", and it's pretty clear that the singer means to ask this hypothetically, although as written it asks, "what if God used to be one of us?" This should have been, "what if God were one of us?"

"Wouldn't it be good to be in your shoes, even if it was for just one day." Quoted from "Wouldn't It Be Good", and cited here as a serious case of "you fail grammar". This sentence mixes the subjunctive and indicative moods. It should either have been "it was good to be in your shoes, even if it was for just one day", or "wouldn't it be good to be in your shoes even if it were for just one day." Clearly Mr Kershaw meant the latter of these, and his "was" should have been a "were". All is forgiven, however, because "The Riddle" was such a wonderfully surreal song.

Along similar lines, I'd give some credit to the Beach Boys for "wouldn't it be nice if we were older" (from "Wouldn't It Be Nice") if it weren't for the fact that the subjunctive and indicative moods both use "were" in the first person plural. I am at least grateful that they didn't use "was" in this context -- a form of grammatical degeneracy reserved for mobsters.

That will do me for now. Please feel free to post your own examples below, or ask related questions.

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The Famous Brett Watson -- brett.watson@gmail.com


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