Monday, March 28, 2011

Quick Answer to a Quick Question

Anon in the comments asks,

Where do you come down on the whole "as though..." was/were thing? As though she were the adult here, as though she was the adult. If I were sick, if I was sick. I see was a lot in books--is that acceptable?

This is a species of the conditional, and it creates a lot of confusion because colloquial English and standard English have two different rules. So this gives us a good opportunity to discuss the difference between the two different grammar standards, and how fiction writers should handle them.

First, the standard rule can be a little complicated, but your example is the conditional expressed in the subjunctive. So, the ordinary way of structuring a conditional sentence is in two parts:

If condition, then result.

"If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you some art (a Picasso or a Garfunkel)."

That line is from the Barenaked Ladies hit from a few years back, "If I Had a Million Dollars,"  a/k/a Exhibit A in the long list of evidence proving that the conditional is alive and well in the English language. Bet you can all think of other examples, once you think about it. Look for the word "if" -- If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning.

If the asserted condition in the first part of the sentence is contrary to fact, then we have to play some games with the verb tenses to signal the untruthful or hypothetical nature of the statement. Compare:

If I had enough cash, I would buy dinner.
If I have enough cash, I am buying (or will buy) dinner.

You know almost intuitively that in the second statement, the speaker might actually pick up the tab, but in the first, it's just not going to happen. Right? And the clues are in the verb tenses. If the main clause (the result) includes would/could/will/might or similar tentative conjugations, and if the dependent clause (the condition) is stepped back in time from the present moment of the sentence, then we know we're dealing with something contrary to fact.

There are some little hitches in the rule. For example, if the verb in the condition is "to be," the past conjugation is always "were" regardless of person or number.
If I were a millionaire
If we were millionaires
If she were a millionare
And so on, in every permutation of the verb in this tense.

English speakers tend to ignore this in colloquial speech, unless they're educated people or writers or other disreputable types. *cough*  So in common everyday usage, it wouldn't be startling to hear someone say,
If I was a millionaire, I would buy dinner.
And everyone at the table would know who's not picking up the tab, right?

So what's a fiction writer to do? It's kind of a case-by-case matter. If you're writing the interior monologue or dialogue of a person likely to use the colloquial expression, then it's safe to use the colloquial variant there. If your protagonist is a lawyer or English teacher, or if your prose style tends away from the colloquial for other reasons, probably not so much.

And this could be said of many common colloquialisms, such as "probably not so much" in the previous sentence. That's not correct formal English, but it's acceptable colloquial English. Fictive grammar is always something of a blend of grammar rules, part formal grammar, part wild English. How you blend them is part of your voice, but that doesn't mean you get to do it blindly. Do it deliberately, with grace and control and clarity, to achieve an effect.

Does that answer your question? It's not cut and dried, I know, so if you have questions, please do ask.



Jenny Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenny Brown said...

The copyeditor on my second Avon novel, Star Crossed Seduction, changed every single instance where I'd used the conditional correctly. Every "were" was turned into a "was." Very annoying, but by the end I started doubting myself and probably let some of the changes go through that I shouldn't have.

Satima Flavell said...

I sympathise, Jenny. I would stet the lot, and the editor, if she be worth her salt (another example of the subjunctive as used in the conditional) would let them stand:-)

Coleen K said...

In my research I've come across the rule stating that when verbs show something contrary to fact, they should be in subjunctive mood.

If she were sensible, she'd... (Means she's not sensible)

If she was sensible, she'd...
(Means she could or could not be sensible)

Don't know if that helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! First of all, you're just so darn brilliant on these things, and second, this was enormously helpful.

Edittorrent said...

Avon's copy editors are usually very skilled and careful. I've run into people claiming to be copy editors who didn't know how to evaluate this aspect of the prose, but I wouldn't expect any of them to find employment at Avon.

My guess is that she was concerned about tone, and thought the application of the colloquial form there softened it up.


Sonia M said...

Great info! I struggle with some of these grammar issues. I love the part about "wild English." My writing tends to be little more wild, I think. I get a little uptight when I'm writing fantasy set in a midieval inspired time period. It's always better to know the rules before breaking them though. Thanks!