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Was or were, right or wrong, not to worry, just read on

06 Mar

On a day not really all that far back in time—22 June, 2009—I submitted a letter to our local daily newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, the only daily newspaper in the seventh largest city in the United States in the hope that it would be published. An offer was made to publish it but the editor e-mailed me to say that certain parts would be cut out. In an e-mail I told him to not publish the letter, and I chastised him for his response to a long-time subscriber to the paper. What follows is the initial response from the public editor.

From: BRichter@express-news.net (the public editor of the paper)
Mon, Jun 22, 2009 1:34 PM
H.M. – Thanks for your letter. May we publish it? I think I’ll cut all the whining about your letters not getting published when they strike a nerve. We’ll just go with the criticism of the photo in question (which I didn’t really think was so bad).
Bob Richter

I rejected publication because the public editor slimed me—well, perhaps slimed is a bit too strong—let’s just say that he whined me and because of that whining, the same label he placed on my submission, I vowed to never submit another letter to the public editor for consideration, but instead post my whining on WordPress, a far more appreciative audience than the Express-News. I have never had a submission rejected or criticized.

Now to get to the crux of this posting—everything I’ve said up to this point was intended to explain my criticism of the public editor’s grammar in his article that appeared in Metro of the Sunday edition of March 6, 2011.

Yes, grammar—with all that supposed talent he has at his beck and call, he started and finished an article he wrote by improperly using the verb was. The article centered on budget cuts proposed by Rick Perry, the governor of Texas that involved disabled Texans, and much to his credit he began the article with disclosing that his son has disabilities and lives in a group home that receives state aid.

I can readily understand and admire the title of his article:

Budget Cuts: What if it was your kid?

The final paragraph is a one-sentence closure with a wish from him and a question for Governor Perry:
What I wish is that Perry would put himself in our shoes:

What if it was your kid, Rick?

The verb was is the subjunctive mood of the verb to be, a mood suggesting that something is not or perhaps may not be. The subjunctive mood gets really complicated if one digs too deeply, but one does not need to dig deeply, or even pick up a shovel in order to determine whether was or were should  be used.

There is an incredibly simple way to remember whether to use was or were. If the word if is lurking anywhere in the sentence, whether visible or concealed, the proper usage is were, and if if can neither be seen nor assumed, the proper usage is was. Please forgive me for the double if in the previous sentence—I just couldn’t resist it—when read aloud it sounds like a puppy barking.

The article’s title should read, What if it were your kid?

The ending should read, What if it were your kid, Rick?

Some more examples of the subjunctive verb were:

What if the copywriters were better versed in English?
What if the current public editor were reassigned?
Were he reassigned
, would it lower the paper’s ratings or raise them?
Was
he reassigned?
No, he was not reassigned.
Note the absence of if in
the last two sentences above.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Postscript: In all fairness I must state that, in my somewhat unlearned opinion, the public editor’s article was highly cogent, nicely constructed, timely and well presented, with the only exceptions noted in this posting.

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2 Comments

Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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2 responses to “Was or were, right or wrong, not to worry, just read on

  1. helpforyourenglish

    March 6, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    Who wrote the “rules’ of grammar? Grammarians. How did they decide what to write in their grammar” books? By observing what people said and wrote – usage. Then they came to their own ‘theories’ of what English grammar is (or might be) based on those observations and usage. Grammarians did not invent English. As such, grammar is descriptive and should not be prescriptive. From my experience, using was in your example rather than were is much more common. Trying to prescribe that people should use the subjunctive mood’ in that situation makes it sound like the English language is stuck in some Latin time warp. It’s not really worth getting worked up about.

    Regards

     
    • thekingoftexas

      March 7, 2011 at 8:17 am

      Thanks for the visit, and thanks for the comment. In far too many instances, comments by viewers are content with saying Nice blog, or I agree or Your blog sucks, etc., but your comment is well written, to the point and welcomed. My first reaction was to respond at some length, but I realized that the subject is worthy of a separate posting on my blog. Stay tuned if you like—with my lack of typing skill it will take some time to create and publish.

      Regards,
      Mike

       

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