Singers and songwriters never need to worry about grammar. In fact, they actually benefit from flouting grammar rules. It simply wouldnĂ˘ÂÂt be the same if the Rolling Stones sang Ă˘ÂÂWhom Do You LoveĂ˘ÂÂ or Ă˘ÂÂI Can Get No Satisfaction,Ă˘ÂÂ right? Songs donĂ˘ÂÂt typically contain correct grammar, but thatĂ˘ÂÂs O.K. because they donĂ˘ÂÂt need to. The only thing that matters when it comes to music is whether or not it has the ability to make us do this:
(Rappers probably donĂ˘ÂÂt use correct grammar in their everyday speech, but hey, what can we expect from people who make money by letting us know just how much money they have?)
So if I told you that IĂ˘ÂÂm going to reference a handful of songs as examples of correct grammatical practice, youĂ˘ÂÂd probably be like:
But hear me out.
Have you ever said something like this?
I wish I was sipping margaritas on the beach right now.
If youĂ˘ÂÂve ever said Ă˘ÂÂI wish I wasĂ˘ÂÂ or Ă˘ÂÂI wish she/he was,Ă˘ÂÂ youĂ˘ÂÂve committed a grammatical gaffe.
Why? WhatĂ˘ÂÂs wrong with that sentence above? It should be: I wish I were sipping margaritas on the beach right now.
I know what you’re thinking. The subject Ă˘ÂÂIĂ˘ÂÂ is singular, so why does it take the plural verb Ă˘ÂÂwereĂ˘ÂÂ? HereĂ˘ÂÂs why:
That sentence is an example of the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is one of those aspects of grammar that people donĂ˘ÂÂt discuss as regularly as they discuss punctuation or subjects and objects. You may not know what it is, but I guarantee youĂ˘ÂÂve seen it before. The world of music is loaded with song titles that have verbs in the subjunctive mood:
BeyoncĂÂŠĂ˘ÂÂs Ă˘ÂÂIf I Were a BoyĂ˘ÂÂ
Johnny CashĂ˘ÂÂs cover of Ă˘ÂÂIf I Were a CarpenterĂ˘ÂÂ
The BossĂ˘ÂÂs Ă˘ÂÂI Wish I Were BlindĂ˘ÂÂ
Frank SinatraĂ˘ÂÂs cover of Ă˘ÂÂI Wish I Were in Love AgainĂ˘ÂÂ
TevyeĂ˘ÂÂs Ă˘ÂÂIf I Were a Rich ManĂ˘ÂÂ
Sister SarahĂ˘ÂÂs Ă˘ÂÂIf I Were a BellĂ˘ÂÂ
The Mood of Wishful Thinking
The subjunctive is used when a sentence expresses a wish. If a sentence is wishful, you use the subjunctive form of the verb Ă˘ÂÂto beĂ˘ÂÂ: Ă˘ÂÂwere.Ă˘ÂÂ This may seem counterintuitive, but even if the subject of the sentence is singular, you use Ă˘ÂÂwere.Ă˘ÂÂ ThatĂ˘ÂÂs why Bruce Springsteen sings, Ă˘ÂÂI wish I were blindĂ˘ÂÂ and why Frank Sinatra says, Ă˘ÂÂI wish I were in love again.Ă˘ÂÂ Some more examples:
I love BeyoncĂÂŠ. I wish she were my best friend.
Frank Sinatra has the voice of an angel. I wish he were still alive.
The subjunctive is also used in sentences that express contrary-to-fact conditions. BeyoncĂÂŠ sings, Ă˘ÂÂIf I were a boy.Ă˘ÂÂ She uses Ă˘ÂÂwereĂ˘ÂÂ instead of Ă˘ÂÂwasĂ˘ÂÂ because sheĂ˘ÂÂs talking about something thatĂ˘ÂÂs contrary to fact: BeyoncĂÂŠ is not a boy.
SheĂ˘ÂÂs simply indulging in her imagination when she sings those words.
And consider Johnny Cash when he sang, Ă˘ÂÂIf I were a carpenter.Ă˘ÂÂ Cash sang about something that wasnĂ˘ÂÂt true; he wasnĂ˘ÂÂt really a carpenter. ItĂ˘ÂÂs the same thing with the song from Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, who sings the song, isnĂ˘ÂÂt rich; heĂ˘ÂÂs just fantasizing about what his life would be like if he were rich.
Some more examples:
If I were my own boss, I would take three-day weekends.
If my mom were ruler of the free world, she would declare BeyoncĂÂŠĂ˘ÂÂs birthday a national holiday.
IĂ˘ÂÂm not really my own boss, and my mom isnĂ˘ÂÂt really the ruler of the free world. These sentences are imaginary situations, so they use the subjunctive form of Ă˘ÂÂto be.Ă˘ÂÂ
But like any good grammar rule, the subjunctive mood can get a little tricky. Just because a sentence starts with Ă˘ÂÂIfĂ˘ÂÂ doesnĂ˘ÂÂt mean you use the subjunctive. Take this sentence:
I took off work this Friday. If I was in the office, I would have listened to my coworkers talk about sports.
I would not use the subjunctive in this sentence because here IĂ˘ÂÂm talking about something that could have happened. When I say Ă˘ÂÂIf I was in the office,Ă˘ÂÂ IĂ˘ÂÂm not talking about something improbable or false or contrary to fact. It’s a very real possibility that I was in the office on Friday. In fact, I am in the office every Friday, and the only reason I wasnĂ˘ÂÂt at work on this particular Friday is because I took off.
You use the subjunctive only when youĂ˘ÂÂre talking about an imaginary situation, something that’s not real/true, or something that doesn’t align with reality.
Requests and Demands
Finally, the subjunctive is used to express a request, recommendation, demand, or command.
BeyoncĂÂŠ requests that all of her dancers be on time for rehearsal.
This sentence talks about BeyoncĂÂŠĂ˘ÂÂs request, so it needs the subjunctive Ă˘ÂÂbeĂ˘ÂÂ rather than Ă˘ÂÂare.Ă˘ÂÂ
I suggest that my mom buy tickets for the concert.
(Ă˘ÂÂBuyĂ˘ÂÂ not Ă˘ÂÂbuysĂ˘ÂÂ)
I demand she go with me to the concert.
(Ă˘ÂÂGoĂ˘ÂÂ not Ă˘ÂÂgoesĂ˘ÂÂ)
It is imperative that the concert begin on time.
(Ă˘ÂÂBeginĂ˘ÂÂ not Ă˘ÂÂbeginsĂ˘ÂÂ)
It is essential that she sing live.
(Ă˘ÂÂSingĂ˘ÂÂ not Ă˘ÂÂsingsĂ˘ÂÂ)
If I Were a Boy…
And thatĂ˘ÂÂs the subjunctive. It was once used more frequently than it is today. Its use is slowly waning, but as you can see, it still survives. And until second orality gobbles it up, we can keep singing, Ă˘ÂÂIf I were a boy.Ă˘ÂÂ And on that note: