The Subjunctive Mood: Why It’s “I Wish I Were,” not “I Wish I Was”

Singers and songwriters never need to worry about grammar. In fact, they actually benefit from flouting grammar rules. It simply wouldn’€™t be the same if the Rolling Stones sang “€œWhom Do You Love”€ or “€œI Can Get No Satisfaction”,€ right? Songs don’€™t typically contain correct grammar, but that’€™s O.K. because they don’€™t 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:

Dancing

(Rappers probably don’€™t 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 I’€™m going to reference a handful of songs as examples of correct grammatical practice, you’d probably be like:

Girl Really

But hear me out.

Have you ever said something like this?

I wish I was sipping margaritas on the beach right now.

If you’€™ve ever said “€œI wish I was” or “€œI wish she/he was”,€ you’€™ve committed a grammatical gaffe.

Come On

Why? What’€™s 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 “€œI”€ is singular, so why does it take the plural verb “€œwere”? Here’€™s why:

The Subjunctive

That sentence is an example of the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is one of those aspects of grammar that people don’€™t discuss as regularly as they discuss punctuation or subjects and objects. You may not know what it is, but I guarantee you’€™ve seen it before. The world of music is loaded with song titles that have verbs in the subjunctive mood:

Beyonce’€™s “If I Were a Boy”

Johnny Cash’€™s cover of “€œIf I Were a Carpenter”

The Boss’€™s “€œI Wish I Were Blind”

Frank Sinatra’€™s cover of “€œI Wish I Were in Love Again”

Tevye’€™s “€œIf I Were a Rich Man”

Sister Sarah’€™s “€œIf I Were a Bell”

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 “to be”€: “€œwere”.€ This may seem counterintuitive, but even if the subject of the sentence is singular, you use “were”.€ That’€™s why Bruce Springsteen sings, “I wish I were blind”€ and why Frank Sinatra says, “I wish I were in love again”.€ Some more examples:

I love Beyonce. I wish she were my best friend.

Frank Sinatra has the voice of an angel. I wish he were still alive.

Contrary-To-Fact Conditions

The subjunctive is also used in sentences that express contrary-to-fact conditions. Beyonce sings, “€œIf I were a boy”.€ She uses “€œwere”€ instead of “€œwas”€ because she’€™s talking about something that’€™s contrary to fact: Beyonce is not a boy.

Duh

She’s simply indulging in her imagination when she sings those words.

And consider Johnny Cash when he sang, “€œIf I were a carpenter”.€ Cash sang about something that wasn’€™t true; he wasn’€™t really a carpenter. It’s the same thing with the song from Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, who sings the song, isn’€™t rich; he’€™s 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 Beyonce’€™s birthday a national holiday.

I’m not really my own boss, and my mom isn’€™t really the ruler of the free world. These sentences are imaginary situations, so they use the subjunctive form of “€œto be”.€

But like any good grammar rule, the subjunctive mood can get a little tricky. Just because a sentence starts with “If”€ doesn’€™t 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 I’€™m talking about something that could have happened. When I say “€œIf I was in the office”,€ I’€™m 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 wasn’t at work on this particular Friday is because I took off.

You use the subjunctive only when you’€™re 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.

Beyonce requests that all of her dancers be on time for rehearsal.

This sentence talks about Beyonce’€™s request, so it needs the subjunctive “be”€ rather than “€œare”.€

I suggest that my mom buy tickets for the concert.

(“€œBuy”€ not “€œbuys”€)

I demand she go with me to the concert.

(“Go”€ not “€œgoes”€)

It is imperative that the concert begin on time.

(“€œBegin”€ not “€œbegins”€)

It is essential that she sing live.

(“€œSing”€ not “€œsings”€)

If I Were a Boy…

And that’€™s 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, “€œIf I were a boy”.€ And on that note:

Beyonce

Sources:

Grammarphobia Blog

After Deadline on The New York Times

GIFs here

1 comments
Joe Biondo
Joe Biondo like.author.displayName 1 Like

Again, another great article. Many people do not understand the "art" of writing. Now in a situation such as this all the rules of liierature apply. I also write screenplays so there the rules change again. Its a Complete mix of ebonics and perect grammer because. You are installing direction and setting acts and scenes up. As a novelist and poet I write with a complete differnt set of rules. I tell people right out, "if you are reding my novels to correct them, don't bother. READ THE STORY.' We as authors write aas the world sounds. We have to paint a piicture in a book so you can understand where you are. People on the streets speak more in ebonics than proper english. Read my novels, love the story. I had the pubisher wanting to edit my drafts. I said absolutly not. A literature major could never write aas i do. The story has to dound as it is to promote and tell the story. For this rule i was given the ultimate complimenypt by a Los Angeles Producer of films. He told me, "How did you do that? My friend you nailed it. Anyone can write a story but only a very few can tell a story. You did a great job. Wow, I applaud you for breaking the rules to make us see the story visually."To me this was the ultimate compliment i could ever hear. Thank you soooo much for this article Olivia. It explains the truth about writing a street novel vrs a childrens book or legal contract.peaceJoe Biondowww.joebiondoauthor.webs.com