It’s important to take grammar seriously, even if she has been dead for years.

Constant Reader Strikes Back

One of my sigs reads:

The central “e” in “Jeffries” is silent … and invisible.

Another reads:

The central “e” in “Jeffries” is silent … and invisible. Don’t you wish he was?

Today, a pedantic reader styling himself as Grammatical nitpicker of the subjunctive inquired: “You mean ‘Don’t you wish he WERE’?” (Emphasis his.)

Thoughtful Author Replies

The grandmother of my children – I put it that way solely to enable this article’s clever precis – was a librarian, teacher, crossword aficionado, and general language maven. She used to drill us (her children, my brothers and me, are you not paying attention at all??) on parts of speech and proper grammatical constructions of all kinds. She read to us from good books until we were able to read on our own, and often thereafter. When she would leave us with a baby-sitter, she would tell the sitter which books to read, and would correct the books so as to ensure we had the best possible experience.

One way in which she did this for me, at that time the eldest, although now my brother Dick is quite a bit older than I am, was to go through my book of nursery rhymes, lining out elements that might be too stressful for a child of my delicacy. For example, in “Rock-a-bye Baby”, the lines

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall And down will come Baby, bough, cradle, and all

were right out. You can see why a thoughtful child, which certainly I was, might be distressed by such an image, might develop a fear of trees, and who knows, might ultimately become some kind of forest-destroying construction monster or something. Fortunately, the world was spared that.

Unfortunately, you got me instead.

Anyway, as I was saying, exposed as I was at an early age to reading, correct grammar, and a fine not to say overly fussy sense of the rightness of words, it was only natural that I studied the use of language in its written form with an assiduousness unmatched elsewhere in my academic career. That said, I like to think that my writing style is a fine balance of conscientious attention to correctness, cadence, and content. Some think I come down a bit too hard on the volumetric aspects of content, but there is no accounting for taste.

A Digression Supporting the Point

When I was in college the first try, I chanced to pledge a fraternity, because my parents knew that as a bookish and reclusive sort, I would have no social life whatsoever if I remained “Independent”, as it was called. So I pledged, and thus added fraternity life to the most unpleasant 18 months of my life right up to this very day.

Our housemother, whose name I do not recall, was new that year, and she was quite the social whiz, graduate of a Fine Eastern School, long-standing Housemother of Great Fraternities at Other Universities, all that. She organized the other housemothers to teas, and made sure that our house was a highlight of the Greek Social Scene, at least when the Brothers weren’t consuming mass quantities of beer.

I recall one time, however, when she was reviewing some writing by someone – I don’t recall whether it was me – and she made what was clearly an egregious error: The article in question referred to something like “its weight”, and she insisted, insisted I say, that the proper word was “it’s”. You and I both know, of course, that while the possessive is usually noted by the apostrophe-s, the apostrophe in “it’s” is used for the elision of the letter “i” in “it is”. A heated discussion ensued, and she remained adamant.

It came as no surprise to me, nor will it to you I’m sure, when a few years after I left that university, she was exposed as a complete fraud. She had not graduated from that Fine Eastern School, she did not have a long record as Housemother of Great Fraternities, nothing. Fraud. Criminal record, the whole thing. Obvious to you and me, of course.

But I Digress

Suffice it to say that I bow to no man in my dedication to the proper use of language, both formal and informal, and that I have an education and a record of which I am justly proud, in a modest sort of way of course. What you might call “a cold appreciation of my own excellence”. So what about this subjunctive? Should I have said “were”? (Were it better had I said “were”?)

I think not. Had I said:

The central "e" in "Jeffries" is silent ... and invisible. Don't you wish he were?

That would suggest this paraphrasing:

Don't you wish Jeffries were silent and invisible?

Now, while doubtless about now you do wish just that, we can agree that the above is formally better than:

Don't you wish Jeffries was silent and invisible?

though certainly no more understandable. However, the shorter phrase

Don't you wish he were?

grates on the sensitive ear. Correct by formal standards, it sounds stilted, artificial, almost grandiloquent. Yet my intention in the sig is to poke a bit of wry fun at my prolix ubiquity, indicating that while I do have that “cold appreciation” of which we recently spoke, I do truly know what an egregious ass I can sometimes be.

While it might be thought cleverly ironic to use the subjunctive right there while I’m admitting to assitude, I felt that it overloaded the notion and that use of the informal construction was preferable. Be assured that I thought about it at great length prior to adding the sig to my list.

But I am not a man who relies solely on his own opinion, especially when he can find others to support that opinion. Thus, as a sort of appendix, I include below a few quotations from the Web regarding the informal use of “was” where an individual whose farts are only audible to dogs and bats might have used “were”.

I trust that we can consider this matter, if not settled, at least pounded into the ground. Well-cast rebuttals will be considered for publication, of course.

Appendix: Web Evidence and Discussion

The topic of the subjunctive is discussed on the Internet second only to that of the Generative Function, as it was called back in my day. I found quite a bit of support for my position, which I have culled out here in, I assure you, a Fair and Balanced way:

if clauses: the reality. In practice, of course, many people ignore the rules. In fact, over the last 200 years even well-respected writers have tended to use the indicative was where the traditional rule would require the subjunctive were. A usage such as If I was the only boy in the world may break the rules, but it sounds perfectly natural.
subjunctive after wish. Yet another traditional rule requires you to use were rather than was in a contrary-to-fact statement that follows the verb wish: I wish I were (not was) lighter on my feet. Many writers continue to insist on this rule, but the indicative was in such clauses can be found in the works of many well-known writers.

In hypothetical sentences, were is usually used instead of was: If I were you, I'd learn how to drive. I wish it were Friday.
It is important to note that was can also be used (although still considered incorrect by some grammarians), and is, in fact, more common in informal English.

(quoting Goeff Pullum) It isn't actually the subjunctive. People often call the "were" of "I wish I were" subjunctive, but that term is much better used (as in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) for the construction with "be" seen in "I demand that it be done." The "were" form is often wrongly called a past subjunctive, but of course "it were done" is not a past tense of "it be done". The difference between the two is that the subjunctive construction occurs with any verb: "I demand that this cease" is a subjunctive (notice "this cease", not "this ceases"). The relic form in "I were" is only available for "be". For all other verbs you use the preterite: "I wish I went to New York more often." The Cambridge Grammar calls the "were" form the irrealis form. It is surviving robustly in expressions like "if I were you", but even there it has a universally accepted alternate "if I was you", and there is no semantic distinction there to preserve. (end quote)

Formal Informal
(The were form is correct at all times.) (The was form is possible in informal, familiar conversation.)

(worth a quick read in its entirety)