Saturday, August 18, 2007

If I Were a Rich Girl

Now, this is a tricky rule! Looking at my title, you might ask, shouldn't it be "If I was a rich girl?" Actually, the answer would be "no" despite it sounding contrary to fact (were is plural, "I" is singular, which uses was). The answer to this anomaly lies in what is called the subjunctive. The subjunctive is actually a verb that deals with feelings or attitudes that may not exactly be true. In short, it's a verb that's used when discussing a hypothetical situation (something that isn't true). Consider the lines from the famous song: "If I were a rich man... I wouldn't have to work hard... I'd build one long staircase just going up... and one even longer going down... ."

By reading the lyrics of the song (it's from the musical The Fiddler on the Roof, by the way), you immediately see that the man talking is not rich and that he does work hard everyday. Since he's singing about a hypothetical situation, the subjunctive is used. This is also the reason why we say "if I were you" and not "if I was you."

According to some grammar resources though, you do not use the subjunctive if you're talking about something true. Here's a sample: "If she was studying, then she would not have wanted to play music." The student referred to here is really most likely studying. This is different from "If my sister were a good student, then she would be studying" (the sister is definitely NOT a good student).

Then again, I've read that the subjunctive is actually very formal and rather old-fashioned; so it's not often used anymore. There are other ways of expressing fantasies: "if I had a million bucks, I wouldn't work, I'd just travel and live all over the world."

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