“Was” vs. “Were”


I have a question. Please answer my question. Which choice is correct? A or B? and why?
A) If I were you, I would help the poor.
B) If I was you, I would help the poor.
Well, as you know both a) and b) are conditional unreal clauses . My friend says that educated people will never ever use option B) and that option B) is used just by illiterate people.  He says that in conditional unreal clauses, one should use only the were form of be no matter what the subject.
Do you agree with my friend? As an educated person, do you use WAS in your speeches and writings when it comes to the “if clauses” of conditional unreal clauses?

 

Farhad,

Your friend is both right and wrong.

Your friend is right that option A (“were”) is the correct usage. When using conditional clauses (such as beginning with “if”) and when the condition is unreal or imaginary, the correct verb form is “were.”

For example, “If I were a painter, I would paint my own house.” The conditional unreal clause is “If I were a painter.” It establishes a condition for painting my own house, and it is unreal because I am not a painter.

Your friend is wrong that educated people never use option B (“was”). They do, although the incorrect usage is more common in speech than in writing.

When people speak casually, they tend to use speech habits and not analyze their word usage carefully. Indeed, the value of habits is that we can act without conscious decision-making, but it can lead to problems, as well. I probably use “was” in speech sometimes, although I am far more likely to use “were.” In my case, the correct usage is a trained, consciously developed habit. Now, “were” sounds more natural to me than “was.”

The reason many people use the wrong form, particularly in speech, is that people tend to use language the way they commonly hear the language, particularly how they heard the language used in their early years. The result is that the “wrong” usage sounds correct and natural and they don’t realize that they make mistakes.

We see the same problems with usage of “data” and “staff,” for example.


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Looking for a Cover


We’re very close to sending Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing to press, but we need a great cover image. (More about the book here.)

Here are two potential covers, both in draft form. (The book dimensions will be 5.25″ x 8.00″.) What do you think?

Vote on the one you like and comment below. I’ll send you a PDF of Zen Comma.

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The Comma Versus the Dash for Emphasis


Comma or Dash?

Here’s the question: You want to add an emphatic statement to the end of a sentence, something that will catch the readers’ attention. To create reader focus, you want to create a brief pause prior to the emphatic statement. But do you use a comma or a dash?

Bad Example and Explanation

Here’s an example of the wrong way to do it:

It’s reality, and the subject of a jury-prize-winning film in the GE Focus Forward Film Competition. (http://news.yahoo.com/chemist-hopes-artificial-leaf-power-civilization-using-photosynthesis-173654018–abc-news-tech.html)

See that comma? The writer is using the comma to set off the final information and to create impact, i.e., emphasis. That comma is a problem.

One of the most common uses for commas is to signal the end of a complete sentence, a.k.a. independent clause, that the writer is linking to another complete sentence with a conjunction (e.g., and, but). The sample sentence begins with the independent clause “It’s reality” and the conjunction “and.” The comma suggests that the information following “and” will be another complete sentence, which is not true.

In fact, the entire descriptive phrase “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film…” is linked to the verb “is” found in the contraction “it’s.” As evidence of this, the writer could have written “It’s reality, and it’s the subject of a . . . .” Unfortunately, the writer didn’t do this. By using the comma to create an emphatic pause, the writer separated “it” from its description.

Still not convinced that the comma is wrong? Try this: Separate the subject from its first description and see if it looks right. “It’s, reality” is incorrect because it separates the subject “it” from its description, “reality.” The subject and the first description need to be together, not separated by a comma. The subject and second description also need to be together, but the comma separates them.

In brief, the comma needs to go.

Solution: Use a Dash

How, then, could the writer have created the pause needed to create emphasis? Answer: use an em dash, which is the long dash.

Em dashes have several uses, but the primary use is to create a pause before a final statement that is joined by a conjunction and would otherwise seems like part of the grammatical structure of the sentence. The long pause will cause the reader to focus on the final statement.

Examples of commas versus dashes for emphasis:

1. He is a veteran, a hero. (This doesn’t need a dash because “a hero” isn’t joined by a conjunction and because leaving out the comma would make an ungrammatical sentence.)

2. He is a veteran–and a great father. (This uses an em dash to separate and emphasize “a great father,” which the conjunction “and” would otherwise join to the first part of the sentence.)

If the writer of the bad example wanted to create emphasis on “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film . . . ,” the writer should have used an em dash.

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The Confusion of And vs. To


English can be a difficult language to learn, not because English grammar is tricky (though it can be) but because the language can be vague. Word choice, in particular, can be very confusing, particularly when more than one word is possible. 

Here’s a question I received recently about the nuances of the English language.

Question: Which of the following is correct:
a. I would like to send Peter an email AND give him my regards.
b. I would like to send Peter an email TO give him my regards.

As in so many cases, the answer is . . . both, depending on your intended meaning. Let’s look at these two statements to figure out which one to use.

SENTENCE A: AND

“I would like to send Peter an email AND give him my regards.”

This statement has two potential meanings.

First, this sentence could mean that I want to do two separate actions: (1) send Peter an email, and (2) give Peter my regards. These actions might happen at the same time, or they might not. This sentence isn’t clear. To understand how this sentence describes two actions, we can compare it to a similar sentence with the same structure: “I want to make a million dollars AND take a trip to the Bahamas.” They are separate actions.  Continue reading

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How Many Chaplains?


Our friend, the English teacher in Iran, asked another good question. Unlike his questions about the singular or plural use of “any,” this one has a straightforward answer. (Fortunately!) Here’s his question.

The Question

I have just bought a novel, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. 

There is a page about Jonathan Swift’s life. There, I found a sentence which I cannot analyze grammatically, no matter how much I am scratching my head to come up with an answer. The sentence is: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as chaplain to a lord justice.” 

To me, this sentence is 100% wrong grammatically. It should be: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as A chaplain to a lord justice.” 

Here is my reason: “chaplain” cannot be used without an “A” in front of it because it is in singular and an “A” is needed in front of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with me?  Continue reading

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No Problems


Our new friend, an English teacher from Iran, poses another complicated question about the use of “any.”

Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“English is not my mother tongue language. But I don’t have any ………… when I speak with native speakers of English. I can understand them very well.”

a) problems
b) problem

Short answer

This is a good question, but one without a clear answer. The short answer is that “any problems” is the more common way to say this. (Another common way to say this is “I don’t have a problem.”)

See here for a comparison of usage: http://bit.ly/WnAsbR

But this is sneaky. Let’s look at the long answer.

Long answer

If I say, “I don’t have any problems,” then I admit the possibility that I may have one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problems,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have a single problem. I don’t have problems, but I do have a problem. Then, when the problem occurs, a person may say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have problems,” and I can answer, “That’s right. I don’t have more than one problem, but I do have one problem.” As I said, this is a sneaky way to answer.

On the other hand, if I say, “I don’t have any problem,” then I allow the possibility that I have more than one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problem,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have several problems. I don’t have just one problem, but I have several problems. Then, when problems occur, the person can say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have a problem,” and I can answer “That’s right. I don’t have a single problem, but I do have more than one problem.” This, too, is a sneaky way to answer.

The answers are sneaky because the literal meanings may conflict with the implied meanings. I say one thing, and the listener thinks I mean something else. I answer that I don’t have one problem, or don’t have multiple problems, but the listener will assume I mean zero problems.

To get back to the original question, you have two options.

1. Most common way to say this: “any problems.”

2. Literal answer: Choose “I don’t have any problem” to indicate you don’t have a single problem or choose “I don’t have any problems” to indicate you don’t have multiple problems.

My recommendation: use “any problems.” If you have one problem, you are likely to have other problems, too. If you use “any problems,” the message you send is that not even one problem will occur, thus covering all possibilities.

Perhaps our friend will ask a question about “that” and “which.” By comparison, the answer is much simpler.

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Any Question From Iran


Have you ever been asked a question and thought, “Oh, that’s an easy question! It’s simple.” Questions like that might make me feel smart, but they aren’t very interesting. They don’t make me think and scratch my head. I don’t learn anything from them.

Our friend from afar sent a real poser of a question. Not easy to answer, but much more interesting.

The Question

I have a question. Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“Mr. Johnson is a very knowledgeable English teacher. He can answer any ………….. about grammar.”

a) question
b) questions

My Answer 

Another tricky question. This question isn’t about grammar; it’s about context. A and B are both possible solutions, but the most likely correct answer is B, “questions.”

“Any” can indicate one or more than one. For example, “Go get any book” means the same as “Go get any one book” and “Go get a book.” However, “Go get any books” means the same as “Go get some books.” In your question below, as with many issues regarding grammar and word choice, we have to look not only at the specific problem but also at the message being conveyed. We have to understand the context in which the problem occurs.

Now, why is B the most likely correct answer?

The answer is in the context. If Mr. Johnson is a very knowledgeable English teacher, he can answer more than one question, which means he can answer questions.

Let’s think about the message being conveyed here. If you think of any (one) question about grammar, Mr. Johnson can answer it. However, if you think of a different question, Mr. Johnson can answer that question, too. Thus, Mr. Johnson has the ability to answer more than one question. Again, this means Mr. Johnson can answer questions.

“Mr. Johnson can answer any question about grammar” is most appropriate in one particular instance. Let’s say that Mr. Johnson has just given a presentation and that people have questions about grammar. Although he has the knowledge to answer all their questions (any questions), he only has time to answer one question. Knowing this, someone says, “Mr. Johnson can answer any question,” meaning Mr. Johnson, because of his time constraints, is only able at this time to answer one.

Let’s look at similar case.

If a teacher asks students “Do you have any question?” then the teacher expects the students to have one question. This is the same as asking “Do you have a question?” (In this situation, “a” is more common than “any.”) On the other hand, if the teacher asks students “Do you have any questions?” then the teacher understands that the students may have more than one question. In this case, as with Mr. Johnson, “any questions” is more appropriate because it allows the possibility for more than one.

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