One of my readers suggested that I write about when to use were with a singular subject (heard in the classic song from Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man…”). Why don’t we sing, “If I was a rich man?”
The short answer: “If I were a rich man” is written in the subjunctive verb mood. What on earth is that? I wrote the long answer to that question many moons ago, when I first started blogging. Hardly any of my readers have seen that post, since it’s back from the times when my readers were mostly crickets.
So I figured it was time to bring this out again and answer my reader’s question. I hope you enjoy it!
If Wishes Had Genies…
Verbs have moods, just like genies do. And we all know you need to pay attention to someone’s mood if you want to get your wish. (“Can I have a cookie, Mom? Pleeease?” Oh, no, it’s not working! Time for the cute face. “I love you.”)
Disney’s Aladdin shows us all about moods and how we can stay on the good side of verbs. The film’s characters use the three verb moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Let’s see how each mood can affect your chances of getting your wish.
We use the indicative mood most of the time. This verb mood is good for stating facts, making requests, or asking questions. Aladdin uses this mood when he says, “Genie, I wish for you to make me a prince.” The verb in this sentence is wish. This is a simple request, and Genie is happy to lend a hand:
We use the imperative mood for commands. Our story’s villain, Jafar, is fond of using the imperative mood. After he steals the lamp, he commands: “Genie, grant me my first wish.” Here, the verb is grant. Jafar could have said, “I would like you to grant me my first wish,” which would have been more polite (and indicative). But no. And guess what happens when you use the imperative mood on a genie?
This final verb mood is the trickiest. We use the subjunctive mood for unlikely possibilities, things that are not true, and (you guessed it) wishes. You often find the subjunctive mood hanging around with the word if. Aladdin uses the subjunctive when he protects children from being whipped by a rude prince. He says, “Hey, if I were as rich as you, I could afford some manners!”
We can tell this is the subjunctive mood because Aladdin says I were. This can sound strange to our ears, because normally people say I was. With the subjunctive, however, the verb form were is always used (if I were, if you were, if he were, if she were…).
So why is this verb mood important? It tells us that Aladdin thinks he will never be rich. After all, he doesn’t have a genie to help him with that…yet.
Once Aladdin finds Genie, he never uses the subjunctive mood again. Why? Because he knows that his wishes will come true. They are no longer unlikely to happen. So, unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t need to think about when to use the subjunctive mood.
After talking about this, now I really want a genie. I’m sure it would improve my mood. Imagine the possibilities…
Images from Disney’s Aladdin
This post is dedicated to my loyal readers from the beginning blog times who are still with me. I hope you enjoyed this blast from the past!
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s (new) post, where I will eXamine the xenophobic letter X…