Help me subjugate the subjunctive, or I might get moody.
November 23, 2009 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Yet Another English Grammar Question: Which is correct? Based on my facial expression right now, you would think I [were/was] excited. The former sounds wrong, but reading about subjunctive moods makes me think it's right. Does it matter whether I intend to imply that I was not in fact excited?
posted by phrontist to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by axiom at 7:34 PM on November 23, 2009

The subjunctive isn't used as often as it should be, so it can sound out of place when used properly. The more you use it, however, the more natural it will sound!
posted by espire at 7:38 PM on November 23, 2009

It really depends on your speaking context. For example, in a really informal setting, using 'were' could be socially marked as hyper-articulate and pompous, and would distract from your speaking goals (communicating the idea about your facial expression). Then again, get around a bunch of pedants, and using 'was' might sound uneducated and too colloquial, and would distract from your speaking goals. Context really matters.

Then again, in this case, the distraction from your goals would be so slight that I doubt others would hardly stop to ponder your intention. I would say it in the way that feels most comfortable to you, which will likely ensure the success of delivery of the message. In other words, fuggedaboudit.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:41 PM on November 23, 2009

Well, I feel like I use it a lot, but usually when saying something like "if that were the case" or "were he to go there". The "would" seems to be throwing me.
posted by phrontist at 7:41 PM on November 23, 2009

You know why it sounds weird? You're saying "right now" in the first clause, and then you're using what sounds like the past tense in the second clause.
posted by randomination at 7:43 PM on November 23, 2009

iamkimiam: This actually came up in my internal monologue. I didn't mention that because if I seemed concerned about eliminating ambiguity when I thought something, you would think (ahem) I were crazy.

So back to the original question: Would using "was" still be correct, but shift the mood and imply that I was in fact excited?
posted by phrontist at 7:45 PM on November 23, 2009

I found a random blog exposition, but it sounds like you're really saying "I (know I) look excited, but..."
posted by rhizome at 7:59 PM on November 23, 2009

My understanding is that you use "was" if it is technically possible, and you use "were" if it is not possible, but hypothetical. Example: If I were a gorilla, I'd sit down wherever I wanted.
posted by bunny hugger at 8:03 PM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

randomination's got it.
posted by pised at 8:04 PM on November 23, 2009

It should be 'was' unless you mean to imply the conditional case, because if you were to do that, 'was' would simply be incorrect. I was, however, excited by this question.
posted by Dysk at 8:04 PM on November 23, 2009

I would personally accept "was" just fine. I'd probably even prefer it to "were," in my dialect/idiolect/whatever. "You would think I was excited" still sounds counterfactual to me, it has that [but I'm not] implicature attached to it... I don't think that's the strict domain of "were" in so-called subjunctive constructions in English. I would get no implication that you were excited from it, because if you wanted to communicate that, you would say something else.

Breaking it down:
(1) "based on my facial expression ..." -- you want to communicate that it might be reasonable to think that you were, in fact, excited, based on this bit of data
(2) "... you would think I was excited" -- because the clause here is an irrealis mood (signaled by the use of conditional "would" and the morphological past tense form of "be"), it creates the sense that the event or state being described is contrary to reality.

Your audience would know, on some level, that if you wanted to communicate that this presupposition based on your facial expression was factual, you would have said "based on my facial expression, you can tell I'm excited" or something like that. (I think you could also cancel the [but I'm not] implicature by adding, say, "and you'd be right" to your original sentence, but you'd still need the additional clause to do that.)

That said, as far as social usage and context, iamkimiam pretty much nailed it. I think the only major difference here in meaning is in social register, not semantics. If there's a semantic difference here (and there may be, who knows), it's so subtle I'm not grasping it. But I'm just one speaker, and others might disagree. A Google search for "you would think I was" vs. "you would think I were" finds millions of hits for both, but a substantial edge (~3:1) in favor of "was", which is about what I'd expect.
posted by Kosh at 8:05 PM on November 23, 2009

To my ear "were" sounds incorrect here. The subjunctive is never required in English (and as I understand it it's rarely used in the UK) so you can always get away with the indicative. But here you're stating a fact: I have an expression that looks surprised, though that's misleading. Full in the missing "that" in the sentence and you'll see what I mean: Based on my facial expression [right now], you'd think that I [were/was] excited.
posted by Frankieist at 8:07 PM on November 23, 2009

Hard question to answer, unless the answerer were able to view your face and gauge your excitement level as you said it. Or thought it, since it's a question regarding an internal monologue. But your excitement level may increase as a result of your satisfaction with your correct internal usage, making "was" the correct answer.

I hope your internal monologues are more interesting than mine.
posted by Snerd at 8:24 PM on November 23, 2009

This native speaker of English suggests that the word you probably want is "am," though it's not entirely clear from your question what exactly you mean to say here. But I would say, use "am" if the facial expression and the excitement are happening at the same time, so to speak.

My second guess would be "was," if you mean to say that based on your current facial expression, it may seem as if you had been excited in the past even though in fact you were not excited then.

I'm having a hard time getting "were" to make any sense, and I'm not sure what a sentence constructed that way would mean.
posted by chinston at 9:18 PM on November 23, 2009

Wouldn't it be the case that the thinking should be affected by the conditional, and the thing thought, being subordinate, a thing unto itself, should not be affected? I choose was. Why should the grammar dictate your thoughts?
posted by tss at 9:22 PM on November 23, 2009

This example:

"If he were thinking that (my wife was flirting with him), I'd slug him!"


"If he was thinking that (my wife was flirting with him), I'd slug him!"


"If he were thinking that (my wife were flirting with him), I'd slug him!"

seems to be cogent to this situation.
posted by tss at 9:26 PM on November 23, 2009

Also voting for "am," because you stipulated that it's "right now." If you were to say: "If you saw me then," I would have to go with "was excited."
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:47 PM on November 23, 2009

As I understand it, there are two lines of thought among linguists and grammarians:

1) One should always follow the grammatical rules of one's language. They have logical bases, and when in doubt, one can always refer to them. Were this the case, you could argue that your sentence fits a description of a subjunctive voice, and you could say that the first person, present, passive subjunctive form of "to excite" is "i were excited."

2) All language is spoken, and due to its heavy use, evolves. Therefore, it cannot take such rigid grammatical definitions, but rather, more fluid guidelines and generalizations. If this was the case, you'd think to yourself that you've heard the phrase "you would think i was excited" a hundred times before, and convince yourself that it is indeed correct, since it seems to be that way.

I don't think either is right OR wrong, taking this into account. You should say whichever you like.
posted by chicago2penn at 10:22 PM on November 23, 2009

Was. The "you would" is conditional. The concern is not with your state of being, but a bystander's impression of your state of being.
Hence, "you would" obviates the need for "I were". That's why "were" sounds off. It is redundant.

"If I were rich, I would own a Rolls Royce."
"If I owned a Rolls Royce, you would think I was rich."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:08 PM on November 23, 2009

If you use "was," it only fits when you're referring to the past tense. Your first clause is present tense (essentially), so this is grammatically ok, but logically incorrect.

"Were" is the correct usage, as this sentence calls for the subjunctive. "Were" in this sentence is not a past tense verb, it is the subjunctive form of "is".
posted by zardoz at 4:57 AM on November 24, 2009

Which is correct? Based on my facial expression right now, you would think I [were/was] excited.

posted by rokusan at 4:58 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

> "Were" is the correct usage, as this sentence calls for the subjunctive.

Wrong (as is almost everyone attempting to answer this question). This is not a case for the subjunctive. If there were a subjunctive, it would be in the protasis, not the apodosis. See that last sentence? The subjunctive "were" is in the protasis (the "if" part). Rewrite the sentence being asked about as "If my facial expression were slightly different, you would think I [were/was] excited." It should be obvious that "was" is the only possible word here. There is no grammatical difference in the latter part of the sentence. (N.b.: I am a professional editor.)
posted by languagehat at 6:29 AM on November 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

Languagehat, as written, isn't this mixing up the past/present tense? Your rewrite seems correct, but dropping "was" into the OP's sentence still sounds wrong. It seems to me that the OP is setting up a false dilemma by forcing the choice between was and were.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:33 AM on November 24, 2009

Thinking this over some more, yeah, I really don't see "were" working here at all. I also think that "was" does work, even if not meant to refer to the past, but languagehat, I don't see how that's the "only possible word here" when "am" is available. Just googling the phrase "you would think that I am" turns up a bunch of examples that seem to express what the OP wants, and strike me as natural and grammatical. What's the problem with "am"? Googling the phrase "you would think that I was" also turns up many examples that seem basically all right, and I'm having a hard time understanding the semantic difference, unless it's that somehow "was" can refer to either present or past state while "am" can refer only to the present.
posted by chinston at 8:34 AM on November 24, 2009

I'm just having a hard time understanding this phrase. It looks like a snarky way of denying that you're excited, but couched through two hypotheticals -- your own apparent mood and your addressee's presumed thought. I can't approve.

Based on my facial expression, you may think I'm excited is the way I would put this. For one thing, you can't be sure how someone else is taking your expression. Since you're speaking about the right now "may" trumps "might".

But it's really this issue about the expression. It's not hypothetical. What's uncertain is what the addressee is thinking, not whether you are excited or not.
posted by dhartung at 9:57 AM on November 24, 2009

> I don't see how that's the "only possible word here" when "am" is available... What's the problem with "am"?

It's perfectly normal colloquial English, but when people say "Which is correct?" they usually mean "Which is correct according to the official rules?" In my understanding of sequence of tenses, you would need a past form after the conditional "would." I wouldn't choose that hill to die on, though; what I meant was that "was" was unquestionably correct and "were" unquestionably wrong. I wasn't focusing on "am," and probably shouldn't have said "the only possible word."
posted by languagehat at 10:11 AM on November 24, 2009

It's an awkward sentence, and I don't think there is any "only possible word" that can fix it, at least not a single one, though there's no shortage of ways to make it "more correct", or at least more pleasant to the ear.

It sounded like a pretty chatty (informal) sentence to me, so "am" rings better with me too, but it doesn't really fix the whole problem. If the question hadn't pushed an either/or choice we'd probably see more alternatives here.

I interpreted this as the speaker predicting the now/soon thoughts of the observer, and as such, I prefer any of these rewrites:

Better: If you looked at my face, you would think I was excited.
Better still: Based on my facial expression right now, you probably think I'm excited.
Best: If you look at my face, you will think I am excited.

They're all a bit different, though, and there are 300 other twists possible, all depending on what the speaker is after here. The first above is hypothetical, the sort of thing you might say on the phone; the second is speaking in the moment (which may be what the OP is after); the third is speaking of the near future, which is another way we use "right now" in English.

It all depends what you're really saying. A dozen words can say so much.
posted by rokusan at 5:01 PM on November 24, 2009

« Older Altered Rent check - Memo line erased   |   Where can I find a business directory or point of... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.