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September 14, 2021 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Which phrase is (more) correct: "I wondered if he were ill" or "I wondered if he was ill"?

I have Googled this a bunch and still don't know the answer. I've been reading about subjunctive mood and can't tell if this is a hypothetical. It's not "contrary to fact," it's a case where the fact (his state of illness or health) is not known.

"If he were" looks correct to me, but I've just had someone vehemently argue that it's not. "If he was" looks like a phrase that would be stricken out in red ink by my middle school teacher.

Here's another example: "Although I’m usually inclined to view the universe as chaotic, I wondered whether there were/was some sort of synchronicity at work."
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
My gut says "was".
posted by mefireader at 10:10 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


My gut says "was" too, for both examples. It looks like a singular/plural thing to me - "I wondered if they were ill" vs. "I wondered if he was ill"
posted by zibra at 10:15 AM on September 14


I think both are OK, though 'was' is certainly much more common in American or Canadian English. I would read 'were' as perhaps more British, archaic or just affected.
posted by ssg at 10:16 AM on September 14


Best answer: I'd go with 'was' because if you change 'wondered if' to 'thought', then 'was' is definitely correct.

I believe it's the 'if' that's confusing things. Because you'd say something like 'If he were ill, then he'd go to the hospital.' But that's a different type of sentence that I don't have the name for.
posted by hydra77 at 10:19 AM on September 14 [9 favorites]


Best answer: I think it's a bit contextual, in that it's "were" and the subjunctive if you are pondering the possible but not actual, vs thinking about possibilities. So I would use "were" for your second example, as you are pondering possibilities, while for the first I would use "was" if he might in fact be ill, but "were" if he probably isn't but it's useful/interesting to consider.
posted by lhputtgrass at 10:19 AM on September 14 [6 favorites]


Best answer: I'm a copy editor. Both are correct, but subjunctive tense is really, really falling out of use in US English. Are you writing a novel? If yes, is it in dialogue? Is the character a pedantic English teacher or a teenager? Are you writing a scholarly document? Are you publishing this in a newspaper or in an advertisement? Is this for an Instagram caption?

Context matters. I'd have no problem using "was" in all but the most formal contexts.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:20 AM on September 14 [21 favorites]


Best answer: "Was" feels right to me. This article on the subjunctive mood might be helpful, especially this example:
And we see too that its forms even get pulled into service by conditional conjunctions like if, as if, and as though in cases where the mood isn't actually subjunctive:

They asked if I were apprehensive about visiting the fabulous cat, given her frequent refusal to grant visitors an audience.

The were says "subjunctive" but the if is not conditional; it's merely introducing the question about apprehension that may or may not factually exist. Such examples are considered to be hypercorrections by those who notice them, but it's likely few people do.
"I wondered if he was/were ill" seems like the same kind of thing. You could rephrase it as: "Either he was ill or he wasn't. I wondered which it was." It would clearly be wrong to say "Either he were ill or he weren't."
posted by Redstart at 10:20 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


Best answer: The issue is one regarding subjunctive tense. We don't use it as much in English as, say, French speakers do, but it does exist.

Subjunctive tense expresses something desired or imagined. And the subjective form of "to be" is "were."

So my judgment call is that it's correct to say "I wondered if he were ill" and " I wondered whether there were some sort of synchronicity at work."

But informally, most people would use "was," and "I wondered if he was ill" sounds better to my ears.

Source: https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/subjunctive.htm
posted by Leontine at 10:22 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Are you writing a novel? If yes, is it in dialogue? Is the character a pedantic English teacher or a teenager? Are you writing a scholarly document? Are you publishing this in a newspaper or in an advertisement? Is this for an Instagram caption?

I wrote an essay that is slated to be published in a Canadian journal. The tone is informal.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 10:31 AM on September 14


Best answer: So, the subjunctive is not merely used for the conditional in many languages; it also includes states of suspecting, desiring, fearing...basically reflecting an uncertainty about the truth value of the verb. This applies to English, too.

However, the subjunctive has always had a shaky foothold in modern English and is disappearing rapidly...I would only use this in the most formal of settings, or if intending to convey that the speaker is an old-fashioned or pedantic person.
posted by praemunire at 10:33 AM on September 14 [8 favorites]


They have slightly different meanings if you are going by the book.

"I wondered if he were ill" is correct, but implies he was not ill, or it was unlikely that he was ill. It would be appropriate in those contexts.

If you think it's likely he's ill, or it turns out that you were correct, "if he was ill" is the better choice.
posted by mark k at 10:36 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Some examples of situations where "if" doesn't call for the subjunctive:
I asked if he was going to the conference.

I checked to see if the light was still green.

She told me to go to the hospital if I was sick.

I tried to find out if he was sick.
I think most people would agree that "were" would sound wrong in all these sentences and I think your examples are similar.
posted by Redstart at 10:43 AM on September 14 [6 favorites]


The way I learned it is that this is the "contrary to fact" subjunctive, used to state a condition that is not true: "I wish he weren't sick" [implying you know he's sick] or "If he were sick, he'd be in the hospital" [implying that he isn't in the hospital and thus isn't sick] If you're just stating a possibility, that doesn't generally use the subjunctive.
posted by phoenixy at 11:12 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


I would use "I wondered whether he were ill." Feels less clunky.
posted by orrnyereg at 11:13 AM on September 14


Your example isn't a hypothetical. It's just the past tense. If your sentence were (hypothetically!) written in the present tense instead, it would be "I wonder if he is ill." But when you "wondered" that in the past, that "is" gets turned into past tense too: "I wondered if he was ill."

The subjunctive could be used in the present tense in a sentence like "I wonder if he would call me if he were ill." In the past tense of that one, the subjunctive would stay the same: "I wondered if he would call me if he were ill."
posted by Asterism at 12:06 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]


I would absolutely use "were," but I'm a copy editor who is old-fashioned and pedantic. I'm also American, and Canadian usage might be different. If the journal still has copy editors, you can probably safely leave it in their hands.
posted by FencingGal at 12:31 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Certain verbs trigger the subjunctive: "Wondering," which strongly implies uncertainty, is one of them. You can find a decent explanation of the subjunctive here.
"I wondered if he were ill" is the quasi present form of the subjunctive. It means you weren't sure, and could very well be wrong.

"I wondered if he had been ill," which implies his illness (or whatever it was) is now over is the correct way to state the past. It describes the same sentiment as the preceding sentence, only in a concluded time period.

By contrast, "I thought he was ill" is a far less uncertain take on wondering, which doesn't require the subjunctive but merely a simple past: "was."
The differences among these sentences are subtle, but meaningful and it would be too bad if the subjunctive disappeared all together.
posted by Violet Blue at 1:54 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Were

Saying, "I wondered if he was . ." just feels so wrong. What is it, the present subjunctive? I just know that "were" is the only thing that feels right.

Anytime I want an illustration I think of the Cowardly Lion. He doesn't sing, "If I was king of the forest . . ."
posted by wjm at 3:30 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


On further reflection, it seems necessary to take the tenses into account. What time frame is the possible illness? At the same time as the wondering about it? Or in the past? So:

"He didn't answer the phone, and I wondered if he were ill."

vs.

"The letter was poorly spelled, and I wondered if he was ill when he wrote it."
posted by wjm at 3:36 PM on September 14


American English speaker here, near fluent in French, reader of a lot of British mid-century fiction, have been accused of using $10 words, used to be in a jokey Facebook group called something like "Society for the Preservation of the Subjunctive in English."

"Were" sounds right to me here, but "was" wouldn't sound wrong, if that makes any sense.
posted by basalganglia at 6:45 PM on September 14


Just to be pedantic, the subjunctive is the subjunctive mood, not the subjunctive tense. You can have a verb be in the subjunctive present tense and the subjunctive past tense.
posted by alidarbac at 9:28 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]




(now I'm doubting myself, but...)

For word agreement questions I always use this mnemonic:

Was he ill? He was. (sounds good)
Were he ill? He were. (sounds bad)

Also works for
"who donated? He donated"
"for whom was the donation intended? For him"
posted by rebent at 2:39 PM on September 15


Response by poster: Based on these answers, it seems that no one really knows the One True Way and I can do whatever seems right. Thanks Mefites!
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 4:39 PM on September 15


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