Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

A Phraseological Approach to the Shift between Subjunctives from Were to Was: The Case of as It Were and as It Was

Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

A Phraseological Approach to the Shift between Subjunctives from Were to Was: The Case of as It Were and as It Was

Article excerpt

Abstract

The subjunctive were tends to be interchangeably used with the subjunctive was (e.g., If I were/was rich, I would buy you anything you wanted (Quirk et al., 1985)). According to Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989), the subjunctive was started to be used instead of the subjunctive were at the end of the 16th century and was frequently used by the end of the 17th century. The dictionary also mentions that the subjunctive was was used for emphasis; however, tokens of the subjunctive was appeared in less formal language styles. It has been widely acknowledged that the subjunctives were and was are not interchangeable in phraseological units such as if I were you and as it were. Examining instances obtained from corpora, we see the interesting phenomenon of the subjunctive were being replaced by the subjunctive was in the phraseological unit if I were you. From these cases, it can be assumed that the subjunctive were is interchangeable with the subjunctive was in if I were/was you regardless of the registers in which it is used. This phenomenon can be accounted for by the merger of was and were. This study aims to descriptively show how as it were changed into as it was from a phraseological perspective. Furthermore, an analysis of corpora data allows us to explain in detail the actual behaviors of as it was and its relationship with as it were.

Keywords: phraseology, subjunctive were, subjunctive was, as it were, as it was, merging

1. Introduction

General belief has held that the subjunctive was is not interchangeable with the subjunctive were in the phraseological units (PUs) (Note 1) if I were you and as it were. Quirk et al. (1985) noted that the subjunctive were tends to be replaced by the indicative form was in the 1st and 3rd person singular of the past tense (e.g., If I were/was rich, I would buy you anything you wanted./Tim always speaks quietly on the phone, as though he were/was telling a secret.) (Note 2). In addition, Quirk et al. (1985) mentioned that this trend does not apply to the PUs if I were you and as it were. However, as examples (1) and (2) show, if I was you and as it was (Note 3) are observed in contemporary English (italicized by the author).

(1) a. The woman looked at her friend and back to Charlotte. "If I was you, I wouldn't be out walking in this weather unless I had somewhere I had to get to," the woman said.

(COCA, 2012) (Note 4)

b. I'd get out if I was you. (Fowler 2004)

(2) a. MORGAN: Will Justin Bieber have that, do you think? Is it inevitable?

D. OSMOND: He's got it now. He's got it now. You know, that kind of success at that age can really bite you in the shorts, as it was, the proverbial shorts.

MORGAN: What would you say to him? (COCA, 2011)

b. The journal had been intended as the perfect Austenesque birthday giftfor my vintage-obsessed younger cousin. I'd found it lying alongside a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice in a quirky antiques shop down on South Congress and simply couldn't pass it up, hobnobbing, as it was, with greatness. (COCA, 2012)

Data collected from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC) (Note 5) report that the frequency of if I were you is much higher than that of if I was you, as shown in Table 1.

From Table 1, we can safely observe that the trend noted by Quirk et al. (1985) does not always hold in the case of the PU if I were you. To put it differently, was and were are interchangeably used, and the be verb is uniformed into was due to the working of merging when subjunctive mood is used.

Besides if I was you, the PU if it were not/weren't for can appear with the subjunctive was regardless of the register in which it is used, as seen in example (3).

(3) a. If it was not for family, friends, and a great law partner, I probably would be in the exact situation as Mr. Schultz. (COCA, written, 2006)

b. And if it was not for Title IX, I don't think I'd be in the position that I'm in today and be able to encourage other young girls who want to get into sports. …

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