November 20, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: If I were or if I was, in order to

Posted in if I were, in order to at 8:00 am by dlseltzer

Sightings

These sightings have me sighing.

From the IRB Forum mailing list:

”I am new to the IRB coordinator position and I have to evolve the position into one that gives an educational presentation at the beginning of each IRB meeting.”

I don’t have to say anything about why this gives me a headache, right?

A reader was stumped trying to decipher something that we can call Palen-speak:

”I would be happy to get to do whatever is asked of me to help progress this nation”

Tip 1: If I was or if I were

I have a confession to make. In last week’s WLUT, I was sorely tempted to take a cowardly action. While I wrote, ”I’d be happier still if the email were grammatically correct,” I had thought about writing, ”I’d be happier still if the email had been grammatically correct” just to avoid the issue of whether the verb that followed ‘if’ should be ‘was’ or ‘were,’ i.e.,

I’d be happier still if the email were grammatically correct

or

I’d be happier still if the email was grammatically correct.

Frankly, I didn’t want to think about it. Besides, what if I used the wrong one? However, my pride prevailed. And by pride, I mean the one that cometh before a fall. [NOTE: Although this is the expression we know, the actual language in Proverbs 16 is a little bit different: ”Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”] So as penance for being tempted to perform this cowardly deed (I did use the correct form, by the way), I’m going to try to explain how to decide which word is correct. And it turns out this is one of the more interesting ‘rules’ of language usage.

When the ‘if’ is referring to an idea or thought that is blatantly untrue or hypothetical, you should use ‘were’ (subjunctive mood). For example, in the sentence above, the grammar in the email was NOT correct, which is why I used ‘were.’ When the ‘if’ is referring to something that is true or COULD be true, you should use ‘was’ (indicative mood). Some examples:

If I were ruler of the world, I would get everyone iphones. (I’m not ruler, so don’t get your hopes up-were)

If he was goofing off, he’d be outside playing basketball. (There is a chance that he is goofing off-was)

She wouldn’t go out with him if he were the last person on earth. (Fortunately for her, he’s not-were)

If I was rude, I apologize. (There is a possibility that I was rude [inadvertently, of course]-was)

If I were rude, I’d tell you what I think of you. (Happily, I’m not rude-were)

So there you have it. You make your choice of words based on the truth or falsehood of the sentence, and I only used the word, subjunctive, once!

Tip 2: In order to

This tip is brief. Why use three when one will do?

In order to understand the subject, John studied the literature thoroughly,

They grouped the data in order to better visualize the results.

In order to advance her training, Jane pursued a Master of Science degree.

She relocated to NYU in order to work with one of the better known experts in her field.

In none of these sentences is the use of ‘in order to’ an improvement over a simple ‘to.’

To understand the subject, John studied the literature thoroughly,

They grouped the data to better visualize the results.

To advance her training, Jane pursued a Master of Science degree.

She relocated to NYU to work with one of the better known experts in her field.

Remember, grace and simplicity is what we are aiming for so leave out the ‘in order,’ and just stick to ‘to.’

By the way, I’ve found only one instance where ‘in order to’ could not be improved by changing it to ‘to.’ That is in the title of Joan Didion’s book, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. For our purposes, however, the ‘to’ form is better.

1 Comment »

  1. Charmane said,

    I needed a clear explanation to give my colleague on the correct usage of ‘were’. Yours was perfect! Thanks.


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