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If Only I Could Tell You

It was a simple question, in an email from a nonlinguist friend: “Which is preferable, if only it were or if only it was?”

Oh dear. People choosing between these alternatives are usually struggling to avoid what they fear might be a mistake. Recalling talk of “the subjunctive” and how important it is, they want to make sure they are not to be classified among the ignorant hordes who wouldn’t know a subjunctive clause from a subduction zone.

She wanted the pure and simple truth. She wasn’t going to like what I had to tell her. For (as Algernon so astutely remarks to Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest) the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

I guess I can say one thing that is simple and true (though those seeking guidance will hate it anyway): Both are grammatical. The slight difference between if only that were true and if only that was true is a matter of style. The first is more formal, the second more conversational. Neither is a mistake. Do a Google search on "if only it was" (with the quotes) and browse around a little. Could a random slip plausibly occur that frequently, or in writing so clearly literate?

Down at the level of detail, what I have to explain is that English has a single verb that, in formal style only, uses the special form were for marking certain contexts referring to a currently unrealized situation — and “if only” is a textbook example of a phrase introducing an unrealized situation. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) uses the term irrealis for this special use of were.

The lone verb that has an irrealis form is be (the verb with the inflectional forms am, are, aren’t, is, isn’t, was, wasn’t, were, and weren’t, be, been, being). All other verbs use the simple past tense form known as the preterite, as in If only time went faster.

Even with be, the special form is there only in the first and third person singular. Elsewhere the irrealis is identical with the preterite; if you were wrong is ambiguous between past and irrealis, just like if you went wrong.

You might ask whether I use the irrealis were myself after “if only.” And I’m afraid the answer is that I don’t know. It’s an empirical question. We’d have to start by capturing a few hundred hours of me talking in various venues, and millions of words of my articles, blog posts, emails, etc. Then we’d have to do some syntactic analysis — merely counting was and were tokens will tell us nothing. Sometimes if it was is the only grammatical possibility, and replacing by if it were would be a mistake. I’m sorry if I was rude yesterday refers to past time, so the preterite cannot be replaced by the irrealis: *I’m sorry if I were rude yesterday is ungrammatical. (Anxious native speakers trying to write formal style sometimes make such errors.)

It wouldn’t be easy to automate the search. In one folder containing about 172,000 words of mine (which took half a second to search on my laptop) there were just two instances of if only, and neither one had the verb “be” after it, so they tell us nothing. Clearly there is a real problem with the quantity of data needed. I did a quick search of 44 million words of Wall Street Journal prose, looking for if only X  were(n’t) or if only X  was(n’t), where X  = I, he, she, it, or a noun phrase of the form the N  (for some string of letters N); and only three relevant cases turned up. This suggests we couldn’t expect more than about 70 relevant instances in each billion words of text searched.

The Wall Street Journal cases all had were or weren’t; but that might mean merely that the Journal leans toward formal style, not that if only it was is incorrect. And 3 is a tiny number of cases. We’d need a lot more data just to know whether there was a really a strong bias.

Finally, if you pressed me for my conscious esthetic preference, I’d have to say I don’t think I have one. Asking me is like asking a botanist whether an orchid or a sunflower is better. After a lifetime as a linguist, looking at the curiosities of English grammar objectively is second nature for me: I tend not to have preferences in these matters. Sometimes I’m the wrong person to ask for a clear recommendation or confident prohibition.

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