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I've been watching a TV sitcom lately, "Last Tango in Halifax." A main character uses "weren't" instead of "wasn't" and I am wondering if that is considered correct in some areas or dialects? For example, "It weren't like that," or "I weren't going to stop there today." (As an American, British terminology sometimes sounds odd to me; especially the slang - which I usually find spot-on, witty and/or damn funny.)

This show isn't like a "Beverly Hillbillies" type; the characters aren't uneducated bumpkins. So my question is whether or not weren't can sometimes be interchangeable with wasn't, and if so, when? And is it a regional thing?

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  • 1
    'When ah were a lad ...' is a famous dialect expression, but very dated now. Jul 19, 2015 at 22:09
  • 2
    Very common in Yorkshire dialect
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 19, 2015 at 22:23
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    There seem to me three possible reasons why were is used with a singular subject: a) the use of what many consider the English subjunctive - If I were you, I would tell the truth about what happened. b) regional dialect e.g. Yorkshire, and c) poor grasp of English grammar.
    – WS2
    Jul 19, 2015 at 22:27
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    This pronunciation is often written as "were/weren't" but I believe it's a misinterpretation and should really be written "wa'/wa'n't". As someone from Yorkshire I use this shortened form all the time but know perfectly well that the singular form is "was". Personally I say "wa/want" but I know plenty of people who lengthen it enough to sound more like "were/weren't". I don't believe there's any subjunctives or poor grasp of grammar involved, just a simple omission of the "s" - but I've no proof to back this up so I haven't put it as an answer.
    – Mynamite
    Jul 19, 2015 at 22:54
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    @Mynamite How about “When ah were a lad…”, where at least I have never heard it as anything but variations on [wəɹ ə], that is, with a clearly pronounced /r/. I’ve also heard people pronouncing it [wəː] or [wɜː] when emphasised, which is very different from how an emphasised wa’ would come out, [wɒ] or [wɔ]. I’m sure it’s just an omitted /s/ to some speakers, but I’m equally sure that to many others, it really is just that the singular and the plural have merged. Jul 20, 2015 at 17:34

6 Answers 6

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I've certainly read weren't's southern equivalent, "warn't," used before. For example, from Huckleberry Finn: "Jim warn’t on his island, so I tramped off in a hurry for the crick, and crowded through the willows, red-hot to jump aboard and get out of that awful country."

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You get this in the West Country dialects as well (I were/I weren't), in the indicative. Not standard English, but certainly a recognised feature of dialects in that part of the country.

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@alsa provides the contrafactual use of the subjunctive "were." There are also the optative use, "Would that it were true," and the future-less-vivid use, "Were she to do this, what would be her reward?"

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“It weren’t like that” or “I weren’t going to stop there today” — in New Zealand that is just plain wrong, but it is probably a valid local usage somewhere in the UK.

It is correct to use “If I weren’t” (for example, feeling so ill) if we follow it with “I would (verb)” where there is a condition affecting the outcome, or lack of it.

It is a relic of the subjunctive mood, I imagine.

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I agree with WS2, but I think that by far the most important "possible reason" is the first: it is simply subjunctive (part of the little that is left of the original subjunctive). In the City of London people could not say "If I was you", but only "If I were you". Obviously I cannot exclude the influence of a regional dialect or a case of poor grammar: but - in both cases - the person who is influenced would be very lucky.

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I have not verified when in English "was" came up, which shows a particular exchange of the consonant r in "were" to s. In German there is not r/s change: ich war, wir waren ( I was, we were). It seems some northern dialects were not affected by this change of r to s. In German there is the special term Rhotazismus from the Greek letter rho for the change of r to s. But it seems this term is not usual in English. So I have to find out how this phenomenon is called in English.

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  • I always thought rhotacism was the reverse change of "s" to "r".
    – herisson
    Feb 2, 2017 at 20:09

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