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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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    'When ah were a lad ...' is a famous dialect expression, but very dated now. Jul 19, 2015 at 22:09
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    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

8 Answers 8

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In dialects of Northern England, especially the Yorkshire dialect, this is normal. It's fairly common to hear:

"I were going home."

"He were in t' pub."

and sometimes

"They was in t' kitchen"

These will get marked down if you use them in your English exam. Nonetheless they are a correct and often-used normal part of the dialect. It's regular past tense and not subjunctive.

With Halifax being in Yorkshire it's expected that some people there will speak in the Yorkshire dialect. You don't have to be a "bumpkin" to speak like that, just a longtime Yorkshire person.

See bullet 7 of the "Vocabulary and Grammar" section of the link.

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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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“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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Non-standard and/or regional dialects of English often contain older grammatical forms which, by virtue of being "older forms," may be closer to older English, which in turn is sometimes closer to its close cousin, German. This from the an interesting article, Tom F; 10 British Dialects you need to Know; EF Education First:

The West Country includes the counties of Gloucestershire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and the dialect is the closest to the old British language of Anglo-Saxon, which was rooted in Germanic languages – so, true West Country speakers say "I be" instead of "I am", and "Thou bist" instead of "You are", which is very close to "Ich bin" (I am) and "Du bist" (You are) in modern German.

That dialect moves quite a few steps closer to older English and modern German than "I were"--> "Ich war" and the like!

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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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  • No it's not subjunctive, it's Yorkshire dialect. Nov 26, 2023 at 19:55
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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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  • This isnot what is going on here. Nov 26, 2023 at 19:54
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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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