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I was having a little debate on a grammar issue with someone. The sentence is: We wasn't going to, but Jordan was skipping all the way to the toy shop.

I said that it should be: We weren't going to, but Jordan was skipping all the way to the toy shop.

The person saying it should be wasn't cited this for support: "The use of were and weren't in the subordinate clauses depends on the reality or truthfulness of the subordinate clause. If it is true, then the indicative forms was and wasn't are in order. If it is not true i.e. counterfactual, then the past subjunctive forms were and weren't are used."

He said that since it was true the sentence would be correct with wasn't.

He also cited: "The subjunctive mood is used to describe or speculate on a hypothetical situation, and you’ll hear people using both ‘”was” and “were” in this context. But only one of these is correct. Whenever we’re talking about something that isn’t a reality at the moment, we discard “was” and choose “were” instead. It doesn’t matter whether we are referring to a single person or a group of people. As soon as we cross the border between reality and speculation, “were” is the only word to choose. "

As far as I'm aware you can never use "was" with "we" in proper English.

I'd appreciate your opinions on what you think the correct sentence would be and why. Thanks!

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As far as I'm aware you can never use "was" with "we" in proper English.

You're right: the verb be never takes the form was when the first-person plural pronoun we is the subject. Was is used only with the first-person pronoun I and with third-person singular subjects. (The preceding two sentences are true "in proper English", as you put it: the use of was with other kinds of subjects in dialects other than standard English isn't relevant to your question.) The answer to your specific question is that simple.

The complicated questions about when to use was vs. were deal with clauses where the subject is I or a third-person singular pronoun or noun phrase.

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  • Sure, that is the case for Standard English and the prescriptivist approach, but in really small communities, it is acceptable in that region. There is significantly less hits for “we was” as opposed to “we were”, but even “we was” has occurred in the literature before. But does “we were” really reflect how native speakers speak as a whole or how the language is used? There was even a book published in 2019 called Before we was we - I don’t know the editors didn’t notice it. – aesking Jan 22 '20 at 0:31
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    @aesking: I forgot to include a disclaimer about that. Added, but it's not relevant to this question, since the question is clearly about standard English. – herisson Jan 22 '20 at 0:34
  • as I take it, the OP (person A) rightly believes it should be "were", while the OP's friend, person B, thinks it should be "was" - couldn't person's B dialect/idiolect factor into this decision of whether it is right or not? – aesking Jan 22 '20 at 0:40
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    @aesking: That could affect whether it is right or not in person B's dialect. But the question only asks whether "was" is correct in standard English; it doesn't ask whether it is correct in B's dialect, or why B thinks that "was" is correct in standard English. (Since there is no information on B (we don't even know whether B natively speaks English or another language), it would hard to answer that last question with the information given.) – herisson Jan 22 '20 at 0:56
  • I have a small caveat: if we are talking about real possible conditions, is it still: "If we were rude to you ... we apologise", (Shouldn't be, "If we was rude to you we apologise", c.f. " * If I were rude to you, I apologise..."?) T-christ's answer talks about reality vs impossible conditions, with the exception of the rule of using "were" applies only to unreal conditionals e.g. If I were a rich man, I would make more charitable donations. What do you think, is this true regardless of the pronoun used "I, we" etc.? – aesking Jan 22 '20 at 1:28
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Understanding Syntax by Maggie Tallerman

3.2.1 Complement clauses (page 89)

In (23) the clauses do not all have an equal syntactic status. Each of these examples has two clauses: a MATRIX clause, which forms the entire sentences, and a SUBORDINATE clause which is embedded within the matrix clause ...

I would like to note already two key features of subordinate clauses and that is 'do not have an equal syntactic status' and 'embedded within the matrix clause'.

... The subordinate clauses are all in square brackets in (23), and the verbs in the matrix clause are in bold. The subordinate clause is dependent on the matrix clause, as we'll see in a moment:

(23) a. My friend claimed [ (that) Ceri liked chips ].
(23) b. I wondered [ whether/if Ari had gone ].
(23) c. They want [ to leave before breakfast ]

Each of the bracketed subordinate clauses is an obligatory ARGUMENT of the verb in the matrix clause. In other words, these verbs (claim, wonder, want) need a particular syntactic phrase to complete their meaning. [...] Sometimes we could just have a direct object as the argument of the verb, rather than a clause: for instance, They want an egg. Some verbs, though, including say, wonder, claim, want and enquire typically take an argument which is an entire clause. The subordinate clauses specify what was said, claimed, wondered or wanted. Subordinate clauses that are selected by a verb in this way are known as complement clauses.

You can see from these examples that subordinate clauses have some distinctive properties. First, they are often introduced by a small functional element known as a COMPLEMENTIZER. In (23), that, whether and if are all complementizer. But whether and if couldn't be omitted. In fact, the matrix verb wonder selects a clause that starts with a complementizer of this kind, where as claim selects a finite clause (a finite clause is an independent clause which can serve as a stand alone sentence, e.g. (that) Ceri liked chips)) introduced optionally by that.

The main thing here to note is that by itself, the finite clause, "Ceri liked chips" would be an insubordinate clause and stand-alone, but since it is introduced by (that) it is a special type of subordinate clause (or rather a complement clause) as explained before:

Some verbs, though, including say, wonder, claim, want and enquire typically take an argument which is an entire clause. The subordinate clauses specify what was said, claimed, wondered or wanted. Subordinate clauses that are selected by a verb in this way are known as complement clauses.

In the OP's sentence:

We wasn't/weren't going to, [ (but) Jordan was skipping all the way to the toy shop. ]

The obligatory intransitive multi-word verb 'wasn't/weren't going to' takes the complement clause introduced by but (a type of subordinate clause): '(But) Jordan was skipping all the way to the toy shop.'

WHY?

Each of the bracketed subordinate clauses is an obligatory ARGUMENT of the verb in the matrix clause. In other words, these verbs (claim, wonder, want) need a particular syntactic phrase to complete their meaning.

You cannot separate these two clauses together, they are not independent from the other as explained above (context, context, context). While they certainly can be independent in a different world and if they were separated by the full stop and there was no complementizer, then I would relentlessly say there is no subordinate clause in the OP's sentence. Another thing...

You can see from these examples that subordinate clauses have some distinctive properties. First, they are often introduced by a small functional element known as a COMPLEMENTIZER.

A second property subordinate clauses concerns finiteness. [...] But many subordinate clauses contain only a non-finite verb form (to believe, to be here). This is also the case in (23c), where to leave before breakfast is a non-finite clause.

The OP's subordinate clause does not have an overt verb, yes it has a lexical verb, but as described before the introduction of the complementizer makes it 'insubordinate' (and essentially 'non-finite') - in that it's dependent on the multi-word verb from the matrix clause.

A third property of (some) subordinate clauses is also seen in (23c), They want [to leave before breakfast]. Here, the non-finite complement clause to leave before breakfast has no overt subject...This is a sure signal in English that we are dealing with a subordinate clause. [HOWEVER ...] An alternative option to (23c) is a non-finite subordinate clause with an overt subject: "They want [the girls to leave before breakfast]". But then it is clearly understood that this subject, the girls, refers to a different entity from the matrix subject, they.

As we saw, a subordinate clause is part of the matrix clause, and so is said to to be EMBEDDED (= contained) within it. (page 90)

The same can be said about the OP's sentence; although the subject of the subordinate clause is 'Jordan', we know that it is actually referring to the matrix subject 'We' in the previous clause. This shows that there is a relationship between the clauses and that they cannot stand alone without losing the integrity in meaning of the whole matrix clause, signalling a lack of independence.

Matrix clauses can be complicated (page 91):

(32) [They want [to know [whether we'd expect [to leave before breakfast]]]]

What we find, then, is [...] a hierarchical structure of clauses embedded within clauses. The know, expect and leave clauses are all complement clauses, since they are required by the verb in the 'upstairs' clause. But the want, know and expect clauses are also - simultaneously - all matrix clauses as well.


Wasn't or weren't

Your 'wasn't vs weren't' debate...I'm not going to answer this as this could be technically flagged as a duplicate due to how many times this has been asked on ELU (and ELU, from what I've gathered, aims to be accurate and factual as possible, however, I have tried to explain this in layman's terms for easier understanding):

Wasn't and weren't?

When to use "If I was" vs. "If I were"?

British vs. USA grammar: Wasn't or Weren't usage

The general gist I'm getting from your question and is that were not is the preferred option as its the most grammatical in Standard English (SE), but not 'was not'. There is not actually any grammatical basis from what I can see, why it should be 'either/or', and not 'and', but both are technically valid depending on where you live. It is grammatical in the dialect it is spoken in. This has been thoroughly discussed in answers on ELU numerous times.

In those answers in particular, they cite the use of 'was not' as grammatically valid in some contexts, even in Standard English... this means that sometimes it's not due to regional variations:

You use If I was in the “if” part when the “then” part is in the simple past.

These are always conditionals from Maule’s class B. It would not be grammatical to use “If I were” there.

These “real past” cases happen all the time in real speech and real writing, as Jones and Waller prove.

Consider this arrangement:

If she was[real] already home when he got there, then she took[real] the bus.

That’s a real past case on both sides, and it would be ungrammatical to use “If she were” to attempt to mean the same thing

tchrist♦, answered Feb 4 '18 at 20:50

... but to clarify @BillJ's comment, it is 'grammatical' (it's just the common way of saying things) in certain communities (those, you might say, don't speak 'well'). It's just a different way of speaking. You may pass judgement on those communities for not speaking your version and cal them 'wrong', but it's how they speak (and it's just a different rule). Of course, you don't want to use this in school, work, or anything but very informal contexts using standard English (US, UK, Aus, etc)

Mitch, Jan 16 '19 at 17:24

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What you seem to miss here is that "We weren't going to" is not a subordinate clause. It can be argued that "but Jordan ..." is (or isn't) a subordinate clause, but whether it is or isn't has no effect on the verb of the preceding clause.

(I would argue that the sentence is a plain vanilla compound sentence, using "but" as a conjunction.)

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