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I said something like the following to someone before and they questioned my grammar:

I'm not saying it was the right play. I'm just questioning whether or not it were.

The person I made a similar statement to thought the 'were' at the end of the sentence should have been a 'was', but I feel like 'were' is correct because it's subjunctive. It's subjunctive because there is uncertainty about whether or not the play was correct.

Am I right?

To give a little more explanation of my view on this, the first of the 2 sentences uses 'was', because I'm talking about the scenario where I am sure it's the right play and so I say it was the right play, or rather I'm saying that this scenario is not the case, but nevertheless in this hypothetical scenario, I am certain, so it is not subjunctive. To illustrate this, I write the same sentence again, but with quotes: 'I'm not saying "It was the right play".'

Incidentally, this post has just been edited by someone who clearly disagrees, as they have changed the 'were' I put in the line preceding 'Am I right?' to a 'was'. I think this is incorrect though and is another instance of what my question is about. Here is what they have changed it to, with emphasis added, as you can see above: 'It's subjunctive because there is uncertainty about whether or not the play was correct.' I think this 'was' should be 'were'. It seems to me to be a clear case of the subjunctive, since we are not certain of the correctness of the play.

Having discussed the issue in comments made to this post, I think it may be clearer to pose the problem as follows:

I was talking to my father of a discussion with a streamer earlier that day in which I'd questioned a play he made and my father questioned my grammar. What I said to my father was as follows:

I wasn't saying [to the streamer] that it was the wrong play. I was just questioning whether or not it were.

My father thought I should have used 'was' instead of 'were' as the last word. I disagree. I've changed 'right' to 'wrong' as this is more accurate.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on English Language & Usage Meta, or in English Language & Usage Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – NVZ
    Commented Mar 3 at 16:00
  • As you present it "... I'm just questioning whether or not it were" is sharing your musings regarding the play. Am I right to say that, at the moment of musing, you are saying to yourself "Be this the right play, or ben't it?" ?
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 4 at 14:51
  • @Dan I just replied to this in chat. Commented Mar 5 at 13:49

5 Answers 5

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We used to do this but seldom do so today

Such constructions as you are asking about were once upon a time reasonably common, beginning in the mid 1500s as Early Modern English was starting to take shape. The next few centuries in fact saw a lot of them, perhaps under the influence of Continental languages.

But as time wore on, citations of this type become harder and harder to come by, having dwindled to all but non-existent except in the stuffiest writings from any later than the early 1900s, so around a hundred years ago.

For example, Robert Hooke wrote in Micrographia of 1665:

That I might be satisfi’d, whether it were not possible to make an Artificial pore as small as any Natural I had yet found, I made several attempts with small glass pipes, melted in the flame of a Lamp, and then very suddenly drawn out in a great length. And, by that means, without much difficulty, I was able to draw some almost as small as a Cobweb, which yet, with the Microscope, I could plainly perceive to be perforated, both by looking on the ends of it, and by looking on it against the light; which was much the easier way to determine whether it were solid or perforated; for, taking a small pipe of glass, and closing one end of it, then filling it half full of water, and holding it against the light, I could, by this means, very easily find what was the differing aspect of a solid and a perforated piece of glass; and so easily distinguish, without seeing either end, whether any Cylinder of glass I look’d on, were a solid stick, or a hollow case. And by this means, I could also presently judge of any small filament of glass, whether it were hollow or not, which would have been exceedingly tedious to examine by looking on the end.

Skipping forward several centuries to the 19th century, we find in the writings of Frederick Douglass and his peers such examples as:

Indeed, it seemed somewhat questionable, whether it were better for the English to civilize Africa, or for the Bagers to send missionaries to their brethren in England!

With respect to foreign possessions, it was very doubtful whether it were the real interest of France to have any colonies at all;

And in the English translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, we find:

.. and involuntarily, as she said this, at the moment a doubt entered her mind whether Anna really were happy.

[...]

“I see that she is happy,” he repeated, and the doubt whether she were happy sank more deeply into Darya Alexandrovna’s mind.

Although it is easy enough to find historical citations of whether it were, whether he were, or whether she were, it is rather more difficult to find any such citations from this past century, apart from reprints of older works.

Given the paucity of present-day citations, and my own sense as a living native speaker of English, I would not normally recommend the construction you are attempting, even though it is indeed one which our most elegant writers of yesteryear routinely employed long ago.

That’s because today it comes across as awkward and archaic at best — and at worst completely ungrammatical.


Historical References

See also this answer and its reference to Visser, who covers these particular historical syntactic quirks in truly exhaustive detail. We used to do this. We seldom do so today.

Please see Visser’s An Historical Syntax of the English Language for examples of using “modally marked forms” (what Visser calls the subjunctive) in clauses governed by whether. Chaucer used it: “To assay his horn and for to know whether it were clear.” There are both present and past tense uses lavishly demonstrated there, as well as historical ones.

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    Nice answer. I note that you say that 'at worst [it comes across] as completely ungrammatical', which isn't the same as saying 'it is completely ungrammatical'! Commented Mar 2 at 18:01
  • I replied to your comment in chat by the way, in case you haven't seen it. Commented Mar 2 at 19:04
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    And with regards to “I’m not even sure we’re allowed to change [the rules used by our predecessors]”, we definitely are! All languages change over time, including the English that Hooke et al. spoke. (Otherwise, why speak English in the first place, instead of whatever came before it?) Commented Mar 2 at 21:40
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    You are right, though, that “don’t start a sentence with ‘and’” is a silly rule! Native speakers do it all the time, and there’s not much reason for teachers to teach otherwise (with the possible exception of highly formal writing, which tends to be more standardized). Commented Mar 2 at 21:41
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    I guess what I’m trying to say is that modern linguistics is “descriptive”, which means that the ground truth is taken to be the way that native speakers speak. Thus, if a sentence feels ungrammatical to all the native speakers of any given language, then that’s it—it’s ungrammatical. The rules that linguists and English teachers create to describe English grammar are simply attempts to reflect actual usage, rather than themselves having any authority. (Again, a potential exception is in formal settings, where people do tend to care more about the “rules”.) Commented Mar 2 at 21:45
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If the speaker is reasonably sure a definitive answer will be forthcoming:

  • I'm not saying it was the right play. I'm just questioning whether or not it was.

(Asking a question soliciting a value judgement on a fact.)

If the speaker thinks that even hindsight might not give an indisputably correct answer:

  • I'm not saying it was the right play. I'm just wondering whether or not it might have been.

The modal, not a subjunctive construction, is correct to show speaker doubt about the availability of a satisfactory answer at the time of speaking. Doubt about the veracity / accuracy of a statement or proposition is conveyed to the listener by using a modal marker (eg 'possibly'; 'probably'; 'in my opinion'; modals like 'might' / 'may').

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  • You mean definite, not definitive. Your modal construction is a good way of getting around the problem, but nevertheless, I'm interested in whether or not the subjunctive ought to be applied if phrasing it as I did. I'm actually not convinced it oughtn't to be, despite your considerable reputation. Commented Mar 2 at 14:13
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    Why don't you just say that irrealis "were" is ungrammatical here, since we can't say *".. whether or not it were the right play"? In any case, English does not have a subjunctive mood. @GeorgeTomlinson
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 2 at 14:40
  • @BillJ Is the common English expression "If I were you..." not subjunctive? Commented Mar 2 at 16:46
  • Since you say the use of 'was' in the first example you give requires us to be 'reasonably sure' we will receive a definite answer, this seems to imply that if we are not reasonably sure, we may use 'were' and certainly shouldn't use 'was'. This sounds very like the conditions for use of the subjunctive to me. Commented Mar 2 at 16:52
  • I chose the word I wanted, GT. 'Something definitive is complete and final'. M-W. Saying 'You got this wrong' when it's not is unscholarly. Commented Mar 2 at 18:54
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The subjunctive mood helps express various states of unreality (wishes, doubts, hypothetical situations, and emotions). It is used to describe things that are not necessarily true or real, but rather things that are imagined or desired.

So in the case of the OP...

There is no doubt that there was a play.

There is also no doubt that 'you' are questioning whether or not the play is or is not 'right'.

Expressing an opinion on the rightness of the play - either way - is, by its nature, also indicative rather than 'subjunctive'.

Therefore "I'm not saying it was the right play. I'm just questioning whether or not it was."

This can be made clearer still by spelling out your phrase

"I'm not saying it was the right play. I'm just questioning if it was the right play or it was not." You would not use were in this sentence, would you?

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  • There was doubt about whether the play was/were correct though, at least in my mind, if not also in the mind of the person to whom I posed the question and doubts were one of the categories of things you mentioned for which the subjunctive is applied. I wasn't actually even expressing an opinion. I was simply raising the question and data was available, analysis of which may have provided a definite answer to the question, although the streamer I posed the question to didn't look at it. I did suggest an alternative play which may have been superior, but I said I didn't know if it was/were. Commented Mar 2 at 14:21
  • You can see how often the issue arises, as I keep having to say 'was/were' rather than one or the other. I feel like it should be 'were' in all these cases actually, precisely because there is uncertainty regarding a past event, which I think defaults to the unreal past, rather than the real. If something may not be a part of the real past, we mustn't assume it is. It's like "innocent until proven guilty." Commented Mar 2 at 14:25
  • I upvoted your answer because I found your clarification of the kind of things the subjunctive relates to useful and the rest of what you said helped to solidify my position. Commented Mar 2 at 15:58
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    @GeorgeTomlinson - I've added an extra clarification to my answer. Just because the speaker is doubtful doesn't make questioning its rightness doubtful.
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 3 at 14:13
  • Ok thanks. To answer your question though, I would use were in the sentence you asked about, yes, for the reasons I’ve expressed in my various comments, OP and in agreement with the authors of the texts, excerpts of which are given by tchrist in his answer. Commented Mar 3 at 14:48
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In educated English, your sentence with whether it were would fit right in.

But it's not a question of "right" or "wrong". Some speakers rarely or never use what has been called for centuries "the subjunctive" while others use that form frequently. Only the miseducated would think there's something wrong with were.

Less common is whether it be but it is used, especially in legal and philosophical debate.

P.S. The use of were reveals the speaker's attitude towards the situation. Language is expressive. We don't judge the appropriateness of was/were against any objective measure. If, in the speaker's sense of things, the answer to the question "Was it proper?" is at all debatable, the speaker is licensed to say "I asked whether it were a proper thing to do".

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    Very nice results there in that first search!
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 3 at 18:46
  • It's not necessarily that they're miseducated; they may simply never have gained access to written English at even a middle-school level: on average, most of the U.S. today reads below the sixth-grade level. So they probably haven't read very much, let alone much one would consider to fall in the category of "educated" let alone "literary" English, which this I would say probably counts as. They may have never read anything but text messages. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 3 at 19:43
  • I take your point about exposure. But I wouldn't call "whether it were" literary only because I'd prefer to reserve the term "literary" for uses in literature. **whether it were" appears in legal texts, in a book by Henry Ford, in religious texts, in philosophical texts, in scientific texts, etc.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 3 at 19:49
  • ... uses in literature like " 'tis " and "ere" and the ilk.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 3 at 21:14
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The phrase, “Whether or not it were” is a choice between two absolute outcomes. Therefore it is not an unknown, or subjunctive verb. Proper use of subjunctive is a known unknown, as it were. See what I did there? If it is an unknown, unknowable, it is subjunctive. Another example is, “…as if it were true.” Where the writer clearly indicates in the content that “it”, whatever “it”is, is not true, or a manifest falsehood.

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  • ‘As if it were true’ is clearly subjunctive. I’m well aware of this. I’d have hoped you’d have credited me more highly than to think I didn’t know this already! As for your claim that because it is a choice between 2 absolute outcomes (is there any other sort of outcome?), it isn’t subjunctive, I’ve never heard such a claim before and what I’ve read about the subjunctive, along with the examples given in tchrist’s answer, disagree with your claim. Commented Mar 4 at 12:13
  • If you mean to suggest that because the outcomes are absolute, there is no uncertainty and therefore it’s not subjunctive, I and the other sources I referred to would disagree again, unless we’re to believe there is no subjunctive in English as BillJ claims (and maybe he’s right) but in this case, it would seem that language has evolved so that people refer to this as subjunctive, so the terminology BillJ uses has been superseded. Commented Mar 4 at 12:13

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