I Wish I Were (or Was)...?

Alex RUS   Tue May 08, 2007 9:47 am GMT
Dear native speakers, I often hear you say "I wish I were...", "If I were you...". Why do you use "were" instead of "was"? What is the correct version?
If you talk about a company (a group of people) you say "...the company wave to him", but not "waves". And what if you talk about a company (a firm)..? - Do we have to say "the company offers a wide range of services" or "the company offer a wide range of services"?
Kess   Tue May 08, 2007 4:14 pm GMT
I wish I were (traditional usage)
I wish I was (modern usage)

Both are correct. Modern usage is preferred in informal contexts,
traditional usage is preferred in formal/written contexts.
E. H.   Tue May 08, 2007 5:32 pm GMT
>>>Dear native speakers, I often hear you say "I wish I were...", "If I were you...". Why do you use "were" instead of "was"? What is the correct version?>>>

Well, this may be just an American thing, but we almost always--whether the situation is formal or informal--use "I wish I were..." and "If I were you..." It sounds incorrect the other way.

>>>If you talk about a company (a group of people) you say "...the company wave to him", but not "waves". And what if you talk about a company (a firm)..? - Do we have to say "the company offers a wide range of services" or "the company offer a wide range of services"?>>>

You would say "the company waves to him" and "the company offers a wide range of services".
furrykef   Tue May 08, 2007 6:02 pm GMT
This aspect of grammar is actually much more obscure than it ought to be, in my opinion. "If I were..." is an instance of the subjunctive mood in English. If you speak a Romance language, it might use the imperfect subjunctive in the same situation (such as Spanish "Si yo fuera t", not "Si yo fui t" or "Si yo era t"). The same construction is used in the third person: "If he were President..."

The reason the subjunctive is used is that the situation is hypothetical; you don't use it with non-hypothetical situations. For instance, one error in the film Night of the Living Dead is that one character says "Johnny asked me if I were afraid." This is incorrect because Johnny was asking about a matter of fact: are you afraid or not? To decide whether or not to use the subjunctive, you can mentally add the word "hypothetically" after "if". If it makes sense, you can use the subjunctive. "If, hypothetically, I were President, I would give everybody a tax refund."

The subjunctive has long been dying out everywhere in the English-speaking world, particularly in Britain. I wouldn't be surprised if it disappears entirely within a century or two. In the United States (and probably Canada), I'd stick with using the subjunctive. Elsewhere, I'm not sure. But you'll definitely be understood even if you never use the subjunctive form, and a lot of people don't use it.

<< If you talk about a company (a group of people) you say "...the company wave to him", but not "waves". >>

This is actually a difference between American and British usage. I *think* Canadian usage is usually consistent with the American usage, and Australian usage is usually consistent with the British usage. In American usage, even when referring to a group of people, you would use the singular with a word like "company". We consider a group to be a singular entity. (There are some uncommon exceptions... I'd say "The Beatles were a band", since the name is plural in form, but "Devo was a band", since it's singular in form. But I would say "The band was...", whether or not the word "band" referred to The Beatles.) For British usage, I believe that "company" is indeed plural when referring to a group of people, and singular when referring to a business.

- Kef
Kendra   Tue May 08, 2007 7:35 pm GMT
English: If I were you
Brazilian Portuguese: Se eu fosse voc

if = se
I = eu
were = fosse
you = voc

both WERE and FOSSE are subjunctive...
We can consider it a fixed expression just like LONG LIVE THE KING
(and not LONG LIVES THE KING ;) )
Kendra   Tue May 08, 2007 7:36 pm GMT
''I *think* Canadian usage is usually consistent with the American usage''

It's common to hear THE POLICE ARE on Canadian TV (CBCNews)...
Travis   Tue May 08, 2007 7:39 pm GMT
>>It's common to hear THE POLICE ARE on Canadian TV (CBCNews)...<<

That usage is present in North American English in general, as "police" here is actually plural rather than being a singular noun indicating a group.
Guest   Wed May 09, 2007 1:21 am GMT
It depends how you think of "police". I often say "the police is" perceiving it as singular. But when others around me treat it in the plural I will automatically switch to "the police are"...
Uriel   Wed May 09, 2007 3:18 am GMT
I always say "I wish I were" and I never think of "police" as singular -- I have to modify it to police officer, policeman, or cop for that.

And Devo still rocks....
Guest   Wed May 09, 2007 8:30 am GMT
Looks like I'm not the only one to use police in singular and plural (depending on context, of course) :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police

"Police are agents or agencies empowered to use force..." (~policemen)

"Iceland
The police is divided into districts..." (~police force)

"Luxembourg
The police is under the control of the ..." (~police force)
furrykef   Wed May 09, 2007 8:52 am GMT
Wikipedia is edited by people all over the world -- American, British, and otherwise -- and, even though the official policy is to use only one dialect in a given article, not everybody is even aware of these differences among dialects. Considering that, in addition, the word "police" really is rather ambiguous as to whether it's singular or plural (in the U.S. dialect, anyway), it's not too surprising to find inconsistent usage. :)

- Kef
Guest   Wed May 09, 2007 8:57 am GMT
plural for me. whenever you dial for 911 always more than one cop comes for a help so yeah police is plural. If you want to mention only a person then a ploiceman or a cop would do the job.
guest   Wed May 09, 2007 12:16 pm GMT
I wish I were (traditional usage)
I wish I was (modern usage)

lmao!!
Uriel   Fri May 11, 2007 3:16 am GMT
As far as I know, "I wish I were" is perfectly modern as well. Or at least, I'm not feeling particularly antediluvian....
Travis   Fri May 11, 2007 3:23 am GMT
>>As far as I know, "I wish I were" is perfectly modern as well. Or at least, I'm not feeling particularly antediluvian.... <<

This is because the subjunctive is much better preserved in many North American English dialects than in many English English dialects, so that while to many English people saying that "I wish I were" is traditional usage and "I wish I was" is modern usage is applicable, to many North Americans "I wish I were" is still current usage and "I wish I was" may even sound wrong or at least somewhat akward.