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I would first like to state that I'm looking to hear from someone who does not use "was' subjunctively, as speakers from some countries do.

This room would be a great place for studying if it were quiet.

This room would be a great place for studying if it was quiet.

Is it possible for the second sentence to be correct? I know there are numerous posts on the internet and on both ELU and ELL SE on "was" vs. "were," but even having referred to them I can't figure this one out. The subjunctive mood is clearly used in the first sentence and would seem to be a remark made by someone who is in a noisy room and imagining it quiet, all the while conscious that it is not and will not be quiet (at least for a long time). The second sentence, when made by someone in a noisy room, seems to indicate belief or faith in the possibility of the room becoming quiet—at least that's how it seems to me. Can anyone share their two-cents on this? Is my analysis correct?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ColleenV Nov 4 '17 at 20:25
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Both utterances can be stated with equal validity to mean that the room the speaker is in is not quiet but that if it were (formal) or if it was (informal) then it would be a great place to study. So both were and was can be used (in most contexts) to indicate irrealis (what you're meaning by subjunctive). They talk about a situation that is not currently 'real'. The difference in the verbs is one of formality not of speaker's belief.

I don't see how the second sentence could, and I wouldn't use it to, express faith in the possibility of a currently noisy room to become quiet. Was, although past tense in form, refers to the present time. I'd say

This room would be a great place for studying if it became quiet.

Sticking with the verb to be, was indicates past possibility:

This room would be (=used to be) a great place for studying if it was quiet. If it was loud, it wasn't (a great place to study).

While speaking of future possibility when the speaker is not in the room requires

This room will be a great place for studying if it is quiet.

To offer another usage, consider the difference in

If I was/were in that noisy room last night then I wouldn't have been studying.

Here the speaker was not in the noisy room and he knows it, and it is talking about an irrealis situation. Again the difference between were and was is one of formal vs informal English.

and

If I was in that noisy room last night, then I wasn't studying.

Here the speaker is unsure if he was in the room (maybe he has a bad memory, or maybe he's equivocating). It's not a matter of irrealis but of lack of knowledge or professed knowledge. Was is required here since were could only indicate irrealis.

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We speakers of AmE use were more than speakers of BrE do. It is possible to hear both forms in AmE. I use were myself, as do many of my acquaintances. We who say were are not confused when we hear was in an irrealis if-clause. I cannot tell you what goes through the mind of a speaker who says was there, when they hear me say were, but I don't think the wuzzers have had any trouble understanding me.

P.S. I've been saying were ever since I can remember, and it doesn't feel formal to me at all. It feels neutral. The perceived degree of formality of the form will be in inverse relation to its frequency of use.

  • I'm guessing when you say you use were yourself, you mean you always do so. I'm much more inconsistent myself (I'm perfectly happy to use either, and wouldn't like to even guess which I use most often), but when it comes to what motivates my choice I don't think it's exactly "degree of formality" as such. I think I'm guided by what I suppose whoever I'm talking or writing to would say/write themselves (which may effectively net down to How formal do I think the other person would probably be in this exact context?, but I don't really think of it that way). – FumbleFingers Nov 3 '17 at 18:33
  • were must sound positively regal to some AmE ears. google.com/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 3 '17 at 18:43
  • I'm put in mind of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here (presumably, aimed primarily at the British audience). We can assume from later We don't need no education that they weren't specifically interested in being "grammatically correct", but my guess is only the most "oiky" of BrE non-royals would have preferred the former to have been titled Wish you was here. That's on a par with Back to Skule (originally a quirky/facetious US spelling, I believe). – FumbleFingers Nov 3 '17 at 19:15
  • It's possible to hear both forms in BrE too. You could be right that AmE uses it more (is there a source for this? I know AmE uses the "present" subjunctive more, but I don't know about "were"), although I don't think that's what the OP was asking. – rjpond Nov 4 '17 at 19:23
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There's no dialect of the English-speaking world that "intentionally" chooses not to use the subjunctive; there are people who aren't language-savvy enough or don't know any better or know better, but don't care; but there is no dialect that says, "Hey, we are not using the subjunctive." It's usually based on ignorance of language that they choose not to use it and nothing more.

On that note, your first example is the only one I would ever use. The second might be possible as an imperfect statement about something that would always happen in the past. "If" would denote "when" in your situation:

"I remember years ago when I was studying for exams that I needed quietude, so I always would retire to my favorite room. This room would be a great place for studying (if / when) it was quiet."

That's the only possibility that I can think of right now wherein your second example would be "grammatically correct". I consider the failure to use the subjunctive in your original example to be an "error" rather than "informal" when it is meant to convey a counterfactual situation in the present or near future; however, I am in the minority these days. To me, "informal" is something like saying "It's me" instead of "It is I" or saying "wanna" when one wants to say "want to" or saying "you" when one means "one"; saying "was", however, when it should be "were" is not informal; it's wrong. If I went around saying, "They was cheating" or "They is wrong" or "I are here", there would be no question that this is not just my being "informal"; everyone and his uncle would say, "Nick, that's ungrammatical."

I rest my case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. This case is closed.

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