So, if you are a big fan of Sherlock, you have probably watch BBC series ''Sherlock''. I think it is the third chapter in Series 1, the one that starts with Sherlock in Eastern Europe talking to a man who has just murdered his wife. This man's English would fit in the working class accent (if not lower), and he does not even use verb tenses correctly. Each time he says something incorrectly, Sherlock corrects him, every single time. This is no wonder though, it is Sherlock. What I do not understand then is that Sherlock himself says ''If I was….'', instead of ''If I were'' (for example in S2E1). And it is really surprising because it is Sherlock, but also because, as far as I know, Benedict Cumber's accent is quite posh.

I thought I was missing something but I watched a video about the use of subjunctive in English on YouTube the other day and LetThemTalkTV said there was no option: ``If I were'' is the only correct one.

So... What do you think? Why do you think Sherlock says ''If I was''?

Link to videos

S2E1: Dinner scene (SHE does the same).

S1E3: Chat in prison (bad quality)

  • It's been a while since I watched the show, but if I remember right, Sherlock says "if I was" at the end of that opening scene to mock the man even further. He knows that is the incorrect word to use but is doing it deliberately to show his disdain at the man, which you can hear in his tone of voice. – randomhead Mar 31 at 21:43
  • Use of the subjunctive is dying out and this seems to be happening faster in British English than American. An American pedant or language-snoot might criticize someone for saying "If I were" and might be careful to avoid such usage. Would that be true of a British pedant? Perhaps one of our British users can tell us. – Juhasz Mar 31 at 21:48
  • 1
    Question about the same scene ell.stackexchange.com/questions/253981/… – James K Mar 31 at 21:57
  • Can you link to the youtube video, please? – James K Mar 31 at 21:58
  • @randomhead But not inly in that scne. As I have said, also in S2E1, with THE WOMEN – Dog_69 Mar 31 at 22:55

Some people see the scene and think it means that Sherlock is "very good with grammar" or "is very picky about grammar". But that scene is not about grammar. It is to show us how Sherlock doesn't care about people's feelings. He only cares about the case. When talking to the man with bad grammar he realises that the man is guilty, so he has "solved" the case. And now he is just tormenting the man. A normal person would feel some emotion towards the man (pity? disgust?) Sherlock just amuses himself by playing a game at the man's expense.

In general, Sherlock doesn't have a very different attitude to grammar than other educated and intelligent people.

The "were" subjunctive is optional, except in some fixed expressions like "If I were you..." It can be used for particular nuance, but in general the indicative form "If I was..." is correct and normal.

  • I'm afraid I don't agree with you, sir. I think he is picky with grammar. In S2E1 again, there is a moment when Watson says to Mycroft: ''He (Sherlock) does not speak, apart from correcting telly''. Of course Sherlock doesn't care about people's feeling. No one would dare to say such things, even if they think he's guilty. and I'm not a native speaker, but I'm convinced it is not optional but mandatory if one wants to speak properly (I know it's barely used, but that doesn't mean it's optional). – Dog_69 Mar 31 at 23:06
  • @Dog_69, "I'm convinced it is not optional but mandatory if one wants to speak properly" - if you're convinced, there's no point in asking us about it. It is the case that very many people, including very highly educated and very well spoken people do not use "were" in the subjunctive past. If you want to always use it, no one is going to complain. – Juhasz Mar 31 at 23:23
  • @Juhasz I guess you're right. – Dog_69 Mar 31 at 23:33

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