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December 29th, 2004

If I were or if I was? / a savings

by Barbara Wallraff

Richard H. Freye, of Muskegon, Mich., writes: “We would not say ‘since I were president’ instead of ‘since I was president.’ So what logical reason is there for substituting a plural verb for a singular verb in ‘if I were president’ (instead of ‘if I was president’)? Is there a rule?”

Dear Richard: Yes. The important difference between your example phrases is that one of them is an “if” statement. When “if” leads into something that isn’t true and you don’t think it will ever be true, you’re supposed to follow it with a verb in the subjunctive mood -- one whose number or tense is out of the ordinary. “If I were president” is a good example. Other examples are “if I were you,” instead of “if I was you” or “if I am you” (I’m not!), and “if pigs had wings,” instead of “if pigs have wings” (they don’t!).

After “if,” our language distinguishes between real possibilities and imaginary ones. John McCain, for instance, might say “If I am (not ‘were’) president in 2009” -- assuming he’s thinking of running and has hopes of winning. An artist illustrating a fanciful children’s book might ask the author, “If these pigs have wings, should they have halos too?” By not using a subjunctive verb after “if,” a speaker or writer signals that what’s under discussion really is possible.

Subjunctive verbs also crop up elsewhere, mostly in wishes, demands, requests, proposals -- discussions of hypothetical things. These may be real possibilities or not. “Do you wish you were (not ‘are’) president?” “I demand that you be (not ‘are’) nominated!” “I’m going to request that I be (not ‘am’) nominated too.” “May I propose that we be (not ‘are’) running mates?” And now that we have that settled, what should we use for a campaign slogan?

Richard McMahan, of Glenville, N.Y., writes: “Whence ‘a savings of ...’? If I get a $10 item for $8, it seems to me that I’ve saved $2 -- that is, I’ve realized a ‘saving’ of $2. Where, when, why and by whom did ‘a saving’ get pluralized?”

Dear Richard: “A savings” is hardly ever seen in British English; it’s mainly Americans and Canadians who say and write this. Even some of us say “a saving,” though we holdouts are increasingly rare.

The earliest citation that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives (“an actual cash savings”) is from 1946. By the 1960s “a savings” was seen in print often enough that our language-reference books began to object to it -- usually strongly, using words like “illiteracy.” But newer resources say things like “Technically, ‘savings’ is a plural, not a singular. Yet the phrase ‘a savings’ occurs so frequently in modern usage that to label it an error would be futile”-- that’s from Garner’s Modern American Usage, published in 2003.

I don’t know why “a savings” sounds less awful to most of us than “a sausages” or “a saxophones,” but I have a guess. “Savings” is one of few plurals that are commonly, and correctly, used as adjectives. That is, we’d say “a savings account” and “a savings bank,” but not “a sausages pizza” or “a saxophones quartet.” So the phrase “a savings” doesn’t set alarm bells clanging in our heads -- even when maybe it should.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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