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January 2nd, 2008

If I was and if I were /

by Barbara Wallraff

Donald Crockett, of Reed City, Mich., writes: “I am 85 years old, so I know English has been dumbed down for many decades and I cannot keep up. What about ‘if’ and ‘wish’? Is it still correct to say, ‘If I WERE king,’ ‘If I WERE you,’ ‘I wish I WERE king,’ ‘I wish I WERE you’? Most books on English avoid even mentioning this quandary.”

Dear Donald: That’s just a bit harsh about decades’ worth of dumbing down the language, don’t you think? At least, hardly anything that was correct decades ago is now considered incorrect. The major exceptions are references we’ve come to think of as sexist, racist or ethnocentric. For instance, a nonspecific “policeman” is now a “police officer,” and the members of racial, religious, disabled, etc., groups get to decide what they should be called. But that change in the language isn’t a dumbing down. It’s a wising up to people’s sensitivities.

On the other hand, it’s true that many spellings and phrasings once considered incorrect have become acceptable. Each of us has to decide where on the spectrum of correctness we feel most comfortable. Lots of people want to be relaxed and modern, as opposed to formal and traditional, and I don’t particularly blame them. Sometimes I like to be relaxed and modern too -- but my duty is to explain what’s unquestionably correct, and traditional usage almost always is.

Which brings us back to your question about “if” and “wish.” Try looking under “subjunctives” in your books on English. That’s where you’re most likely to find these words discussed. The subjunctive is one of three “moods” of English. (The other moods are the indicative, which is what we usually use, and the imperative, which is for commands.) We use the subjunctive mainly for talking about hypothetical things, and we create it with out-of-the-ordinary verb forms -- such as “I were.”

When we “wish” for something, that something is hypothetical, because, of course, we don’t have it. So the subjunctive mood is correct for wishes, as in “I wish I WERE king” -- as opposed to an indicative statement like “I AM (or WAS or WILL BE) king in the community-theater play.” “If” is trickier, because some “if” statements are purely hypothetical, and others are based in reality. “If I WERE king” is again hypothetical, and therefore subjunctive. Contrast that, please, with the reality-based “If I AM ever going to end this long explanation, I might as well do it now.”

Moose Williams, of Arlington, Va., writes: “Isn’t the phrase ‘strategic planning’ redundant? Every strategy is a plan.”

Dear Moose: True, but not every plan is a strategy. “Vacation plans,” for instance, aren’t also “vacation strategies.” “Strategies” are usually long-term and goal-oriented. So “strategic” narrows down the meaning of “planning.”

To get the idea across, you could say “strategizing” -- but please don’t. “Strategize” is one of those unpleasant, bureaucratic-sounding verbs like “prioritize” and “utilize.” Granted, it’s not as newfangled as some suppose. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, it dates back to 1921. Like a certain kind of disagreeable person, “strategize” keeps hanging around even though it can never seem to make any friends.

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

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