A Surprising Grammatical Controversy

A few years ago a heated debate erupted in an online discussion group regarding the Pet Shop Boys' use of the line "If I was you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do" in the song "I'm Not Scared." It started when a fan pointed out that, technically, it was bad grammar—that it should be "If I were you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do." Another fan responded that the original line was grammatically correct as is. After all, you'd say, "I was his friend," so why wouldn't you say, "If I was you"? Battle lines were drawn as more and more fans entered the fray.

Several common stances emerged. First was the group that insisted that "If I was you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do" was indeed incorrect grammatically, but that Neil must have surely known this and used bad grammar for a reason; the puzzle, therefore, lay in figuring out that reason. Another viewpoint agreed that it was bad grammar but that Neil probably didn't have any particular reason for it—that he, being after all a fallible human being, simply made a mistake. A third group maintained that "If I was you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do" was totally correct as is.

This debate—sometimes descending to the level of flame-throwing—continued for more than a week, but finally wound down and ended when it became clear that nobody was going to convince anybody with an opposing viewpoing that he or she was incorrect.

So now, long after the dust has settled, we're left with the question: Just what is the truth?

First there's the fundamental question about grammar. As it turns out, the answer isn't such a simple one. In traditional English grammar, the verb in the opening conditional clause of the sentence "If I [was or were] you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do" should be in the subjunctive mood. You see, verbs in English can be in one of three "moods": indicative, imperative, or subjunctive. The indicative mood, which is used for statements of fact, is by far the most common. The imperative mood is used to express commands. And the subjunctive mood is used to express conditions contrary to fact or to express a wish.

Anyone who has studied such languages as French and Spanish is well acquainted with the fact that most verbs are heavily inflected and conjugate differently depending on their mood. Hundreds of years ago—before the time of Geoffrey Chaucer—this was also the case in English. But through the history of the language, English verbs came to lose most of their inflections, particularly regarding mood. Today very few English verbs conjugate differently in the subjunctive mood than they do in the indicative mood. Thus English speakers are largely unaware of any distinction in mood at all. In effect, the subjunctive mood itself has been dying out in English.

But the verb "to be" is something of an anomaly in English. It's a well-known pattern in linguistics that the most commonly used verbs are the ones that tend to retain the most complex inflections. That is, because they're so often used, people can learn their complex inflections through sheer force of habit. Therefore the single most commonly used verb, "to be," has retained the single most complex set of inflections in the English language: "be," "am," "is," "are," "was," "were," "been," and "being" are all inflections of "to be."

And, sure enough, "to be" is one of the very few verbs in English to retain, in traditional grammar, a distinction between the indicative and subjunctive versions of the verb. In "mandative" situations, the typical subjunctive form of "to be" is "be," as in the sentence, "If that be the case, then I don't want to go." In "hypothetical" situations, the typical subjunctive form of "to be" is "were": "If he were my brother, I'd ask him not to go." Note that, unlike the indicative mood, in which the verb conjugates differently depending on the person and number of the verb (I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are; I was, you were, he/she/it is, we were, they were), in the subjunctive mood the verb doesn't conjugate differently; it only changes depending on the mandative/hypothetical distinction (I/you/he/she/it/we/they be; I/you/he/she/it/we/they were).

So, from the perspective of traditional grammar, "If I was you, I wouldn't treat me the way you do" is absolutely incorrect. It should be "If I were you...." In fact, some really good examples of the correct subjunctive can be found right in the PSB catalogue, as in their remake of the Noël Coward song "If Love Were All" and in their own composition "King of Rome" ("…and if I were the King of Rome…").

That's traditional grammar. But language is a living, changing thing. And the subjunctive mood continues its process of slowly dying out in English. In an ever-increasingly large part of the English-speaking world, the nuances of the subjunctive mood are being lost, and such phrasings as "If that be the case..." and "If I were you..." sound increasingly archaic.

An interesting phenomenon that has long been observed in linguistics—one that seems contrary to expectations—is that the language of "native" populations tends to change more rapidly than that of "immigrant" populations. That is, if people move away from their native land, they and their descendants tend to cling more tenaciously to their language structures than do the people they left behind. This is especially true for isolated populations of immigrants. For example, linguists believe that the language spoken by natives of the Appalachian regions of the United States more closely resembles Elizabethan English than the language spoken in most of Great Britain today. In other words, when the living William Shakespeare spoke aloud 400 years ago, he probably sounded more like Jed Clampett than Prince Charles.

So could it be that the subjunctive mood is being retained in the United States a bit more tenaciously than in the United Kingdom? Could folks in the U.K. be abandoning the subjunctive more quickly than their American cousins? If that be the case (I couldn't resist), the traditionally "incorrect" phrasing "If I was you..." is actually "more correct" for Neil than it would be for, say, Bruce Springsteen. I suppose only a British linguist could answer that question for sure.

But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that "If I was you..." is just as "incorrect" in Britain as it is in the United States. In that case, I believe we have two possibilities: (1) Neil is (or at least was at the time) simply ignorant of the subjunctive distinction; or (2) Neil is aware of the distinction but for very conscious reasons decided to use "incorrect" grammar.

I doubt the first possibility. Neil, after all, is rather well educated. And while, heaven knows, well educated people certainly make mistakes, grammatical and otherwise (hey, tell me about it!), somehow this doesn't strike me as one of them.

The second possibility seems far more likely. Popular music is replete with examples of songwriters knowingly using "bad" grammar for a variety of reasons. I mean, I wouldn't even think of trying to count the number of times "ain't" has been used in popular music. Sometimes "bad" grammar is used for the sake of the "poetry" or the flow of the language; sometimes it simply sounds better, especially when you consider the special metrical and inflective requirements of song lyrics. That is, what wording fits the rhythm and melody best?

In other cases, "bad" grammar is consistent with the lyrical persona. If the fictive narrator of a lyric is the kind of person who would normally use "bad" grammar, then it makes perfect sense for the lyric to use "bad" grammar as well. (For instance, an African-American site visitor—who amusingly concedes that black fans are "not a big PSB demographic"—says that she has always felt that in "I'm Not Scared" Neil is "addressing a black person and/or he’s using black speech and manipulating language the way gay men (especially drag queens) sometimes do." She adds that "When I hear the song I know what Neil meant because I just assumed that Neil and I were on the same page.") In still other cases, such as in certain examples of "folk" music, the use of "bad" grammar actually makes a sociopolitical statement—an expression of solidarity with the "common people" who presumably talk that way.

Another possible explanation for Neil intentionally choosing to use this "bad" grammar would be if he were to disagree intellectually and idiosyncratically with the use of the subjunctive mood. That is, he may personally believe "If I were you" to be "wrong" despite its "correctness" from the standpoint of conventional grammar. I can offer an example of this sort of attitude from my own experience. Personally, I disagree intellectually and idiosyncratically with the use of "data" as a plural noun, as in the sentence "These data are conclusive." Although that is indeed considered "correct" by traditional grammarians—not to mention countless laboratories full of scientists—I regard it as stilted and pretentious. I absolutely refuse to say or write "These data are conclusive," instead opting for what I consider to be much more sensible and natural: "This data is conclusive." I believe what is "correct" to be wrong. Therefore, as a thoughtful, educated, and independent person, I choose to ignore tradition and go with what I regard as vastly preferable. Lacking a definitive statement from Neil, we shouldn't rule out the possibility that he may have similar feelings about "If I were you" versus "If I was you." On the other hand, his subsequent use of the subjunctive in such songs as the aforementioned "King of Rome" decreases the likelihood of this possibility.

One of my British site visitors—a self-professed "grammar Nazi"—has offered this possible explanation:

"If I were you" often starts sentences like "If I were you, I'd apply for that job" or "If I were you, I'd dump him." That phrase, therefore, is very common, almost clichéd: it is what someone says when they're about to give (often unwanted) advice. I think that Neil wanted to disassociate himself completely from this cliché, so he instead says, "If I was you," which is far less commonly encountered, and so is far more meaningful.

Correct or otherwise, this makes a good deal of sense to me.

So, in the end, what do I think is going on with "If I was you..."? Not surprisingly, I'll give Neil the benefit of the doubt and suggest that it was indeed intentional, for whatever reason. Perhaps Neil even tried singing "If I were you..." and he and/or Chris simply didn't like the sound of it. After all, music is about sound more than anything else. So they decided to go with the "bad" grammar. You can do that sort of thing, you know, when you're creating art.

And this doesn't even get into one of their songs for Liza, "If There Was Love." Shouldn't that be "If There Were Love"?

Oh, let's not go there.