It’s a new year. A blank page. So let’s fill it with good grammar! This month:
-Using was vs. were and the common error of choosing the wrong relative pronouns
-Relative pronoun mix-ups such as using that or they instead of who
-As always, we also share some Confusables – pairs of words often mistaken for each other
Was vs. Were in “If” Clauses
When projecting what you might do in a hypothetical or unreal situation — as in sentences beginning with “If I …” — should you follow those words with was or were? The fact is that were is always correct in sentences with ‘if’ clauses about unreal or imaginary situations. Although it may sound odd to the ear (which explains why mistakes are often made) many ‘if’ clauses use were even if the pronoun is singular. For example:
“If I were you, I would not perform tonight.” — The speaker is saying I am not you.
“If he were here now, he would help us.” — The speaker is saying “He is not here now.”
Today you sometimes hear “If I was you”, very often in popular films or TV shows. However, it is technically incorrect:
“If I was you I would invite him to the conference.” — Incorrect usage
“If I were you I would invite him to the conference.” — Correct usage
There are instances where ‘if I was’ (or if he/she/it was) is actually correct, such as when talking about real situations that happened in the past:
“If I was late, I would take a seat in the back of the room.”
“If he was nervous, he would tap his pen on the table.”
Relative Pronoun Mix-ups
We’ve all seen references to people using that instead of who … and just as common, personification of businesses through references to companies using they instead of that. Incorrect usage of relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, what, which and that), or pronouns that refer back to something previously mentioned, is rampant.
When referring to people, of course, we know to use who, yet mistakes are common. We often see these incorrect statements:
Passengers that qualify for the upgrade will be notified before the flight.
Anyone that wants to participate should sign up today.
In both cases, of course, the relative pronoun ‘that’ should be ‘who’. Similarly, when referencing companies in a relative clause, always use that or which when referring back to them. You’ll likely recognize statements like these:
Handy Hardware said they would give the first 20 shoppers a free keychain.
Ice Cream Dreams, whose Fudge Sundae is second only to DQ’s, is open late.
In the first case, they should be replaced with it; in the second, the statement could be fixed by replacing whose with which has a and removing is.
Here are some pairs of words, from The New American Dictionary of Difficult Words, which are often mistaken for each other or used incorrectly:
Mutual/Common– There’s a subtle difference between these words. Mutual means each for the other(s), as in “There’s a real mutual respect between these two.” Common means shared, or belonging to all, as in “a common bathroom.” Both words can be used to mean joint, as in “It’s in our mutual/common interest to sell the property now.”
Nominal/Minimal – While nominal means small or insignificant, as in “a nominal fee will be charged for entrance to the event,” minimal refers to the smallest amount possible, as in “You must meet the minimal height requirement to go on this ride.”
Obligate/Oblige –Obligate and oblige both mean ‘to force to do or restrain from doing,’ as in “We were obligated/obliged to prosecute him.” However, oblige also has a second meaning — it can mean indebted or compelled by moral, ethical or social forces, as in “He felt obliged to contribute.” Another example is the French phrase Noblesse oblige – nobility obliges, the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected.