Joan Osborne Vs. Tevye Vs. Gwen Stefani

In "One of Us", Joan Osborne asked:

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

Never mind that in pondering God in the flesh, Joan forgets the whole Jesus thing.
It's the misuse of the subjunctive that sticks in our collective craw. This song is like nails on a chalkboard to members of SPASTIC. Just when it was finally making its way to AOR low-rotation status, someone at CBS decided to pull it up and feature it as the theme for "Joan of Arcadia." Even if you don't watch the show, its jangly guitar weaves its way through "Amazing Race" commercials. Though we may go out of our way to avoid this frontal assault on SUB-TEN (subjunctive tense) by changing the radio station, we are not about to stop watching "Amazing Race."
So we soldier on, pointing out to those who politely listen that Ms. Osborne is messin' it up.
In her defense, the was/one assonance is a nicer rhyme than were/one. This does not make it right.

Now, some folks still get it right. For years, English teachers have held up Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye as the Golden Boy of SUB-TEN. Three decades later, Mr. Katzes and Mrs. Christiansens still embarrass their students by dancing for them and singing:

If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I'd biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man.

Oh, Tevye. If only there were more like you. You got it. And you're Russian!

A recent setback in the fight for SUB-TEN is Tevye's younger, blonder, skinnier successor, Gwen Stefani. Her single "Rich Girl" borrows heavily from Tevye:

If I was a rich girl na na na na na na na na na na na na na
See, I'd have all the money in the world, if I was a wealthy girl
No man could test me, impress me, my cash flow would never ever end
Cause I'd have all the money in the world, if I was a wealthy girl

Well, thanks, Gwen. Just great. Now when Mr. K and Mrs. C. do their dances, this is what they'll hear:

"Hey, that's Gwen! I didn't know you was so down! But Mr. K, it's WAS, not WERE."


Continue to fight the good fight.

"And yeah yeah God is great yeah yeah God is good yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah..."
-joan osborne, "One of Us"


eric j. sherman said...

Welcome to the world of blogging. If I was someone to give a lot of compliments, I would say, "Well done." If I was, that is... but I ain't.

Eric "Babe" Morse said...

Since you're the only who knows I exist, thank you for making my feedback 100% positive! With this mazing statistic, now I can work on my posters.

girlaboutlife said...

Hi Just wanted to tell you PROSIT! for your blog. enjoyed reading it! keep it up, i like your sense of humour. I have a blog too visit: http://girlaboutlife.blogspot.com/
Looking forward to reading more about you... also where can i get myself a poster? he he he!
(From Malta too!)

Daryl said...

I see we have the same pet peeve. What do you think of Sophie B. Hawkins' "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover"?

Eric "Babe" Morse said...

Good one! I'd forgotten about that song. At the time, it bugged me. Used to be, misuse of subjunctive tense sounded wrong. Unfortunately, it's the correct use that's sounding more and more out of line. Pop culture is the front line in this war. Scary.
Continue to fight the good fight. Thanks for visiting!

Stacy said...

Oh my gosh, I thought I was the only person on the planet obsessing about the grammatical travesties in these songs! Solidarity, brothers and sisters. : )

Eric "Babe" Morse said...

Yes, Stacy, there is a Dependent Clause.
Those who rage against the dying of the grammatical light are a hardy lot.
A small, sad, angry, hardy lot of windmill-tilter-atters.

Mariana said...

Thanks for the useful mnemonic tip. I'm Portuguese and I've always been confused about which was the correct way. Now when in doubt I'll just think of that song from fiddler on the roof. Thanks again! :)

Bishna said...

I know this post was from a while ago, but I just read it today after being directed here from a link from another blog... what's really interesting to me is that I use the proper mood and/or tense in my writing, but I just have a hard time remembering what the moods and tenses are called. This is important to me now because I'm in an intensive language program and the actual names of the various pieces of English grammer start popping up when I'm in class. If anyone is going to start a language, I recommend they take a look through a basic English grammar text before starting the class. It would be a big help.

Random Goblin said...

Me, I like gwen stefani. The song is catchy.

mllemm said...

"I'm not scared" - Eighth Wonder:
If I was you, If I was you / I wouldn't treat me the way you do".


Papotine said...

Gwen Stephani ? I didn't know her name but the song reached us in France too ! but we don't mind about the missing subjunctive : we have PLENTY of it already ! (duuude !)

Papotine said...

Sorry : apparently the song I referred to was by JOan Osbourn, not Stephani... never mind I didn't know the names anyway.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE your blog! My roommate has been trying to convince me to give up the fight. She insists it's a war already won by pop-culture. I'm so glad I found your blog; I will continue to fight the good fight now that I know I'm not alone. Keep up the good work!

Elizabeth said...

I just found a new one today that sent me searching the web for fellow subjunctive sympathizers. An ad on p.36 of the Feb. 27, 2006, Newsweek reads, "If Hep C was attacking your face instead of your liver, you'd do something about it." What really bothers me as a former copy editor (and current Latin teacher) is the thought of how many pairs of eyes must have viewed this ad before it went out. num sacra est?

Eric "Babe" Morse said...

I saw that, too. I've been meaning to start a Subjunctive Abuse Prison on this site. You've encouraged me to keep thinking about it (actualy getting around to doing it's still a ways off...).

Anonymous said...

The worst, punishable by death. In second place- Small Town (Mellencamp) "No I cannot forget from where it is that I come from." Prepositional overkill. I can't even sing it this way.

amz. musicalistic random. said...

hiya there!

on the post about unrequited: I used to think it was pronunced "Un-ree-cwee-td." Isn't that sad? Anywho, interesting ramblings you have ere!
Please feel free to check out my blog, if you'sd like.

A more random blog I have is: http://random-room.blogspot.com


alienvoord said...

Both "if I were" and "if I was" are standard and interchangeable. According to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, both "was" began to be used along with "were" for hypothetical statements about 3 or 4 hundred years ago.

Brian said...

Oddly enough, I recently blogged myself on this topic: http://blogs.sun.com/techdogg/entry/
the_subjunctive_is_dead_long. And I wasn't even aware that you had blogged already. Will there now be a rip in the space-time continuum? Were that it not be!

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NoDoubtTour.com said...

We can't wait to see Gwen and No Doubt on their latest 2009 tour. There's news, tour information and Concert Dates over at NoDoubtTour.com plus a lot more!

noblecita said...

Fear not; Beyonce brought it back! "If I WERE a boy..." Maybe she spent more time watching Fiddler than No Doubt.

Elisabeth Kay said...

Oh wow, thank you for this post. I cringe when I hear Gwen Stefani saying "If I was a rich girl," which is a real shame because the song is so catchy.

Side note: When I was typing the quote in, I started to type "were" instead of "was" because I'm so used to typing things how they should be. It took me a minute to realize I needed to type it the wrong way.

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