If Only There Were No Assertionism

Earlier this month, I blogged about assertionism — my label for usage claims that sound like prescriptivism, but are actually bare assertions: They don’t rely on any claims about what the (supposed) Linguistic Authorities say, on any detailed logical arguments, or on claims about allegedly superior clarity or precision; they just consist of a person’s bare assertions. And when one asks for evidence supporting the claim, all one gets is more bare assertions. Prescriptivists ought to dislike assertionism as much as descriptivists do, partly because assertionism often comes across as unintentional parody of prescriptivism.

Here’s an interesting example, which started on the wilful vs. willful thread. I started my post with, “A student saw ‘wilful’ used in an opinion, and asked whether it was a typo.” A commenter then responded that the sentence

does not conform to proper English usage. The “whether” indicates that what follows is speculative, requiring that the verb be rendered in the subjunctive mood. “Was” is always indicative.

And the commenter then gave several assertedly “proper renderings of the sentence,” the first of which was:

A student saw “wilful” used in an opinion, and asked whether it were a typo.

The trouble is that “whether it were” is nearly never used in modern American English, and while it was once a bit more common, it was never the dominant usage (either in American English or British English). Consider this Google Ngrams graph of the usage of “wondered whether it was” (blue) vs. “wondered whether it were” (red) — I used “wondered” just to better test the commenter’s assertion, which is limited to “speculative” uses:

The one problem with Google Ngrams is that it doesn’t show raw numbers, so when one of the terms is very rare compared to the other, it’s hard to find the ratio. I therefore did a Westlaw search through the USNEWS database (which contains many U.S. newspapers). The search for “wonder! #whether it was” yields 4812 results. The search for “wonder! #whether it were” yielded 8 results. That’s right: “whether it was” in this context is 600 times more common than the assertedly more “proper” “whether it were.”

I prodded the commenter for evidence supporting his position, but no evidence was to be had. Instead came the “you’ll be looked down on” card (followed in a later comment by the “careful user of English” card):

You are judged by the words you use. If you want to sound like an educated American, you would want to emulate George Will, Ronald Reagan, my father or me. Though I’ve spent 27 years in school, many of them trying to master English and some 9 other languages, Ronald Reagan and my father spoke excellent English in spite of their relative poor education. It can be done.

But George Will, it turns out, seemingly never used “whether it were” in any sources archived in Westlaw’s USNEWS database. He had indeed used “whether it was” in several columns, including in “speculative” contexts. The commenter later pointed to Charles Krauthammer as a supposed supporter (speaking of how I should emulate “the English of George Will, Krauthammer or me [i.e., the commenter]“). But Krauthammer, like Will, used “whether it was” but never “whether it were,” according to the Westlaw data. And that should be unsurprising, because it seems that virtually no-one is using “whether it were,” other than my assertionist correspondent.

When prodded further, the commenter did point to some sources:

I could cite The Gregg Reference Manual, The Associated Press Stylebook 2011, The Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and The American Heritage College Dictionary 4th Edition[,] but they are all behind paywalls. You will find, however, that not one of them will let you off the hook. According to their rules, you must master the subjunctive form were if you want to speak and write correctly.

But I had Garner’s Modern American Usage handy, and while it of course does report that there is such a thing as the subjunctive, and that many prefer it in certain contexts, it doesn’t say that “whether it was” phrases have to be in the subjunctive. Indeed, Garner lists six situations in which the subjunctive is generally used, and speculation of the “whether it was” variety does not seem to fit within those situations. Again, the commenter’s claims about what was “proper” proved to be supported by nothing more than bare assertions.

Finally, the commenter returned to the “you’ll be looked down on” / “careful user of English” argument:

You and are are basically talking past each other. While you want to know what’s common usage, I want you not to come off as having a deaf ear for English grammar.

Maybe you should consider the simple decision matrix: if you speak as I suggest, I will love it, while hoi polloi won’t notice the difference. On the other hand, if you settle for the grammar of hoi polloi, you will irritate me and countless other grammar-nazis, while hoi polloi won’t notice the difference.

Yet (1) it’s hard to see how following a usage that is 600 times more common shows a “deaf ear for English grammar,” while following the vanishingly rare one shows a fine ear. (2) The “hoi polloi” readers on whom the commenter so looks down probably would notice if I used something as unidiomatic as “whether it were,” and might well be needlessly distracted or annoyed by the usage. And (3) the “countless other grammar-nazis” whose retaliation the commenter threatens apparently don’t exist. It’s just his own little hobby-horse here, it seems to me.

I have gone on at some length on this, because it strikes me as such a perfect illustration of assertionism in action. The commenter condemns people for looking to actual usage, which is to say following the views of the great majority of recent writers who have had to make the “whether it was” vs. “whether it were” decision. (“Hell, who wants a lawyer, teacher, priest or physician who gains his standards by googling?,” the commenter argues, suggesting that it is equally foolish to rely on googling in making usage choices.) But instead, the commenter claims that we should be guided by the view of one writer — the commenter himself — who asserts, without support, that he is a stand-in for some large group of people that it would do us good to appease. Descriptivism looks pretty good by comparison with that, it seems to me.