If I Were King of the Elves

Rob Kyff on

Q. I'm always puzzled about which verb to use following a phrase starting with "if" or "as if." In one instance, I read, "If I were 90 years old ...", and in the next, "If I was doing that ..." Which should it be? -- Jim Bilbrey, Pierre, South Dakota

A. That's an iffy question! When we're talking about situations that are highly improbable or contrary to fact, we switch into an otherworldly dimension called the subjunctive mood.

To signal this transition to subjunctive unreality, we use plural verbs with singular subjects. Thus, to indicate that you're NOT 90 years old, you'd write, "If I WERE 90 years old." The same plural verb form would be used to describe other improbable or impossible situations: "If I WERE president ... If I WERE younger ... If I WERE king of the forest."

As you suggest, sometimes the situation can be ambiguous. Your example -- "if I WAS doing that" -- would be correct if the speaker was, in fact, doing that, as in, "If I was doing something you dislike, I'm sorry."

But if there's little or no possibility that the speaker was doing that, then "were" would be correct, as in, "If I were doing that, then you'd have every right to be angry."

Q. I was taught that a word ending in "f" was pluralized by changing the "f" to "v" and adding "es," as in leaf/leaves, sheaf/sheaves. But lately I seem to be seeing hoofs and roofs as plurals, rather than the hooves and rooves I expect. Has the rule changed? -- Lee Nolan, via e-mail

A. Wait. There's a rule? If there is a rule regarding the plurals of words ending in "f" or "fe," it's a rule, as Hamlet might have put it, "more honored in the breach than the observance." In fact, the "rule" is as indecisive and vacillating as Hamlet himself.


True, in most cases, you should change the "f" or "fe" to "ves": calves, elves, halves, knives, leaves, lives, loaves, selves, shelves, sheaves, thieves, wives, wolves.

But, in some cases, the "f" is retained and an "s" is added (handkerchiefs, oafs, proofs, staffs), and in many cases, both forms are acceptable. Here's a list of these double agents, with the preferred form given first: dwarfs/dwarves, hooves/hoofs, roofs/rooves, scarves/scarfs, wharves/wharfs, turfs/turves.

To make things even more confusing, there are two exceptions involving artistic endeavors: The plural of "staff" is "staves" when referring to the horizontal lines of written music, and the plural of "life" is "lifes" in the painters' genre "still lifes."

To "ve," or not to "ve"? That is the question.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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