Q: I’m curious about W. Somerset Maugham’s use of “were” for “would be” in this passage: “I am eager to know if you still devote upon the ungrateful arts talents which were more profitably employed upon haberdashery.” I find the usage neat, though I suspect that it’s now an archaism.
A: The use of “were” in place of “would be” (as in “He were better dead” instead of “He would be better dead”) was outdated even in Maugham’s youth, when he wrote that sentence.
This “were” is a subjunctive form of the verb “be,” but it’s a particular subjunctive use that’s found only in older writing that would now be considered mannered and formal. (Some subjunctive uses of “were” are alive and well, as we’ve written previously.)
The passage you’re asking about is from The Magician, a Maugham novel written in 1907 and set in fin-de-siècle Paris. Fifty years later, in his Fragment of an Autobiography, he called the writing “turgid” and said he “must have been impressed by the écriture artiste [artistic writing] of the French writers of the time” and had “unwisely sought to imitate them.”
[By the way, as one reader has observed, the “were” in the passage could correctly be read as the simple past tense (not the subjunctive) if the artist being addressed had ever been a haberdasher. But that’s not the case (we read a good part of the novel to make sure). The speaker, a nasty and pompous man, uses “were” subjunctively to say haberdashery would have been a better career choice.]
As we said, even when Maugham wrote the novel that use of “were” was excessively formal. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry W. Fowler mentions the construction only briefly, and as something to avoid.
He cites these examples (the recommended uses in brackets are his): “it were [would be] better to leave the sculpture galleries empty” … “It were [would be] futile to attempt to deprive it of its real meaning.”
Fowler says there’s “nothing incorrect” in those examples, but the subjunctive uses “diffuse an atmosphere of dullness & formalism over the writing.”
The subject is treated even more briefly in the second edition (1965) of Fowler’s work, and is dropped altogether from the third (1996) and fourth (2015). Modern comprehensive grammars of English don’t mention it either. So we can safely call it archaic.
Here are some random examples from writings of the past:
“It were lost sorrow to wail one that’s lost.” (Shakespeare, King Richard III, circa 1593.)
“It were much better for your Lordship not to have vowed at all, then [than] not to perform after you have vowed.” (Miracles Not Ceas’d, a religious tract written anonymously by Sir Kenelm Digby, 1663.)
“From one worthy action, it were credulity, not charity, to conclude a person to be free from all vice.” (Hugh Blair, a minister and professor of rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. From the 5th edition of his Sermons, 1780.)
“ ‘It were different,’ continued the father, after a pause, and in a more resolute tone, ‘if I had some independence, however small, to count on.’ ” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, My Novel: Or, Varieties in English Life, 1853.)
Fowler included the use of “were” for “would be” among subjunctive “survivals,” forms that are no longer “alive” or natural in speech, and added this comment:
“Subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.” (We added the italics for emphasis. The subjunctives recognized as “living” in Fowler’s time are still alive today.)
[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2021.]