Singing a New Tune: Rethinking the use of conditionals with the help of song lyrics

A recent discussion thread on another post has made me ponder perfect forms yet again. This time I want to consider counterfactual situations.

A reader questioned the media’s use of “if it weren’t for” and “if it hadn’t been for” in the same context.  Are they really synonymous in meaning? If we turn to our grammar books, we know that if + were (not) expresses a present counterfactual situation and if + had (not) been expresses a past counterfactual situation. Examples: If you weren’t so stubborn, you’d take my advice. (Present fact = You are stubborn, so you won’t take my advice.) If you hadn’t been so stubborn, you would have followed my advice and everything would have turned out fine. (Past fact = You were stubborn and didn’t follow my advice, and that’s why nothing worked out.)

If the above examples are correct and logical, then shouldn’t there also be a difference in the reference to time with the structures “if it weren’t for (somebody/ something)” and “if it hadn’t been for (somebody/ something)”? Perhaps in informal English we don’t necessarily perceive a difference if there’s enough context around the “if” structure to make the time reference clear. However, I’d teach students to associate one structure with the present and the other with the past.

Because my grammar books failed to take discussion in the direction I wanted to go, I decided to turn to an unusual source – song lyrics. Sometimes a look at a few popular songs can shed some light on current usage of grammar. On a side note, I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs I found listed in the search results, but that’s not an indicator of popularity because I really don’t listen too much to current music!

First, I studied the lyrics to “Songs Like This” by Carrie Underwood. I found multiple instances of non-standard grammar and spelling. Well, that’s not too much of a surprise since it’s a song inspired by hurt and anger. We all know that strong emotions can rob us of our ability to string words together! In any case, Carrie sings, “If it wasn’t for guys like you, there wouldn’t be songs like this” and “If you hadn’t gone and done me wrong, I wouldn’t go off like this.” All right, so Ms. Underwood believes that the number of hurtful men in the world have created an equally high number of songs about hurt. = Present fact. If it wasn’t is not standard, but we recognize it as the equivalent of if it weren’t, correct? Also, in the second excerpt  we learn that she’s singing a song full of complaint (now) because of what the man did (in the past). In other words, she’s going off like this (now) because he went and did her wrong (past). Her lyrics express a mixed counterfactual conditional. With the exception of the wasn’t for weren’t, Carrie’s grammar is accurate. Agreed?

To be fair, there are also songs sung by heartbroken men. Vince Gill sings “If It Weren’t For Him.” His reference to a hypothetical situation is clear. He longs to make a wish a present reality: “Why can’t she see my heart is breaking/ She’d be mine if it weren’t for him.” In other words, she isn’t his (present fact), but she would be without the other guy in the picture (counterfactual statement). The structure if it weren’t clearly refers to the present.

Finally, in an effort to find an example of a past counterfactual situation, I read through the lyrics to a number of songs and settled on an uplifting one called “If It Hadn’t Been for You.” Dusty Springfield, the artist, would have given up on love, but luckily she met the right guy to change her mind and her heart:  “I would be through with love/ Have nothing to do with love/ If it hadn’t been for you…” The conclusion? Dusty would not be happy and loved (now) if she hadn’t met her man (in the past). If it hadn’t been makes a clear reference to a counterfactual past. Lucky for Ms. Springfielf, past events created happiness in the present.


All lyrics retrieved from AZLyrics.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Warsaw Will says:

    According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, in British English we have a choice between ‘if it weren’t for’ and ‘if it wasn’t for’, so in BrE at least, ‘wasn’t for’ is absolutely standard. But in British EFL we also teach ‘was’ is perfectly acceptable in Second Conditional and other hypothetical forms. In the UK we seem to be less keen on the Subjunctive than in North America.

    On the subjects of songs, there’s also ABBA’s ‘If it wasn’t for the nights’, which has a slightly different twist.

    By the way, your videos on YouTube are just about the only ESL videos I can bare to watch.

    1. Hello. How interesting! Thanks for enlightening me about the use of ‘if it wasn’t for’ in BrE. I’m also glad to learn of one more song with this kind of conditional, although what a song of desperation it is! I didn’t know that one by ABBA.

      Your comment about ESL videos on YT made me laugh. 🙂 I’m pleased to know that my videos are digestible in more ways than one, though I do believe quite a number of other teachers are putting out good content as well.

      Thanks for joining the discussion!

  2. Warsaw Will says:

    That should of course be – bear to – what a shocker!

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