Tina K. Russell

April 28, 2008

The Subjunctive Mood: A Plea

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:46 am

This was written by my brother, by the way. It is also required reading.

Daily Kos: The Subjunctive Mood: A Plea

The English language has a rich vocabulary but meager grammar. Where most languages’ verbs offer subtle shades of meaning with every choice of suffix, English has only blunt instruments like “should” – our inflections barely account for person and number. So it is that evey last vestige of grammatical nuance is precious and must be cherished.

Which is why, dear friends, I bring this grave news. One of those few survivors is now clinging for its life, and at this very moment its unwitting executioners – some of them on this very blog! – threaten to let it fall away, lost forever.

That victim: The contrary-to-fact subjunctive.

It began on March 10 of this year, with Geraldine Ferraro’s asinine assertion that Obama wouldn’t have gotten so far in the Democratic primary “if he was a white man.” As a defender of the subjunctive mood and a devoted Obama fanboy, I was doubly pained to hear those words. My irritation turned to dismay and horror when I learned that she had said the same thing about Jesse Jackson in 1984, except then she said Jackson wouldn’t be where he is “if he were not a black man.”

And so the subjunctive was dead to Geraldine Ferraro.

Read the rest below the fold, or by clicking the link. Doing so is required.

This was not, in retrospect, so shocking. Ferraro is clearly an idiot. But surely those of us fortunate enough to have any good sense would not join her in abandoning such an important linguistic construct at its time of greatest need?

Alas, it appears I was too optimistic. (Such, I suppose, is the hazard of an Obama supporter.) For now that Hillary Clinton predicates her entire campaign on a few all-too-contrary-to-fact appraisals of her standing in the popular vote, the abusers of the subjunctive have returned in force. But now they type among us at this hallowed institution. We mock her mercilessly, as we should: “If Obama wasn’t running.” “If every day was Friday.” “If Michigan was counted and Arkansas was counted twice and Illinois was purple and covered in cheese.”

But whatever rhetorical damage we aim to inflict upon Ms. Clinton, we must not allow our precious, dwindling grammar to be caught in the crossfire. For while Clinton’s campaign will end in June, the English language will live on. It is our solemn duty as English speakers to uphold our mother tongue by preserving those little constructs, which, despite decades of misuse and neglect, are still there to give our greatest ideas and our merest thoughts the subtle shading that elevates each utterance to the true fullness of its meaning.

There are those who will contend that this is a small, silly matter. That surely I have something better to do than to write a rambling diatribe about an obscure verb form. But I must remind you of our dear President, who strains so very hard to speak with eloquence and authority, only to fall flat on his locutionary face. For if we are so quick to deride him for such infamies as “Is our children learning?”, why should we be so kind to “She would be winning the popular vote if she was eight feet tall and belched fire”?

So, dear readers, please join me in defending the singular present subjunctive form of the verb to be from those who would let it die in silence. Let the blogs ring out with those great words: If I were. If he were. If it weren’t. And next time you feel the urge to employ parody in your criticism of Hillary’s feeble attempts to alter reality, consider the following phrasing: “If Minnesota were considered too cold to matter.”



  1. If Obama were not such the darling of the media, maybe Hillary Clinton could get coverage of her successes. Did I get that subjunctive right?

    Comment by huntingdonpost — April 28, 2008 @ 6:12 am

  2. Yep, he’s the darling of the media, and that’s why you’ve been seeing “elitism,” scary pastors, and flag lapels discussed endlessly on the nightly news.

    Or maybe the reason we’re not hearing about Hillary Clinton’s successes is because she’s decided to stop talking about them and go one hundred percent negative.

    Comment by Tina Russell — April 28, 2008 @ 6:26 am

  3. This article is based on the mistaken belief that “if he was a white man” is not a counterfactual statement. But it clearly is.

    Counterfactual “if he was” and “if he were” have been used interchangeably in standard written English for the past 400 years.

    There is no loss of distinction using “if he was” instead of “if he were”

    present possible condition: if he is
    past possible condition: if he was

    present countefactual condition: if he was/were
    past counterfactual condition: if he had been

    Context is important. Let’s pretend the context is “Obama wouldn’t have gotten so far in the Democratic primary if he was a white man.” This is clearly present counterfactual. It can’t be interpreted as anything else.

    Using “was” still captures the counterfactual mood of the subjunctive, and it makes the verb “be” fall in line with all other verbs, where the present counterfactual form is identical to the simple past, for instance:
    If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.

    “be” is the only verb with a special form in the first and third person present counterfactual. If we don’t need this distinction with other verbs, why is it so essential with “be”?

    Comment by malachai — April 28, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  4. Actually, there is a loss of distinction. “If I was” is actually an acceptable grammatical construct, for if you want to keep the truth ambiguous; you’re talking about something that _might_ be true. “If I were,” however, talks about something that is _not_ true (or is otherwise hypothetical).

    For instance, if I wanted to get into the mind of a terrorist in order to catch one, I might say, “if I were a terrorist…”, thus establishing that I am not one. If the subjunctive mood left the English language, I’d be left with the uncomfortably ambiguous “if I was…”, which I wouldn’t be very happy with.

    Remember, you do say, “if I were you…” That basic construction is untouched, and if we fight the gradual erosion of the English language, we can save it from idiom-hood. Misuse of the subjunctive mood is a common mistake, but it’s not universal. Work, and we can save this useful grammatical tool!

    Comment by Tina Russell — April 28, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  5. The form survives in “if I were you”, but that’s the only place it survives robustly.

    In order to judge if your example is ambiguous, we need context. I’m not sure what you’re context is with your examples, so here are some real examples.

    I wish H. was not quite so fat – Lord Byron, letter, 8 Dec. 1811

    That’s clearly counterfactual. H. is not so fat.

    “Obama wouldn’t have gotten so far in the Democratic primary if he was a white man.”
    Counterfactual. Obama is not a white man. That’s clear even if the reader does not know who Obama is.

    Freud felt as if he was being observed; raising his eyes he found some children staring down at him – E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime, 1975

    Not counterfactual. Freud is being observed.

    So I don’t believe that using “if I was, if it was” can lead to ambiguity. As I said, “be” is the *only verb* that has this special form. If there was the possibility of ambiguity, then we would encounter ambiguity with *every other verb in English.*

    Is this ambiguous? I don’t think it is:

    “If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.”

    My point is that the subjunctive is not being lost, we’re just using a different form of “be”: was instead of were. We are still expressing all the distinctions we need to express.

    more info: http://books.google.com/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&pg=PA877&vq=subjunctive&dq=merriam+webster's+dictionary+of+english+usage&source=gbs_search_s&sig=Oy0dCbCw5SCr5alz6IIx61tNYoY

    Comment by malachai — April 28, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

  6. that should of course be “H. is so fat.”

    Comment by malachai — April 28, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  7. Yeah, I see what you mean. But, sometimes the context implies if it’s true or not, and sometimes it doesn’t, and the subjunctive mood is a useful way of differentiating between the two. And yeah, “is” is a special case, here, because no other word gets the subjunctive treatment like it does. But, it’s a linking verb, and easily the most common verb in the English language, so I don’t think “well, then, why not give every verb the same treatment?” is a very strong argument. Many languages do give each verb the same subjunctive option, and as my bro said, that grammatical richness is a good reason to protect the one that we have.

    In a specific example, like “if I lived in Paris,” the subjunctive is implied, so it’s not a problem. But, there really are times that it helps to be able to say “yes, this is _so_,” or be vague or evasive, or to say, “no, this is _not_, but speaking hypothetically…”

    And yes, my “terrorist” example lacks context; that’s the whole point. The “was”/”were” distinction lets you _add_ context, which is why I’d kind of like to keep it in the English language.

    Also, I don’t think that citing a mistake as going back a long way is really a strong argument, either. If I showed that Lord Elsington Hallstingdingdingworth in 1483 used the word “teh” instead of “the” in a letter to his mistress, does that mean I can now crown Leetspeak as acceptable formal English?

    Comment by Tina Russell — April 28, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  8. “But, sometimes the context implies if it’s true or not, and sometimes it doesn’t, and the subjunctive mood is a useful way of differentiating between the two.”

    The context always supplies the necesseary information. And anyway, we’re still using the subjunctive. We say “if I was” instead of “if I am”:

    present possible: I wonder if he is a terrorist
    past possible: I wondered if he was a terrorist

    present counterfactual: if he was a terrrorist, he’d be arrested
    past counterfactual: if he had been a terrorist, he would have been arrested

    “And yes, my “terrorist” example lacks context; that’s the whole point. The “was”/”were” distinction lets you _add_ context, which is why I’d kind of like to keep it in the English language.”

    If I say “if I was a terrorist…” and somehow don’t get a chance to finish, it’s pretty clear that it’s a present counterfactual. Why? Because the past possible is usually the *second clause* in the sentence: He wondered if I was a terrorist. I felt like I was being watched.

    You haven’t provided any evidence or examples as to why “if I were” is better than “if I was” for the present counterfactual.

    Notice also that we only use “were” in first and second person singular. “if you were, if we were, if they were” are all ambiguous out of context!

    “that grammatical richness is a good reason to protect the one that we have.”

    How do you protect a grammatical inflection? Why do we need to? Anglo-Saxon had a full range of present and past subjunctive inflections. Does that mean that we cannot communicate as clearly as the Anglo-Saxons could?

    “Also, I don’t think that citing a mistake as going back a long way is really a strong argument, either.”

    Using “was” instead of “were” is a consistent usage, used by many good writers of English, going back 400 years. Who says it’s a mistake, besides self-appointed experts? Why is their opinion more valid than the opinion of these good writers? If I want to write and speak well, I’m going to emulate good writers, not usage experts.

    Also, comparing this usage to a spelling mistake doesn’t work; spelling is artificial in a way that grammar is not.

    Now my appeal to authority: present counterfactual “was” is recognized as standard English by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and The Oxford Companion to the English Language.

    Comment by malachai — April 29, 2008 @ 5:13 am

  9. Here’s some more info:

    I’ll quote the important bit:

    1. all conditionals with past tense verb forms in them, for every single verb in the language other than BE, and for BE with 2nd person or plural subjects, are potentially ambiguous out of context, yet in actual practice, there’s almost never a problem; and

    2. the nit-pickers are, in my experience, flawless at determining when a was in a conditional is to be understood counterfactually (and so “should be” replaced by were) — which means that they understood the speaker’s or writer’s intentions perfectly.

    As a result, appeals to “preserving distinctions” that are “important for communication” and to “avoiding ambiguity” are baseless and indefensible in this case. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using the special counterfactual form — I do so myself — but there’s also nothing wrong with using the ordinary past to express counterfactuality. It’s a matter of style and personal choice, and no matter which form you use, people will understand what you are trying to say.

    Comment by malachai — April 29, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  10. But what if I wanted to be vague? What if I wanted to be evasive? What if I wanted to hint, slyly, that something _might_ be true? I _like_ those shades of meaning.

    And besides, I like rules. I still defend the rule against the split infinitive–despite some people getting purple-faced about my supposed obsolescence–simply because it’s nice to have a “default” way of saying something. Rules can be bent, and there’s nothing wrong in my view, for instance, with sticking an adverb in there if it’s the best way to express the sentence. It’s a basic principle of “there’s is one, and preferably only one, right way to do it”; if a rule is flaunted, for no real reason (not for natural misuse, not for clarity, etc.), it bugs me because it means we’re slowly starting to speak different languages. There are, of course, things like the serial comma (I’m a fan, for some reason, though its omission is perfectly acceptable) that won’t ever be settled, but I would like us not to multiply them. (See? “Not to!”)

    So, it’s also partly a basic frustration with a decay of the language. There _is_ a loss of meaning when you can’t distinguish between “untrue” and “possible.” I like that “were” sort of sticks the knife in the concept as hypothetical, whereas “was” leaves it open to debate. I gave an example; use your own head for more. It comes down to a basic respect for the language and I’d like to educate people on the “proper” way to do it, even if it’s a bit arbitrary.

    And I’ve got William Safire on my side with the subjunctive mood. He’s a good writer _and_ a usage expert, and pretty pliable on the subject of common usage. (He shares my view on the split infinitive, which is “try to avoid it when possible.”) So, we each have our authorities. (And besides, you can’t claim you don’t need an authority, and then name one to support your case!) Even good writers need a little nudging once in a while. I’d rather not lose this ability to inject nuance into my sentences… it’s slight, but those slight variations are what put a lot of the fun into language. (These slight variations, of course, are meaningful, differentiating from the ones mentioned earlier.)

    Comment by Tina Russell — April 30, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  11. Huh, apparently a closing quotation mark next to a closing parenthesis creates a winking smiley. That’s annoying.

    Comment by Tina Russell — April 30, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

  12. Can you provide an example where the use of “was” is ambiguous between and possible and a counterfactual interpretation? If you can’t, then I don’t see how wanting to be vague has anything to do with the grammar of this construction. You can be as vague as you want, but you won’t do it with the form you choose for first and third person present counterfactual form of the verb “be”.

    You haven’t given any convincing examples. “If I was a terrorist…” is not ambiguous; it is clearly counterfactual, as I already tried to demonstrate.

    The prescription against splitting infinitives is not and has never been a rule of English grammar. Like so many prescriptions, it arose in the 18th century because it was felt that English should conform to Latin rules. But AFAIK there are no modern usage books that advise not splitting the infinitive.

    I appealed to authority because I thought it might convince you. However, fwiw the authorities I appeal to are those that have looked at the evidence – that is at how English is actually used by actual English writers. These authorities give advice, but it is informed advice. Advice to never split the infinitive is not informed, because it ignores the history and facts of English grammar and usage.

    I can’t agree that “there’s is one, and preferably only one, right way to do it”. Standard English is not monolithic, it is full of variation. And I don’t see why the fact that we might speak different languages is worrying. We already speak different languages: the language I use with my close friends is not the same language I use in formal documents. There’s nothing to stop me using both. It’s called register and code-switching.

    Language does not decay. We’ve been using language for at least 40 000 years. People have been complaining about the degradation of English since the 18th century. Shouldn’t it have decayed by now? When we lost the singular second person pronoun “thou” did we lose the ability to distinguish between singular and plural when addressing people? Of course not. And we’ve created new terms like “you guys” and “yall” so that we can make the distinction when we need to.

    If you like following arbitrary prescriptions, fine. If you like “if I were” for aesthetic reasons, fine. Go ahead and use “were” – I use it too sometimes, I have nothing against it. But you haven’t given any evidence showing how the preservation of this special form, that occurs only in two persons of one verb, is somehow preserving a distinction between “untrue” and “possible” that we would lose otherwise.


    Comment by malachai — April 30, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

  13. Should not Hillary be referred to as Mrs. Clinton? She is married to a rather famous Mr. Or maybe Senator Clinton, in context of her campaign.

    I think the authority of the English language rests with English-speaking peoples. Language evolves, and grammar “errors” are our little genetic mutations. If you get the point, it’s good ’nuff English.

    Comment by Hannah — April 30, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

  14. Actually, I really disagree. If we don’t speak proper English, the language becomes more complicated, harder to speak, and harder to teach. I’m more sympathetic to changes, like the streamlining of awkward plurals, that come naturally and don’t take away any extra meaning. Moreover, I have nothing against slang. But yes, language can change for the worse and language can decay, and it happens through a lack of education.

    I like my “terrorist” example ’cause you wouldn’t want to make your friends think you might be one, or sympathetic to them. But what if you wanted to hint that you might be one, as a subtle, concealed threat? What if you wanted to throw someone off his or her game that way? It’s a shade of meaning that I like.

    Comment by Tina Russell — May 1, 2008 @ 12:46 am

  15. I have not seen anyone offer any evidence that “If we don’t speak proper English, the language becomes more complicated, harder to speak, and harder to teach.” Please provide one example of language decaying and becoming harder to speak.

    English grammar was not taught before the 18th century. Before the 18th century, there was no such thing as “proper English grammar”. How did Shakespeare and Chaucer write their great literature if they were not formally taught their own language?

    Most languages have no usage books or dictionaries, or prescriptivists. By your reasoning, the speakers of Hixkaryana in the Amazon basin are speaking a corrupt complicated language, and cannot communicate properly with each other, because they have not been formally educated in their language.

    Comment by malachai — May 1, 2008 @ 4:55 am

  16. “I like my “terrorist” example ’cause you wouldn’t want to make your friends think you might be one, or sympathetic to them. But what if you wanted to hint that you might be one, as a subtle, concealed threat? What if you wanted to throw someone off his or her game that way? It’s a shade of meaning that I like.”

    Please explain how you would “hint that you might be one” using the word “was.”

    present counterfactual: If I was a terrorist, I would do something bad.

    Since “was” is a past tense form in a sentence that is not referring to past time, “was” signals that the clause is counterfactual. If I use “was” in a sentence referring to past time, “was” does not signal a counterfactual:

    present possible: He is asking me if I am a terrorist.
    past possible: He asked me if I was a terrorist.

    Notice that we don’t use “were” in the last two. These are regarded as errors:
    present possible: He is asking me if I were a terrorist.
    past possible: He asked me if I were a terrorist.

    So what you need to do is explain how “was” can be used in a sentence not referring to past time and not signal a counterfactual.

    Comment by malachai — May 1, 2008 @ 5:17 am

  17. Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

    Comment by Hannah — May 17, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

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