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If you believe the grammar doomsayers, the English subjunctive is dying out. But if this is the end of the grammatical world, I feel fine — and I say that even though I often mark the subjunctive myself.
The most talked about use of the subjunctive is in counterfactuals:
(1) Even if I were available, I’d still skip his party.
For many people, marking the subjunctive here is not required; either they never mark it, using the past indicative form was instead, or they (like me) sometimes mark it with were, and sometimes leave it unmarked with was. For this latter group, the choice often depends on the formality of the setting. I’m calling this “not marking” the subjunctive, rather than “not using” it, because it seems less like people making a choice between two moods for the verb and more like a choice between two orthographic/phonemic forms for it.
It’s similar to the alternation for many people (incl. me) of marking or not marking who(m) in the accusative case, discussed by Arnold Zwicky here and here, and Stan Carey here. That said, I believe that (at least some) people who never use were in (1) do not have a grammatical rule saying that counterfactuals trigger the past subjunctive, and I’m not worried about that either.
This blitheness about the subjunctive does not go unmourned. I recently found myself being Twitter-followed by someone whose account just corrects people who fail to use the subjunctive in sentences like (1).* And Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, annually rants about people failing to mark the subjunctive. Consider one of Corbett’s calls to man the ramparts, which he begins by quoting, in its entirety, a 90-year-old letter complaining that the subjunctive must be saved from impending destruction.** Corbett continues:
“[...] despite my repeated efforts to rally support for [the subjunctive] the crisis has only grown. For those few still unaware of the stakes, here is a reminder from The Times’s stylebook”
What are the stakes? What would we lose without the subjunctive? Corbett cites sentences such as these:
The mayor wishes the commissioner were retiring this year.
If the commissioner were rich, she could retire.
If the bill were going to pass, Secretary Kuzu would know by now.
If these were the stakes, I’d ditch the subjunctive. Corbett points out that in each of these we’re referring to a counterfactual condition, which should trigger the subjunctive. But note that using the indicative/unmarked was doesn’t make that any less clear. There is nothing to be gained from using the subjunctive in these cases but a sense of superiority and formality. (Not that I’m against either of those.)
But here’s the weird thing: all this defense of the subjunctive, all these worries — they’re all only about the past subjunctive. And the past subjunctive is weird, because it’s only marked on be, and it’s just a matter of using were for singular as well as plural. For everyone worrying that this is some crucial distinction, please note these sentences where it is insouciantly the same as teh indicative form:
(2a) The mayor wishes the commissioners retired last year.
(2b) If the commissioner wanted to, she could retire.
(2c) If the bills were going to pass, Sec. Kuzu would know by now.
If anything, the loss of past subjunctive were strikes me as regularization of English, the loss of the last remaining vestige of what was once a regular and widespread marking system. Losing the past subjunctive makes English more sensible. I don’t see that as a bad thing.
And anyway, the subjunctive probably isn’t going to disappear, not even the past subjunctive. The past subjunctive is, to my knowledge, necessarily marked in Subject-Auxiliary Inversion constructions:
(3) Were/*Was I a betting man, I’d say the subjunctive survives.
A quick look at Google Books N-grams makes it look like were subjunctive marking has been relatively constant over the last 40 years in written American English, so maybe this is all just a tempest in a teacup.
Plus all of this worry about the subjunctive ignores that the present subjunctive is going strong.*** I’ve written about sentences where the present subjunctive changes the meaning (though I wrote with a dimmer view of the subjunctive’s long-term prospects), and Mike Pope supplied an excellent example:
(4a) I insist that he be there.
(4b) I insist that he is there.
In cases where marking the subjunctive is important, it’s sticking around. In cases where it isn’t important, and the subjunctive follows a strange paradigm, identical to the indicative for all but one verb, it may be disappearing. This is no crisis.
Summary: People who write “if I was” instead of “if I were” aren’t necessarily pallbearers of the English subjunctive. It may be regularization of the last remaining irregular part of the past subjunctive, with the present subjunctive remaining unscathed. And if the past subjunctive disappears, there will be, as far as I can tell, no loss to English. Go ahead and use it if you want (I often do), but to worry that other people aren’t is wrinkling your brow for nothing.
*: I do respect the tweeter’s restraint in seemingly only correcting people who’re already talking about grammar.
**: That this destruction has been impending for 90 years has somehow not convinced the ranters that their panic may be misplaced. Also, Corbett keeps titling his posts “Subjunctivitis”, which I think sounds great, but not in the same way he probably does. -itis usually means an unwelcome inflammation of the root word, and I can’t help but see all this as an unhelpful inflammation of passions over the subjunctive.
***: In fact, and I think this is pretty cool, (Master!) Jonathon Owen directed me to a classmate’s corpus work suggesting that for at least some verbs, marked subjunctive usage is increasing.
I’ve re-read an old column by Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor (a job title I would not have thought existed), discussing a complaint that Noam Chomsky committed a linguistic error by using anticipate in place of expect.
The column was a rollercoaster for me, because my many interactions with honest-to-goodness prescriptivists has rendered me unable to detect well-crafted satires until it’s too late. I swallowed Chivers’s faux stance, clucking my tongue all the while, only to realize at the end, pulling into the station, that there was no real danger there at all. In fact, I felt pretty happy for having read it.
But I had committed myself to becoming miserable from reading something, and in the idiotic hopes of providing that misery, I proceeded to the comments. Why do I do this? Is it some misguided penance for imagined crimes? Well, whatever, here’s a comment:
“Thinking of ’10 items or less’ reminded me of another sign of the times, ‘this door is alarmed’ – alarmed, presumably, by the widespread misuse of the English language.”
Maybe I’ve been suckered once again, and that’s not a complaint from the commenter — but it probably is. And if so, it’s a foolish one; alarmed here is a predicative adjective formed from the past participle of the verb alarm. This sort of functional shift is really common in English, and very productive (by which I mean that it can be generated on the fly and with a wide range of verbs). And it doesn’t cause any distress in other instances, such as “the trap is set”, “the painting is finished”, “the parking meters are bagged”, “the door is locked”, and so on.
It’s not a hard thing to notice that there isn’t really anything unusual or wrong about this sign. I mean, yeah, I can see thinking at first “hmm, that’s an odd turn of phrase.” But it really doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to see that it’s nothing unordinary. And in general, a lot of the misguided complaints I see are ones where a small amount of thought will reveal that, if the construction isn’t obviously right, it at least isn’t obviously wrong.
Which is a little bit weird, isn’t it? So many of the complaints about grammar are based on this idea that people are saying things without thinking about them (e.g., you’re and your) or saying things only because they hear other people saying them and thus assume they’re acceptable. But in fact, that’s just what the complainers are doing; either they’re not thinking at all and just repeating the condemnation they heard from some some authority figure, or they are thinking, but only in order to amass evidence against the usage.
If you want to be an authority on language — and especially if you’re really as devoted to improving and protecting the language as so many people say they are — then you can’t fall prey to the knee-jerk “doesn’t sound right to me” reaction. You can’t decide you want to complain about a usage and then sit and think only about reasons to discredit it. And, similarly, you can’t do the opposite, deciding that you want to accept something and then only looking for reasons to accept it.* If you can’t do that, then you’re as lazy about policing the language as you think others are about using it.
*: This is a problem that is much rarer, of course, but I’ll confess to the occasional attack of it when I attempt to argue that some rare or confusing bit of my dialect ought to be considered standard in formal written prose just because it sounds fine to me. “What do you mean we shouldn’t use positive anymore here? You’re trampling my linguistic heritage!”
goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:
“Don’t use momentarily to mean “in a moment”; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There’s no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.”
A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.
But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.
So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:
“If it’s more common for people to use momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’, then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying ‘don’t speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks.’ This seems counterproductive. [...] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”
He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.
The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.
If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.
So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**
Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:
“And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?”
*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.
Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.
**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.