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The English subjunctive may well be dying, but I am shedding no tears for it. This unconcern is, perhaps, a minority view amongst men of letters, for whom saying if I were instead of if I was is often a marker of a proper education, but I’m comforted by the fact that it is the majority view amongst users of English.
The subjunctive, if you’re not familiar with it, is a verbal mood* that appears in a variety of languages. It’s prominent in Romance languages (if you’ve taken French or Spanish, you’ve surely encountered it), and it exists to various extents in other Indo-European languages as well, including English. The basic idea of the subjunctive mood is that it expresses something counter to reality. For instance, one might say:
(1) If Alicia were the President, she’d get Party Down back on the air.
Normally, you’d say “Alicia was”; “Alicia were” would be a misconjugation. But because we’re talking about a counterfactual situation (Alicia is not really the president), we can use the subjunctive mood instead. And in the subjunctive mood, the present tense of the verb to be is were, regardless of the subject.
Often you’ll see people using the regular present tense in these situations, writing in (1) “if Alicia was the President”. That’s because the English subjunctive is pretty weak. It can be used in counterfactual situations, but it generally isn’t required. Because it’s optional and subtle (it looks just like the plural indicative forms of most verbs), it’s no surprise it’s disappearing.
Many grammarians wail and gnash teeth for this loss, and try to explain how important the subjunctive is.** Some explain that the subjunctive stresses the counterfactual nature of the situation, as though if you saw “if Alicia was president” in (1), you’d be thinking “I don’t know Alicia was president!”. Of course no one thinks this, because the counterfactuality is already established by the use of if.
What’s interesting to me, though, is that are some situations where the subjunctive is obligatory. And I say obligatory here meaning that I don’t get the right meaning out of the sentence if the subjunctive isn’t used. One occurred to me during a little monologue I was having in my head as I walked across campus the other day:
(2a) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admire him.
(2b) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admires him.
In (2a), with the subjunctive, our nameless character hopes that everybody admires him, suggesting a dearth of self-esteem. In (2b), with the indicative, our nameless character believes that everybody admires him, suggesting an overabundance of self-esteem.*** Here’s another one that just came to me, and here not using the subjunctive seems very awkward (although I’ve found examples of it in the corpus):
(3a) I require that it be done tomorrow
(3b) ?I require that it is done tomorrow
So, you might say, how can I idly declare the subjunctive on its way out while I also declare its necessity? Well, quite simply, if it disappears, we’ll do something else. In the case of (3b), it seems that this indicative form is gaining traction. As for (2a), by just changing the word idea to hope or desire, we get the same irrealis reading as (2a) without requiring the subjunctive. When language change happens, it doesn’t become impossible to say something. It just becomes impossible to say it the old way.
The worst case scenario is that the meanings of (2a) and (2b) get said the same way (with the indicative form admires), that they become a little bit ambiguous, and that we have to rely on context to tell them apart. Even that isn’t a bad situation, since we already do that with so many other things in language. The difference is critical in our current form of English, but it probably won’t be in future forms.
*: The subjunctive is properly called a mood, not a tense, because it exists across tenses; there are past, present, and future subjunctives. This Wikipedia article has some good info on this. The “standard” mood of English is known as the indicative, because it indicates what is really there.
**: I’m especially fond of the Academy of Contemporary English’s thoughts on the matter: “[Not using the subjunctive forms] is so common, in fact, that few people realise that they are using bad English when they mix them up. The difference is of the utmost importance [...]“
NB: when only a few people notice a language distinction, it is not important, let alone of the utmost importance.
***: I won’t spoil the minor mystery by revealing which of the two I was actually thinking.
Hiding from my dissertation in a little alcove under the stairs on the bottom floor of the library, I was scanning through a book of grammar gripes. One of them was the common objection to transitive usage of the verb graduate. For instance, people will sometimes say:
(1) Now that they’ve graduated high school they can set their goals on college.
Those of an older bent will be more familiar with an intransitive usage where the graduated institution appears in an ablative* prepositional phrase:
(2) Yesterday the heir to the Notorious B.I.G. throne, young Tyanna graduated from high school at an undisclosed location.
And, you may be thinking, darn right! It’s graduated from, and it’s always been, and the kids are screwing up the language again. And it’s true that the transitive form in (1) is newer and seems to be gaining in popularity.** But it turns out that graduate from isn’t the original form, either. It used to be graduated at, as in this 1871 example:
(3) He graduated at Williams College in 1810, and studied theology with the Rev. Samuel Austin, DD, of Worcester, Mass.
So already, just going back 140 years, we’ve seen transitions from graduated at to graduated from to the plain graduated. But there’s an even more substantial change in the history of graduate. Graduating used to be something a school did to its students, not something the students did to the school. One was graduated at some school — witness this 1827 list of folks that Harvard graduated, such as:
(4) Jabez Chickering, Esq., son of Rev. Jabez Chickering, was graduated at Harvard University, in 1804; and settled in the profession of law in this town.
I’ve put together a Google Books N-grams graph illustrating the changes over time:
Interestingly, it looks like the forms in (3) and (4) were both in use throughout 19th century American English. That’s a bit surprising because the two forms assign different roles to their subjects, but it just goes to show that grammatical ambiguity is tolerable when there’s no chance of confusing the roles. (It’s always clear that the person is getting the degree, and the university issuing it.) We see was graduated at start dropping off in the second half of the 19th century, graduated at remaining strong until the early 20th century, and graduated from taking off from there.
So while I graduated high school may not yet be standard, it will be, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It just isn’t what people used to say. For whatever reason, the younger generation likes to change how graduation works. There’s no reason to fret over it; it’ll change, and life will go on, and our kids will be just as grumpy as us when their kids re-reinvent the word’s usage.
*: Ablative is one of a set of words describing the cases that can be marked in a language. Ablative in particular indicates motion away from something; Wikipedia has a list of these, including such fun ones as illative and inessive. (Valid only for certain definitions of “fun”.)
**: I’m a little surprised, but I don’t see any clear evidence in Google Books N-grams or the Corpus of Historical English of the transitive usage growing faster than the ablative intransitive. I suspect this is due to a strong avoidance of the transitive usage in writing, which both of these corpora are based on.
Let’s continue the S-Series by talking about beside and besides. I’ve heard a lot of people kick up a fuss over these two, but having thought through their usage, I’m rather surprised. I don’t think a lot of native English speakers really confuse the two forms anymore. The two used to be pretty interchangeable, like toward and towards, but beside generally ceded its non-literal meanings to besides sometime in the 19th century.
Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to get good statistics on the prevalence of different meanings of a word, so I’m basing what I say here what the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and (to the least extent possible) my brain have to say on the matter. I’ve added corpus statistics where possible.
Next to: beside. The most literal meaning is also the primary meaning of beside in modern English. If you’re talking about physical positioning, you definitely want beside; the last attestation of physical-position besides in the OED is from 1440.
(1a) The purple couch beside the road
(1b) I am slightly concerned about the hungry tiger standing beside me.
Idiomatic nearness: beside the point. The “next to” meaning of beside is not limited to physical proximity; there are also idiomatic usages, the most prominent of which is beside the point. The alternative, besides the point, is rarely attested both historically and recently:
Adverb: besides. The OED reports that beside was once a standard adverb, but now it’s become obsolete in most of its adverbial usages and archaic in the rest. So use besides in sentences like:
(2a) Men? Sure, I’ve known lots of them. But I never found one I liked well enough to marry. Besides, I’ve always been busy with my work.
(2b) … lost her social position, job, and husband, and was broke besides. [MWDEU]
If you’re using it as sentence modifier, as in (2a), or as a clear adverb (i.e., without a noun following it (2b)), you probably want besides.
In addition to: besides. Now let’s return to prepositional usages. In modern English, the “in addition to” meaning almost always uses besides:
(3) There was no need to install additional software besides the game itself.
Beside used to be common in this usage, but it seems to have become rare in modern English (although I feel like it may be a common local variant in some places). I’ve found it only rarely in modern American writing, such as “Did Glenn mention anything beside the names I dropped?”, from COCA in 2002.
Other than: besides. A similar usage to the last one, again with besides as the primary modern form. Here I’m talking about using the word to mean something like “except”, as in:
(4a) Having been lost in the forest for days, I began to forget whether I’d ever eaten anything besides acorns.
(4b) Will Los Angeles ever be something besides a “suburban metropolis”?
Summary & caveat
So, in general, beside is used for literal and figurative nearness, and besides takes pretty much everything else (especially all other metaphorical usages).
That said, there is an important point here: each of the suggestions I’ve made above is still a bit fluid, since the distinct usages often didn’t start ossifying until the 19th century. Different usages and different people will vary on how much one form is preferred over the other. Adding an s in (1b) is straight out for me, but dropping the s in (3b) just sounds dialectal. And the further you go back in English, the more the usages will blend together.
Lastly, the promised caveat: it’s very hard to get clear data on the usage patterns of different senses of a word, so while I’m confident that these rules of thumb are accurate for my own idiolect, and fairly confident that they apply to standard American English, I’m not sure how well they reflect non-American Englishes. Use them at your peril.