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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.

[Gee! I Wish I Were a Man!]

For being such a foolish war, World War I did generate some artistic propaganda.

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.

If someone were to lend me a time machine and ask me to go back and figure out exactly what first set me down my road to dedicated descriptivism, I would first ask them if perhaps there wasn’t a better use for this marvelous contraption. But if they persisted, the coordinates I’d start with would be my elementary school days. I suspect it was some time around then that I first asked for permission to do something and was met with one of the archetypal prescriptions.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”, I surely must have asked, and just as surely a teacher must have answered, “I don’t know, can you?”

The irritation that I felt at this correction was so severe that even though I can’t remember when this happened, nor who did it to me, I still can call to mind the way it made me seethe. It was clear to me that the pedant was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to explain it. So, at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to settle a two-decade-old grudge, let’s look at whether it makes sense to correct this. I say that the answer is no — or at the very least, that one oughtn’t to correct it so snootily.

Let’s examine the “error” that the authority figure is correcting.  Can, we are told, addresses the ability to do something, whereas may addresses permission.  Mom said I can count to ten means that dear ol’ Mum believes in my ability to count to ten, although she may not want me to do so; Mom said I may count to ten means that Mum is allowing me to do so, although she need not believe that I am able to.*

At any given time, there are a lot of things that one is capable of doing (can do) and a lot of things that one is permitted to do (may do), and a few things that fall into both categories.  The prescriptivist idea is that there is a fairly clear distinction between the two categories, though, and so it is important to distinguish them.

Except, well, it’s not so important after all; can and may were tightly intertwined in early English, and were never fully separated.  The OED lists an obsolete usage [II.4a] of may as meaning “be able; can”.  This is first attested in Old English, and continues through to at least 1645.  Furthermore, may meaning “expressing objective possibility” [II.5] is attested from Old English to the present day (although it is noted as being rare now).  Examples of these are given in (1) and (2).  So we see that may does not always address the issue of permission, that may has encroached upon can‘s territory at times in the past and continues to do so to this day.

(1) No man may separate me from thee. [1582]
(2) Youth clubs may be found in all districts of the city. [1940]

As for can, there’s no historical evidence I found of it referring to permission in the distant past.  Back then, may was apparently the dominant one, stealing usages from can.  The OED gives a first citation for can meaning “to be allowed to” in 1879, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and does call the usage colloquial, at least on the British side of the pond.  But still, we’ve got it attested 130 years ago by a former Poet Laureate of the UK.  That’s a pretty good lineage for the permission usage.

Furthermore, I think (at least in contemporary American English) that the may I usage is old-fashioned to the point of sounding stilted or even affected outside of highly formal contexts. Just to back up my intuition, here’s the Google Books N-grams chart comparing May I go and Can I go:

can-may

You can see there’s a changeover in the mid-1960s, when the usage levels of May I finish plunging and Can I starts rocketing away. As you well know, this sort of fairly sudden change in relative frequency tends to generate a backlash against the newly-prominent form as a sign of linguistic apocalypse, so there’s no real surprise that people would loudly oppose permissive Can I. As always, the loud opposition to it is one of the surest signs that it’s passed a point of no return. By my youth, Can I was ensconced as the question of choice, and nowadays, I doubt many of our kids are getting being corrected on it — though it remains prominent enough in our zeitgeist to function as a set-up for a range of uninspired jokes.

So historically, what can we say of can and may and permission and ability? We’ve seen something of a historical switch. In the distant past, may could indicate either permission or ability, while can was restricted to ability. Over time, may‘s domain has receded, and can‘s has expanded. In modern usage, can has taken on permission senses as well as its existing ability senses. May, on the other hand, has become largely restricted to the permission sense, although there are some “possibility”-type usages that still touch on ability, especially when speaking of the future:

(3) We may see you at Breckenridge then.

The can expansion is a bit recent in historical terms, but that still means it’s been acceptable for over a hundred years — judging by the Tennyson citation — and commonplace for the last fifty or so. The recency explains the lingering resentment at permissive can, but it doesn’t justify it. Permissive can is here to stay, and there’s no reason to oppose it.**

*: Not to telegraph my argument, but even here I find Mom said I can count to sound more like a statement of permission than ability.

**: I have some thoughts on whether it’s really even possible to draw a clear line between permission and ability — in essence addressing the question of whether the smearing together of can and may is an accident or inevitability. I’ll try to put them together at some point & link to them, but given my history of failing to follow through with follow-up posts, I’m not going to leave it as only a possibility, not a promise.

Compose and comprise seem like mischievous brothers who are opposites but masquerade as each other to fool their friends. They’re very similar — both handle parts-to-whole relationships — yet they’re mirror images in how they handle it.

The standard division is this. Compose has the parts as the subject and the whole as the object. Comprise makes the whole the subject and the parts the object. So we get:

(1) [...] Pickwick was able to cultivate a sound that was more organic and unique to the six members that compose the band.

(2) The band comprises singer/guitarist Erlend Øye of Kings of Convenience, bassist Marcin Öz, drummer Sebastian Maschat, and Daniel Nentwig [...]

But is this a real distinction? I was tempted to say that it must be, because it seems like everyone knows about it. But then again, a lot of people have trouble maintaining this distinction, and I regularly see comprise used in sentences like (1). And, if I’m being perfectly honest, sentences like (2) sound rather odd to me, even after I’ve assured myself that they are appropriate. So is there a true distinction that people happen to be bad at maintaining, or is the distinction just another spurious one to add to the heap?

Well, the distinction clearly exists in one direction; while many people could use comprise in sentence 1, very few would use compose in sentence 2. As a result, we’re running into a similar situation as with jealousy/envy or verbal/oral. It’s not a matter of whether the two words are synonymous, but rather a question of whether one is more general than the other.* As usual, here’s the table of known possibilities:

whole-to-parts parts-to-whole
comprise YES (2) ? (1a)
compose NO YES (1)

Can comprise take parts as its subject and the whole as its object? Well, it’s easy to find people who say no, both on the Internet and in usage guides.

But I find it interesting that even committed prescriptivist writers, who completely believe in this rule, have trouble remembering it. Here’s a quote from William Safire:

I wrote [...] ‘They comprise a terror coalition’ [...] Greg Walker of the International Association of Chiefs of Police blew the whistle on this one, suggesting that I should have written constitute, meaning ‘make up.’ He’s right.”

And likewise, from James J. Kilpatrick:

The rule here is that the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole. [...] My problem is that I cannot seem to remember this.”

So, many grammarians want there to be a distinction, but even they have a hard time maintaining it. Does it exist in the language-at-large? It doesn’t seem to, judging from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

527 singular-subject comprises
468 plural-subject comprise

In current usage, comprise is appearing in senses (1) and (2) almost equally.** How about historical usage?Well, interestingly, the earliest complaint about the misuse of comprise found by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage wasn’t until 1903. But comprise was being used both ways well before that. The OED has examples from 1794 and 1799 on through to the present day. MWDEU notes that this usage was labelled “rare” in earlier editions, but this label has since been removed. So for at least two centuries, comprise has had a parts-to-whole usage that has only been gaining in popularity.

But why would comprise allow the two different usages? Well, why wouldn’t it? There’s very rarely a situation where it’s unclear which is the whole and which are the parts. And there’re parts-to-whole situations where compose doesn’t quite sound right to me, but comprise does. For instance, this MWDEU example from 1916:

“[...] the ringlets and bracelets did not comprise the whole of this young man’s soul.”

"So fellas, is it fair to say that we comprise an awesome band?"

All that said, there’s no denying that many people have a strong conviction that compose and comprise are mirror images. Although one can justify the use of parts-to-whole comprise, it’s an uphill battle. I wouldn’t recommend using it unless you’re spoiling for a fight. But if you are, you’ve got a pretty solid argument up your sleeve. The final table, with the grey indicating this “yes, but…” situation:

whole-to-parts parts-to-whole
comprise YES (2) YES
compose NO YES (1)

[For more on these words, check out Arrant Pedantry and Language Log's takes, which talk more about the passive forms than I did.]

*: I’ve taken to calling these “asymmetric pairs”, but I’m sure there must be a better name out there.

**: If you’re interested in the details, I searched the part-of-speech labelled COCA for singular or plural nouns ([*nn1*], [*nn2*]) followed by comprises or comprise, respectively, and summed over all different nouns. For a baseline (in case singular or plural subjects were generally more common), I also searched for compose. The results were very noisy due to overlap with other senses (e.g., “he composed himself before speaking”, “she composed a symphony”), but there were 40 singulars to 84 plurals in that search.

It’s worth noting that the (perhaps surprisingly common) presence of plural subjects for comprise in COCA is not driven by spoken examples. Only 19 of the hits come from spoken data; magazines and academic writing supply the bulk of the examples for both kinds of subjects. It’s appearing in edited writing, not only in unedited speech.

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.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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