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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.

I’ve been looking through some unfinished drafts of posts from last year, trying to toss some of them together into something meaningful, and I found one that was talking about the stupid Gizmodo “Hashtags are ruining English” piece from last January. (Given hashtag‘s selection as ADS Word of the Year, I think that claim has been safely rebutted.) Apparently, in a fit of light madness, I read through the piece’s comments. I didn’t find any of them particularly noteworthy, save one. A commenter named Ephemeral wrote:

“The point is that texting and hashtags are at the root of the increasing illiteracy. Why worry about what an adjective is? If it doesn’t fit in my 140 character limit, it could be an adverb, for all I care. And, if it can’t be reduced to a less-than-five-character ‘word’ with letters and digits, then I am not interested anyway. […] #ltr8”

The rant doesn’t really make any sense (character limits are making kids confuse adverbs and adjectives?), but the point is clear: Ephemeral is mad because kids today just use whatever the hell they feel like to express themselves.

To drive home the point, Ephemeral adds a hashtag to the end of the comment: #ltr8. That’s one of those “less-than-five-character ‘words'”, you’ll note. Except that no one uses this tag. (Literally no one.) I can only guess that the intended hashtag was a leet-speak version of later, which would be #l8r. #ltr8 would be, I don’t know, “later-ate”?

If it were the case that one could say later by typing in ltr8 and pronouncing it “later”, then maybe that would be indicative of increasing illiteracy (or mild dyslexia). But this isn’t the case, as the Google results show, and what little sense there was in Ephemeral’s point falls apart. It’s not because Ephemeral’s making an error while complaining about an error, which wouldn’t negate a valid argument. It’s because Ephemeral is declaring something simplistic despite not being able to understand it.

This is rampant in armchair linguistic analysis, and really irritating. Non-standard dialects are the prime example of this; if you ask people unfamiliar with it to speak African-American Vernacular English (i.e., ugh, “Ebonics”), all they’re going to do is stop conjugating verbs in the present tense. “I be real happy,” they might say. No wonder these same people would view it as a deficient form of English; according to their knowledge of it, it’s just Standard American English with a few rules taken out.

But the truth is that there are extensive differences between AAVE and SAE, including an ability in AAVE to distinguish between past tenses that SAE doesn’t morphologically distinguish. In terms of speaking about the past, it would have to be SAE that’s the deficient dialect. But because the people griping about AAVE haven’t tried to learn it, they don’t see any additional structure, and assume it must be deficient.

So too with textspeak. If you don’t understand the patterns, and you really think that #ltr8 is something that people would say to each other despite its flouting of reason, then of course you’ll see think it deficient. In your mind, anyone can say anything in textspeak, even if it’s nonsense. Since there are apparently no rules whatsoever in textspeak, it’s no surprise if you perceive it as a bogeyman out to destroy your rule-based language. But if you find out that #ltr8 isn’t acceptable in texts, maybe you start to realize that textspeak has rules, albeit different (and less strictly enforced) ones from formal English.

What I think I’m getting at here is that before you say “X is decreasing literacy”, make sure that you are sufficently literate in X to know what you’re talking about.

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.

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!”

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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, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

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. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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