Just to clarify: I am not the grammar police. Not even after 20 years of being a professional writer and 8 years of being an English teacher. It’s too frustrating. And heartbreaking – it’s to show possession, Smith’s to indicate plurality, and their to contract “they are.” There are just no words for it. Though if you were Trumpkin, these might do: Beards and bedsteads! Thimbles and thunderstorms! Cobbles and kettledrums! Weights and water-bottles!
Which brings us to the English verb – 3 simple tenses, 3 past tenses, 6 progressive forms, the emphatic “do” form, and hey, how about that modal trinity of can-must-should – and LUCKY LUCKY US, beside all those tenses, let’s not forget The Many Moods of Verbs (which rather sounds like a title of a 70s soft-listening LP).
“If you were Trumpkin” is a prime example of one such mood: the subjunctive.
Of or pertaining to that mood of the finite verb that is used to express a future contingency, a supposition implying the contrary, a mere supposition with indefinite time, or a wish or desire.
Yeah. That thing.
We’ve all heard it.
“If I were a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.”
“If I were king of the for-eheheheheheheheheheh-st.”
From these, one might reasonably conclude that the subjunctive mood has more to do with lyrical freestyling and jabberwocky antics than with a verbal mood.
If I was. If I were. Does it really matter?
To some people, yes. They argue that if we were to subjugate our subjunctives so as to use them less subjectively and more submissively (in respect to grammar rules) and more subliminally (in respect to rhetorical flair) our speech would more accurately reflect our progressive civility and refinement (or maybe our panties-scrunched-in-a-bunch-ness) and the world would be a better place. For you. And me. You just wait and see.
Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know.
But I do know this: if I were a rich woman and also were queen of the forest, I would be able to buy more books and store them in my ever-expanding royal library, which would definitely make the world a better place. For me. For me. You just wait and see.
I can appreciate this post.
I think one of the major errors of so-called “prescriptive grammar” is that it often has no bearing on reality. I’m under the impression that we’re in the midst of something of a revision of technique concerning the interpretation of koine Greek because of this; people assumed that the rules of grammar governed the meaning of Scripture. In fact, only context and use determines the meaning of language, as much as prescriptive grammar likes to standardize form and function.
Matt – your appreciation is appreciated. Of course, language is always changing, mostly based on broad and gradual shifts in speaking that come about as a result of migrations, invasions, colonizations, or new technologies/entities. Or in the case of the subjunctive, well, um, plain old unawareness. (Guilty as charged. Did we learn this in grade school grammar? Because if so, it’s a blur.) Your points about the limitations of prescriptive grammar and the importance of context are spot on. If I were to read a story in a brand new paperback that began like this – “If I was to read a brand new paperback book while taking a bath, there would be a real risk of dropping it into the suds and killing it” – I would of course understand that the verbal mood is one of supposition with indefinite time, or (regarding the first half of the sentence) a wish or desire. “Was” instead of “were” doesn’t confuse my comprehension. But what if our language suddenly eliminated the word “if” to introduce such a mood (highly unlikely as I don’t anticipate any migrations, invasions, or colonizations that would take issue with if) and what (if) the verbal mood were the only thing to indicate either its indicativeness, imperativeness, or subjunctiveness? I mean, it’s possible. If the if-haters were to invade, many years after which that sentence would be, “The if-haters were to invade.” They sound scary.
I have a hard time with grammar even though I am a writer. I learned so much from this post. Good job and keep writing. Maybe we need a “grammar police”. LOL.
Angie – Grammar is one of those love/hate things, isn’t it? We need it to make sense of our written ramblings, but there are oh so many little rules to keep track of – or not. It’s pretty much like every other list of How to Play the Game: the rules provide focus and meaning and purpose and excitement. Without them there is chaos. But every now and then, you’re tempted to break a few, especially if the opponent is fierce. Or if you’re writing poetry. Which might be the same thing.