First, the Defensive Bitching
You know what really burns my toast? When people’s default behavior is to assume I am wrong. I hate saying something, anything, even something as innocuous as a preference for a certain type of mustard, only to be told I am wrong. I especially hate it when this happens before I even finish uttering my claim, but man, let me tell you, I really hate it when it happens and I am right. Worst of all is when it happens, and I am right, and the person contradicting me just repeats or rephrases the exact claim I just made.
An example that happened last night:
Me: I think the difference in comprehensibility has to do with the level of diction, and of course the fact that it’s written in verse.
Friend 1: No, that’s not it at all; I mean, it’s really about the vocabulary!
Friend 2: And the fact that it’s written like poetry, and is poetical.
See what happened there? I include this example only because it is a recent one and thus fresh in my mind, and I will say that the friends in question are both excellent people and didn’t mean to be rude or weird or anything; it was just a loud pub and an excited conversation. I feel no less fond of them for it. But you see the general phenomenon I am describing.
A strange form of that phenomenon shows up here (on this very blog!) with some frequency. Because I write about grammar and writing and teaching here quite a lot, and also, I’m sure, because the word Grammar is in the title of my blog*, people seem to enjoy coming over here and scouring my writing for grammar or usage “errors.” Let’s take that smug bitch down a couple of notches, shall we, and “correct” her “mistakes.” It would be ridiculous of me to presume that I never make mistakes in writing — I have typed an “its” when I meant “it’s” or a “to” then I meant “too” thousands of times, and those are basic mistakes. It’s shameful! Even a fifth grader could explain the difference. I don’t use the spell check. I’ll leave a word out of a sentence or leave a letter off of a word, and I won’t notice until days or weeks later, at which point I am typically too lazy to fix it. Then, of course, there’s the fact that I pepper my writing with commas, begin sentences with conjunctions, split infinitives, and generally make all manner of stylistic choices that were considered unfashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is the era of English whence most of these self-described “pedants” get their “rules.”
The thing is, though, I do choose my words carefully. When I write “till,” I don’t mean “’til.” “‘Til” is not even a real word, and I (or the OED) can tell you all about it. I use dictionaries all the time, for fun. I read Safire’s “On Language” whenever I come across a Sunday Times and re-read my favorite bits of Elements of Style when I’m trying to procrastinate. When I go to Borders, I flip through Garner’s Guide to Modern American Usage for the sheer thrill of it all. I have studied and taught grammar (and not just in English), and I have the basic arsenal to be deliberate about what I write. If I make some claim about grammar or usage, you can bet that I have researched it to whatever degree was necessary.
And yet, there are people who lurk around in dark corners, reading this blog for months and months without ever offering a kind or witty comment or even just effing saying hello, only to spring from hiding to leave a smug little one-word comment to “correct” a non-existent error. And they refuse to say where they think the error is, or respond in any useful way whatever. Yet another person identifying himself as a grammar “pedant” (they’re worse even than the “sticklers” and “Nazis,” and not nearly as fun as the “mavens”) who seems to know just enough about grammar to be an ass about it, yet not enough about it to be right.
And Now The Actual Grammar
After that bitchy preamble, allow me to tell you a little bit about the subjunctive mood, which was the subject of that dude’s complaint, and how it is used in conjunction with the conditional. First: conditional sentences involve two parts: the condition and the result. The condition part can often be identified because it begins with “if,” while the result part often begins with “then.” That’s easy enough, right? IF this CONDITION is true, THEN this RESULT happens.
The “conditional” aspect is kind of straightforward. So what is up with this “subjunctive” everyone keeps going on about? Well, you can read up on it some here, and see the chart with different forms, but to be quick I’ll just say it is a verb mood that is used with the conditional, as well as in some other ways. It is used to express something that is contrary to fact, or something that is wished, requested, or required. This means you should use it in the condition clause of your sentence when that condition is actually untrue or unlikely, then the result clause of your sentence will have a would- conditional. There’s more to it, but that will work for now. Here are some examples:
If I were a rich man [subjunctive], I would be able to afford a new car. Also, I would be a man, which would be weird. (Condition sentence, with one condition clause and three result clauses.)
It was required that he be trained on the new machines [subjunctive]. (Requirement.)
I wish I were going to the party [subjunctive]. (Wish.)
Some common phrases: as it were, if I were you, be that as it may, woe betide, peace be with you, etc [subjunctive].
What this means is: Some condition sentences will need the subjunctive in order to refer to a condition that is contrary to fact. On the other hand, some condition sentences will not use the subjunctive at all — they’ll use the indicative (the regular old verb forms we know and love). Those contrary-to-fact situations are known as “irrealis,” and the conditions that may or may not be true are known as “realis.”
When we write, we choose the mood according to whether the condition is realis (may be true) or irrealis (probably/definitely not true). When we read, we interpret a sentences meaning by these cues, too. Here are some examples:
If you are wondering how to proceed [indicative], you should follow the instructions. (Realis, i.e. indicates that something is or may be the case — We interpret this as meaning that this person may indeed be wondering how to proceed.)
If you were wondering how to proceed [subjunctive], you would consult the instructions. (Irrealis, i.e. indicates that something is not the case or is unlikely — We readers assume this person probably is not wondering how to proceed.)
If he is coming with us [indicative], we will need to pick him up. (Realis — Dude, is he coming with us or not?)
If he were coming with us [subjunctive], we would need to pick him up. (Irrealis — Thank god that guy isn’t coming; I hate having to drive out to his house and pick him up.)
If you continue to act like an assbutt [subjunctive], I will cut you. (Realis — may be true, or, in this case, is bloody likely.)
If you continued to act like an assbutt [indicative], you surely lost your job. (Realis — That may have happened! But maybe it didn’t!)
If you had continued to act like an assbutt [subjunctive], I would have cut you. (Irrealis — Thank god you changed your assbutted ways.)
So, I hope I have made this clear, if not interesting. Frankly it now seems silly that I have written this much merely in response to one jerkburger’s snide comment, but since he didn’t come back and explain how he thought I should have used the subjunctive in that post, I had no choice but to assume that he meant I should have used it in the first sentence (the only sentence where “were,” his first comment? would fit as a “subjunctive,” which he referenced in his second comment), and, after looking at that first sentence again, I determined that I was, in fact, right. As fucking usual. Here’s what I wrote:
If you are wondering, as many are, how to create a strong first impression when you make contact with the instructor who will be teaching one of your courses, you might be interested in the following tutorial.
First, I’ll break it down into its simpler components:
If you are wondering [condition, indicative], you might be interested [result]. (Realis.)
Now let’s change “are” to “were:”
If you were wondering [condition, subjunctive], you might be interested [result]. (Irrealis.)
I suppose the beauty of this is that both versions of the condition statement work with the result as I wrote it, since “might” is used as the past tense of may, the conditional of may, and the “polite” form of may. That, however, is a subject for another time. The point here is this: In the original version, use of the indicative (“are wondering”) allows for the fact that “you” may or may not be wondering. Were I to have written “were,” I would have been implying that “you” were not wondering at all. And frankly, I want to give you more credit than that.
*When I came up with the title “Zemblan Grammar,” I did not have it in mind that I would actually write about grammar. Despite appearances, there is no connection between that title and the writing I now do about grammar and usage. I suspect this dude has missed the point of the title entirely.