Friday, June 3, 2011

That pesky subjunctive

A subhed in this week's Metro Pulse: "After five years locked up, Scott West has a lot to say -- about prison, downtown Knoxville, and people who wish he was [sic.] a little more repentant."

What the heck do we do with the subjunctive mood?

In the 1946 edition of Harbrace, University of Tennessee Professor John C. Hodges wrote, "Only a few distinctive forms of the subjunctive remain," noting the top two --

  • Required Subjunctive -- chiefly in 'that' clauses of motions, resolutions, recommendations, order or demands." [e.g., "I demand that he see a physician."]

  • Preferred or Optional Subjunctive -- especially in contrary-to-fact conditions and in expressions of doubts, wishes, or regrets. [e.g., "If the apple were ripe, it would be delicious."]

Hodges also made the distinction between formal and colloquial expression, giving four examples of colloquialisms we hear all the time, such as the one in the example above, "I wish that he was here."

More recent Harbraces state Rule 7d(2) as follows: The mood of a verb expresses the writer's attitude toward the factuality of what he or she is saying. The indicative mood makes statements--a definite attitude; the imperative mood issues commands or requests--an insistent attitude; and the subjunctive mood expresses situations that are hypothetical or conditional--a tentative attitude.

Indicative Dannice calls me every day.

Imperative Call me every day, Dannice

Subjunctive It is important that Dannice call me every day.

Examples of mis-subjunctification:

Atop our Sunday's "Week in Review" section of The New York Times stood the jarring headline: "If Bill Clinton Was President." It was corrected in later editions and on the Times website to read, "If Bill Clinton Were President."

Here's a similar case from the Knoxville News Sentinel a couple of years ago: "A photo from Tuesday's game showed [Pat Summitt] with her hand on [Shannon] Bobbitt's shoulder, delivering instructions as if she was whispering a secret in Bobbitt's left ear.

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