Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I'm In a Blue, Blue Subjunctive Mood

Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.
( Originally written 13 December 2007 )

I recently had my Linear Descent manuscript critiqued. A number of my sentences were marked for incorrect grammar. The problem involved use of the word “was” when “were” was the correct usage. I had descended into a bad subjunctive mood. Now, I must admit, I do often get moody, but I never realized my subjunctiveness was so out of whack.

Usually, the use of these words is obvious. For example: “The clown was squeezed into the tiny car”, versus “The clowns were squeezed into the tiny car”. This is a singular versus plural past-tense usage, where the proper word to use must match the subject “clown(s)”. Although, I do sometimes have trouble with phrases that seem ambiguous, such as “The pair was up to no good”, versus “The pair were up to no good”. Hmmm....

And then there are phrases that describe situations that depend on probability or likelihood, such as “If I was a rich man ...”. However, “was” is grammatically wrong. The correct phrase is “If I were a rich man...”, even though “I” is singular. Why?

This is an example of a subjunctive clause. A verb is in the subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual. In this example, I am not really rich, so the verb “was” - normally the singular past tense of the verb “to be” - is really in subjunctive tense. In English, the subjunctive past-tense of “to be” is “were”, not “was”, and the plurality of the subject “I” is irrelevant. “If we were rich men...” uses the same word, even though the singular “I” has changed to the plural “we”. It is still subjunctive mood.

So, as I slog through my latest manuscript looking for occurrences of this error, my mood quickly turns blue, blue, blue.

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