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For Authors: January 11, 2023 Issue [#11747]

 This week: A Grammarian's Panegyric Part 2
  Edited by: Max Griffin 🏳️‍🌈
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1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
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6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions

About This Newsletter

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Letter from the editor

I’m feeling moody today. It doesn’t help that TV seems to be nothing but re-runs. Heaven help us, even C-Span seems to be re-runs this week.

Well, since re-runs are everywhere, I’ll continue the trend and talk some more about verbs in this month’s newsletter since that was so popular last month. What? You didn’t like it? Be that as it may, that’s what you’re going to get. This month, I’m going to talk about a verb’s mood. When we’re done, you’ll know which of the following is correct and why.
If it wasn’t for your directions, I wouldn’t have gotten lost.

If it weren’t for your directions, I wouldn’t have gotten lost.

Sorry, that’s the best hook I can come up with.

Unless you’re a grammar geek, I bet you didn’t know verbs could be moody. Most of the time, a verb’s mood is indicative. That’s a nice, friendly mood where the verb expresses a fact or opinion or maybe asks a question about facts or opinions. “They voted again” is an example. “They voted stubbornly” is another, the former expressing a fact and the second an opinion. “How did they vote” is a third example, asking a question about a fact or opinion.

Other times verbs are in an imperative mood—they give a command. “Vote now,” is one example. However, imperative verbs are sometimes polite, as in “Please vote for me,” making a direct request, or “You may vote now,” granting permission. Note that the subject—“you”—is implied in these constructions. Other times, the subject might be given, as in “Kevin, stop that.” Note that “Kevin” is not the subject of this sentence--it’s a direct address.

About 99% of the time, verbs are either indicative or imperative. That other 1% is where it gets complicated. That’s also where it gets interesting, or at least confusing.

Consider phrases like “Heaven help us” or “be that as it may,” both of which appeared above. These are examples of a verb in a subjunctive mood. Subjunctive verbs are kind of bashful and don’t show up too often. When they do, they are often counterfactual, i.e., statements contrary to fact, or at least statements in the absence of fact. They speculate about things that might be true.

Subjunctive mood is uncommon, but we’re all familiar with it. For example, when Topol sings, “If I were a rich man...” in Fiddler on the Roof, he’s expressing a conjecture, i.e., he’s using “were” in subjunctive mood. If your landlord says, “That dog has to go,” she’s making a demand that the facts change, again subjunctive mood. If your boss says, “you need to take some time off,” that’s a suggestion about changing what you’re doing, so it’s again subjunctive.

Subjunctive moods come in three flavors, present, past, and past perfect. In almost all cases, subjunctive verbs pair with a form of the verb “to be.”

Present subjunctive is the easiest. If you write, “He recommends that they be prepared to vote at any time,” you’re using subjunctive present. Here, “be prepared” is not passive voice, which we covered last month. It’s part of a conjectural statement about unknown facts, hence subjunctive. The conjectural character is clear when compared with the sentence, “He is prepared to vote at any time,” which uses “prepared” to indicate a known state of being. Present subjective pairs the verb’s past tense with the present tense of “to be.”

Past subjunctive refers to something in the present or future (no one ever said grammar made sense), and always uses were regardless of how many subjects are involved, so the form is usually
if [subject] were [some state or action]

Thus, the sentence
If Sally were safe at home

conjectures that Sally is not at home and probably not safe. The word if often appears when using present subjunctive.

Admittedly, past subjunctive mood and imperative mood are easy to confuse. Consider, the two sentences at the start of this blog.
If it wasn’t for your directions, I wouldn’t have gotten lost.

If it weren’t for your directions, I wouldn’t have gotten lost.

The initial phrase is speculation, which means the verb should be subjunctive. Thus, the correct verb mood in the first clause is “weren’t” not “wasn’t” even though the subject, “it,” is singular. The second sentence is correct, the first is not. The mood in the second clause is left as an exercise for the reader.

Past perfect subjunctive adds yet another wrinkle. This is a conjectural statement that refers to something in the past. It uses the base verb’s past perfect form to refer to a counter-factual statement about the past. That’s clear, right?
For example
If only I had discussed past perfect tense first, this would make more sense.

We’ll talk about tense in a later post, but the above example shows past perfect subjunctive in action. The conjecture is about a past event, so we use the past perfect tense of “discuss;” “had discussed” indicates the past perfect subjunctive mood.

You can’t do past perfect mode without using the word “had.” That’s because you can’t do past perfect tense without “had.”

Sometimes you’ll see lists of words to avoid. These are almost always useful things, and often include non-specific adjectives like “large,” or “small,” or adverbs like “very.” But they sometimes also include words like “had.” It’s true that “had” can take the readers out of the here-and-now of ongoing events. That’s generally a bad idea. But sometimes, as in the use of subjunctive mood, you can’t avoid the word “had.” Your character might need to express regret, for example, and think, “If only I had not made that deal with Mephistopheles,” or “if only I had paid the insurance.”

That’s it for this month. If I decide to continue this series, a verb’s tense is up next. There’s twelve of these little things altogether. I don’t know about you, but just thinking about that makes me tense.

Paragraphs 5.123-5.127 of the Chicago Manual of Style

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