July 01, 2004

Prescriptivism and ignorance: together again

One of the listener letters read on Here and Now today complained about some newscaster's failure to use "subjunctive case".

... in our segment on the new film The Corporation, we posed the question "if a corporation was a person, what kind of person would it be?" Well, this prompted K.G. Hynes [?] of Jenkintown PA to write:
"While indeed legally a corporation is considered a person, in point of fact it is a company. For instance, a corporation can be sued, but it can't literally be sent to jail, only people can. Ergo, your introductory sentence should have been put in the subjunctive case: 'What if the corporation WERE a person.' The subjunctive case is used when the statement is contrary to actual fact, as in 'I wish I were on vacation.' "

The Here and Now newsreader responded mildly "Oh, don't we all."

I thought this was an especially nice little example of a correlation that might seem surprising, until you think of it: the people who complain the most about linguistic usage are also usually the people who are most ignorant and confused about how to analyze it and describe it.

The subjunctive has been dying out in English for a few hundred years, as the American Heritage Book of English Usage explains:

... over the last 200 years even well-respected writers have tended to use the indicative was where the traditional rule would require the subjunctive were. A usage such as If I was the only boy in the world may break the rules, but it sounds perfectly natural.

But the key point here is that it's the subjunctive mood, not the subjunctive case. "Case" is a property of nouns (and associated categories like adjectives), not of verbs. If you're going to be an annoying prescriptive nag, at least don't be a terminologically ignorant annoying prescriptive nag.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 1, 2004 12:58 PM

Many British and Canadian colleagues have written and told me that the Subjunctive mood is completely out, and, indeed, I have seen many Englishmen correcting constructions like 'if she be/ were'.

Surprisingly in the US the use of the subjunctive mood is still deemed very educated. Well, the subjunctive is very alive in Romance languages and the Americans who use the subjunctive virtually use it in the same cases and with the same nuance meanings as we do in Romance. Indeed they do it very naturally. If the subjunctive was really dead in North-American English, your countrymen would not know how to employ it 'properly'.

Methinks that, as in the case of drop of the post-vocalic 'r', the loss of the subjunctive seems to be a historical process that was somehow reversed.

Posted by: Tony Marmo at July 1, 2004 02:26 PM

This North American grew up using the "correct" subjunctive in everyday speech, so -- right, not 100% dead. I don't correct others' non-use of the subjunctive mood, because (1) I understand much of the country just talks differently (2) I like to think I am not a blowhard.

My anecdotal experience of both message boards and speech is that were and was exist side by side, almost completely unremarked by their users in a mixed conversation. (I have heard were-ers correct was-ers, but never vice versa.)

Posted by: Jane at July 1, 2004 03:04 PM

I'm not convinced that it's out in the UK. With the usual caveat that Web usage may not reflect the population as a whole, a UK-only Google search gets 890,000 hits for "if * were"; 563,000 for "if * was".

Posted by: Ray Girvan at July 1, 2004 03:10 PM

"If the subjunctive was really dead in North-American English, your countrymen would not know how to employ it 'properly'."

I disagree (and in my own experience I find the systematic use of the subjunctive is, if not dead, at least on life support outside of extremely, almost comically formal registers). For a similar example, most educated Americans know in an abstract kind of way when to use 'who' and 'whom' to distinguish case and can do so quite easily when necessary (e.g. in formal writing or very formal speech); this does not make the systematic use of 'whom' any less dead in natural speech (and, among young, educated speakers in Louisville, KY at least, it is thoroughly dead).

Perhaps one reason "the use of the subjunctive mood is still deemed very educated" is that practically no one uses it consistently in their natural speech unless they've been taught to do so. Also, in my experience educated people are often more insecure about their speech and more likely to self-consciously adhere to rules they've been taught.

Posted by: Ryan Gabbard at July 1, 2004 03:33 PM

It isn't actually the subjunctive. People often call the "were" of "I wish I were" subjunctive, but that term is much better used (as in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) for the construction with "be" seen in "I demand that it be done." The "were" form is often wrongly called a past subjunctive, but of course "it were done" is not a past tense of "it be done". The difference between the two is that the subjunctive construction occurs with any verb: "I demand that this cease" is a subjunctive (notice "this cease", not "this ceases"). The relic form in "I were" is only available for "be". For all other verbs you use the preterite: "I wish I went to New York more often." The Cambridge Grammar calls the "were" form the irrealis form. It is surviving robustly in expressions like "if I were you", but even there it has a universally accepted alternate "if I was you", and there is no semantic distinction there to preserve.

Posted by: Geoff Pullum at July 1, 2004 03:41 PM

" this does not make the systematic use of 'whom' any less dead in natural speech (and, among young, educated speakers in Louisville, KY at least, it is thoroughly dead)."

I think my part of the country just speaks differently from yours. I think whom is dying faster than were, but neither has been totally eradicated from the everyday speech of my region. (And, as noted, both are still taught for formal writing.)

For my next trick, I will use "thither" in a sentence. Not really.

Posted by: Jane at July 1, 2004 03:59 PM

OK -- given Geoff Pullum's comment, every aspect of the letter's terminology was wrong.

But in any event, a verb form is not a *case*.

Posted by: Mark Liberman at July 1, 2004 04:02 PM

Here's one UK native who happily uses the subjunctive *mood* in instances like 'require that so-and-so be done'. Googling for "require that * be" +site:uk shows I'm far from alone.

Posted by: Robin at July 1, 2004 05:06 PM

I like the counterfactual "were," because "If I were you..." can be changed into "Were I you..." which is shorter and has a nice ring to it without sounding affected. "Was I you..." just doesn't work.

Posted by: Philip Brooks at July 1, 2004 05:52 PM

My attention is often caught by non-use of the subjunctive by BBC radio correspondents. In my US English dialect, the sentences "She insisted that he was present" and "She insisted that he be present" have different meanings, but it appears that in UK English both meanings are likely to be expressed by a single form, the first one. I think that US speakers who don't use the subjunctive would be more likely to say something like "She insisted that he should be present" for the second meaning (although even that version seems ambiguous).

Posted by: Keith Ivey at July 1, 2004 07:44 PM

Firstly I am very glad that some colleagues from the UK, Robin and Keith Ivey, said what I had not the courage to say. I too suspect that even in England the subjunctive mood somehow resists and survives, I do not want to challenge the opinion of many British English experts though. But, yeas, as Keith has pointed out. according to the BBC 'dialect' and/or to what is considered standard educated English in the UK, the non-use of the subjunctive is usually considered 'the norm'. This should be re-examined by the Englishmen who dare to challenge such preconception.

Nevertheless, I do have to agree with Jane contra what Ryan Gabbard claims. There are many grammars of English and of Romance Languages. They all present rules that are very incomplete. And there are many meaning nuances in the use of subjunctive tenses that are not captured by such rules. If all speakers of North-American English learned the subjunctive artificially they would fail to use it properly in many cases. But they do not. The Americans who use the subjunctive do use it consistently in almost all contexts where we use it in Romance, and they do not use it in almost all contexts where it is not used in Romance. It is a clear a sign that somehow the subjunctive is still part of their system.

But let us deepen this discussion. Allow me to ask the North-Americans their intuitions. In situation A and B:

A. What John needs is to fix his car. It does not matter who fixes it.
B. There is one person x such that John is looking for x. Incidentally, x can fix cars.

Now, consider the sentences:

(1) John wants/is looking for someone who fixes cars.
(2) John wants/is looking for someone who fix cars.

Which sentence best describes A, and which sentence best describes B?

Posted by: Tony Marmo at July 1, 2004 11:24 PM

Tony: Only sentence 1 is possible in my (eastern US) dialect, and it would apply in either situation. I would not expect to hear sentence 2 from a speaker of any standard English dialect, and I'd be surprised if it's possible even in nonstandard dialects, since anyone who says "who fix" would likely say "John want". I don't think the subjunctive enters into it.

Also, you mentioned "if she be" earlier. If I saw that in something written today I'd assume the writer was trying for a 19th-century or earlier style. It's certainly not at all normal in modern writing, and I'd expect any copyeditor to fix it, especially if the writer isn't a native speaker.

Posted by: Keith Ivey at July 2, 2004 12:19 AM

I use subjunctive (if that's we have agreed it is called) were naturally, but I notice that many of my students don't. I find myself sometimes repeating the same information twice, once in my normal speech and once in a simplified form to make sure the message is conveyed.

I didn't realize there was an alternative to "he insisted that she be there." I would read "... that she was there" as meaning that he was certain of his recollection that she was present.

Posted by: Qov at July 2, 2004 01:05 AM

OK, Keith. Now we find that modern North-American English has its own restrictions on the use of the subjunctive.

I do not know what do you think of examples like:

(0) The police requires that he be/come here.

But let us try this as well:
A. What John needs is a girlfriend from Africa. It may be any individual.
B. There is one person x such that John is looking for x. Incidentally, x is African.

Now, consider the sentences:

(1) John wanted/was looking for a girl who were African.
(2) John wanted/was looking for girl who was African.

If any of the sentences above is possible, which one best describes A? And which best describes B?

Posted by: Tony Marmo at July 2, 2004 03:02 AM

I consider both "was" and "were" as subjunctive forms here. The indicative would be *"If a corporation is a person, what color hair would it have?" After "if" we use the present tense for non-contrafactual conditions. Were sounds more cultivated than "was," but both are subjuntive in force.

Posted by: Jonathan Mayhew at July 2, 2004 08:38 AM

Tony: I think you're continuing down a blind alley in trying to apply rules from another language to English. I don't think any English dialect uses the subjunctive mood (if that's what it is) in relative clauses that way. Only the "was" version is possible, for both meanings.

And the lack of distinction is no great loss. If you consider the distinction essential, what would you do in the same situation with the sentence "John was looking for a girl from Africa"? Or just "John was looking for a girl", for that matter? In those sentences also the girl could be specific or not. If you really wanted to clarify that you meant a specific girl, you'd use more words. The subjunctive isn't involved.

Posted by: Keith Ivey at July 2, 2004 10:04 AM

No, Keith, that is not the case. Not at all. I am not trying to 'apply rules'. I was trying to make some empirical tests. Linguists do it all the time.

In modern Linguistics we do not call the properties of each language 'great loss' or 'great advantage'. We respect each language and try to see how its structure is really organised.

Sorry, I assumed that you were familiar with this sort of procedure.

Anyway, if we continued to these tests, they would probably show us that English has some restrictions on the use of the subjunctive, which in specific points differ from Romance restrictions on the subjunctive and German restrictions on the 'Konjunctif'. But I shall drop it.

Posted by: Tony Marmo at July 2, 2004 10:33 AM