March 31, 2008

Subjective tense

William Safire's most recent "On Language" column (NYT Magazine 3/30/08, p. 18) looks at the now-famous quote from Geraldine Ferraro, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."  Then comes a parenthetical digression on grammar:

"Get this," Sam Pakenham-Walsh, member of the Nitpickers League, said in an e-mail message, "we no longer use the subjective tense! Has all our education been for naught?"  Because Ferraro's statement posed a condition contrary to fact, her "if Obama was a white man" should have been were.

Yes, "subjective tense", in a grammar peeve.  Has all our education been for naught?

Mr. Verb was on the case (or, you might say, mood) immediately:

If the Nitpickers League cares about standards, Mr. Pakenham-Walsh's membership card is in grave danger. If you google "subjective tense" you get mostly the expected thing, namely people using tense when they appear to mean mood, while simultaneously using subjective when they mean subjunctive. Some of these come from folks like Mr. P-W, that is from card-carrying peevologists. Hilariously, Safire let this go through. (The [Language] Log has had entire strings about the related issue of the 'passive tense' but I don't see mention of 'subjective tense' over there on a quick glance.)

Our most recent expedition into the land of the passive tense was led by Geoff Pullum here, quoting an earlier posting of mine about how tense gets used as an all-purpose label for a grammatical category, pretty much any grammatical category, of verbs (and maybe other parts of speech as well).  My guess is that tense is just the first such technical term that people come across in school, so that's the word they use when they want to sound educated and technical.  It's a kind of meta-hypercorrection.

Apparently, we haven't noted subjective for subjunctive on Language Log, though some time ago Mark Liberman and I commented on "passive gerund" for "progressive aspect", again from someone who really ought to know better.

While I'm on the subject of subjunctives, let me express amazement, once again, that so many people are so exercised about the use of the ordinary past rather than a special counterfactual form (often called "the subjunctive" or "the past subjunctive") for expressing conditions contrary to fact.  The special counterfactual form is incredibly marginal: it's distinct from the ordinary past for only one verb in the language, BE, and then only with 1st and 3rd person singular subjects, so it does hardly any work.  And using the ordinary past rather than the special counterfactual form virtually never produces expressions that will be misunderstood in context.  Yes, you can construct examples that are potentially ambiguous out of context, but in actual practice there's almost never a problem, as you can see from two facts:
  1. all conditionals with past tense verb forms in them, for every single verb in the language other than BE, and for BE with 2nd person or plural subjects, are potentially ambiguous out of context, yet in actual practice, there's almost never a problem; and
  2. the nit-pickers are, in my experience, flawless at determining when a was in a conditional is to be understood counterfactually (and so "should be" replaced by were) -- which means that they understood the speaker's or writer's intentions perfectly.

As a result, appeals to "preserving distinctions" that are "important for communication" and to "avoiding ambiguity" are baseless and indefensible in this case.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with using the special counterfactual form — I do so myself — but there's also nothing wrong with using the ordinary past to express counterfactuality.  It's a matter of style and personal choice, and no matter which form you use, people will understand what you are trying to say.

But somehow preserving the last vestige of a special counterfactual form has become a crusade for some people.  There are surely better causes.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 31, 2008 01:39 PM