god save the subjunctive

who will if he doesn’t?

If you are in the habit of trolling grammar blogs, you will have noticed the considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the imminent death of a favorite verb mood. These sentiments are far from new. A letter to the New York Times from Ida M. Mason in March of 1924 warned of “another sinister and subtle danger that is threatening a vital prop of the nation, ” by which she meant, of course, the disappearance of the subjunctive from English speakers’ grammatical lexicon. The subjunctive mood, for those who are not already intimately acquainted, is used to express counterfactuals, wishes, doubt, and desires. For example, “I wish that one of my friends would not bring her OED on all of our dinner dates” makes use of the subjunctive mood, but “she brings it anyway” uses the indicative. The unfortunate coincidence of the English present tense form of the subjunctive and the infinitive makes this unusual English verb form all but invisible even to the most vigilant observers; even the diligent grammar preservationists at the New York Times accidentally use the indicative sometimes, although they self-flagellate appropriately with a weekly chronicle of their published subjunctive errors (and others) on the blog After Deadline: Newsroom Notes on Usage and Style. For example, this unfortunate use of “was” in an article about drilling for oil led one dedicated reader to write in to the NYT for violating the usage of one of the more obvious usages of the subjunctive:

“Maybe — just maybe — stopping the Keystone pipeline would be worth it if it really was going to change our behavior and help usher in the age of renewable energy.”

If it really were going to change our behavior.

But although some people really care about the subjunctive, most English speakers betray a (mysterious?) lack of interest in this abstruse and glamorous cornerstone of our grammar. And a few special English speakers not only disregard the potential death of the subjunctive, but actually revel in it. The anti-subjunctive camp has nothing but scorn for the pathetic attempts to preserve what they believe to be an antiquated linguistic device. Mr. Verb, a linguistics blogger, sums up the sentiments on his side of the aisle: “Language changes. Deal with it.” Similar sentiments are expressed by Jan Freeman, a weekly Boston Globe columnist, who coined the term “peevologist” as a less-than-friendly nickname for those grammar preservationists with whose work you may be familiar: these are the middle school English teachers, distant relations, and eavesdroppers who feel compelled to correct your grammar at every turn. These Peevologists beg that you use the subjunctive correctly. And remind you constantly, lest you forget.

You may categorically despise these people. I ask you to remember that even Peevologists have origins. Like you, they were once children free from both the possibilities and the constraints of language. And if their stories at all resemble mine, then at some point in their travels they encountered the mythical rhetorical beast they came to know, love, and call the subjunctive. The thought of that mood being abused—or worse, lost forever—can be distressing. And a distressed Peevologist may become rude and prone to insensitive behavior like correcting a friend when she groans “I wish I was dead” at her organic chemistry textbook.

But while some Peevologists may issue corrections out of a sense of self-importance—a habit for which I have little sympathy—for others, the correction derives from a place of loss and fear. What exactly is this fear, you scoff? I believe there are two possibilities, and while I have few sympathies for one source—which gives rise to a particularly unattractive breed of pro-subjunctivists, and sets my dogmatism siren wailing—I confess I probably belong in the second camp. For the most conservative grammarians, the fear derives from a professed belief in a possible, post-apocalyptic world in the not-distant-enough future where the uneducated masses have completed their bastardization of the English language to the extent that English is defined entirely by casual usage and not by rules at all. These people are Grammar Fundamentalists, crying “Tower of Babel” for all their opinion columns are worth. Their view exhibits a kind of grammatical xenophobia that, like all incarnations of xenophobia, can only be described as gross. Frequently these English speakers blame “the youth” or new English speakers for the introduction of new words or phrases. And although they are not explicitly political, I suspect that their fear might extend beyond the chronic misuse and slow death of the subjunctive to include other ways in which young people and immigrants are ruining America, at which point we’ve really just found ourselves some garden-variety Steyn-ian creeps, championing Western civilization with language as a tool for their socially conservative machine.

Beyond simply being bigots, this first species of grammar preservationist fails to make a distinction between instances of error—which are omnipresent—and the actual disappearance of a form from language. I think upon examination they would find that these are overlapping but not equinumerous sets. Besides, writers like Byron, Thackeray, and Frost misused the subjunctive all the time without precipitating a grammar apocalypse. But the Grammar Fundamentalists extrapolate from isolated instances of error to the imminent doom of civilization. They see the pervasive usage on the internet and in everyday speech of the indicative instead of the subjunctive as leading towards the inevitable development of many private languages that will render communication between the different grammatical camps impossible (cue chaos, the end of great English literature, and the cultural impotence of the Western world). It’s a sort of reductio ad absurdum argument whereby these language snobs trace our behavior to its supposed logical conclusion, deem that eventuality a complete disaster, and then frantically attempt to change course at once with impassioned blogging and letters to the New York Times.

I am uncomfortable—and you should be too—with the leap from linguistic ambiguities, which occur all the time and merely require us to depend more heavily on context, to the end of communication. But as a card-carrying member of the opposing camp of grammar preservationists, I will tentatively posit that there are significant aesthetic reasons to keep the subjunctive around. Sometimes complexities in language actually reflect complexities in our thoughts that would otherwise be incommunicable. Allow me a demonstrative parable about the two delightful subjunctives of the German language: the familiar one that expresses wishes, uncertainty, counterfactuals, and politeness, and another subjunctive that expresses indirect speech. Konjunktiv I—as it is so gracefully called—is used to qualify sentences that report speech without quotations. Where in English we are forced to use an indicative verb—“he said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction,” even though the sentence “Iraq had weapons of mass destruction” is false—the German language, with its evolved and expressive Konjunkiv I, has a subjunctive form of “had” that actually expresses the inconclusive nature of this attribution of language, thus rescuing us from the uncomfortable state of having to express such a dubious thought in the indicative.

It would be interesting—and unfortunately impossible, given the many confounding variables at play—to see whether the heavy consumption of the subjunctive that accompanies reading Der Spiegel actually makes German news consumers more skeptical and better equipped to process the highly suspicious information flow from politicians through the media than, say, the American public. Anti-subjunctive dissenters might insist that correct citations and a sensitively-chosen adverb or two could achieve the same effect as a real live subjunctive. But there may be something illuminative—and literal, in an interpretively helpful way—about having a grammatical structure reflect not just the content of a statement but the connotations surrounding it. The English subjunctive does not serve as dramatic a purpose as the German one, but that may mean that its purpose is just less obvious, not less important. English-sans-subjunctive might suffer from an equally serious but unquantifiable loss of meaning or clarity.

But let’s not be dogmatic, shall we? No need to march up and down Thayer Street waving flags that read “grammar for the sake of grammar” and handing out leaflets. If the quality of our language really has no impact on the quality of our thought, and if we can reduce institutionalized complexity and discrimination in our language while actually magnifying opportunities for verbal and syntactical creativity, then fuck it, let’s get wild. We needn’t preserve additional forms for children to learn in school merely because we can’t bear to witness  change.

It would be marvelous to speak conclusively on this subject. But is there any way we could actually determine whether or not the subjunctive makes any difference to the quality of our discourse and our thoughts? What would happen if we lost the subjunctive to history books? Or conversely: if, like grammar populists nationwide, you think that the subjunctive is essentially obsolete, how would you prove it? I would love to write the definitive defense of the subjunctive, but here I recognize sacred grounds upon which I may not tread. Any attempts to draw conclusions about English after the hypothetical death of the subjunctive tense would be mere conjecture. We could conduct some kind of sociological experiment about the development of the subjunctive in various languages and try to find patterns, but there would be no logically respectable way to do more than speculate about America-sans-subjunctive. I disregard the irony that any argument attempting to determine these sociopolitical effects would consist of sentences that inevitably utilize the subjunctive mood.

So, what then? We are resigned to wait and see, and to continue our rigorous usage. Or not. If the subjunctive is important to you, it will continue to be so. Here I find myself making a confession: although I initially classified myself as a type two grammar preservationist, over the course of writing this piece I lost my conviction that preserving the correct usage of the subjunctive is of any real consequence. I think it is important to me. But like many others, my love of grammar may stem less from the desire to balance artfulness with pragmatism than from a run-of-the-mill neurotic fear of failure. Trivial though the subjunctive may seem, I assure you that I can use worries about the subjunctive to mask less benign fears about American foreign policy, global warming, and the loneliness of the human animal. Grammar is something I console myself with. Grammar is evidence of civilization. Proper usage—or thoughtful usage, that is—binds us to those fearless wordsmiths who knew all the rules and bent them carefully, thoughtfully, and with love. Proper usage separates us from the former President George W. Bush’s “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” and, in separating us from this marauder of language, also separates us from the aggression and violence he committed in our name. Grammar is deeply conscientious; it is the choice to speak deliberately, just as we may choose to act with gentleness and with compassion. We all use language more or less thoughtfully, just like some of us use nuclear warheads more or less thoughtfully than others—thoughtfully being not at all. See Hiroshima, 1945.

But likening grammar mistakes to nuclear violence is crazy. I do not expect anyone to join me on the neurosis bus this time around the block. I hope you weren’t nodding along to that last paragraph—if you were, what the hell is wrong with you? I can offer you only small consolation. Material like Throw Grammar From the Train: Notes From A Recovering Nitpicker may be helpful for you. I also recommend that you sit down for a few minutes, breathe, brew some tea, and read Strunk and White. Or whatever gets you going, really. Don’t let me stop you.