It ain’t necessarily so: the subjunctive mood

I’ve blogged about the subjunctive before, but as with nearly everything about grammar and syntax, it’s an evergreen topic. It’s December. I don’t have a tree this year. Here’s my stand-in. (Evergreen. December. Connect the dots, people.)

I bet you use this mood (it’s not a tense, it’s a mood) all the time without even thinking. “If I were you, I wouldn’t open that door.” “It’s important that we be ready to go by five.” There are the two major uses: for stating something contrary to fact (I am in fact not you, and never will be) and for a broad collection of statements about necessity, proposals, commands, suppositions, and suggestions (it’s necessary for us to be ready to go by five).

In my work, I see the first kind of usage done wrong often enough that it’s worth explaining again. 

You’ll use the subjunctive only if what you’re about to say is contrary to fact. It’s not true. It’s not the case.  And it can’t be true at all; it can’t possibly happen. If there’s a chance the thing you’re talking about is true or possible, don’t use the subjunctive mood. 

“If he were kidnapped, we’d have gotten a ransom note by now.” Using the subjunctive here means that it’s not possible he has been stuffed into a canvas bag and then into the back of a RAV4. If you suspect it’s happened, use “was” here. If it’s even possible it’s happened, use “was” here. (I’m not addressing the many other verb/tense options. This is purely an exercise in what not to do and why not to do it.)

“If he was kidnapped, the entire company would be thrown into an uproar.” We’ll say he hasn’t been, but he could be. Perhaps this is being said to the security detail, so they understand why it’s important that Quentin be protected 24/7. (And BOOM, there’s an example of another type of subjunctive statement: one of importance/necessity.)

“If she were late, all hell would break loose.” You’re saying she’s definitely not late, nor is there any chance she might be. No chance of a breakdown on the interstate or a delay on the metro. If it’s possible she is missing, don’t use “were” in that clause. Use “was.”

“If she were suffering from a gunshot wound …” She isn’t, is what this says. Maybe she’s got a stab wound. Maybe she has food poisoning. Whatever it is, it’s not a gunshot wound. “If this were a gunshot wound, it’d point to a number of suspects. But it’s not. She’s been decapitated.”

As you’re writing (or editing), ask yourself if the situation or state is possible. If it isn’t, at all, you can use the subjunctive mood. If there’s any chance the situation or state could be true, stay away from the subjunctive. 

Learn the rules, THEN break them

I’m sure you’ve seen this before. “You can’t break the rules well until you know what the rules are” and other variations to the same effect.  (That’s a fragment, and it’s intentional.) What’s the deal with that, anyway? Why bother to learn them to break them?

Because, folks, if you don’t know what the rules are to start with, you won’t be breaking them as much as you’ll be writing badly. Think about any art medium: clay, paint, metal, paper. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your work is likely to be amateurish at best, and garbage at worst. You don’t know how to use the medium effectively (some might say “correctly”), so your results are substandard.

It’s the same with writing and editing. Yes, editing. Every kind of writing and editing has its own set of rules and guidelines, and they need to be learned before they can be effectively ignored, bent, or broken.

As Roy Peter Clark says in The Glamour of Grammar: “Make sure you can identify common mistakes. You can’t break a rule and turn it into a tool unless you know it’s a rule in the first place.”

My use of a fragment back there at the start is an example of using rule-breaking as a tool. Sure, I could change that period to a colon, but I don’t want to. I want that fragment.  Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an independent clause. It isn’t. If you don’t understand why that’s true, you have some studying to do. (Yes, I used to teach English at the middle-school level. I nearly went to Japan to teach it as a second language. I have reasons for doing what I do.)*

As a fiction editor, I work with a lot of rule-breakers. I break a few myself in some of my suggested edits. There’s a different set of them at play in fiction than in, say, academic editing or medical editing. And guess what? Register plays a huge part in it, too. The expectations of the language’s formality makes an enormous difference in what can be gotten away with.

Remember: it’s not an editor’s job to teach you English grammar. It’s their job to help you polish your writing, to help you achieve your objectives. If you’re still struggling with the basics, you’re not ready to move on. Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones–ones that will help you become the writer you want to be.

*Why is it a fragment? Because that whole thing taken as a unit is only a complex subject. There’s no verb to the thought. The verbs are in the quote, and they don’t apply to the phrase that follows “and.” Here’s another way to look at it: it’s grammatically the same as saying “this thing and that thing.” What about them? There’s no verb. And that’s the reason I wanted the fragment: as a teaching tool.

ME! ME! ME! Or: When I Am an Object

A discussion on Twitter this morning reminded me that there are, indeed, still folks out there who insist on “It is I” and similar constructions with pronouns.

English is not algebra. What’s on one side does not have to equal what’s on the other side. That is, when it comes to pronouns, what’s on one side of the verb “is” does not have to be the same case (nominative) as what’s on the other side.

In other words, “It is I” is stuffy at best. Very formal registers may well insist on it, but for other writing? Let out your corset, honey. We can say “It is me” and nothing will happen. No cataclysm will result. (We can really let loose and say “It’s me” if we’re of a mind to use a contraction.)

Technically, that “me” or “I” in “It is [me or I]” is a predicate nominative. If you’re being absolutely “correct,” and in the most formal registers as I just said, you’ll indeed want to use “I” in that position, matching the case (subjective) to the purpose (standing in for the subject). However, writing captions for photos doesn’t require high register. You’re labeling folks in a Polaroid, maybe, and you want to make sure they will know who’s who. “Roger, me, and Marian at the lake” is perfectly acceptable here. “Roger, I, and Marian at the lake” sounds like Countess Crawley wielded a dip pen over the back of the photograph.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out Woe Is I by Patricia O’Conner, or visit Mignon Fogarty’s “Quick and Dirty Tips” for this tidbit.

 

When I say “complex,” I mean …

This will be short, I hope. I think it’s time to define for my fine readers what “complex” means, grammatically speaking.

A complex sentence contains at least one subordinate clause.

Your eyes glazed over. I saw it. So here it is in plain language, following an example.

My brother, who was the valedictorian of his class, just lost his job.

That clause in italics is subordinate, meaning it can’t stand alone as is as a complete sentence because it’s directly related to another word, in this case a noun, in the sentence. It’s also called a dependent clause because it depends on the rest of the complete sentence to make sense.

When grammarians, some of whom are editors, talk about complex sentences, this is what they’re talking about. There’s another dependent (subordinate) clause. “Some of whom are editors.” There’s a subject, “some,” and a verb, “are.” You can’t just say “Some of whom are editors” and have a complete sentence, though. What does “some” relate to? “Grammarians.” Pull out that dependent clause, and you still have a complete sentence: When grammarians talk about complex sentences, this is what they’re talking about.

In fact, that sentence begins with a subordinate (dependent) clause: “When grammarians talk about complex sentences” can’t stand on its own as a complete sentence. Even taking out the subordinate clause beginning with “some” leaves us with a complex sentence. “This is what they’re talking about” is the independent clause, the complete sentence, the base on which the rest is built.

Sure, we speak in dependent clauses when we’re being informal, especially if we’re adding information to what someone’s saying. But grammatically? They’re not sentences, and they can’t stand alone.

Just because a sentence contains a lot of words doesn’t mean it’s grammatically complex. It may just have a lot of words.

Thought for the day, July 25, 2018

“A great deal of modern-day grammar confusion stems from people not understanding the role of style guides. Their rules are not meant as definitive statements on what’s right or wrong. They simply work as playbooks to be followed by anyone who wants to follow them. But the rest of us are not bound by them–a fact some people fail to understand.”

June Casagrande, The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know

(I will add that I don’t call the contents of style guides “rules.” I call them “guidelines.” Furthermore, I usually say that unless one is paid to follow a particular set, one need not follow any at all–unless one wants to make an editor very happy. Run wild, run free!)

Thought for the day, June 27, 2018

“You will often be judged, fairly or unfairly, on your use of language, both written and spoken, so it makes sense to learn the standards that teachers, editors, and potential employers are inclined to respect. Grammar may be magical, but remember this: a magician is an illusionist, someone who learns the strategic uses of physics and engineering.”  (Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar)

Another wrongly ID’d run-on: main clause plus serial relative clauses

It all started with a tweet from a young editor (who gave me permission to use their tweet, but I’ve decided not to put their name out in public) who said “A developmental editor is not the same as a copy editor is not the same as a line editor is not the same as a proofreader is not the same as a beta reader.” Then, parenthetically, they said editors would be horrified by that run-on.

Except it’s not one. It’s a perfectly grammatical sentence.

I checked with Lisa McLendon (@MadamGrammar) to see if I was on the right track. I was, but my diagramming skills are a little rusty. I left out “the same as” for convenience; that doesn’t affect the grammaticality of the overall structure one whit.

Here’s the quick diagram she sent me:

norunonLisa

The fleshed-out version of the sentence in question goes like this: “Developmental editing is not the same as copy editing which is not the same as line editing which is not the same as …” I’m sure you get the idea. Should there be commas before every instance of which? That depends largely on the register (c’mon, you knew I’d go there) of the piece. For my blog here, and for a tweet, commas are largely unnecessary; it’s part of internet register, and it’s fitting for the “front-porch chat” feel I aim for here at my blog home. If we were to hear someone say that sentence, chances are probably 50/50 there’d be pauses. Me? I’d run it all right into one big thought. “This is not that is not that other thing is not that thing way over there.”

If that sentence was used in a text, say, for a 101 editing class, you bet I’d put commas where you’d expect to see them. “Developmental editing is not the same as copy editing, which is not the same as line editing, which is not the same …”

Register drives everything from word choice to style choice to mechanics. And, with or without those commas, this isn’t a run-on sentence.

That’s the heart of the matter, here.