The New York Times' After Deadline blog contains a fantastic letter to the paper's editor from March of 1924 that reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, copy-wise and otherwise. In that still-relevant letter, a woman named Ida M. Mason asked ominously, "How many 100 per cent. Americans are alive to another sinister and subtle danger that is threatening a vital prop of the nation, viz., the frequent disregard of the subjunctive mood from the pens of those who should know better?" She continued, "In these parlous times what comfort is there to take refuge in a book only to be jarred by 'If I was thus and so, I would do this and that,' again and again by English and American writers of note? Is everything topsy-turvy these days? Even oil on the troubled waters produces storm instead of calm—and one by one time-honored institutions and conventions go by the board, but if the subjunctive mood goes, then all is lost." Mason then requests that a Congressional investigation be undertaken "to discover what sinister propaganda is at the bottom of this new peril." Alas, the particulars of her plea were not carried out, but it's nearly 90 years later and we're still talking about the subjunctive. So it's not dead... yet.
There's something to be said for the consistency reflected in the way that we bemoan copy editing and linguistic mistakes as if it were our job, whether we're in 1924 or 2012—and whether those mistakes are problems related to the subjunctive or something else entirely. For evidence of the long life of this general nitpicking, read James Thurber's essay on "subjunctive fights" among married couples. Maybe there's a kind of comfort that regardless of these modern Internetty times we continue to be upset by typographical mistakes, grammatical gaffes, and assumed misuses of words (as with Biden's recent literally dropping). All is not lost yet! We at least notice, or, well, some of us do. The photo above, for instance, comes from a Flickr user who appreciates the message of the graffiti but can't help pointing out, "Before you start writing your movie, you might want to work on contractions, possessives, and the subjunctive mood." A fair point.
Philip B. Corbett picks up Mason's argument in his Times piece today, explaining what it is yet again (he's been on this bandwagon for a while) and why we should care. The thing is, proper use of the subjunctive—once you learn it and get over that difficult-sounding word, subjunctive, which has absolutely nothing to do with pinkeye—is one of the most easily deployed copy editing techniques that will put you in good stead with word nerds. Essentially, you're altering a verb to reflect what is or is not fact. In the image above, for example, while our graffiti artist uses was, life is not and never will be, actually, a movie. So he or she should have used were. Similarly, the song "If I Were a Carpenter," should be read to be about someone who is not, and is never planning to become, a carpenter, nor the object of his affection a lady or one who will be one, and so on. The use of were instead of was (the indicative) is an indication that what follows is not true or is, at the very least, in doubt, "a wishful notion or a proposition contrary to fact." It can, of course, get more complicated than that, what with tenses and other variances—Corbett includes some further examples to drive home the point and show possible pitfalls of use—but those are the basics. Easy, no? Was for truth; were for wishful or doubtfully true.
If Ida Mason were reading over your shoulder right now, we'd like to imagine she would be proud, at least, for a moment. Before she realized that the graffiti shown in the photo above uses an N instead of an and and the wrong your completely. Congress should do something about that.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.