USA Today Best of 2012

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Subjunctive what? Sorting out a grammar head-exploder

Much as I love editing, I really don't care for old-school grammar technicalities. I know what sounds right, and can diagram a sentence with the best of 'em, but honestly--I've "bookmarked" a page I can refer to when I need to look up "lay or lie". I just have too many other things bouncing around in my brain to remember that one, and a host of others.

So when recently faced with: "If he was a gambling man, he'd...." which had been corrected to, "If he were a gambling man, he'd..." Ugh. That "were" felt like too-short jeans. Just wrong. And awkward. And yet, the person arguing for the correction cited "subjunctive phrasing", and when I looked it up, she was right.

But how could it be right, and sound so wrong? How could you rearrange that sentence and still have it make sense? "He were a gambling man if" doesn't work. Not at all. I wanted the entire sentence rephrased to avoid the issue altogether (I've also rephrased to avoid lay/lie--go ahead and LOL at me, I'm okay with it.).

So when it came up again, I went searching on my own. And found something wonderful. It's a big old article on this problem, with one key bit of information, which clears up our particular situation. Here's the key bit:

In the present subjunctive, were is used for all people: "If I were a rich man . . . " "If she were only ten years younger . . . " "If they were only a bit more experienced . . . " (If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady. Yeah, yeah.) The past subjunctive uses had in all cases: (and I'm going to rewrite their examples for my benefit, here--"If I'd been a rich man..."
"If she'd been only ten years younger..." "If they'd been a bit more experienced..." God. Doesn't that feel better???
)"If my brother hadn't been bugging me, I could have finished my homework." "If I hadn't eaten that sandwich, I wouldn't be in the hospital now."

Again, the key bit: The past subjunctive uses "had" in all cases. And since nearly all commercial fiction is written in past tense (except for some psycho crazies like that Autumn Piper who simply must write one of their books in present tense), we'd use the "had" scenario.

"If he'd been a gambling man, he'd..."

Ahh, that feels so much better.

Piper Denna -- EIC at Lyrical Press, Inc


KLo said...

Haha, great solution :-)

I'm an English teacher for my day job, and I get asked at least weekly random grammatical questions. Sometimes I know the answer, sometimes we look it up together in class using the SmartBoard. At first, it was really overwhelming to not have "the right answer" at the snap of my fingers, but I've gotten to the point where I'm learning a lot of the grammar rules that I knew because it "sounded right" ... and also, how exciting is it to see a bunch of adolescents actually interested in know whether it's "lay" or "lie" ;-)?

Lucy V Morgan said...

I blame Gwen Stefani. "If I was a rich girl, falalalalalallallalalaallalala..."

Grammar is a pain, tenses especially. Learning a foreign language helped in this respect because I was approaching language from a grammar perspective; I neve did that with English before because I always just seemed to "know" how it went.