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Thursday, February 14, 2013

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done correctly | David Marsch, Mind your language, The Guardian

Don't get in a bad mood over the subjunctive - as Shakespeare would confirm, it will add elegance to your writing.
So says the subhead for this article by David Marsh. Fortunately, he quickly provides the meaning of subjunctive for many readers who don't know the jargon of grammar:
The subjunctive is a verb form expressing hypothesis, typically to indicate that something is being demanded, proposed, imagined, or insisted: he demanded that she resign, I wish that she were honest, she insisted Jane sit down, and so on.
You can spot it in the first and third persons singular by the use of were rather than was: if I were you, I'd tell the truth; if she were honest, she would quit.
I include related advice in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual:
was, were Use was to state a fact: He was planning a vacation trip to Kauai. I was hoping to go too. But use the subjunctive verb were to express a nonexistent, desirable, hypothetical or far-fetched condition--even with a singular subject like I or heIf I were a rich man, I'd move to Kauai. If he were to plan a vacation trip, he'd go to Kauai. 
I must admit that I don't recall learning--that is, remembering--much about the subjunctive in my public school English classes. It wasn't until I was working in public relations (after working in journalism) that I began paying attention to it. And that was when a colleague kindly pointed out an error I had made.

So I don't fault writers, novice or professional, who don't know, don't remember, or don't consider use of the subjunctive. To some, it likely seems odd because it appears to contradict another more commonly understood grammar rule: use singular verbs with singular nouns.

But I think Marsh describes clearly the function and value of the subjunctive, used properly. He adds, though:

As with the hyper-corrective misuse of whom instead of who, however, using the subjunctive wrongly is worse than not using it at all. Many novelists randomly scatter "weres" about their pages as if "was" were going out of fashion, presumably having heard vaguely somewhere that this is correct.
Marsh's article is featured today, Feb. 14, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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