As part of my job in a large corporation, I must communicate in writing with my colleagues and customers. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, holding as I do a degree from a fancy business school and all, but here goes: When it comes to grammar, I’ve been faking it for 34 years. I mean, I’m not hopeless. I can write a sentence. I can identify a noun and a verb. But, for example, I wouldn’t recognize the subjunctive if it friended me on Facebook. I’m tired of living a lie. Might you shed some light on the topic?
My dear Subject,
You are not alone. Would that were the case. But in fact, most educated Americans are unclear on how to use the subjunctive, or even what the term means—even as they use it every day. Here are some guidelines that may help you in your writing and—dare I say it—in your daily life.
The verb in a conditional clause has an attitude: that is, it takes on different forms, or “moods,” depending on the speaker’s attitude or intention toward what’s being said. When the clause states a condition that’s contrary to fact, the verb is in the subjunctive mood (If I were you…). When the clause states a condition that may be true, the verb is in the indicative mood (If I was late…).
So, as my darling child explained to her governess the other day, “If Mummy were here, she would let me have another cookie.” (I was not there; I was in the garden.) The fact that the second half of her statement was actually contrary to fact did not stop me from beaming with pride when it was quoted to me; the child is a true grammar prodigy.
“They insisted that he go to chapel every morning” means that they were requiring or demanding him to go to chapel. However, “They insisted that he went to chapel every morning” means they are reasserting the statement that, in the past, he did attend chapel every morning.
Just as one Molière character was shocked to learn that for his entire life he had been “speaking prose without knowing it,” you, my dear subject, have been using the subjunctive—and the conditional and the indicative—all along. Now you have the tools to bend them to your will. Use that power wisely and graciously, and you may go far indeed.
The Grammar Queen
Wikipedia rules the Internet. It’s a more popular information source than CNN and Yahoo News and, with more than three million articles, its pages appear in top-ten search results well over 90% of the time (some reports put the figure as high as 97%). Not bad for a website that’s existed for a mere eight […]
USA Today. McPaper. The newspaper with the cutesy graphics and not much copy. The one you trip over when you leave your hotel room, and the one you take from the flight attendant when they’ve run out of the Times or the Journal. USA Today gets no respect. Agreed, it’s nowhere near as satisfying a […]
Welcome! We hope you’ll enjoy the Content Bureau’s take on the niche, riche world of technology marketing copywriting. Consider us the Scharffenberger Nibby Bar of the B2B marketing blogosphere—slim and elegant, perfectly packaged, and uniquely satisfying in a “smooth and crunchy at the same time” kind of way. Enjoy. And please let us know how […]