Do you know how to recognize subjunctive sentences? If "Yes" is your answer, read no further and in the comment area, give a definition. It will be fun for all.
I posted this prematurely. I am still editing it.
James J. Kilpatrick, The English Language Curmudgeon, appears to have a loyal network of informers who love to squeal on those who make linguistic "mistakes." The subject of yesterday morning's offering in my daily paper was the death throes of the subjunctive. He starts off by quoting one Patsy Roberts' tattle tailing on S. Epatha Merkerson for saying (at her acceptance of an Emmy award)
"If I wasn’t in the middle of a hot flash, "I’d believe I’m 16."Patsy "The Rat" Roberts asks,
"What’s become of the subjunctive? Shouldn’t she have said, ‘If I weren’t’? "Kilpatrick joins in the fun but in the process displays his typically appalling ignorance of how one should go about describing the English language and evaluating what its speakers say. He sees a multiplicity of subjunctive modes, including, as in this case, "the subjunctive for conditions that are contrary to fact," (sic) or what philosophers and linguists refer to as a counterfactual conditional. This latter way of characterizing both utterances is straight to the point -- it is a conditional sentence in form and it has a false antecedent. Kilpatrick's description is nigh on uninterpretable. It is no wonder that most people don't have a clue what the subjunctive is and even less want to know. But it is time for us to have some fun at Kilpatrick's expense.
Now, why would Ms. Merkerson and the legion of other speakers of English who follow the pattern she exhibited do so? First, let us note that in her if-clause, Ms. Merkerson used the singular past tense form "wasn't," whereas The Rat suggests that it would have been better had she used the plural past tense form "weren't." Why would she want to do that? She is singular in number, not plural the last time I saw her (on TV). There is reason to suppose that the use of were and weren't occurred later than the use of was and wasn't. Check out Baugh's opinion, for instance. As Otto Jespersen, the great grammarian, says
Most of its forms have become indistinguishable from those of the indicative, but the loss is not a serious one...The reason it isnt serious is that the meaning is conveyed by, in this case, if combined with the use of a past tense verb form. Future counterfactuals also exist, as in
If I go to Boston tomorrow, I will get you a Red Sox cap.Notice here that
I go to Boston tomorrowis a way of saying that I will go to Boston tomorrow but the previous example cannot be true at the time of utterance since it refers to a future possibility. I have no idea whether the numskull Kilpatrick would call this future conditional subjunctive or not, nor do I care since the term "subjunctive" plays no role in a description of English by competent linguists.
Kilpatrick cites as another kind of subjunctive the "subjectivie of wish" (sic) and provides as an example an alleged utterance by the almost certainly mythical King Arthur, who if he existed, didn't speak a form of English we could easily understand.
The King wishes he were in Scotland.Here too we have a counterfactual, but not a conditional sentence. Again we have a plural form "were" being used in the counterfactual, but the verb wish not the verb form were serves to signal that the utterance is counterfactual. The lowbrow form is
The King wished he was in Scotland.Here, as in Ms. Merkerson's sentence we find a singular past tense form of "be" being used in our counterfactual, as is appropriate since King Arthur, if he existed, was singular in number.
Kilpatrick goes on to provide other past tense forms being used counterfactually.
In the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, columnist John Kelso writes about a book based upon hurricanes; its publication coincided so closely with Katrina, "It was as if the storm was trying to kill it." In the Daily Times of Farmington, N.M., a Navajo woman’s chances of finding a blood donor "would be better if she wasn’t a minority."And he cites the columnist William Rusher being both low brow and high brow
After the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Rusher speculated on a probable successor: "If someone as controversial as Scalia was promoted . . . " Then he thought of an alternative possibility: "If Gonzales were confirmed . . . "Again, rational Americans are using the singular verb, not the plural when the subject is singular. Sadly, it seems that people like Kilpatrick (e. g., many English teachers) clearly have confused Mr. Rusher as to what he should and should not say..
Note further that if the subject were plural (note my deft use of the subjunctive), the verb form would be were, as in
If Kilpatrick and his ilk were to learn a little linguistics, they would not make such silly statements about English speakers.The problem with Kilpatrick's position is that the concept that is critical here is that the utterances express or presuppose a contrary to fact proposition. We do not need the concept of "subjunctive" to account either for what he thinks we ought to say or for what we do say. We find that the singular past tense form was has largely replaced the form were when the subject is singular, as is rational, and the plural form is used when the subject is plural.
Why is the past tense form combined with if and wish in subjunctives? What do we know about the past? It is no longer the present and thus the past tense is in position for use to express or presuppose a proposition that is false at the time of utterance. For counterfactual conditionals that refer to past states of affairs that did not occur, our low brow would say,
"If he would have kissed her, she would have fainted."Here "would have" replaces high brow "had". A quick googling of the form being discussed resulted in
Things I can say that I "Wish" my parents would have done.
I leave it to you to figure out why "would have" might be used instead of "had."