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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Confusing Grammar and Meaning

James J. Kilpatrick has a syndicated article on the subjunctive in my morning Dispatch that has as its title,"If subjunctive tense were dying, would we care?" Calling the subjunctive a "tense" would be a significant blunder but it seems that either the syndicator or the local paper wrote the headline and the error is theirs, not his.

Kilpatrick's article starts off with
Farewell, subjunctive mood. Nice to have known you.
Here Patrick betrays his own confusion of grammar and meaning. Insofar as meaning is concerned, we will never lose the subjunctive. What we have been losing are the traditional linguistic forms for expressing the subjunctive.

Kilpatrick cites this phrase from the New York Times
"a price that might well rise if there was no competition."
He takes the Washington Post to task for saying
"As if that wasn't bad enough, Mr. Nagin slipped on the mantle of political martyr.
He goes on to say
There was a time when both editors would have opted instinctively for the subjunctive -- if there were no competition and if that weren't bad enough. The rule used to be to trot out the subjunctive to express conditions contrary to fact:
First, we need to discuss the curious locution that the editors of these papers would have "instinctively" chosen a different linguistic form for counterfactuals. There has manifestly been some linguistic change afoot across the land according to which traditional ways of expressing the subjunctive have been replaced. The current editors no less "instinctively" chose to express the subjunctive the way they did than did editors in the past.

The idea that we have an instinct that leads us to express ourselves in one way rather than another is patently ridiculous. The notion of an instinct is muddled by a confusion between innate behaviors, innate behaviors that have undergone some sort of modification due to learning, and automatic behaviors. Many genuinely instinctive behaviors have to do with issues of survival. Animals have an instinct to flee from danger. What they see as a danger would, I imagine, often be learned from adults. We also use the notion of an "instinct" to refer to purely automatic actions. It is pretty clear that this is what Kilpatrick had in mind. I'm not sure how Kilpatrick advances our knowledge by suggesting that choosing to express the subjunctive one way versus another is due to our instincts. He should write an article berating himself for using the language in that way.

The suggestion that the subjunctive is dying betrays a fundamental confusion in Kilpatrick's mind between grammar and meaning. The subjunctive meaning is going nowhere since we will always have a need to talk about counterfactual states. Sentences like
If you would come to the party, I would too.
and
If you were to come to the party, I would too.
are logically equivalent -- they say exactly the same thing. What is lost is the use of what are now old fashioned ways of expressing counterfactual states. Now, I happen to be old fashioned and would likely choose the latter way of expressing myself but I have no trouble understanding those who use the other form.

I have a bit more sympathy with Kilpatrick's concern with preserving modes of writing than with the efforts of others to chastise how persons who speak nonstandard versions of the language. The reason is that the less that our written language changes the more likely it will be that people of different times and in different places can understand each other. We can still read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to some degree but understanding how persons in Chaucer's day spoke would have been a great deal more difficult. Since Chaucer's time, our vowels have undergone the Great Vowel Shift and this would have wreaked havoc with our understanding of how they spoke. The fact remains that how we write is also undergoing change whether we like it or not.

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20 Comments:

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Ever since I've been trying to understand a little bit about linguistics I've always thought it was unduly complicated by formal logic, which, to be fair, I have always had a hard time with grasping anyway. Non the less or even though, I think I & most other people know enough about how to use language to get a point across.
The subjunctive meaning is going nowhere since we will always have a need to talk about counterfactual states. Of course. & IMO, language is too fluid to capture, & if captured it can only be preserved up to a point, anyway.
We can still read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to some degree but understanding how persons in Chaucer's day spoke would have been a great deal more difficult. For me, the important thing about "Chaucer's Canterbury Tales" would be to get Chaucer's point across & examine it in modern context. Because most of us don't give a hoot how he said it, we just want the gist of what he said.

Instinct...well, maybe it is. But, instinct understood in a philosophical sense more then a scientific sense.

6:32 PM

 
Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I wonder how quickly standard written and spoken English are evolving today. I think it must be a much slower process than in earlier times, maybe partly because of the new media of communication. On the other hand, MS Word's spell-check and grammar-check features are probably preventing some of the changes to spelling and grammar.

11:20 AM

 
Blogger stephen clark said...

I was interested in watching a movie of Alan Bennett's play The History Boys which is one of those English school movies about what education is really about. One of the teachers involved has been responsible for lifting the understanding of the boys about the subtleties of language. There are an amusing series of asides about the subjunctive.
What (as an ex English teacher) I was reminded of was that while language has to be ultra functional...which is probably what the death of the subjunctive is about in popular-speak...literary style and depth also requires that it be subtle and nuanced.
God help us if all we get left with is black and white language!

8:11 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Let us be clear. We are not losing the subjunctive at all, nor could we ever. We must employ conditionals with contrary to fact antecedents. What is changing are the linguistic forms being used to express them. Saying "Were you to do that, I would be very happy" and "If you would do that, I would be very happy" express precisely the same propositions. moreover, the latter is unmistakably counterfactual (a species of subjunctive.)

Nuanced uses of language are not damaged in a case like this but they are when we lose the distinction between "refute" and "rebut" or "irony" and "coincidence." Unfortunately, journalists -- news in the first case and sports in the second -- I believe are at fault here. They wish to be seen as highly educated and reveal in what they say that they aren't. They, of course, remain in blissful ignorance.

7:36 AM

 
Blogger concerned citizen said...

They wish to be seen as highly educated and reveal in what they say that they aren't. They, of course, remain in blissful ignorance.I still don't see what all the fuss is about. Maybe News journalists & Sportscasters do mangle the subtle nuances, but their audiences don't really care. And, that is the wonderful freedom of language.

12:30 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

This is not a sign of linguistic freedom so much as linguistic anarchy that is the result of ignorance. I will never celebrate ignorance, including especially my own.

8:24 AM

 
Blogger stephen clark said...

Yes I agree with your comments about jourtnalists. Alas in this country (Australia) I think their grammatical skill is worse than in the US. Were that possible.

9:11 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Le vent fripon, I suspect that the rate of change of written language has not too much changed since editors of publications that matter will dictate the linguistic forms that are acceptable to them. It is hard to measure the rate of change of spoken English. Every dialect undergoes change but not all innovations catch on widely. The least educated people will tend not to know the norms. The youth of America is, more or less by definition, not well educated and most innovations seem to be due to them. The internet is spreading innovations like wildfire.

7:48 AM

 
Blogger handmaiden said...

I have been thinking about the idea of linguistic anarchy that is the result of ignorance & also about how much understanding of literature like Chancer that most people need or want. I just happen to be listening to a Teaching Company course on...The life & Times of John Milton. I'm thinking about how relevant these 17th Century writers are to our times, & how relevant they are to me. To me, the relevance is how they fit into the big picture of history. This is why I got the course in the first place. I'm not going to take the time to read "Paradise Lost" at this point, but I'm more then willing to buy the lectures & spend the time to get an overview of it & also John Milton so I can figure out where it fits it like the piece of a puzzle into my individual worldview . & of course there is also the wealth of information a person can get off the internet. My point is the amount of information available from the internet & other media allows us people that are not formally educated to become more assertive in voicing our individual opinions. Do you consider this could be a type of anarchy that perpetrates ignorance?

9:52 PM

 
Blogger concerned citizen said...

Opps sorry. :) that last comment was from me from my new blog.

9:55 PM

 
Blogger WordzGuy said...

Thank you for (at least attempting) to set straight this canard about "losing the subjunctive." As you note, what's changed is the form for expressing counterfactuals. It's arguable that this is changing under the subtle pressure to simplify and normalize verbs forms (ala regular verbization of once-irregular verbs). These say, IMO, exactly the same thing:

I wouldn't do that if I was you.
I wouldn't do that if I were you.

Both express contrary-to-fact sentiments; the first, which is non-standard at the moment, uses a singular form with a singular subject. For some reason people view this as the "disappearance" the subjunctive.

To anyone who maintains that the subjunctive is dead in English, I ask them to tell me if there's a difference between these statements:

They insisted that he be there.
They insisted that he is there.

Viva el subjuntivo, sez me.

1:50 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

I agree fully, of course, Wordzguy and I even get your spelling joke.

8:28 AM

 
Blogger Joseph Knibb said...

I wonder what people mean by counterfactual when they refer to the future.

In the past something didn't happen and in the present something isn't happening: those somethings I can accept as being counterfactual.

But speech has to be in the present, and if we talk of the future we are imagining a state of the world that may be. But we can't easily say that the world which we imagine is definitely going to be, because of the many uncertainties of life. How then can we talk of counterfactuals, of untrue statements, of the future?

4:54 AM

 
Blogger Joseph Knibb said...

I worry about what people mean by counterfactual when referring to the future.

In the past something didn't happen and in the present something isn't happening: those somethings I can accept as being counterfactual.

But speech has to be in the present, and if we talk of the future we are imagining a state of the world that may be. But we can't easily say that that the world which we imagine is definitely going to be, because of the many uncertainties of life. How then can we talk of counterfactuals, of untrue statements, of the future?

4:59 AM

 
Blogger Joseph Knibb said...

I worry what people mean by counterfactual when referring to the future.

In the past something didn't happen and in the present something isn't happening: those somethings I can accept as being counterfactual.

But speech has to be in the present, and if we talk of the future we are imagining a state of the world that may be. But we can't easily say that that the world which we imagine is definitely going to be, because of the many uncertainties of life. How then can we talk of counterfactuals, of untrue statements, of the future?

5:03 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Any future event is by definition contrary to fact (counterfactual) since it hasn't happened yet. Something like "If you were to light a match, the room would explode" has a false antecedent at the time of utterance. Should it become true, you wouldn't want to be in the room at the time.

12:49 PM

 
Blogger Joseph Knibb said...

Does that mean you think one can't say: 'If I was to ask you for help, would you respond?' It can be found in serious literature and I sense a difference between it and 'if I were to ask you for help, would you respond? the second suggesting that my asking you is a more remote possibility.

3:53 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

"If I was..." is the nonstandard (but most popular) version of "If I were..." The latter subjunctive form is dying out in English in favor of your form. Both our contrary to fact in that they introduce propositions that are not true (yet). That's what counterfactual means -- contrary to actual fact at the time of utterance. I think you may have some interpretation of that word that is off a bit.

8:36 AM

 
Blogger Cheryle Touchton said...

My husband and my editor are giving me conflicting advice for my book cover. Help. The question is over was or were. Which is correct in the following sentence?

What if there "was/were" an ancient secret that...

10:24 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

"Were" is tight. Your title is a subjunctive construction and while "was" is in common use it is stigmatized by the "literate" folks

10:47 AM

 

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