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.