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An outdated grammar rule: The Subjunctive


How many times as a child was I puzzled when a singular pronoun suddenly turned plural. Why, I wondered, should it be “If I were you?”

Well, it’s simply because we’re in the subjunctive mood.

“So, what on earth,” I hear you ask, “is the subjunctive mood? It sounds like a form of deep depression!”

Frankly, that’s a good way to describe the effect this rule has on me. It pulls me right out of the story. Anything that pulls a reader out of a story has to be a bad thing. If it also puzzles a child reader, it’s a positive crime.

 

The subjunctive mood is a form of the verb when a writer stops dealing with real things about which we can argue (“The King is alive”, “Mary is here”) and starts dealing with uncertainties such as wishes, commands and unreal circumstances (“Long live the King”, “if only Mary were here”). We’re so accustomed to “If I were you” that it doesn’t sound so odd—though it baffled me as a child; nobody ever explained why I was suddenly (and impossibly) more than one person.

The insistence on singular pronouns and nouns being treated as plurals just because we are writing in the subjunctive mood is an outdated grammar rule that should have died a natural death a long time ago. I’m convinced it’s only the extreme pedantry of editors of children’s books that has kept it alive. It has no plausible reason for its existence in the 21st century. I found the following (from Margaret Mahy’s Underrunners—a book riddled with subjunctives) positively pompous.

“As if she were being scribbled out.”
“As if it were making a grand announcement.”
(Honestly, what’s the matter with using “was” here?)

There’s another good reason for killing off the subjunctive mood rule that a singular pronoun must be treated as a plural one: too many writers use it incorrectly:

“Mary asked if it were his idea.”
“If she were French, her accent didn’t betray her.”

Examples of incorrect use from published books—incorrect because the sentences are not in the subjunctive mood:

“But if it were in the hydro it was well hidden.”
(With “it” being referred to in the plural as well as the singular, this is an extremely clumsy sentence.)
From Plague Ship by Andre Norton

“If he were wrong, we might then have an excuse to call this crazy thing off.”
From A Killing Frost by John Marsden

Any editor who dares suggests I turn a pronoun (or proper noun) into plural just because I am using the subjunctive mood is in for a hard fight with me! After all, the only way to change a stupid rule is for writers to refuse to use it. Come and join me!

Postscript: Please note, I am not attacking the subjunctive mood itself, only the rule that insists writers use “were” instead of “was” even when the pronoun they have used is singular. Judging from some of the feedback I have received, it appears to me that many writers and editors did not read this article properly, or perhaps have extremely poor comprehension skills. They all seem to think I want to kill off the subjunctive mood itself!

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