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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Grammar policing! Because I've got nothing better to talk about.

Grammar violation! (Or is it?) From Daily Dinosaur Comics.

It's been a very busy week for me, so I haven't had a lot of time for writing. Really, the only opportunities I do get to write are when I'm procrastinating on some project that I should be spending more time on.

In addition to that, pretty much all the comics I read are having fairly boring weeks (except PvP, but we already talked about that), and I'm currently wading through some fairly lengthy archives (Daily Dinosaur, Housd, Arthur King of Time and Space), so there's not really anything to post a full review about (except Panda Xpress, which I recently picked up, but I wouldn't want to scoop William G).

That being said, there is something which has come to my attention that needs to be brought to the table. It is perhaps one of the most pressing issues of our time, and yet no major new source seems to be willing to cover it. I personally suspect a massive government conspiracy which may or may not lead all the way up to the Secretary of the Interior, and as a small-time blogger I feel it is my duty to blow the whistle on this horrendous sequence of events.

I am, of course, referring to the slow but steady replacement of the subjunctive mood with the indicative in the English language.

For those of you troglodytes that don't know what I'm referring to, go read this article and take your first step on the road to grammatical enlightenment. Now back to the topic at hand. There has been a slow but steady push, at least among Americans, to completely eliminate the subjunctive mood from the English language. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I mean, it was Americans who were responsible for making split infinitives an allowable grammatical structure, and their insistence on ending sentences with prepositions is quite simply an insult to grammar up with which I cannot put. Of course, I am an American myself, but I pride myself as an American who uses proper grammar, even when engaging in colloquial speech. And so it causes me no end of irritation when people improperly use the indicative form of the verb "to be" (was) when speaking in the subjunctive mood (were).

Up until now I was willing to deal with it. I figured people just said "I wish I was at lunch" for the convenience of decreasing the number of verb tenses they had to keep active in their brains at any given time, thereby freeing up vital grey matter for more important purposes (such as deciding what to order when said wished-upon lunch hour should actually arrive). In fact, Loudon Wainwright III wrote a very funny song entitled "I Wish I Was a Lesbian" which encouraged not correcting people on this sort of mistake, and heck, if it's good enough for Loudon, it's good enough for me. As long as proper writing contained the subjunctive form when necessary, I could put up with inaccuracies in the vernacular.

But now, more and more I'm starting to see indicatives creep into proper writing, and it's got me worried that the subjunctive is an endangered species, soon to go the way of "hither" and "yon". My first indication of this was when reading through the Melonpool archives, when I noticed that Steve Troop NEVER uses the subjunctive. But I figured, hey, Steve Troop never claims to be any sort of grammar king, so I guess I'll let it slide. I've seen subjunctive form mistakes in other webcomics as well, but these comics tend to have so many grammar mistakes that an incorrect indicative is hardly worth pointing out at all.

Then, I started reading through the Daily Dinosaur Comics archive, and I arrived at the strip linked at the top of this post. And in this strip we have both T-rex and Utahraptort clearly using the indicative form where the subjunctive ("I wish I were never born") was called for. And this worries me. Severely. You see, Daily Dinosaur Comics is a strip which relies entirely on the text to provide the content of the comic. The art remains constant from day to day, so there's nothing being added there. If the text weren't completely solid, then the comic would be pretty awful. And overall, Ryan North is completely solid. He has made it a point to write the strip with a very scholarly and academic tone, with the dinosaurs engaging in very scholarly debates, which provides a great deal of the humor. As such, it is necessary that his characters speak with proper diction and grammar. And in general, they do. In fact, I'd be tempted to chalk this one up as an intentional error introduced to accentuate T-rex's overly enthusiastic nature if not for the fact that grammar has actually been discussed in the strip on several occasions, and T-rex has been shown to have a strong grasp of the rules. And what about Utahraptor, who actually suggested the erroneous statement? He's never been portrayed as having any sort of grammar problems. So my only conclusion can be that Ryan North intentionally used the indicative in place of the subjunctive, working under the assumption that it was grammatically correct.

And if even Ryan North, a master wordsmith, favors indicative over subjunctive, it seems that the wheels of fate are against me and I'll be stuck having to read and listen to sentences that, to me, seem wrong.

*Sigh* I just wish that wasn't the case.

Er... I wish that weren't the case. Weren't.


At 6:54 AM, Anonymous Robin Z said...

I know what you mean. If I were better at identifying when the subjunctive mood is required in English, I'd help, but alas, I only do so correctly when I'm consciously thinking about it.

Actually, if you don't mind my asking, what harm is there in the subjunctive mood being replaced by the indicative? Is there some distinction of meaning that is lost?

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Gilead Pellaeon said...

I don't think there's really any loss of distinction, it's just a case of "It doesn't sound proper to me."

If you read the Wikipedia article I linked in the text, they give quite a bit of information about the subjunctive mood, and they may possibly have some more pertinent information.

At 3:22 PM, Anonymous Robin Z said...

Ah, I see. Thank you, that was helpful.

As a point of fact, I think I do see, now, a few cases in which the subjunctive mood cannot be replaced by the indicative without loss. The phrase "as it were" is certainly not synonymous with "as it was". Then again, I don't really use "as it were" in conversation.

Incidentally, did you ever read that dialogue in Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach with the Subjunc-TV? It really has no bearing on the topic, but...

At 10:22 PM, Blogger tedzsee said...

i've got to say... i'm rather enjoying the read here on this site.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger William G said...

Meh, language usage changes all the time. Wanting to freeze it one way is like wanting to make rivers stop flowing.


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