Friday, January 30, 2009

Speaking of English ...

A few months ago my book, Clean, Well-lighted Sentences, was published and I created a website to tell people something about it and to make it possible for them to contact me if they have questions related to grammar, usage, or punctuation. These are my favorite topics in life, by the way, and the only ones I know anything about. Don't ask me about two plus two -- I'm liable to answer "Five" or to begin discussing menages a trois.

People do write to me to ask about topics in my book or about issues my book doesn't mention. One fellow, for example, questioned my advice about using a gerund after the words "I'm on my way to." (A gerund is an action word ending in "ing" and doing the job of a noun. In my book I explain that "I'm on my way to" must be followed by an actual noun, like "the flower shop," or a gerund, like "buying," as in "buying flowers for you.") He wrote that "I'm on my way to doing something" sounds like "I'm in the midst of a process," whereas "I'm on my way to do something" communicates intent. He votes that each has its place and we ought not to rule out the second choice.

He made me think. Day after day I tried out different versions of "I'm on my way to...," hoping for clarity: "I'm on my way to making lasagna" vs. "I'm on my way to make lasagna "; "I'm on my way to solving this problem" vs. "I'm on my way to solve this problem." Finally, I called my professor from graduate school to get his opinion, but all he said was that I had become obsessed with English and should take it easier.

Thinking about English is my way of taking it easiest. It's what I most naturally do, even when I sleep. Probably this is a consequence of teaching writing for over three decades. I'm just glad I'm not an economist.

The question bugging me lately is why so many professional writers and speakers are using "If I was" or "As if it was" when they should be using "If I were" or "As if it were." This is a matter of choosing the correct verb form to indicate that what you're speculating about is contrary to fact. "Were" is the right choice, as in "If I were you" or "As if it were free." Yet not only teenagers on the bus but professionals in respected media are making the mistake of using "was" in this context. Take a look at some evidence:

"Extremist ideas from Pakistan would not take root in Britain if the ground there was not fertile."
-- from an article in Time magazine, "Such Lovely Lads," August 21, 2006

"...the real sense of achievement comes from celebrating each and every breath as if it was a shot glass of molten meaning..."
-- from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Carpe diem, y'all! Old age is inexorably creeping up," February 8, 2008

"If I was rich ..."
-- spoken by Andy Rooney, multiple times, on 60 Minutes, January 18, 2009

"Wouldn't it be reassuring if it [money] was more like a physical thing, and less like an idea?"
-- from a book review in The New Yorker, "Heroes and Zeroes," February 2, 2009

In the case of Andy Rooney, I can say that he's deliberately breaking the rule because he wants to sound like an ordinary guy (to enhance his appeal), and ordinary guys these days don't say "If I were rich" or "If I were anything," for that matter.

In the case of Time magazine or the San Francisco Chronicle, I can say that every writer overlooks something from time to time, although the error really should be obvious to copy editors.

In the case of The New Yorker, however, I can't say anything except "What?" I'm astounded. The New Yorker gives us the best writing in this country, week after week, and makes me happy to be alive every time I read through an issue. How can a book reviewer in this guardian of our language write "if [money] was more like a physical thing" when he means that it isn't?

In my lifetime no grammar rule has changed. Our usage of English has relaxed, to be polite about it, but no rule has changed. Even "whom" is still with us, and professional writers and editors are taking great pains to keep it there. So what's going on with subjunctive mood (that's what "were" is called inside sentences that speculate about what would be, if things were different)?

Surely, this isn't the most disturbing question facing Americans right now. But given what's happening around the world and within our nation at the moment, I find it relieving to focus on English.

How about you? Is there something related to writing you'd like to ask about or give an opinion on? (Like "How could she end that sentence in a preposition?" Or "Is it okay to write a fragment, as she just did?")

I'd love to hear from you.

1 comment:

  1. Great column, Janis! OK, now that you've got me thinking about the subjunctive mood (of which, by the way, I was taught absolutely nothing in my English classes), here's something I've been wondering about...

    In a sentence such as: "Be it white or be it red, I like wine of any color," is the use of "be" a subjunctive tense? If not, what is it? (And could I have framed that last question as "if not, what be it?", or would that have been poor English?)


    (P.S. Regarding the use of the gerund, I think your prof ducked the question!)