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Grammar: The Subjunctive is a modal preterite

The simple past form of a verb is primarily used to mark that an event happened in the past—as the name suggests, for example, “I lived nearby”. The statement is intended to be taken as factual. As an extended secondary use, however, the simple past can be used in an “if ______” or “I wish _____” construction to express varying degrees of remoteness from factuality:

“If I lived nearby, I would visit more often.”
“I wish I lived nearby.”

There is now a degree of remoteness from factuality about each statement. In these two cases the degree of remoteness actually implies negation: I do not live nearby at all. This holds true for every English verb—including “be”:

“If I was nearby, I would have helped.”
“I wish I was nearby”.

However, as might be expected, there is a special case for the most irregular of English verbs: “be”. Instead of the normal simple past form, you can also use “were” for all forms of “be” to express varying degrees of remoteness from factuality.

Of course, it only differs from the regular inflection of the simple past tense for first person “I” and the singular third person “he, it, John, the dog, etc.”

“If I were nearby, I would have helped.”
“I wish I were nearby”.

“If he were nearby, he would have helped.”
“I wish he were nearby”.

All the other inflections already use “were” anyway as their simple past form:

“If we were nearby, we would have helped.”
“I wish we were nearby”.

“If you were nearby, you would have helped.”
“I wish you were nearby”.

“If they were nearby, they would have helped.”
“I wish they were nearby”.

What then is the rule for whether to use “was” or “were”? Style. “Were” is considered more formal.

How the subjunctive works

The Other Subjunctive

Why is “It seems to be fair that he keep the money” better English (even if archaic) than “It seems to be fair that he keeps the money” (even if accepted modern usage)?

Jonathan Hammond responded to this question on Grammar Girl’s Facebook page:

It’s all to do with grammatical mood. In this case the mood is subjunctive. In the US it’s common to use just the bare infinitive but, as you have noted, in Britain we tend to add in a ‘should’.

Both versions are considered standard. The subjunctive mood, which uses the plain form “keep” instead of “keeps” for the third person singular, is considered the more formal version.

Why use the formal version? As Jonathan mentioned, it is more common to express the concept of mood in Modern English with the use of a modal auxiliary verb such as “should”. Mood expressed this way is called “modality”. Mood expresses concepts such as obligation, necessity, permission, ability, and degrees of remoteness from factuality. Unlike other languages, we hardly express mood with word endings anymore—it has become a lost art of sorts.

But by using “fair that he keep” rather than “fair that he should keep”, you are demonstrating to the discerning reader that you appreciate one of the more subtle distinctions in English and possess a robust knowledge of language in general.

Note that for anything other than the third person singular (I, you, we, they), we would use “keep” anyway, and there is no distinction between a plain declaration such as “They keep trying” and the subjunctive “It is important that they keep trying”. Not only is the distinction subtle in Modern English, it is rare and becoming rarer.

How apostrophes work

“Is it Ladies Lunch or Ladies’ Lunch?”, asked an inquisitive mind on Grammar Girl’s Facebook page.

If you were writing a story in which the main character, a woman named Maude, goes out and paints the town red, would you call it “Maude Night Out”? Absolutely not. You’d call it “Maude’s Night Out”. The same rules apply for plural nouns. If the two characters happen to have the same name, it’s “Maudes’ Night Out” or “The Maudes’ Night Out”. The same would apply to a lunch for one lady or many ladies. If I ask the server where the lunch ordered by my wife is, he should reply “The lady’s lunch will be right out”, not “The lady lunch will be right out”. If I ask the server where the lunch ordered by my sisters (they are sharing a lunch today) is, he should reply “The ladies’ lunch will be right out” not “The ladies lunch will be right out”.

Though it is called, wildly inaccurately, the possessive case, possession has nothing to do with it most of the time.The ladies don’t own the “lunch”, nor is “lunch” an attribute of the ladies which could be reasonably paraphrased as being something they could possess or have in any possible way, not even at a stretch!. It is a lunch FOR the ladies. Nothing more. And that can be expressed by putting “ladies” into the genitive case and placing it in front of “lunch”: “ladies’ lunch”. The genitive case expresses a wide range of relationships between two nouns–about 40% of which are actual possession: my big nose, our shoes, Seth’s car. These are things that actually belong to someone. The other 60% are the non-possessive type: a dog’s owner, Ladies’ Lunch, the silent majesty of a winter’s morn, two weeks’ notice, March’s cruel weather, my greengrocer, my Morgan Stanley guy, my nosy neighbour, or my bid to become a world-class hot dog-eating champ.

Whether indicating actual possession or non-possession, a noun in the genitive case functions as a determiner, modifying the noun which follows it, a function which can be usually paraphrased as “determines which one(s) or which kind(s), based on certain relationships that exist between the two nouns”. In a case of actual possession, such as “Seth’s car”, “Seth’s” reduces the field of possible cars down to the car of which Seth is the legal owner. This is the typical case, but by far not the only case. Cruel weather occurring when? In March. How much notice? Two weeks. Which greengrocer? The one I buy carrots from. A morning occurring in which season? Winter. Which nosy neighbour? The one who lives next door to me. Who is trying to be a hot dog-eating champ? Me.

There is simply no need to invent elaborate secondary definitions of the word “possession” to describe relationships between two nouns which have nothing to do with possession or ownership. This error can be traced to Bishop Lowth. He’s grammar history’s greatest monster, if only because he has been so blindly followed by the equally well-meaning grammarians and teachers who followed his ill-conceived personal stylistic preferences.

More indefinite they

It’s not only that we lack a gender-neutral pronoun. We lack a pronoun with a suitable amount of indefiniteness to properly refer to antecedents such as “anyone” and “someone”. It’s not just the gender that isn’t specified; it’s all markers of specificness. On that score, “they” is little more than a workaround. But at least we can point to other examples where “they” also has an extended secondary sense of the indefinite: in “That’s what they say” and “Give ’em hell”.

Surely everyone would admit that “singular they” has been used in enough reputable writing to be grudgingly referred to as a legitimate variant–and not an outright error. Furthermore, if you outlaw “singular they”, only outlaws will use “singular they”.

Don’t you agree that it is not a question of singularness but rather indefiniteness? Quantified pronouns like “anyone” and “someone” are notionally more plural than singular, but in English we only have two choices for subject-noun agreement for number: singular or plural. One had to be chosen, and it was singular. What we need is a new system to accurately handle the indefinite number.

Furthermore, tens of thousands of English nouns have extended secondary meanings and functions. What’s the big deal about “they” being extended to handle an indefinite antecedent? So far it’s the best we have. The thought of a manufactured replacement sickens me–but I’m not worried since “they” is extremely well-established in both usage and prescriptive scholarly acceptance.

“Themself” is attested in edited prose, but has fallen out of use. Such a bold juxtaposition of traditionally plural (though obviously indefinite) “them” with singular “self” challenges even my libertine grammatical sensibilities. Of course you will now see “themselves” used in its place. If you could accept “them” as the referential equivalent of the indefinite quantifier “any” then “anyone” and “themself” seem a match made in heaven.

“Everyone” has a distinctly non-singular flavour. And though they have “one” in them, the indefinite quantifiers prevent these pronouns from referring to a single specific entity. We treat them as singular out of syntactic convenience only.