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The Subjunctive Mood

An E-Newsletter fan came across this sentence:
If I were very lucky, I would get the chance to go. She asked, “Shouldn’t I be followed by was, not were, since I is singular?”

Let me answer that by asking you a question: Are you old enough to remember the ad jingle that began, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…”? These two sentences are both examples of the subjunctive mood, which refers to the expression of a hypothetical, wishful, imaginary, or factually contradictory thought. The subjunctive mood often pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. The subjunctive is often used in “that,” “if,” and “wish” clauses.

Examples:
She requested that he raise his hand.
If I were rich, I’d sail around the world.
He wishes he were in a position to give his employees raises.

Normally, he raise would sound terrible to us. However, in the first example above, where a request or wish is being expressed, he raise is correct. In the next two examples, a thought or wish contrary to fact is being expressed; therefore, were, which we normally think of as a plural verb, is used with the singular subject I.

In general, use the past perfect tense when using the subjunctive mood with verbs besides were.

Examples:
I wish I had studied more for the test.
It would be better if you had brought the ice cream in a cooler.

Pop Quiz

Select the correct verbs in the following sentences:

1. If I was/were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he was/were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she was/were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I practiced/had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone/went to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. If I were stronger, I would have won that race.
2. I wish he were able to come to the party earlier.
3. If she were truly your friend, she wouldn’t talk behind your back.
4. I wish I had practiced piano when I was younger.
5. If she had gone to the store on Saturday, she would have received a discount.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, at 9:11 am


If I Would Have vs. If I Had

Reprinted with permission by Editor Laura Lawless, http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/.

When talking about something that didn’t happen in the past, many English speakers use the conditional perfect (if I would have done) when they should be using the past perfect (if I had done).

For example, you find out that your brother saw a movie yesterday. You would have liked to see it too, but you hadn’t known he was going. To express this, you can use an if-then clause. The correct way to say this is with the past perfect in the “if” clause, and the conditional perfect in the “then” clause:

Correct: If I had known that you were going to the movies, [then] I would have gone too.

The conditional perfect can only go in the “then” clause — it is grammatically incorrect to use the conditional perfect in the “if” clause:

Incorrect: If I would have known that you were going to the movies, I would have gone too.

More examples:

Correct: If I had gotten paid, we could have traveled together.
Correct: Had I gotten paid, we could have traveled together.

Incorrect: If I would have gotten paid, we could have traveled together.

Correct: If you had asked me, I could have helped you.
Correct: Had you asked me, I could have helped you.

Incorrect: If you would have asked me, I could have helped you.

The same mistake occurs with the verb “wish.” You can’t use the conditional perfect when wishing something had happened; you again need the past perfect.

Correct: I wish I had known.

Incorrect: I wish I would have known.

Correct: I wish you had told me.

Incorrect: I wish you would have told me.

Correct: We wish they had been honest.

Incorrect: We wish they would have been honest.

Pop Quiz
Choose A or B.

1A. If I would have known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.
1B. If I had known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.

2A. If you had explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.
2B. If you would have explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.

3A. I wish it would have gone differently.
3B. I wish it had gone differently.

4A. We wish the team had scored more goals.
4B. We wish the team would have scored more goals.

Pop Quiz Answers

1B. If I had known you were sick, I could have brought you some meals.
2A. If you had explained the objective, I could have completed the assignment sooner.
3B. I wish it had gone differently.
4A. We wish the team had scored more goals.

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Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009, at 7:25 pm


Nouns Can Become Verbs

E-Newsletter reader Clifford A. recently wrote:

My wife says she texted our daughter.

I say, I sent her a text message.

Is texted an accepted usage?

English allows many nouns to become verbs. We can table a motion, salt our food, and water our plants. Particularly in the realm of developing technology, new usages are common, and even nouns that never used to be verbs have taken on new roles. Text as a verb is accepted usage.

More Examples:

Children, please don’t horse around.

Have you ever googled your name to see what came up?

The race car snaked around the curves.

Xerox three copies of that letter before the meeting at noon.

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Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2009, at 10:11 am


Are You Among the Many Who Do This?

Can you guess which word I see misspelled most often? Did you guess misspelled? You’re getting warm. Actually, it’s grammar. From my experience, I think it’s safe to estimate that 20 percent of the English-speaking world spells it with an -er ending.

Before anyone points an accusing finger at anyone else, we might want to explore the word’s origin (etymology). Could it have been spelled grammer at one time? If you look up grammar in the dictionary, you will indeed find that before Modern English times (1500 AD-present), the word was gramery. So the instinct to use -er has historical roots.

Like many words that are difficult to spell phonetically, you can use a trick (mnemonic) to remember the correct spelling of grammar: You do not want to mar your grammar. It may be a bit hokey, but we often remember tricks better when they make us roll our eyes.

The point is that we need to realize that the spelling of words is just as evolutionary as grammar itself. If you were to read Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales (c.1385), this is what you would see:

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non miswrite thee,
Ne thee mysmetre for defaute of tonge;

It’s hard to believe that these spellings (Englissh!) were all correct at one time. Today, we need Chaucer’s work translated.

So are we all “off the hook” with spelling? Maybe so, but at least SpellCheck, although it misses a lot of mistakes, will catch grammer.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 5, 2008, at 9:08 pm


Irregular Verbs

A verb is called a regular verb if its past tense and past participle are formed by adding -ed (waited, insisted) or sometimes just -d (breathed, replaced). Verbs in English are irregular if they don’t have a conventional -ed ending in the past tense.

Example: Go (present tense), went (past tense), gone (past participle)

Note: Do not use helping verbs such as has or have with the past tense form of an irregular verb. Use helping verbs only with an irregular verb’s past participle.

Example: I went to the store. I have gone to the store. NOT I have went to the store.

Present tense (used alone or with helping verbs such as will, did, etc.)
go
swim
run

Past tense
went
swam
ran

Past participle (used with helping verbs such as have, has, will have, etc.)
gone
swum
run

Present participle (-ing ending formed with to be verbs such as is, have been, will be, could have been, etc.)
going
swimming
running

Examples with go:

I go to my aunt’s house in the afternoon.
I will go to my aunt’s house.
I went to my aunt’s house yesterday.
I have gone to my aunt’s house every afternoon this week.
I am going to my aunt’s house this afternoon.

Examples with swim:

I swim at my aunt’s house in the afternoon.
I will swim at my aunt’s house.
I swam at my aunt’s house yesterday.
I have swum at my aunt’s house every afternoon this week.
I will be swimming at my aunt’s house this afternoon.

Examples with run:

I run around the track daily.
I will run around the track every day this week.
I ran around the track yesterday.
I have run around the track every day this week.
I am running around the track every day this week.

 

Pop Quiz

1. I will run/ran for office next year.
2. I have run/ran for office twice.
3. I have went/gone to the dentist but my tooth still hurts.
4. I have swam/swum the butterfly stroke in competition.
5. He ringed/rang the bell before entering.
6. He has rang/rung the bell twice but no one has answered.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I will run for office next year.
2. I have run for office twice.
3. I have gone to the dentist but my tooth still hurts.
4. I have swum the butterfly stroke in competition.
5. He rang the bell before entering.
6. He has rung the bell twice but no one has answered.

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Posted on Friday, July 18, 2008, at 6:25 pm