James J. Kilpatrick

"If I wasn't in the middle of a hot flash," said the actress, "I'd believe I'm 16."

The actress was S. Epatha Merkerson of "Law & Order," quoted in the AARP Bulletin a few months ago. Patsy Roberts of Chicago sent along the clipping with a question: "What's become of the subjunctive? Shouldn't she have said, 'If I weren't'?"

Ah, the subjunctive mood! Editors have been writing its obituary for the past 400 years. It may be dead, but it won't lie down. "If you were my husband," Lady Astor supposedly said to Winston Churchill, "I'd put poison in your coffee." "And if you were my wife," the first lord of the admiralty supposedly replied, "I'd drink it."

The distinguished Brits were indulging in the most familiar of the subjunctive modes, the subjunctive for conditions that are contrary to fact. Another regular customer is the subjunctive of wish, made memorable by King Arthur's lament in "Camelot." The king wishes he were in Scotland tonight. There's also the subjunctive of suggestion: Dr. Frist suggested that Reid check the bill one more time.

My impression is that the old Elizabethan rules are observed equally in the breach and in the observance. At The New York Times, they play it both ways. Now you see it: "If the New York Stock Exchange were an ordinary company, its practices would be appalling enough." Now you don't: "If there was a prospect of the president's refusing ..."

Examples abound of the subjunctive's ungoverned usage. In the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, columnist John Kelso writes about a book based upon hurricanes; its publication coincided so closely with Katrina, "it was as if the storm was trying to kill it." In the Daily Times of Farmington, N.M., a Navajo woman's chances of finding a blood donor "would be better if she wasn't a minority."

Columnist William Rusher plays it both ways. After the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Rusher speculated on a probable successor: "If someone as controversial as Scalia was promoted ..." Then he thought of an alternative possibility: "If Gonzales were confirmed ..." A foolish consistency, said Mr. Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds. Good writers will trust their ears.


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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