The subjunctive lives!

Posted: Aug 07, 2006 12:00 AM

"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.

Chet Cutshall of Willowick, Ohio, inquires about a similar election between "should" and "if." He cites a dispatch in the Cleveland Plain Dealer last year from spring training in Florida: Brandon Phillips could become the Indians' second baseman "should they decide to not bring back Ron Belliard." He also cites the fund-raising letter of a mental health foundation: "Should you or a loved one ever have a 'brain attack,' you'll want every medical advantage ..."

The trouble with "should" in almost any construction is that it cannot escape its overtones. There's the "should" of reprimand, as in, "Jack, you really should know better!" There's the "should" of regret: "We should have stayed home." And the "should" of probability: "We should be arriving before 6 o'clock." And the "should" of obligation: "We should send at least something!"

All such nanoseconds of hesitation may be avoided through a conditional clause: If Phillips becomes, and if you or a loved one ever have ...

Another trouble with "should" is that it sometimes gets tangled with "would." The obsequious flunky says to his boss, "I should not be bothering you if it were not ..." Almost always, "would" is a better choice.

And while we're on this general subject, a reminder is in order that except for two purposes, "shall" has all but disappeared from English speech and writing. It survives as a legal imperative: "Shylock shall deliver." And it survives as an invitation: "Shall we dance?" Otherwise the old modal auxiliary rarely is missed at all.

(Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to Mr. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is