Saturday, 9 February 2013

Deaf Old Buggers in a Subjunctive Mood

One of the topics discussed by the Deaf Old Buggers on a recent hike was the subjunctive mood. Did it still exist in English? One of our members, who serves on a voluntary Board, had been extolling the virtues of a fellow director.

Pray God, she stay on the Board, he said.

This led to a discussion, not only about his appeal to the Deity, but his choice of the form of the verb. "Stay" or "stays" was the question. We were divided.

What would you say?

I argued that the correct form was "stay" and that this was one of the few instances of the subjunctive mood in English. I explained that unlike the tense (present, past, future, etc), or the voice (active or passive), the mood of a verb expressed the kind of action depicted. The indicative mood conveys something that actually happens; the imperative mood, a command; and the subjunctive mood, a state of "unreality", something that could be or should be happening.

As in French, the subjunctive mood is used in dependent clauses to express desire or necessity. Unlike French, the subjunctive mood in English differs from the indicative, and is therefore noticeable, only in the third person singular present tense. Here are some examples.

It is important that he attend (not "attends") the meeting.

I suggest that she be (not "is") there.

Or in motions:

Moved that the President investigate the matter and report (not "investigates" and "reports") back at the next meeting.

The subjunctive used to convey a supposition as well. I remember a theorem from my school geometry book in 1956, a book which had been reprinted many times since its first publication at the turn of the century:

If one straight line meet another straight line, the angles subtended equal 180 degrees.

Or from that great chorus which we recently sang so well:

Let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.

In the past tense, the subjunctive is evident in only one form, again to express a supposition or desire.

If I were (not "was") king.

I wish I were (not "was") prime minister.

O that spring were (not "was") here!

Whether you use the subjunctive, and whether it sounds right when you hear it, may depend on your age and background. Look back at the examples above and say them to yourself. Which sounds better to you?

I leave you with the following example, where the choice of indicative or subjunctive changes the meaning of the sentence. From the Globe of 20/02/13:

The government is insisting that Mr. Chavez remains in charge, playing an upbeat jingle on state television Tuesday with the message: "He's back, he's back!"

Here the government is saying that Mr. Chavez is, in fact, still in charge, despite rumours to the contrary. But had the writer used the subjunctive:

The government is insisting that Mr. Chavez remain in charge, playing an upbeat jingle on state television Tuesday with the message: "He's back, he's back!"

then the government would be saying that Mr. Chavez must remain in charge, despite calls for his resignation.

Invigorated by this discussion, the Deaf Old Buggers hiked on in an imperative mood.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Compliment or complement

Last night I attended a concert given by the Emily Carr String Quartet. It was a splendid performance, and I will not miss their next one.

In the interval at concerts, I always look for something to read. At Christ Church Cathedral or St. John the Divine, I always pick up the KJB or the BCP or an unbowdlerized hymn book from the back of the pew in front of me, but this was an Evangelical Lutheran church. Nothing for me to read there. Great acoustics though! So I read the program notes. And I noticed this passage about previous concerts by the quartet:

The concerts featured readings from Emily Carr's journals that complimented the music that was being performed.

I remembered a recent exchange with my accountant. He had sent me a letter explaining that his firm was combining with another firm because their services had always been complimentary. I replied saying, no, his services had never been complimentary, I had paid him a lot of money over the years. He took this in good humour and admitted that, yes, the services of the two firms had been complementary. But then he fell into further error by complementing me on my astute eye.

Compliment and complimentary with the "i" have to do with expressing praise or paying a courtesy. You compliment someone on her performance, you pay her a compliment, you write her a complimentary note. And as a courtesy, she may give you a complimentary ticket to her next show.

Complement and complementary with the "e" have to do with completing the whole. Complementary angles together make up 90 degrees. The sauce complements the vegetables.


The concerts featured readings from Emily Carr's journals that complemented the music that was being performed.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Walking clubs

In this morning's newspaper I noticed that the Happy Wanderers Walking Club for couples was accepting new members. I'm not sure why singles weren't welcome. Many of my walking companions would be excluded from this club.

Little Mt. Doug
In Victoria, I can walk everyday of the week if I want to, and I often do.

On Mondays I walk with a friend who, like me, is anxious to keep fit. We usually hike up and down Mt. Douglas. "Mountain" is a courtesy title. An elevation is not officially a mountain if it's less than 1,000 feet, and colonial officials did not want to offend their governor by calling this tract of land "Douglas Hill". (You may remember that this was the premise on which was based the film "The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain".)

Two deaf old buggers
On Tuesdays I walk with the Deaf Old Buggers. Many years ago on the Pennine Way I encountered a quartet of octogenarians striding across a Yorkshire moor. How could those old buggers still be walking, I wondered. Well, time catches up with you. Now, some of my best friends are octogenarians. As we walk along the trail, we talk loudly about a variety of issues, which frequently evolve into some kind of grammatical discussion. My companions were eminent men in their field, but had little cause to study grammar. Now in their retirement they show a surprising curiosity about this topic, and I am only too happy to respond to their interest. Yesterday, while clambering over rocks, we discussed reflexive pronouns.

Three whimsical walkers
On Wednesdays I walk with the Whimsical Walkers, so named not only for the capricious nature of the human participants, but for the presence of a little enigmatic terrier called Elliot who follows his master devotedly along the trails.

On Thursdays I walk with a Serious Hiker. We venture out a little further into the woods and get lost.

On Fridays I walk with a group from my choir, aptly called Allegro Moderato. We race along, trying to keep up with our leader, an allegro, while some of the moderato lag behind. Occasionally, this has led to a little tension. This group has been enormously successful in providing an opportunity for new friendships.

As we walk, we chat, or walk along in companionable silence. The joys of walking!

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Ontario elects gay premier

Along with other readers of the newspaper, I have been following the flurry of letters criticizing the Globe for mentioning that the premier elect of Ontario was gay. I was inclined to agree with them. I was particularly taken by the conclusion to one of those letters:

Using your standards of what constitutes relevant information, how should I sign off on this letter? Should I say mother, grandmother, retiree, divorcee, a lover of fine wines and opera?

Right on, I thought. And then, this morning, I read a response to that letter:

if teenagers were routinely rejected by their parents or driven to suicide because they loved opera, then yes, it would be relevant to mention and celebrate the moment when the first opera lover became leader of our province.

It's good to read different points of view.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Collective Nouns

Winston Churchill demonstrated the absurdity of sticking rigidly to the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition. "That is something up with which I will not put," he said. And Fowler acknowledged that idiom takes precedence over grammar. Even in 1918, he preferred the grammatically incorrect "It's me" to the pedantic "It is I." And sometimes an infinitive just had to be split.

Perusing the Times Col yesterday, I was forced to re-read the following sentence. It just didn't sound right.

A total of 313 camas bulbs was tucked into the earth during planting at the meadow last week - one for each student at the school.

This is a modern example of following a grammatical rule ad absurdum. The writer has noticed that "total", not "bulbs", is the subject of the sentence, and has therefore used the singular verb. But the "total" wasn't tucked into the earth, the camas bulbs were. In effect, the subject of the sentence is "a total of 313 camas bulbs". The sense is plural, so the verb should be plural.

A total of 313 camas bulbs were tucked into the earth during planting at the meadow last week - one for each student at the school.

In the above example, the sense is so obviously plural, because of the camas bulbs. But what about this sentence?

After the game, the team was enjoying a beer at the pub.

Not a plural noun in sight! But again the sense is plural. The players were enjoying a beer, so the sentence should read:

After the game, the team were enjoying a beer at the pub.

However, if the sense is singular, the verb should be singular, as in the following:

The team was invited to play an exhibition game.

To sum up, "total" and "team", like "crowd", "herd", "congregation", "government", etc., as collective nouns, may be either singular or plural, depending on their context.