Thursday, October 02, 2014


Our Changing Language

 Some time ago I began to notice I rarely saw subjunctive tense forms any more in my reading. Admittedly, I now read more for entertainment than I once did, and, perhaps, formal grammar has less of a place in nonliterary texts. Still, I do remember that at one time the subjunctive tense was recognizably present. For example, the lyric “If I were rich man . . . “ from Fiddler on the Roof rings through my head in a way that is—well—lyrical, but I’m sure if I ran across that line in a novel today, the line would read “If I was a rich man,” not so lyrical to my ear.

I don’t want to be one of those individuals who clings to the past, but I miss that contrary-to-fact tense form, and it’s not the only verb form that I see disappearing. In a recent class I taught, I was startled to realize that not a single student in the class used the past perfect tense. It appeared that this tense had simply dropped out of the English language.  We talked in class about how that tense reflected an action that had occurred in the past before another action in the past and everyone appreciated its use, but I’m not sure that anyone will begin to include the tense in their writing.

The fate of certain grammatical forms have long been up for debate, for example, whether the possessive pronoun their should remain only plural or whether the serial comma is needed. Agreement about the last point has been reached—the serial comma is necessary, which makes me happy. The pronoun their, however, continues to be mistakenly used with a singular antecedent. No agreement has been reached about this pronoun’s status (to my knowledge).

I’m not French, so I don’t believe that language should remain inviolate. I'm willing to quibble over simple issues like the handling of the em dash or the occasional nonspecific pronoun. Trends and opinions come and go. I can even smile that the word selfie was accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary this year. The English language, by the very nature of its origins, is a mishmash of adopted rules and lexicon, American English especially so. I enjoy the richness of the combined origins, and I also enjoy the fact that the language continues to change, but I do miss certain locutions.

If you are interested, below are the usage rules for these evolving grammatical conundrums.


  1. Use of subjunctive mood in contrary-to-fact clauses beginning with if or expressing a wish.

    The Rule: In the subjunctive mood, there is only one past-tense form of be: were (never was).

    Ex. If I were twenty years younger, I could run up that hill in a flash.

  2. Use of their as the third-person plural form of the possessive pronoun they.

    The Rule: A pronoun and its antecedent agree when they are both plural and when they are both singular.

    Ex. Every student must study hard in a course if their grade is to improve.

    Suggestion: It may be simpler to make the antecedent plural or one can use an occasional he or she (or his or her).

  3. Use of commas in a series of three or more items.

  The Rule: Use a common between all items in a series.

  Ex. Manfred liked cookies, ice cream, and pickles. (If that last comma 
  were omitted, ice cream and pickles could be considered a
  combined dish (and not one I would want to try.)

Source for Rules:

Hacker, Diana. Rules for Writers, 5th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2004




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