Friday, April 10, 2009
Confidence-undermining, Noodle-scratching, Either-I'm-a-dink-or-something-just-ain't-right-here Observation from the AP Stylebook
I usually check the AP Stylebook only for AP style matters -- never for grammar issues. So if I want to know whether to write "six-foot-long" or "6-foot-long" for a newspaper article, I check AP. But for grammar stuff, I consult books like the Oxford English Grammar then compare those findings to the advice of usage guides like Garner's and Fowler's.
But today I wanted to know what AP says about the subjunctive. I'm sure I've checked it before, but it's been years.
As I suspected, the book's explanation was incomplete and a little doofy. Like so many other style and usage guides, it tells you when to use the subjunctive, but it doesn't tell you how. (Here, by the way, is how.)
But one of AP's examples has me doing an extended double take. AP says that the subjunctive is used in, among other things, "expressions of doubt" (my other sources don't put it that way), and the book gives the example, "I doubt that more money would be the answer."
The form of to be in this sentence is "be" not because this is subjunctive, but because of how we use modal auxiliaries.
The modal auxiliaries, as listed by "Oxford," are can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must. Unlike the primary auxiliaries be, have, and do, the modals address ability, permission, and probability.
They have some special properties and we use them flawlessly every day without a second thought. For example, modals don't have an -s form. That is, whereas a regular verb like "give" in some uses takes on the form "gives" (think "he gives"), there's no equivalent "he cans," "she mights," "we coulds."
It's one of those grammar matters native speakers don't have to understand to get right every time. In fact, thinking about it makes it harder -- turning stuff we know inside out and putting it under a microscope. Often, the result is that we feel the rug has been suddenly pulled out from under us.
Anyhoo, back to our AP thing. An indicative form of AP's example is: "More money is the answer."
A subjunctive equivalent, according to their (questionable) guidelines, is: "I doubt that more money be the answer.
As is explained in the document linked above, the subjunctive in the present tense applies to all verbs. (He knows math = indicative. It's imperative that he know math = subjunctive.) In the past tense, it applies to only one verb, "to be," and is conjugated with "were." (I was younger then = indicative. I wish I were younger = subjunctive.)
But, based on all I've read, that applies only to the simple past tense. I've never read anything that mentioned subjunctive forms in compound past tenses such as "have been" or "might have been." (Indeed, if any of the rules I've read applied to these tenses, you would hear stuff like "have were" or "might have were.")
In other words, I'm pretty sure AP's example is a mistake.
Of course, I might could be were wrong.