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.

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Bill Jennings said...

The subjunctive is more complicated than that, and it does affect more than just the verb "to be".

In the sentence "I doubt that more money would be the answer.", the subjunctive form that the AP is talking about isn't "be", it's "would be". The indicative form is "More money will be the answer."

Here's another example: "Mary can be the president" vs "I doubt Mary could be the president".

Obviously, we use "would" and "could" for other things than just the subjunctive, and of course we can say sentences like "I doubt that more money will be the answer" and "I doubt that Mary can be the president". That's because the subjunctive is incredibly rare nowadays.

But it doesn't mean that the folks at the AP are such total idiots that they'd write a sentence with nonexistent forms like "might were".

June Casagrande said...

VERY interesting! Thank you.

Hoping you come back to see this: Is there a source you can refer me to on this. I've read about the subjunctive in more than a dozen books (from style and usage guides to full-on grammars) and never read that it can take any form other than "were" or a base form of a verb. Where can I get documentation of these more complex situations?


Bill Jennings said...

I guess technically will/would, can/could, may/might (and shall/should) are modal verbs, although as a Latin teacher I've always used those to translate a subjunctive case. Here's a wikipedia article on modals:

I was taught that would, could and might can both be used as a regular past tense (like were) and as a present subjunctive (also like were).

If I were a rich man, I would be happy.
If I could drive, I might take you.
I doubt that he could take you.
If I were president, I would lower taxes.

Here's a couple of pages that seem helpful

June Casagrande said...

Thank you so much! I'm heading out, but I'm going to take a good look when I get back.

Honestly, when I posted this, I was half hoping that a Language Log-reader-type would offer some insights. So I really appreciate it!

goofy said...

I think it depends on whether you see the subjunctive as a) a formal category or b) just a way of expressing doubt, wishes, etc.

If you think its a formal category, then English only has one kind of subjunctive: the "present subjunctive" - the plain form of the verb used in "that" clauses: "I insisted that he go." The "I/he/she were" form could be considered the subjunctive, but its form, function and distribution are completely different from that of the "present subjunctive". The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls it the "irrealis".

But if you think it's just a way of expressing doubt, wishes, etc. then English has all kinds of subjunctive forms.

June Casagrande said...


The either/or you laid out gives the choices of 1. it's a formal category or 2. it's a way of expressing doubt/wishes/etc.

I usually hear it presented as both those things: a formal category whose function is to express doubt/wishes/etc.

There's something I'm still not wrapping my noggin around here. If only Pullum would do something about the cover price of "Cambridge" ...

: )

Seriously, though, I do get the gist of what you're saying and it definitely helps. So thank you!

Di said...

I wonder what the AP Stylebook (sorry I only have the Chicago Manual of Style here) would have to say about that Southern staple, "might could," as in, "I might could do that Friday night if I can get a babysitter!"

Adrian Morgan said...

Re: "If only Pullum would do something about the cover price of Cambridge"

There's always the much cheaper "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar", if you want a compromise.

The stuff that Bill's talking about ("If I could", etc) is just the past tense in its capacity of expressing modal remoteness.

P.S. Random amusing copy-editing-related post from non-copy-editing blog.

June Casagrande said...

Funny you should ask, Di. I love "might could." I use it sometimes (ironically, of course).

You're not missing anything by not having AP. It's even less grammar-oriented and thorough than "Chicago." That's really not its purpose. It's really more about consistency within a publication. It has no listing under "might," "auxiliary," or "modal."

HOWEVER, "Oxford" does happen to mention it. It says, "In stnadar English, two modals cannot co-occur. However, in nonstandard dialects some double modals can co-occur; for example: might could."

They also list "might should," "won't can't," "would could" (gotta love that one), "should can," "may can" and "will can."

Great fun.

June Casagrande said...


Thanks for the tip. Really, it's more the principle of the thing than the money. But I do love getting book recommendations -- especially from the academic side, so thank you!

That fact-checking/copy-editing error on your blog really hits home. For years as a reporter and editor and now copy editor, little f-ups like that have been the bane of my existence. I still cringe over errors like that I made 12 years ago. Ouchy.

June Casagrande said...


My keyboard is getting old and sticky, hence typos like "stdnar" for "standard."

If only some big, rich person with a book more than ten times the cover price of anything I can pull in would make a charitable contribution to buy me a new computer ...

(Just kidding. I could afford "Cambridge" and a new computer and still have enough left to ride the trolly from Battery Park to the polo grounds.)

Adrian Morgan said...

"That fact-checking/copy-editing error on your blog"

You mean on the blog that I linked to. I read it, and was amused by the whole vampire story that the blogger weaved around the error, especially the bit about the sunspots.

I have both Cambridge Grammar and Student's Handbook - sometimes I just decide that I really want a book. First time I heard about the Grammar was some time before it was published, from a talk by Pullum that was broadcast on the radio.

goofy said...

June, yes it's usually said to be both those things.

About "were", Huddleston's and Pullum's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar says (page 59):
"Traditional grammar calls our irrealis a "past subjunctive", contrasting with "present subjunctive" 'be'. But there are no grounds for analysing this 'were' as a past tense counterpart of the 'be' that we find in constructions like "It's vital that he be kind to her." We don't use "subjunctive" as a term for an inflectional category, but for a syntactic construction employing the plain form of the verb."

They consider the "past subjunctive" of "If he loved her, he'd change his job" to be the past tense form used to indicate modal remoteness instead of temporal remoteness. In the same way, we say
If he was/were in love with her, he'd change his job.

The difference between "was" and "were" here is one of style. In both cases a special form is being used to indicate modal remoteness.

June Casagrande said...

8'FED: I meant the Archie Bunker "your." It's like the royal "we," just more judgmental: "You got your [insert name of minority group] over there ..."

: )

Goofy: Aha and thank you! (But not necessarily in that order.)

Adrian Morgan said...

I just didn't want people reading this comment thread to risk getting the mistaken impression that I'm some sort of physicist... :-)

June Casagrande said...

Let the record show: the species barrier remains unbroken for dragon physicists.

Joel said...

I have nothing terribly productive to add to this conversation (I do find it edifying, for whatever that's worth), but that's never stopped me making noise before.

1) Am I the only one who, after Bill's second comment, can't stop hearing Tevye expound upon and extol the virtues of the subjunctive?

2) "Might could" is one the South's great contributions to our language/culture/thought. Maybe not at the level of "y'all," but rivaling "fixin' ta." I'd argue, in fact, that it is a legitimate and valuable form expressing nuances of meaning not quite captured in other terms. In shady regions of my fuzzy thoughts, I'm even tempted to believe that were we to truly understood and appreciate "might could," we might could find ourselves with a clearer vision of all of this highfalutin subjunctiveishness.

I'm just sayin'.

June Casagrande said...

Your ruminations on "might could" reminded me of a language thang on the far side of the social spectrum: "would that I could."

There's a Simpsons episode in which bully Nelson Muntz has pushed a butler into the dirt and is forcing him to punch himself. Nelson says, "Stop butlering yourself. Stop butlering yourself." And, in perfect Jeeves form, the butler says, "Would that I could, sir."


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