Preserve the Subjunctive? Would That We Could
Whither the subjunctive? The subjunctive mood is what we use—what we sometimes use—when we are expressing what is possible, what we wish to be true or imagine to be true but is not. If it is true, the mood is not subjunctive.
The thing is, not everyone uses it, and most people are OK with ignoring it in casual writing. The subjunctive may be going the way of thou and thither and whence and whither.
Ellen Degeneres organized an Oscar-telecast selfie with a bunch of front-row celebrities, and she tweeted it, asking viewers to break the record for retweets. The photo soon broke a 16-month-old record set by President Obama when he tweeted a photo of himself with the first lady and the words “Four more years.”
Ellen’s tweet, which will probably be retweeted more than 3 million times in 24 hours, read:
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) March 3, 2014
Those of us trained to notice language nuances might prefer that Bradley Cooper’s arms were longer. But to call the usage wrong would be to ignore popular usage and tradition.
As copyeditors, we’re called on to point out what some see as flaws, but we’re also asked to consider the tone of the piece we’re editing and its audience. In most cases involving a subjunctive, I will suggest the traditionally correct usage, but I will explain why the author has options.
The decline of the subjunctive is not new. It has been in decline for hundreds of years, propped up by the occasional prescriptivist wishing to preserve a linguistic nuance that is falling out of fashion. If you love it, embrace it. But if Ellen and others don’t wish to bother, the language can get along fine regardless.