“What do you have against the subjunctive?” Empire magazine asked Zach Braff, discussing the Kickstarter for his new movie, “Wish I Was Here,” out this weekend.
“For starters,” Braff said, “Wish I Was Here sounds cooler than Wish I Were Here. Then the movie’s about a father who’s trying to teach his kids at home despite not being much of an academic himself. So it works in two ways, really, but yeah, I take your point.”
For starters, Braff is wrong. “Wish I Was Here” does not sound cooler. It sounds wrong-er. (“Wrong-er” is also wrong, and it does not sound cool, either. Just because something is spelled wrong and is grammatically inaccurate does not mean it is automatically cool. Even if that is generally good rule of thumb.)
Listen, buddy. You like yourself some wistful counterfactuals, do you? Well, let’s get one thing straight. There are two ways to express a counterfactual wish. One way is with the subjunctive. The other way is wrong.
The whole title of this movie inspires a deep, counterfactual wish in me: the wish that Zach Braff had used the subjunctive when he titled it.
This is what Weird Al would call a Word Crime. I only wish he had addressed the subject of the subjunctive in his new song. Had he but known! (How can you neglect a verb mood that lets you say things like “Had he but known”?)
You wish something? Well, that is what the subjunctive is designed for. It is just lying there (not laying, lying) like a genie of grammar, just waiting for us to summon it. If you can’t use the subjunctive at a time like that, when can you? It might as well pack up its metaphors and call it a day.
I know, I know, the character is “not much of an academic.” But is that any excuse? You don’t need to be much of an academic (I’m barely any of an academic) to know about the subjunctive.
The subjunctive is what you use to do things you actually cannot do in real life — for instance, tie Zach Braff to a sturdy chair and have stern words with him. Stern, grammatical words. (Yes, I know that was a fragment just now! I did not think it sounded cooler! I was just trying to keep within the rule that states that any piece in which you rant about grammar is bound to contain a solecism or two.) Using the subjunctive, I can say things like, “Were Zach Braff tied securely in my office right now, I would see that he used the subjunctive in his titles from now on. After all, it is imperative that he understand.”
See the power of the subjunctive? I can wield it at thirty paces. The subjunctive is there to express desire, uncertainty, potential — the very essence of good film-making. If you are tired of the subjunctive, you are tired of life, to mangle a Samuel Johnson quote.
Look, I know what you are going to say. We’ve lost this battle already.
In song lyrics, the substitution of “was” for “were” with counterfactual wishes is so commonplace that we’ve stopped fighting it altogether. “If I Was Your Man.” “If I was a rich girl” (the exact same tune as “If I Were A Rich Man,” but with the grammar changed to make it wrong). “If I was your boyfriend.” “If I was a sculptor — but then again, no.” (What?)
Beyoncé got it right, though, with “If I Were A Boy,” which uses flawless subjunctive throughout. Is it too much to ask that Zach Braff do the same? I know we cannot all be Beyoncé, but we can but strive.
“But it goes deeper than that,” you probably are saying (you sound a lot like me, in this scenario, but we can’t help that). “It’s not just a couple of song lyrics. Everything cool is somehow incorrect. We can’t even spell BABE correctly, but have taken to removing the second B, perhaps on the grounds that, like P. Diddy’s “P,” it was ‘coming between us.'”
To you I say, never mind that. If I have to be the person who stands athwart history shouting, “WERE! If I WERE!” then, so be it. That is the molehill I am going to die on. I have decided.
We need to stand up for grammar. English is not an inflected language like, say, Latin, where you can instantly tell what’s going on in a sentence just from the word endings. As Tom Stoppard put it in “The Invention of Love,” “you can’t beat Latin: shuffle the words to suit, the endings tell you which loves what, who’s young, who lost, if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!”
English is not like that. All that stands between us and chaos is grammar. And the grammar nazis who enforce it.
Sure, the subjunctive sounds a little bit archaic. But archaic is cool! It’s normcore, or vintage, or vinyl, or something. That is its whole charm. But it doesn’t have to be obsolete yet. As Ambrose Bierce wrote: “Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as ‘obsolete’ or ‘obsolescent’ and few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need of it and however desirable its restoration to favor — whereby the process of impoverishment is accelerated and speech decays.” Thank you, Ambrose! That is exactly what is happening with the subjunctive! We are being impoverished, and our speech is decaying! Even Beyoncé can do only so much.
When you get right down to it, most of what I use the subjunctive for these days is to bemoan the fact that nobody uses the subjunctive any more.
Would that they did!
Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the subjunctive as a verb tense. It is a verb mood.