Sunday, March 30, 2008

The subjective tense

Today's Safire column relies on what's now probably his most common formula: playing with some phrase in current political language. The focus is on Clinton's kitchen-sink strategy, and includes a long parenthetical on Ferraro's famously controversial statement:
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” (Some of my readers took umbrage at this, too: “Get this,” Sam Pakenham-Walsh, member of the Nitpickers League, said in an e-mail message, “we no longer use the subjective tense! Has all our education been for naught?” Because Ferraro’s statement posed a condition contrary to fact, her “if Obama was a white man” should have been were. Neither campaign demanded a correction.)
If the Nitpickers League cares about standards, Mr. Pakenham-Walsh's membership card is in grave danger. If you google "subjective tense" you get mostly the expected thing, namely people using tense when they appear to mean mood, while simultaneously using subjective when they mean subjunctive. Some of these come from folks like Mr. P-W, that is from card-carrying peevologists. Hilariously, Safire let this go through. (The Log has had entire strings about the related issue of the 'passive tense' but I don't see mention of 'subjective tense' over there on a quick glance.)

You can also find tense used for case, so that we is a 'subjective tense' pronoun, while I guess us is in the 'objective tense'. So, tense doesn't just mean 'some category of verbal inflection' but 'some grammar thing'. If you pursue this, you can find 'plural tense' and such too. Talk about semantic bleaching!

I should note, though, that the phrase 'subjective tense' does get used in linguistics, if not widely. In her 1989 paper "On the Rise of Epistemic Meanings in English: An Example of Subjectification in Semantic Change" (Language 65.31-55), Elizabeth Closs Traugott uses the term for getting at meanings in English that are "dependent for their interpretation on knowledge of speaker time" (1989:40). Her examples are from the development of future tense auxiliaries.

Image from here.

10 comments:

Jon Boy said...

"Has all our education been for naught?"

I think the answer is self-evident.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, I think that was the line that convinced me to write about this!

Ollock said...

Biggest thing that strikes me (misuse of terminology not being so surprising), is the expectation that one of the campaigns should ask for a correction. Presidential campaigns have much more damaging things to correct that a little English-teacher grammar. Not to mention that most reasonable people wouldn't even notice it.

Mr. Verb said...

You know, I was wanting to believe that Safire was kidding about that, but …

The Ridger, FCD said...

It really gets me. Even assuming he'd said "subjunctive mood", does he really think Ferraro (or anybody) doesn't understand the difference between irrealis and realis based on their failure to use the "proper" form of the verb "to be" in the construction? Of course they understand the subjunctive; they just don't know which form of the verb they're "supposed" to use to mark it. That's why the IF is there. "If he was" = "were he" nowadays. Sheesh.

I am therefore delighted that he said "subjective tense" and that Safire missed it.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, misunderstanding plays no role, I think -- it's the dreaded decline of standards! Let's speak Old English, I speak; I miss the dative.

Ollock said...

Aha! Yes, let's start a movement to revive Anglo-Saxon! Better yet -- revive Proto-Indo-European. I'd personally love learning it, but I doubt some of these purists would like it.

goofy said...

altos dnǵhuh2 bhadistos dnǵhuh2!

or something...

Jon Boy said...

More grammatical distinctions would be a good thing, right? Think how well we'll be able to communicate if we have an extensive system of declensions and conjugations! I hope you're all as excited about reviving the optative mood as I am.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh no, not the optative!