Editor’s Note: Did It Happen or Not?

This is the second in a series of occasional posts on grammar and copy editing.

A couple of weeks ago, the following headline appeared in a daily email newsletter from the Washington Post:

If I were copy editing this, I would want to know whether “legions” included koalas. That is, was it “at least three people and legions of livestock and koalas”? Or was it three people, legions of livestock, and some unstated number of koalas? In either case, I would suggest a rewrite.

But that problem pales beside the egregious error of “may have added.” “May have” expresses uncertainty. Since we are told that zoo staff saved these animals, there is no doubt that they were not added to the death toll. This is reinforced by the word “otherwise.” What the writer meant to say was that, if zoo staff had not acted to save the animals, they might have [been] added to the death toll. This type of if-then statement is called “contrary to fact,” and it is one of the few surviving instances of the subjunctive mood in English. Consider these examples:

Wrong: If I had not been brought up Presbyterian, I may never have met my husband.

Right: If I had not been brought up Presbyterian, I might never have met my husband.

My husband and I attended different colleges in the same town but chose the same church to attend. We have been married for 52 years. Unquestionably, I met him. He wasn’t my husband at the time, so it would be more correct to say, “If I had not been brought up Presbyterian, I might never have met the man who became my husband,” but that is a quibble.

Why do so many people get this wrong? The problem is reinforced by a general misunderstanding of the relation of may and might. People seem to think they are equivalent, or that might perhaps expresses more uncertainty than may. And in fact, in many situations may and might can be interchangeable. Strictly speaking, however, might is the past tense of may and is properly used when a sentence is in the past tense. Consider these examples:

If you ask me whether I plan to attend the concert tonight, I may say, “I might.” [Present Tense, Simple Condition]

If you asked me whether I planned to attend the concert that night, I don’t remember your asking. [Past Tense, Simple Condition]

If you asked me whether I plan to attend the concert tonight, I might say, “I may.” [Present Tense, Contrary-to-Fact Condition]

If you had asked me whether I planned to attend the concert that night, I might have said, “I may.” [Past Tense, Contrary-to-Fact Condition]

Here is another set of conditions contrasting simple uncertainty and known fact:

If he says that, he is mistaken. [Present Tense, Simple Condition; it is unclear whether he is saying that]

If he said that, he was mistaken. [Past Tense, Simple Condition; it is unclear whether he said that]

If he said that, he would be misunderstood. [Present Tense, Contrary to Fact; he definitely is not saying that or probably will not say it]

If he had said that, he would have been misunderstood. [Past Tense, Contrary to Fact; he definitely did not say it]

As you can see from the above two sets of example, the present subjunctive in English (asked, said) is identical to the simple past indicative in most cases. This alone can be confusing. Compounding the problem is the form of the subjunctive of the verb to be, as shown in these examples:

If I’m going, I need to leave right now. [Present Tense, Simple Condition]

If I was going, I needed to leave right then. [Past Tense, Simple Condition]

If I were going, I would need to leave right now. [Present Tense, Contrary to Fact]

If I had been planning to go, I would have needed to leave right then. [Past Tense, Contrary to Fact]

This is where people really get into trouble. People who would never say “If I was you” instead of “If I were you” will overcorrect and say, “If he were going, he would need to leave right then.” That is, they use the subjunctive were instead of the correct simple past was. Fortunately, the subjunctive form is different only in the first and third person singular forms (I and he, she, it), but this still leaves plenty of room for error.

There is a simple solution for this problem: Simply restate the sentence in the present tense. If it is not contrary to fact in the present, then the subjunctive is incorrect. Keep in mind that “if he were” is present tense; if the rest of the sentence is in the past tense, then were is probably wrong.

A similar problem arises in indirect questions. You can see an example of an indirect question in the “If you ask me” series above. Consider these examples, all of which represent a report of the question “Are you going?”:

He asks me if I am going [i.e., planning to attend]. [Indirect Question, Present Tense]

He asked me if I was going. [Indirect Question, Past Tense]

Wrong: He asked me if I were going.

This type of error may arise when the writer has studied Latin. In Latin the verb in an indirect question takes the subjunctive. But English is not Latin, and we use the indicative. But I think the error primarily results from confusing indirect questions with conditional statements, because both use if. Again, there is a simple solution: Restate the indirect question using whether instead.

He asks me whether I am going. [Indirect Question, Present Tense]

He asked me whether I was going. [Indirect Question, Past Tense]

Wrong: He asked me whether I were going.

It is much less likely that you will make this mistake after “whether,” and indeed, in formal writing, using whether is probably preferable, especially if there is an actual condition involved as well:

He asked me, if he paid for the tickets, whether I would like to go to a movie.

This could also be restated to avoid the condition if:

He asked me if I would like to go to a movie provided he paid for the tickets.

Now go enjoy that movie and don’t make these mistakes again!

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