Daily Archives: May 12, 2009

If I were using the subjunctive…

The subject of the subjunctive came up in a recent email discussion. English does have a subjunctive – or, I should say, some versions of English do have a distinct subjunctive. Some people will say “If I was you,” meaning right now, and they’re not using a special subjunctive form. But others (me included) will say “If I were you,” because I couldn’t possibly actually be you, and they are using a special subjunctive form. And I will be addressing the kind of English that does use these forms.

There are actually a variety of places where the subjunctive gets used in English, although rather fewer than there used to be, and I’m not going to go into detail about all of them, but they all involve a posited alternate reality – one that is desired (as in “I ask that he come to see me”) or merely posited as possible (“If music be the food of love, play on”), or one that is  definitely expressed as other than the current state (“If I were a rich man…”).

The discussion began with the sentence “He felt as if he were at a crossroads.” And the question: The character is indeed at a crossroads, so should it be “was”? Continue reading


Does this word have the scent of a chorus of rocks? Oh, yes, it does, as the dry ground sings its musty smell when the spring rain hits it. The petr is the same Greek pet(e)r, “rock,” you see everywhere: petroleum, petrified, saltpeter. The ichor actually has naught to do with a chorus, being rather the Greek word for the ethereal fluid that flowed in the veins of the Gods in place of blood; it has in English taken on more practical meanings to do with emanating fluids. But it has been borrowed to blend in today’s word to refer more to the flux of aroma: not the mud made by the spattering rain but the recrudescent redolence that tells our noses the dry spell is done. The enunciation moves backward in the mouth, with the lips starting, then the tip of the tongue touching the alveolar ridge, then the dorsum at the velum, and a subsiding liquid to end it, as though tracing the flow of a fresh flood into your thirsting mouth. On paper, this word has a rich heart, and as the water mixes with the soil, and the earthbound springs to life, we see it ret the roots and leave us with an orchid (the p has risen to d). As the drops lash the ground, engage in that porch rite of watching it from shelter – but where you can still smell it.