Remember the subjunctive mood?

“Brush up your Shakespeare, start quoting him now . . .

Brush up your Shakespeare and they’ll all kowtow.” 

From “Kiss Me Kate,” music and lyrics by Cole Porter


In choosing our favorite political candidates, most of us look for individuals who seem to us to be at least as smart as we are. One measure of a person’s intelligence is his or her use of language. The candidate needn’t be a linguistic show-off to win our favor, but it helps at least to be well spoken and sound knowledgeable.

Former President Obama, for example, spoke eloquently, usually in complete sentences. Whether or not you agreed with what he had to say, he chose his words carefully and was articulate. President Trump, on the other hand, unless reading off a teleprompter, tends to speak and write in disjointed fragments. His limited vocabulary leads him into cliché and overuse of his favorite words and expressions (collusion, witch hunt, it’s a disgrace, drain the swamp, etc.). I’m embarrassed when I hear him speaking with a visiting European diplomat or head of state whose command of English is far better than his.

Thirty years ago, then-Vice President Dan Quayle, in a televised mock teaching event with a kindergarten class, misspelled “potato” as “potatoe” and, to make matters worse, tried unsuccessfully to convince the doubtful children that his spelling was correct. For the rest of his term millions of Americans viewed him with condescension, and considered him not up to his job.   

My confidence in Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates was shaken when, testifying before a congressional committee, he referred to North Korea’s “nuculer” capacity; is he really the person to be in charge of our nuclear strategy when he can’t even pronounce the name of our most awesome weapon?

An error commonly found both in written and spoken English is the failure to use the subjunctive mood when called for rather than the indicative: “if I was you” rather than “if I were you.” Nowadays print and TV journalists routinely fail to use the subjunctive. Some might say this is trivial, that the conditional mood of the subjunctive sounds archaic; but I’d say it adds a subtler meaning to a phrase when appropriate. Our language is poorer for its omission.

If you’re reading a newspaper or magazine article and suddenly encounter an obvious spelling or grammatical error, you’re taken aback and may regard the rest of what you are reading with some suspicion. Whether it’s the fault of the writer, the editor or the publisher, your confidence in the authority of the piece has been damaged. 

Television pundits and newscasters, usually both knowledgeable and fluent, deliver most information in a convincing way and print journalists usually offer us a steady stream of excellent expository writing. But the occasional use of bad grammar is hard to ignore when it pops up in otherwise flawless prose. Such errors seem particularly glaring when they occur in sophisticated publications such as The New York Times or The New Yorker.

Until fairly recently, newspapers, books and magazines employed proofreaders whose job was to catch errors of fact, spelling, grammar and usage. Although laborious, the system worked well and the reader very seldom encountered obvious errors. Nowadays, reporters, columnists and writers of both fiction and non-fiction are often expected to edit and police their own prose and, as a result, much more poor grammar gets into print. 

Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” the perennial guide to good writing, tells its readers to “omit needless words.” Recently I noticed a prominent op-ed columnist write that someone took “too big of a step...,”  a minor error of inserting an unneeded word; but it jarred her sentence and undermined its authority. Someone in her position should have had a colleague proofread her copy were she too busy to do so herself.

Elementary schools teaching pupils up to eighth grade used to be called grammar schools, with their emphasis traditionally on “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.” But nowadays, while education in mathematics has gotten better and better, reading and writing have been left behind. In most schools, learning grammar is considered passé. 

I realize that it is unrealistic and unfair to expect most people to speak and write flawlessly or eloquently. But is it too much to ask our leaders to set a better example? 


Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lake-ville and, most of the time, speaks adequate colloquial English.