Sunday, November 11, 2012

Justin Bieber: If I Was Your Subjunctive Fail

Claryssa writes:
For extra credit, I am looking for examples of music lyrics that don't use the subjunctive when they should. I think Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" is one. Am I right?
Yep. In fact, this is a stellar example of where the subjunctive should be used.

Where does the Biebs go wrong? His wishful, hypothetical statement requires a subjunctive verb.

Blech, the subjunctive. It's probably the most despised of all grammar subjects.

Now settle down, girls. Let's start by acknowledging that artistic license lets songwriters off the grammar hook and that the subjunctive can sound awkward and pretentious in casual conversation. But we're talking about good grammar versus faulty grammar, and you should be able to recognize the difference when you hear it.

Perhaps the best reason to learn the subjunctive is that it will definitely show up on the SAT and other tests. So let's take a few minutes to learn it.

Quick rules:
  • Use the subjunctive when conveying a wish or emphatic direction that's hypothetical or wishful, not definite.
  • In most cases, the subjunctive is the same as the bare infinitive.
  • The subjunctive is the same for every person/thing (I/you/he/she/it/we/they).

Correction: If I were your boyfriend, I'd never let you go.

The back story: The English language has three verb moods:
  • The indicative, for simple statements and questions: She presses the button. He listens to the teacher.
  • The imperative, for commands and directions: Press the button. Listen to the teacher.
  • The subjunctive, for events that we hope or require to happen: I insist that she press the button. I demand that he listen to the teacher.

The easiest way to get a feel for when you need the subjunctive is to look at the most common structures.

  • verbs that show wishfulness or desired action: wish, command, demand, insist, request, ask, recommend, propose, suggest
    I/he/she/we/they ________ that I/he/she/we/they _________.
    He demands that we are there on time.
    Correct: He demands that we be there on time.
  • certain "if" expressions that show desire: If only, as if
    ..... as if I/he/she/we/they __________ .
    He talked about Sarah as if she was stupid.
    Correct: He talked about Sarah as if she were stupid.
  • verb expressions that show emphasis or importance: "It is" + necessary, desirable, essential, important, vital, crucial
    It is ___________ that I/he/she/we/they ___________.
    Incorrect: It is important that you are there at 5pm sharp.
    Correct: It is important that you be there at 5pm sharp.

How to find the subjunctive:

  • In every case but one, the subjunctive verb is the same as the bare infinitive. Take the infinitive (to go, to do, to be, to work, etc.) and drop the 'to.' So if the infinitive is 'to have,' the subjunctive verb is simply 'have.' 
  • This works for every person (I/you/he/she/it/we/they), and in both the past and present tenses.
  • The exception: The subjunctive for the past tense of 'be' is 'were.'
    Incorrect: Her piano teacher insisted that she was on the stage before the show started.
    Correct: Her piano teacher insisted that she were on the stage before the show started.

More examples:

  • If only Jason were here, we would be able to start working on the project.
  • We should behave as if she were watching our every move.
  • It's as if I were running on a hamster wheel.
  • It's not as if she were always late.
  • He insists that you be here.
  • He recommends that she wait in the office.
  • I wish he were able to come to the game with us.
  • It is absolutely vital that he be on that bus at noon.

SAT Question: Appositive Feedback

Shane writes:
Hi Snarky. Yesterday's SAT Question of the Day is my nightmare. I always get this kind of question wrong, because I don't understand why one sentence is better than the others. Please help.
No problem, Shane. Let's break it down. Here's yesterday's question:

Part or all of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.
Clara Barton founded the American branch of the Red Cross, a nurse who was sometimes called the "angel of the battlefield."
A) Clara Barton founded the American branch of the Red Cross,
B) The founder of the American branch of the Red Cross was Clara Barton,
C) It was Clara Barton founding the American branch of the Red Cross,
D) Clara Barton, who founded the American branch of the Red Cross, she was
E) In founding the American branch of the Red Cross, Clara Barton was

To nail down this type of question, you need to understand how the appositive works. An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that re-identifies the noun that comes immediately before or after it. In other words, an appositive clarifies the noun by adding more information.

My mother is talking to our neighbor, a widow who lives two blocks away. The phrase 'a widow who lives two blocks away' is an appositive. It gives extra information about the noun 'our neighbor'.

If the information is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence, it is called a non-restrictive appositive. (If you can remove the appositive and the sentence still makes sense, it's non-restrictive.) My mother is talking to our neighbor. That sentence is perfectly fine without the appositive, so it's non-restrictive.

A non-restrictive appositive is always set off from the noun with a comma, so you often see a structure that looks like (a) noun + comma + appositive or (b) appositive + comma + noun.

Two important things to remember are that (a) the noun must relate to the appositive, and (b) the noun and the appositive must come immediately before and after the comma.

In the SAT question, the appositive is 'a nurse who was sometimes called the "angel of the battlefield."' Whom does the appositive describe? Clara Barton. There's your noun.

So now we can significantly narrow down the options. Only Choice B would put Clara Barton immediately before the comma that's followed by the appositive.

Note that Choice E also uses the appositive. In that sentence, the order is appositive + comma + noun. The sentence is illogical, however, since it implies that Barton's being a nurse was a result of her founding the American Red Cross.

The best answer is Choice B.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Correction: Honey, I Shrank the Kids

Belinda writes:
This movie title has always bothered me. Shouldn't it be 'Honey, I Shrank the Kids?'

That's one of two easy fixes. Shrink is an irregular verb. In the past tense, its participles are shrank and shrunk.

Quick rules:
  • Shrink is the verb in the present tense. If you leave your jeans in a hot dryer for too long, they shrink. 
  • Shrank is the participle in the simple past tense. When I left my jeans in a hot dryer for too long, they shrank.
  • Shrunk is used in the present perfect and past perfect tenses, to emphasize that an event has either recently been completed (present perfect) or completed in the distant past (past perfect). It is always preceded by a form of 'have' (e.g., has, have, had). I pulled my jeans out of the dryer but they had already shrunk.

  • Honey, I Shrank the Kids
  • Honey, I've Shrunk the Kids

Punctuation Saves Lives: Please Use Caution When Hunting Pedestrians

Punctuation saves lives, people. From @wrdinc on Instagram.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Apocalypto: Pronoun-Antecedent Disagreement

Samantha writes:
Snarky, my ELA assignment is to find the error on this poster. Help!

The mistake is in the tagline running along the bottom of the poster just above the credits.
No one can outrun their destiny.
Where does this movie poster go wrong? The possessive pronoun, their, does not agree with its antecedent, no one. 'No one' is singular so it needs a singular possessive pronoun (e.g., his, her, its). In this case, it seems that 'his' would have been the best choice.

Quick rule:
  • A pronoun must agree in number with the noun it replaces (the antecedent).

  • No one can outrun his destiny.