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.


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