In a perfectly tense mood

While we are on a grammar roll, here’s another one. 

My interest comes about, as it often does, as a result of an aural assault by a well-meaning speaker.  Typically, once the bristle passes, I look up the pertinent rule to be sure I understand it.

This one has to do with a mishmash of subjunctive mood and conditional perfect and past perfect tenses and the errors people are prone to making with regard to these verb uses.

For whatever reason, I never fully appreciated things like mood versus tense  until I studied foreign languages.  And still, I know them more intuitively than by the rules themselves.

If the following phrases make you bristle, then you don’t need the review.  If they sound perfectly fine, read on.

  1. “I wish I would have kept the appointment.”
  2. “If I would have known you were going, I’d have offered you a ride.”
  3. “If I was in your shoes, I’d be worried.”
  4. “If I would have went to the party, I would have had a good time.” 

You could drive yourself crazy reading all the rules.  But feel free.  They are long and involved and I’d probably miss some nuance in explaining it anyway.  I’ve included the relevant Wikipedia links above because they are the simplest and most accessible online sources for this purpose, in my opinion.

Or, you could simply train your ear to pick up on the errors and correct them before you speak.  Often, it simply means taking out “would” or changing “was” to “were,” but not always.  Here are some tricks you might use to keep it straight.  Maybe you have some of your own.

If you are tempted to say “I wish I would have . . .,” think about The Rolling Stones’ “I Wish I’d Never Met You” and remember to say, “I wish I had . . .”   No would.

If you are tempted to say “If I would have known . . .,” think of the 1950 song, “If I Knew You Were Comin’, I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” then say, “If I knew” or “If I had known…”   For you younger readers, the song was also sung on Sesame Street, so you’ve probably heard itJust try to get past the double contraction.

If you are tempted to say “If I was,” think of Fiddler on the Roof and the song, “If I Were a Rich Man.”  It’s were, not was.  Subjunctive mood, conditional perfect tense.  Or some might call it imperfect past subjunctive.

Finally, if you are tempted to utter the double whammy, “If I would have went,” then you are probably not reading this blog anyway.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Music

4 responses to “In a perfectly tense mood

  1. dave

    Military historian John Keegan’s book “The Mask of Command” contains this observation about the Duke of Wellington’s coolness under fire, in this case during the battle of Waterloo:

    “Taking one of the slips of parchment he kept folded in the buttonholes of his waistcoat, he pencilled a note which is preserved today in a showcase at his London residence, Apsley House. It reads:
    I see that the fire has communicated from the haystack to the roof of the chateau. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling in of the roof, or floors. After they will have fallen in, occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden, particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers to the inside of the House.”

    “Wellington’s clarity of mind,” he continues, “and conciseness of expression were famed. To have written such purposeful and accurate prose (the note contains both a future subjunctive and future perfect construction), on horseback, under enermy fire, in the midst of a raging military crisis is evidence of quite exceptional powers of mind and self-control.”

  2. Mom

    Now it’s certain that you have The Gene or are channeling your grandmother. Her favorite grammatical soapbox was the subjunctive mood. I recall very clearly being scolded: “No, no! Not if I was, if I WERE–subjunctive mood!”

  3. Sharon

    Kind of late, but the ads for the new Zac Efron movie, “Charlie St. Cloud,” ask “what if there was a way to hold on?” and “what if there was a reason to let go?” I had the TV on in the background, but the failure to use the subjunctive got my immediate attention.

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