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  1. #31
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Philo! I am used to others who put their own idiosyncratic twist to my words, but not to your doing something similar. At the risk of occasionally repeating what I have written before, I shall attempt to clarify one or two points:

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    Teacher: […] There's no such thing as the 'past', or the 'present'.
    I have never claimed anything remotely like that. Of course there are past, present and future times. What I wrote was, “I simply feel that the words 'present' and 'past' are not very helpful names for these tenses as they operate in modern English.”

    I also wrote, “the current names have been used by so many people for such a long time that they are unlikely to change.” I use the name ‘past tense’. However, when we come to look at non-past-time uses of this tense (which frequently cause confusion to many students, who cannot understand why a past tense can refer to present and future times) I then suggest that it may be helpful to think of it as a ‘distancing’ rather than a ‘past tense’. At the same time, I tell them that ‘past time’ can be viewed as ‘remote’ or distanced’ time, suggesting that there is an underlying consistency in all uses of this tense.

    This appears to lessen confusion rather than cause it.

    […] you do at least have the integrity not to present idiosyncratic theories as standard approaches
    ‘Idiosyncratic’ is an interesting word to use of ideas that are discussed by such writers on language as Fleischmann, Huddleston, Lewis, Lyons, Pullum, Yule…

    . I would, however, say that, in my very humble opinion as a grammarian, any attempt to tinker with a centuries-old, tried-and-trusted and universally accepted method of linguistic description is likely, sooner or later, to end in disaster!
    If Bloomfield, Chomsky, Halliday, Huddleston, Jespersen, Quirk, Sapir, de Saussure and many, many others had thought like this, we would still be using Lowth and Murray in the classroom. Some, at least, of the centuries-old methods of linguistic description are not universally accepted.

  2. #32
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    I would, however, say that, in my very humble opinion as a grammarian, any attempt to tinker with a centuries-old, tried-and-trusted and universally accepted method of linguistic description is likely, sooner or later, to end in disaster!
    Since any language (that isn't dead) develops, why can't the linguistic terms change with it? I am NOT an expert on the subject, but it doesn't seem logical to automatically discount any possible change.
    I'm quite capable of reading modern English of most varities but getting through Hamlet still took me a some time. Mainly because the language has changed considerably over the last 500 years.

  3. #33
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    fivejedjon wrote

    Philo! I am used ... something similar.

    If I appear to be putting an idiosyncratic twist to anything, I apologize! (It was only a playful skit, and not intended to be taken entirely seriously.*) However, by saying, here and elsewhere, that you do not consider the labels 'present tense' and 'past tense' to be helpful, it strongly suggests - to my, no doubt, idiosyncratic mind - that you feel that they should ideally be changed to something else (irrespective of the likelihood of this actually happening anytime soon). You surely cannot blame me for speculating on just what kind of new tense names, based on your view of their actual functions, you might possibly consider appropriate...

    * No more than 99.5 % at most!

    However, when we come to look at non-past-time uses of this tense (which frequently cause confusion to many students, who cannot understand why a past tense can refer to present and future times)

    I am sorely tempted, at this point, to say "I rest my case". The confusion of which you speak would not arise if past subjunctives were not being misrepresented as past indicatives in the first place!

    ‘Idiosyncratic’ is an interesting word to use of ideas that are discussed by such writers on language as Fleischmann, Huddleston, Lewis, Lyons, Pullum, Yule… If Bloomfield, Chomsky, Halliday, Huddleston, Jespersen, Quirk, Sapir, de Saussure and many, many others had thought like this...

    I am not sure how many of these illustrious persons actually have/had sufficient interest in the subject of the English subjunctive to either categorically confirm or deny its existence, but, be that as it may, I am equally far from convinced that many of them, whatever their perceived importance for theoretical linguists or the organizers of academic symposia, have made any real contribution to the effective teaching of English grammar.

    I see, for instance, little evidence that general standards of English mastery around the world - or, for that matter, among its native populace - have undergone a dramatic improvement in recent decades thanks to Saussure's langue-parole distinction or Chomsky's deep-structure theory, or that those who regularly utter such solecisms as 'you did good' or 'between you and I' would be likely to see the grammatical light after even a lengthy study of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis...

    As for Pullum, Huddleston et al., with their (frankly ludicrous) proposal to reclassify most subordinating conjunctions as prepositions, is it any wonder that many supposedly 'educated' school-leavers today cannot actually tell a preposition from a conjunction, an adjective from an adverb, a conjunct from a coordinator, or a subject from an object?

    I am not personally familiar with Lowth and Murray, but if, as I infer from the somewhat disparaging tone in which you mention it, it is the kind of traditional usage manual that gives clear, no-nonsense guidance in terms of indicative versus subjunctive mood forms as to why 'was', and not 'were' is correct in

    He asked me if I was going to the party.

    and yet why, for large numbers of educated users, the reverse applies to

    If I were rich, I would buy a yacht.

    , then it is perhaps high time to think about re-ordering it!!

  4. #34
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    If I appear to be putting an idiosyncratic twist to anything, I apologize! (It was only a playful skit, and not intended to be taken entirely seriously.)
    Apart from anything else, the name you arbitrarily (?) chose for your student did cause the corners of my mouth to twitch.

    [...] it strongly suggests ... that you feel that they should ideally be changed to something else. Well, if you put it like that, yes.

    You surely cannot blame me for speculating on just what kind of new tense names [...] you might possibly consider appropriate [...]
    Not at all. I was (?over-)reacting to what seemed a suggestion that I had claimed, "
    There's no such thing as the 'past', or the 'present'.”

    [...]non-past-time uses of this tense[...] The confusion of which you speak would not arise if past subjunctives were not being misrepresented as past indicatives in the first place!
    We shall never agree on this but your obduracy gives me the opportunity to air the truth at times .

    [...] Fleischmann, Huddleston, Lewis, Lyons, Pullum, Yule […]. I am not sure how many of these illustrious persons actually have/had sufficient interest in the subject of the English subjunctive to either categorically confirm or deny its existence.
    None has denied it. They simply consider (to varying degrees) the possibility of a remote/distancing approach being more useful than a subjunctive approach.

    I am equally far from convinced that many of them… have made any real contribution to the effective teaching of English grammar.
    I can respond only personally on this point. I know that my own presentation of grammar changed a great deal over forty years as a result of my reading. Even writers with whom I profoundly disagree have caused me to question and, in some cases, justify (to myself at least) my own views.

    I see, for instance, little evidence that general standards of English […] have undergone a dramatic improvement in recent decades thanks to Saussure's langue-parole distinction or Chomsky's deep-structure theory […]

    I can produce no evidence for a dramatic improvement. I feel, however, that if we are going to study language, then the thoughts of serious writers can help us to understand our subject better. Even if we reject new ideas, my academic side believes that consideration of them is healthier than blind acceptance of the status quo. (And no, I am not implying that you, Philo, are blindly accepting the status quo.)

    As for Pullum, […] is it any wonder that many supposedly 'educated' school-leavers today cannot actually tell a preposition from a conjunction, […]?

    I will almost certainly shock you when I say that I see no value in any pupil knowing the difference between a preposition and a conjunction purely as knowledge for the sake of knowledge. However we classify and name words, we do so only in an attempt to help learners use them correctly. For thousands of years more than 99% of the world’s population learnt their own language without any knowledge of grammatical terminology at all; some of them learnt at least one foreign language as well.

    In the field of foreign language learning, some feel that the time of the grammar-translation method was for most (not all) learners a time in which there was a distinct lack of success in the acquisition of usable language skills.

    I am not personally familiar with Lowth and Murray, but […] it is perhaps high time to think about re-ordering it!

    Lowth (1762) and Murray (1795) were two very influential grammarians. Between them they sold over twenty million copies of their books, and Lowth was still in use in the early twentieth century, They promoted, among other things, the shall/will future and the objective whom, and It was Lowth who probably invented the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition. Many of their ‘rules’ were based on their own ideas rather than on observation, and Lowth devoted quite a few words to criticism of the mistakes, improprieties and solecisms perpetrated by such ignorami as the translators of the King James Bible, Addison, Bacon, Clarendon, Dryden, Milton, Pope, Shakespeare and Swift.

  5. #35
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by NikkiBarber View Post
    Since any language (that isn't dead) develops, why can't the linguistic terms change with it?
    Of course, language itself changes over the course of centuries. Vocabulary items, in particular, disappear over time. But major grammatical categories do not simply cease to exist in the course of a few decades (the very short time separating the present from an era in which the term 'past subjunctive' to characterize the function of hypothetical -ed forms was in common use.)

    If, like for instance the dative case of Old English, there remained with regard to the past subjunctive not one single instance in the contemporary language of formal differentiation corresponding to the conceptual category, we could happily write it off, like the dative, as a defunct and irrelevant formal classification. (You will consequently never find me insisting that indirect object 'me in

    He gave me a pen.

    be formally described as a "dative-case" pronoun, however its various morphological cognates may be reckoned in even the most closely related European tongues.)

    The subjunctive, however, is different. Quite apart from the fact that most 'opponents' of the past subjunctive nevertheless - albeit grudgingly - admit the existence of a present subjunctive (hardly, in itself, a particularly consistent point of view), a form that all but the most extreme among them* accept as a true past subjunctive and which is formally distinct from its indicative counterpart - i.e. conditional 'were' with first and third-person subjects - still not only has currency in the contemporary language but is the only form that many of its most literate and articulate speakers actually consider formally correct in that particular sentence-position.

    Of course, those linguisticians who feel uneasy with the term 'past subjunctive' - finding it just to 'Latinate', 'foreign-sounding' or or simply 'un-English' for comfort - can re-name it ("hypothetical pseudo-past tense", or something of that sort) if they genuinely believe that this will keep language-learners happy, but no amount of re-naming can change the reality, as borne out by educated contemporary usage, of the linguistic category itself!

    And what real purpose, in any case, would such a re-naming ultimately serve, except to sow even further confusion by replacing one perfectly serviceable, well established term with a new and totally unfamiliar one requiring additional explanation/definition at every turn?

    In the wise words of Woodrow Wilson, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it'!**

    *By which I refer to those who deny the existence of any past subjunctive whatsoever in the English language, choosing to account for the 'were' of

    If I were a bird, I would fly away.

    as a kind of 'dialectal quirk' by which even the most educated speakers are mysteriously afflicted when, and only when, they attempt to form a conditional sentence!


    ** I ought to say at this point that I do not at all approve the grammar of this sentence, but, with regard to the issue at hand, concur absolutely with the sentiment therein expressed!!
    Last edited by philo2009; 22-Dec-2010 at 04:20.

  6. #36
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    But major grammatical categories do not simply cease to exist in the course of a few decades [...]
    Angus (1870), Evans (1904) Onions (1904) all wrote of the dative case in English. In 1927, arguments were still being presented for the continued use of the term, though Jespersen(1927.280), at least, considered it was dead. So a major grammatical category seems to have ceased to exist in the course of a few decades.

    If, like for instance the dative case of Old English, there remained with regard to the past subjunctive not one single instance...
    We are not far off that with the past subjunctive, - one single verb in the whole of the language with a recognisable form, and then in only two of the six persons, and even then probably not used (with the possible exception of if I were you) by the majority of the population in Br E

    [...]most 'opponents' of the past subjunctive nevertheless - albeit grudgingly - admit the existence of a present subjunctive.
    If the present subjunctive were widely used in Br E (which it is not) that would not necessarily imply the existence of a past subjunctive.

    the existence of a present subjunctive [...] a form [...] which is formally distinct from its indicative counterpart - i.e. conditional 'were' with first and third-person subjects.
    Could you please give me an example of an indicative conditional 'were' with a first or third person subject? I have not come across this idea before.

    In the wise words of Woodrow Wilson, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it'!
    I agree. I just think it's broke. If it be broke, fix it!


    Angus, Joseph (1870) Handbook of the English Tongue,London: Religious Tract Society
    Evan, Daniel, (1904) The Grammar, History and Derivation of the English Language, London: National Society's Depository
    Jespersen, Otto (1927), A Modern English Grammar on Historical principles, Part III, London: Allen & Unwin
    Onions, C T (1904) An Advanced English Syntax, London: Swan Sonnenschein
    5

  7. #37
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    fivejedjon wrote:

    Apart from anything else, the name you arbitrarily (?) chose for your student did cause the corners of my mouth to twitch.

    Of course, quite arbitrary. Let me give you my solemn assurance that no Spanish-speakers were harmed during the making of this skit!


    We shall never agree on this but your obduracy gives me the opportunity to air the truth at times.

    Well, if I'm obdurate, here's exactly what I'm obdurate about (and, as I trust you can see, it is not a blind insistence on the maintenance for its own sake of some ridiculous, old-fashioned notion such as that sentences should never end with prepositions!). My insistence is purely and simply that, with regard to anything purporting to be a serious grammatical analysis, the most fundamental normative precepts of grammatical reasoning be observed.

    The claim that 'were' in

    If I were a bird, I would fly away.

    is a form of the past subjunctive, but that 'had' in

    If I had wings, I would fly away.

    - despite identical privilege of occurrence and manner of predication - is not, on the grounds that 'were' is clearly different from indicative 'was', while 'had' looks and sounds just like an indicative, violates that most basic of all axioms, namely that grammatical function is not reckoned on the basis of coincidences of form.

    I would ask you to consider the following examples of erroneous grammatical reasoning:


    Mistaken Analysis
    CASE 1:


    With regard to the sentences

    [1] It will very likely rain tomorrow.

    [2] It is very likely to rain tomorrow.

    the underlined form of [1] is an adverb. Not only do the two sentences have exactly the same meaning, but the underlined fourth word of [2] is identical to that of [1] (and, having in the typically adverbial -ly suffix, looks in any case much more like an adverb than an adjective).

    Conclusion: Contrary to its designation in traditional grammar as an adjective, the word 'likely' in [2] is really an adverb!

    (Secondary inference: students will get terribly confused by seeing adverbs in this kind of sentence-position. We should probably consider ditching such outmoded categories as 'adjective' and 'adverb' and replacing them with more modern, "useful" terms...)


    Mistaken Analysis
    CASE 2:

    With regard to the sentences

    [1] He was seen by the teacher.

    [1a] The teacher saw him.

    [2] The boy was seen by the teacher.

    [2a] The teacher saw the boy.

    although the underlined forms of [1] and [1a] constitute respectively subject and object forms of the same pronoun, those of [2] and [2a], despite an identical transformation to that of [1] to [1a], do not differ in form.

    Conclusion: Contrary to its designation in traditional grammar as an object, the underlined NP of [2a] is really a subject!

    (Secondary inference: students will get terribly confused by seeing subject nouns in this kind of sentence-position. We should probably consider ditching such outmoded categories as 'subject' and 'object' and replacing them with more modern, "
    useful" terms...)


    Mistaken Analysis
    CASE 3:

    With regard to the sentences

    [1] He asked me if I was sick.

    [1a] If I were a bird, I would fly away.

    [2] He asked me if I had a cold.

    [2a] If I had wings, I would fly away.

    although the underlined forms of [1] and [1a] constitute respectively past indicative and past subjunctive forms of the same verb, those of [2] and [2a] do not differ in form.

    Conclusion: Contrary to its designation in traditional grammar as a past subjunctive, the underlined verb form of [2a] is really a past indicative!

    (Secondary inference: students will get terribly confused by seeing past indicatives in this kind of sentence-position. We should probably consider ditching such outmoded categories as 'indicative' and 'subjunctive' and replacing them with more modern, "
    useful" terms...)

    Now be good enough to tell me exactly how, in your view, case 3 differs in any essential respects from cases 1 & 2!


    None has denied it. They simply consider (to varying degrees) the possibility of a remote/distancing approach being more useful than a subjunctive approach.

    On such alleged "usefulness", see above...


    I can respond only personally ...Pope, Shakespeare and Swift.

    I think that a discussion of sound analytical procedure is in danger of being usurped by the - albeit very interesting - quite unrelated topic of EFL pedagogy.

    You can happily accept, and rely on when giving explicit guidance on the matter, the label 'past subjunctive' and still employ the latest, most up-to-date language-teaching methods. Conversely, you can mislabel the above 'past indicatives' while employing the most traditional imaginable grammar-translation method. Since there is no inherent connection whatever between the two, I would suggest that any further attempts to evaluate the contribution of these various luminaries to the teaching of English or comparison of their respective merits be deferred to a more appropriate time and place!

  8. #38
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    I have no time at the moment for a considered response to your last post, philo. I'll just make one point.
    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post

    Conclusion: Contrary to its designation in traditional grammar as a past subjunctive, the underlined verb form of [2a] is really a past indicative!
    I do not claim, and have never claimed, that the forms we are discussing are indicative. For me the whole indicative/subjunctive contrast is irrelevant.

    Given that only BE has a separate form for hypothetical/counterfactual situations, a form by no means used by all speakers, it is an exception whether we refer to it as subjunctive or not.

    The question for me is whether we talk of past indicative and subjunctive forms or forms which distance in time, reality and directness.

  9. #39
    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    Our posts seem to be crossing, and so I shall keep my responses here brief:

    So a major grammatical category seems to have ceased to exist in the course of a few decades.
    No, it ceased to exist approximately one thousand years ago. The authors you cite simply seem not to have realized the fact.

    We are not far off that with the past subjunctive, - one single verb in the whole of the language with a recognisable form, and then in only two of the six persons, and even then probably not used (with the possible exception of if I were you) by the majority of the population in Br E

    1. The number of instances is irrelevant. Either a construction still exists or it doesn't. And this one does!

    2. I think you'll find that AmE speakers, who, in general, regard counterfactual 'was' as substandard, constitute a far more sizable proportion of the world's native-user population than do BrE speakers (most of whom in any case still recognize and accept 'were' in this sentence-position as a grammatically correct, and often stylistically preferable, alternative.)

    Could you please give me an example of an indicative conditional 'were' with a first or third person subject? I have not come across this idea before.

    Allow me to clarify: I use the term 'conditional were' here as shorthand for 'the word were as it occurs in the protasis of a counterfactual conditional sentence'.

    The term 'indicative conditional were' would therefore, in that sense, be a contradiction in terms.

    I apologize if this was* in any way misleading.

    (*=a real past indicative, in a non-predictive - but, of course, not counterfactual - conditional!)
    Last edited by philo2009; 12-Jan-2011 at 05:38.

  10. #40
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    Default Re: If I "were" king instead of "was"

    fivejedjon wrote:

    I do not claim, and have never claimed, that the forms we are discussing are indicative.

    So, by your lights, they are not subjunctive.
    Nor, according to your latest statement, are they indicative.
    Do I take it then that you consider them to be forms of some other mood?
    Pray, which would that be? (The imperative seems to be among the few remaining candidates...)

    Or do you now simply deny the existence of verbal mood altogether??


    For me the whole indicative/subjunctive contrast is irrelevant.

    I wonder which other grammatical "contrasts" you consider irrelevant. You have already expressed your disapproval of the 'present/past' contrast. I wonder what might be next on your hit-list: the whole 'adjective/adverb' contrast, perhaps, or the whole 'subject/object' contrast?


    Given that only BE has a separate form for hypothetical/counterfactual situations, a form by no means used by all speakers,

    Only BrE? You have lost me! I think you'll find that it is actually AmE that insists most strictly on the indicative-subjunctive distinction in counterfactuals. BrE accepts either.


    it is an exception whether we refer to it as subjunctive or not.

    An exception to a nonexistent rule generated by a fundamentally flawed analytical procedure!
    See my earlier post for examples.

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