That Freakin' MLA!
Just about every year I find out what the Modern Language Association has done to make our language more user-friendly. For example, in 2003, they decided that long quotes should no longer be single-spaced in a double-spaced document. In order to make papers seem longer (hurray for students), long quotes, that are already indented on both sides and are called "long" for a reason, are now double-spaced. So a ten line quote that would have taken up a third of the page now occupies over half of the page. Ugly, but useful, I suppose.
My current complaint is actually not new. However, it's bothered me for so long that I've decided to rebel and I ask you, my curious readers, to support me in my campaign (speaking of campaigns, remind me to do another post about my new political party, okay?).
The word is small, but perhaps the most powerful word in any language: is. Specifically, I have a problem with the use of the past tenses, "was' and "were." Normally, one uses "was" with singular subjects I, he, she and it. One uses "were" with all of the pulrals, they, we, and with you. Yet some time ago, some moron decided that, if the condition of the sentence is not likely to be true, I am you or you are me, then EVERYBODY uses "were:" "If I were you...," "If he were to resign as President of the United States..." and so on. Well, maybe I MIGHT become you some day. Maybe he WILL resign from his presidency. Why does a conditional statement have to change the rules of grammar?
For answers I went to several awesome grammar sites (Perdue Universitie's Online Writing Lab [OWL], Bartleby.com's link to the American Heritage Book of English Usage). My books at home are too far away from my computer :-) Anyway, there is a verb tense called the Subjunctive that is hardly in use today except for this one, the conditional phrase. But it's convoluted. For example, if the condition is not necessarily false, then, everything's okay: "If he was impeached, then fewer Americans would flock to Canada." There is no explanation as to why all subjects use "were." It's just a part of the stupid, ancient, outdated subjunctive. Some academics use the present subjunctive to sound smart: "Whether he be on our side or not, we still have to include him in our little charade." And we unwittingly use it in cliches: "Be that as it may," "God help him." We also use it when we're being snooty and bossy: "I insist that she do the windows as well as the litter box!" Notice, though, that all of these other subjunctive sentences use the infinitive form of the verb. So, someone decided that, in the past, we'd all just use "were."
Yet, even the scholars say that there is more than one way to say something. We don't have to use the subjunctive at all! But you know what? The other uses don't bother me. I don't use them much, anyway. I use the unrealistic conditional statement all the time, though, and "were" JUST DOESN'T SOUND CORRECT! We've changed so much of the English language since Milton. Why should this one, stupid, pointless, dying verb tense stand the test of time? I say it should DIE A QUICK AND PAINFUL DEATH! The MLA's mission is to simplify English. Why continue with this confusing notion? I teach grammar. Believe me, it's confusing to sudents. Truth is relative! Join with me in the fight against Were! Say, "If I was you," "If he was to resign as President of the United States" and "If the Moon was made of feta." Tell Tevye that he should have sang, "If I was a rich man!"