Editing tip…subjunctive mood

When I was in high school, I really wanted to be a novelist.  The possibility of this happening was darn close to zero because I was terrible at spelling, but more importantly I wasn’t very good at grammar.  So, not surprising, I went into art instead of writing.

Years passed, then decades. Spelling checkers emerged and helped a great deal with spelling, and after editing, or reviewing copy edits of others for a number of books, my grammar improved.

I try to learn something new about grammar regularly, and at this rate I’ll never run out of new things to learn.  I was actually pretty proud of myself as I caught an error that my copy editor was adding by mistake.

Editors adding in a mistake doesn’t make them bad editors. If you look at the sheer volume of changes to a manuscript it’s not surprising that a nit gets through.  This is one of the reasons why I’m using two copy editors for Hollow World, what one misses the other catches.

So here is one of the things I recently learned. I often struggle with the choice between was and were.  When choosing based on quantity, I’ve pretty much got that down.

  • The trees were green.
  • The tree was green.

Simple enough.  But I always seemed to flip-flop on sentences like this:  Should it be:

  • I wish I was a younger man.
  • I wish I were a younger man.

Without knowledge of subjunctive mood I would conclude that the first is correct because I’m referring to a singular person…and I would be wrong.

You see the choice between was and were is not always just based on quantity.  It also can represent a mood and indicate whether something is factual or a wish-fulfillment. If stating a fact: use was. If “wishing” for something use were.

Consider the following:

I wish I were a younger man and that I wasn’t dying.

In this sentence the person is expressing a wish…one of which isn’t true, and the other, unfortunately is.

While I’ve known for years about was/were related to quantity, it was only recently that I learned about it with regards to mood. If you would like to learn more, here is a helpful link.  If you struggle with this, you’re in good company:

Damn the subjunctive,” Mark Twain wrote in his notebook. “It brings all our writers to shame.”

4 thoughts on “Editing tip…subjunctive mood

  1. Thanks! I always have a hard time with which of those words to use. That link looks like it will be a great help too.

  2. It should be “I wish I were a younger man and that I *weren’t dying.” The writer IS dying, so the wish is contrary to fact.

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