Sunday, January 11, 2009

That Would Be Wrong

I love game shows, especially the quiz variety. Jeopardy, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and Weakest Link are my favorites. But a few years ago, I began to notice a disturbing trend.

My earliest memory of it is the appearance of Danny Bonaduce on Millionaire and Weakest Link. The phrase “That would be” preceded his every answer, delivered very smugly. After that I realized many contestants were prefixing their answers with this phrase, and I’ve had enough of this nonsense. I will explain my disgruntlement for all of you (the majority, I suspect) who haven’t a clue what’s distressing me.

It all has to do with the subjunctive. “The what?” I hear you say. English verbs can be expressed in any of several moods: indicative, interrogative, exclamatory, imperative, and subjunctive. Indicative is simple action: “I ate the donut.” Interrogative asks a question: “Did I eat the donut?” Exclamatory makes a point: “I ate the donut!” Imperative is the form for command: “Eat the donut!” And the subjunctive is used to express the conditional: “I would eat the donut” says you haven’t but you want to; perhaps it hasn’t been offered or you daren’t risk the calories. Statements in the subjunctive often contain or at least imply an if or a but: “I would eat the donut, but it looks like someone dropped it” clearly states you’re not going to even though you’d really like a donut. The person who sighs “Would that I could!” reveals through use of a double subjunctive that he won’t even consider trying.

Therefore, to preface an answer with “That would be” implies that, for some reason, it’s not going to be the right answer. “That would be C, Regis,” begs the question, Except for what? The answer would be C if the Earth’s magnetic poles reversed? If the universe began spinning backwards? Under what conditions that don’t already exist would the answer be C?

But the speaker is implying no such thing by use of this phrase. It’s simply superfluous words, a polysyllabic emptiness akin to “you know” and other hot air-isms. On a show such as Weakest Link, it’s also an unforgivable waste of precious seconds. The fact that it’s a dead wrong use of the subjunctive is lost on these people but a great annoyance to me.

If the answer is C, just say, “The answer is C, Regis.” That would be the correct thing to do.

It’s actually odd that this prevalent error involves the use of the subjunctive rather than failure to use it. Many people don’t recognize when a subjunctive verb is called for, as in “It’s important that you be on time.” The subjunctive, like the imperative, borrows the infinitive form of the verb, and thus the form is often the same for all persons: I, you, he, we, you, and they must all be on time. The subjunctive isn’t always obviously different from the indicative except with to be. It’s not uncommon to see a construction such as “It’s important that you are on time,” but because the action does not actually occur—the person has not gone or arrived anywhere, on time or otherwise—the indicative are is incorrect.

Don’t be (negative imperative) in a bad mood when choosing a verb form. Consider (imperative) whether the action has occurred or is off in some hazy future; if you only want it to happen, use the subjunctive. Will you be (interrogative) more attentive to your moods now? I should hope so (exclamatory subjunctive)!

This is article 3 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

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