Don’t Blame Your Moods on Your Language

A recent Chronicle article headed “Language Matters,” by a midwestern professor using the pseudonym Elizabeth Duncan, addressed a situation where I am pretty sure that, contrary to her view, language doesn’t matter.

Her present mood (“disappointed, sullen, self-pitying”) results, she claims, from a failure of grammar. She had been invited to apply for an endowed chair but had not ultimately received the offer. The idea that language was to blame emerged while she was listening to Patricia Williams, critical legal studies scholar and columnist for The Nation, giving a lecture on contemporary political discourse in which “the lost art of the subjunctive” was mentioned. Williams talked about the “wishful immediate” that dominates our discourse about inequality: “We speak [...] of the ‘postfeminist’ or the ‘postracial’ as if each has arrived,” Williams said, meaning apparently nothing more than that we should be careful not to say “now that racism is dead” when it would be more appropriate to say “if racism were to die.” But then Williams went on, overreaching, to make a claim about language: that “the subjunctive has been dropped in American English and, with it, any responsibility for consequences other than ones we wish were true.”

It is completely false that the so-called subjunctive has “been dropped in American English” (not that it would matter much). As I explained in an earlier post, the irrealis (or subjunctive) verb inflection is alive and well in counterfactual conditionals and wish complements, at least among educated professionals: if that were true is still heard all the time alongside the more informal if that was true (and they have the same meaning anyway).

And as for responsibility for consequences, it sounds as if Williams thinks a change in the language could cause a change in the furniture of the world. It is true that there once was a linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, who (apparently) thought that grammatical properties of your language could shape your whole conceptual universe. But while naive global Whorfianism is enormously popular with the general public, it should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Philosophers have little regard for it.

Duncan’s sour feelings followed an interview visit to a private university where she was embraced by people who said things like:

  • “You will have the choice of teaching X or Y.”
  • “We want to make sure you will take a leadership role in the X and Y areas.”
  • “You should think about where you want to be located.”
  • “Ask for exactly what you want.”
  • “Your office will be located on this floor.”

It did not pan out; the offer never came. But that wasn’t because of indicative verb forms. Every speaker of English knows the difference between “if you come” and “when you come.”

Sometimes such distinctions are drawn in ways that call for the use of the special irrealis verb form were, and sometimes not. “If you were to join our department” has the irrealis were, but the same thought can be expressed by “under the assumption of your joining our department in the future,” or “given circumstances where you ultimately join our department,” and those don’t have it.

In the awkward business of faculty recruitment one must try to treat all the shortlisted candidates fairly, welcoming them in an encouraging way as potential future colleagues. Yet for each four who come for campus visits, three are likely to end up disappointed and slightly bitter. The only circumstance in which none of them need feel that way is where each in turn gets an offer that the previous offerees turned down. And that assumes (1) that all four are judged appointable, and (2) that those lower in the ranking cannot guess from the passing of time that they must have ranked somewhere below first choice.

It’s a tricky business. But (and this is my sole point) the morphology and syntax of English are innocent of the trickiness.

I’m a grammarian, and I think analytical attention to language matters a great deal. But not here. You should certainly guard against letting people appear to have committed to something when they are actually free agents; but don’t imagine that some point of grammatical detail could save you from being misled and rejected. Life has its disappointments, and the subjunctive won’t protect you from them.

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