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Author Topic: Tense Question
Member # 9510

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So I have been trying to follow the "subjunctive?" tense in my writing but several of my beta readers are underlining my sentences in red.

E.g. "as if she were the queen of England" my readers almost uniformly change this to "as if she was the queen of England." (And sometimes "Queen")

"If he were there, he would kill Darth Vader."
"If he was there, he would kill Darth Vader."

Almost everyone stumbles on my use of "were" so am I following the wrong rule? How is this handled in most mainstream fiction?


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Member # 1681

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You're using the subjunctive correctly. If I were you, I'd find new beta readers.
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Member # 9277

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This reminds me of how I cringe whenever I see "If I was you" as opposed to "If I were you." The latter is the subjunctive, and considered formal. While the use of "was" is considered fine for informal speech. Regardless, I still cringe. I prefer the subjunctive

The subjunctive form is used to express "uncertainty," i.e. wish, possibility, opinion.

From your example, my understanding is that the correct way of saying it would be "If she were the Queen of England." I would use "were" instead of "was" because the subjunctive form is expressing a possibility or an opinion of what a person would do, not what they will do. Also, I would capitalize Queen because it is part of the queen's full title/name (you're using it like a proper noun in that sentence).

I'm sure there are grammarians on the forums that could explain this a lot better than me

Edited to address your question as to how to handle it in mainstream fiction. My personal opinion is that just because it's mainstream the grammar shouldn't suffer. I think it's OK to break the rules if you are trying to make it the point. That is, you are using "bad grammar" to denote someone's speech, way of thinking etc.

PS: EricJamesStone, your succinct and witty reply gave me a good chuckle.

[This message has been edited by redux (edited September 27, 2011).]

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Member # 8019

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More principle than rule, subjunctive to be verb usage has a prescriptive principle and descriptive ones. For guidance toward a working strategy, I recommend a dialect-appropriate dictionary of English usage. Webster's for general U.S. English; Fowler's for general British English. More specialized usage references for regional and/or subcultural in-group dialects.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited September 27, 2011).]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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What Eric James Stone said.

In spades.

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Member # 8631

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Yeah you're using it correctly, and I think it is always best to use correct grammar (unless there is a reason not to ).

Most readers aren't going to question your grammar. Beta readers are reading specifically to find faults, most readers are just reading for a good story.

If someone does question your grammar, maybe they will look it up and learn something.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited September 27, 2011).]

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Member # 8108

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How I wish it were that everyone would learn how to wield the sword of his or her trade properly before starting a duel.
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Member # 9331

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And if you're afraid you're being pedantic, let me point out that the subjunctive is not a verb "tense" (which has to do with time), but a "mood" (which indicates the speaker's attitude toward the verb).

*That's* what pedantry sounds like. By the way, some American Indian languages have separate moods to express distinctions between knowledge by direct experience, knowledge by inference, and knowledge by hearsay. How cool is that?

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Member # 9345

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Weighing in on the side of correct usage, unless it's intended as dialect or voice.

And yeah, I've had betas 'correct' me on it too. And on a number of other grammatical points that evidently haven't been taught in recent decades, since it seems to be exclusively an under-30YO problem.

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Member # 5137

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My suggestion? Find first readers who are readers, not readers who think they are editors.

If you need an editor, either find a good friend who likes editing so much he/she will be willing to look at your work for free, or just hire your own (if you're planning to indie publish your own work this is a step you'll have to figure out at some point anyway.) For some, if they see what a professional editor adjusts just once or twice they can modify on their own and eliminate many of the common mistakes editors catch. Others it's worth it to pay for an editor to read and really find the errors.

But for beta readers, in my opinion, they shouldn't be looking at verb forms and other wordsmithing persnickety things. Does the story work? Are the characters believable? Did they root for the right people? Were there any major plot holes or mistakes (I am notorious for changing my mind about a sub-character's name about 1/3 of the way through my novels, for ex.) Are there places where they found their interest waning? Did they stop believing in/rooting for the main character at any point? Would they recommend the book to a friend? Did the ending make sense? was it foreshadowed enough, too much, not enough?

Those sorts of things should keep them plenty busy that they don't have time to critique verbs that are used correctly.

Good luck!

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Member # 8019

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Yeah, concept, content, organization, and expression before mechanical style. Or as screening readers and editors like to categorize, craft and voice before mechanical style. Once craft and voice are in good order, then it's a best practice critical path plan time to do a close proofread and copyedit for mechanical style. Many of the discretionary and nondiscretionary style shortcomings will probably be revised out by rewriting and revision processes anyway, or replaced with other ones that will, in due time, be ready to be addressed.

Actually, it's peculiar that inexperienced struggling writers and critiquers use linear revision processes and strategies, beginning with lexical and syntatical unit emphases, and overlook larger content and organizational unit recursive revision processes and strategies. Which experienced struggling writers and critiquers practice first then delve into lexical and syntatical revision processes and strategies as an outcome-end process and strategy. Recursive methods perceive a multidimensional architecture. Linear methods perceive a two-dimensional structure.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited September 28, 2011).]

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Member # 5512

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This reminds to read up on my English grammar before publishing my stories.
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Member # 9429

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I think the reason many people don't recognize correct subjunctive use is because, in many cases outside of 'to be' and a couple other verbs, the verb is no different from the indicitave form (it's easy to forget subjunctive 'was vs. were,' because English teachers aren't going to spend an entire unit on it). However, other languages outside of Standard English may use it more extensively. For example, the French subjunctive is more complicated than English.

[This message has been edited by Winters (edited October 01, 2011).]

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Pyre Dynasty
Member # 1947

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Many people don't understand English unless they learn another language. I think this is mainly because English teachers don't worry about words like subjunctive, or participle, or mood, or plu perfect, or, heck, even conjugation.

Sometimes I have readers who circle every time I use Affect/Effect and put the other one. I am nearly always right, they just have been turned around by teachers who tell them they are usually used wrong. Same thing once in a while with whom, then I have to have the Direct Object talk. (Although I'm ashamed to admit I have to look up lay/lie ever stinking time, which is why I avoid them usually.)

Wow, reading over this it seems like I'm hard on teachers. I'm studying to become one so that probably explains my critical eye at the moment.

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