verbs

Hedges and Qualifiers | Liar, Liar

hedges and qualifiers quote Pamela MeyerWe complete the barrier object series with our final entry: hedges and qualifiers.

These rhetorical tidbits come in many forms. The terms “hedge” and “qualifier” are interchangeable. They denote words or phrases that damper the strength of a statement.

Hedges and Qualifiers

Grammatical hedges are literally named after a type of barrier. When we hedge, we use defensive language, something to retreat behind should anyone question our words. This is the rhetoric of the lawyer, the politician, the blogger, pretty much anyone in the service industry… and, well, everyone.

Everyone hedges to some degree or another. When you hedge too much, though, you look like a weasel.

Verbal Hedges

In this category we have “tempered” linking verbs and verb phrases. Consider the softening effect of the following:

  • seem
  • appear
  • look
  • tend to [verb]
  • try to [verb]
  • seem to have [verb]-ed

“He seemed angry” literally means there’s a possibility he wasn’t, but when you hear this spoken aloud, you assume the person in question was angry and the speaker is too polite to say it directly.

Similarly, “I tend to sleep in on weekends” comes from the mouth of someone who definitely sleeps in every weekend they possibly can but doesn’t want to sound like a lazy schmoe.

Politeness plays a huge role in hedging, as does conversational manipulation.

As a subcategory of verbal hedges, we have the conditional modals may, might, could, should, and would. If you compare them with their more solid modal counterparts, the hedge becomes glaring. For example,

  1. She might meet us at the restaurant.
  2. She must meet us at the restaurant.

Speaker #2 ain’t playing any games. Modal hedges shift from that concrete meaning to one with more wiggle room:

  • must → may or might
  • can → could
  • shall → should
  • will → would

And this simple shift makes a world of difference in responsibility to follow through.

As discussed in the article on Expanded Verb Structures, simpler structures are better. If you can eliminate a hedging modal for its concrete counterpart and still maintain the integrity of your narrative, good. But if you can eliminate the modal all together, better.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

This type of hedge is a “fine tuner.” It emerges when a speaker wants to be meticulous about their language, again, to cover their backside from questions that a more direct discourse might elicit.

(Sidenote: yes, I’m using hedges to talk about hedges; like all barrier objects, they’re not always bad.)

Types

Adverbial and adjectival hedges gravitate toward certain semantic categories, including:

  • ­Smallness: a bit, a little, slight(ly), at least
  • ­Variety: kind of, sort of
  • ­Frequency: often, sometimes, rarely
  • Degree: rather, quite, somewhat
  • Untruth: not very, not actually, not really, not certain, unsure

But here’s the thing: in most cases, these “specifications” add nothing more than word count. Someone who is “a little tired” is tired. If you’re “kind of annoyed,” you’re annoyed. When the hero makes a “slight grimace,” he grimaces. We don’t have to shy away from direct speech, particularly in expositional narrative.

Bolsters

As for the “untruth” category, its opposite falls under the linguistic pattern of bolstering, which is yet another tell for deception. We’ve all encountered a boor who interrupts a conversation with, “Well, actually…” and then proceeds to give their opinion rather than fact.

It’s a long-standing joke that anytime someone begins a statement with, “Honestly,” or its equivalent, they’re about to lie. This includes longer phrases like “in truth,” “in fact,” “in all candor,” “in all honesty,” and so forth. The instant we try to convince others of how genuine we are, we plant a seed of doubt.

If you’re shoring up your work with bolsters, they will have much the same effect as hedges.

They are both barriers.

Qualifying phrases

Hedge types expand into the rhetoric layer of language with phrases that temper responsibility. For example:

  • As far as I know…
  • To my understanding…
  • From what I can see…
  • By and large…

Each of these leaves more than enough room for a speaker to weasel out of their words. Unless you absolutely need them in your narrative, they are prime for culling.

When to Hedge

Hedges and qualifiers are 100% okay in spoken dialogue, as long as they suit the character. So too are they appropriate for narrative, but only if they add the nuance intended. In many cases, there are better alternatives to a hedge.

If, for example, your hero favors your heroine with a “slight smile” and the slightness of it plays into the scene, it’s appropriate. But a dozen other descriptors could convey the same effect or a better one.

  • He favored her with a feeble smile.
  • …a wry smile
  • …an anemic smile
  • …a guarded smile.

Or, if you’re going the analogy route,

  • His smile was like a cup of weak tea.

All of these examples build on that more generic hedge of “slight.” But “slight” has its own charm, too, as long as it’s not modifying everything under the sun.

In Summary

Barrier objects create defensive writing, and defensive writing weakens your story. Our next section discusses a tool we can use to strengthen it instead.

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Expanded Verb Structures | Liar, Liar

Pennebaker quote re: expanded verb structures

Our barrier object series continues with expanded verb structures. These come in a variety of forms.

A Rundown of Verb Features

In the simplest of sentences, the verb expresses only Tense, past or present.

  • John keeps a book on his nightstand; he reads before bedtime.
  • Mary celebrated her birthday all month long, and she partied hard.
  • Sam likes potatoes.

In English, future tense requires addition of a modal, will.

  • She will meet you at the restaurant.

The verb structure expands to accommodate this: “meet” loses its inflection and “will” assumes the tense feature.

As more verb features add into the mix, the structure expands further. Auxiliary verbs be and have assist in Aspect and Voice, and auxiliary do assumes the tense feature for negatives, emphatics, and the interrogative Mood.

  • John is keeping a book on his nightstand; he has read it before bedtime.
  • The book is opened each night.
  • Mary did celebrate her birthday all month long. She didn’t party too hard, though.
  • Does Sam like potatoes?

Modals (AKA ” discrepancies”) express conditional or hypothetical attitudes towards the words spoken.

  • She might meet you at the restaurant. (Or she might not, idk.)
  • She can meet you at the restaurant. (Don’t expect to meet her elsewhere, dude.)
  • She should meet you at the restaurant. (But who knows whether she actually will.)
  • Etc.

Each of these additions causes a subtle shift in meaning for the verb phrase as a whole. Whichever verb—modal, auxiliary, or main—appears at the front of the structure carries that essential Tense feature.

This tense-bearing verb, then, is the most important verb in any sentence, structure-wise. But semantics-wise, the main verb always carries that torch. And the farther apart they are, the more diluted that main verb becomes.

Expanded Verb Structures as Barriers

If a sentence requires additional nuances, these expanded verb structures serve a necessary purpose. However, especially in patterns of deception, extra nuances slip in unnecessarily, and the structure carries more baggage than needed.

Compare the following two sentences:

  1. John was glaring at Mary.
  2. John glared at Mary.

Both give the reader the same semantic information, but Sentence #2 is more efficient about it. Sentence #1 has added a progressive aspect, even though there’s no other event occurring at the same time as John’s glare. The aspect, then, is gratuitous.

A single three-letter word might not be much for a reader to gloss over, but when it becomes a pattern of usage, that gloss becomes a game of leapfrog. This goes for extra modals as well as auxiliaries. Any string of function words beyond the main verb (the semantic powerhouse) merits scrutiny.

For example:

  • ­Mary frowned at this disclosure, any retort she might have made having been stifled.

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Here we have 6 (six!) verbs in a row. They are two separate verb phrases, (she) might have made and having been stifled, both of which modify “retort.” Only the past participle stifled carries distinct concrete meaning, while everything else adds nuance.

And we can reduce the whole ungainly string into a single modifier and that past participle:

  • Mary frowned, her possible retorts stifled at this disclosure.

This revision gives the exact same semantic information to the reader, but without so much structure to stumble through.

Weak Verbs

In addition to unnecessary verb features, this barrier object occurs in a crop of semantically weak verbs. These are verbs that combine with other verbs or else with nouns that point to an event to create their overall meaning. For example:

  • ­find oneself [verb]-ing, begin [verb]-ing, start [verb]-ing, continue [verb]-ing
  • tend to [verb], want to [verb], like to [verb], need to [verb]
  • ­make a(n) X [where X = the noun form of a verb]
    • E.g., make a decision, make a reply, make an escape, make a choice
  • take a(n) X [where X = the noun form of a verb]
    • E.g., take a step, take a seat, take a shower, take a bite

An expanded verb of this ilk has inefficiency built into its structure.

Participles to Main Verbs

The [verb]-ing participles of the first bullet are where we find the more important semantics of the phrase. The reflexive nature of find oneself [verb]-ing creates distance between the subject and the action, as though a character isn’t wholly in control of themselves.

In the case of beginstart, and continue, unless the action gets interrupted, there’s no need to specify that it begins or continues, because that’s already implied in context. Compare,

  • He began shouting at the crowd.
  • He shouted at the crowd.

Both say the same thing, but the second is more direct. However, if we add an interruption, the “began [verb]-ing” structure becomes justified.

  • He began shouting at the crowd, but his wife clamped her hand across his mouth.

Aspects happen in concordance with another event. On their own, they become expendable.

Infinitive Strings

As with strings of modals and auxiliaries, weak verbs that take infinitives as their complements can stack up like a conga line.

  • My boss tends to want to get to work early.

Add in any aspects or moods, and this could easily spiral out of control.

(But confession: I’ve made a game out of stringing lots of verbs together in a plausible sentence. So far my longest string is nine: “She might have been being coerced to pretend to try to like to dance.” Once you hit the main verb, it’s over, haha.)

In these cases, outright revision is the best bet to eliminate the string, unless you really, truly need it.

  • My boss comes to work early if she can.

It’s not semantically exact, but it’s close enough that the same sense remains.

Light Verbs

Of particular note in our above list of weak verb examples, make and take fall into the category of light verbs, along with do, have, and give. If you look them up in the dictionary, their entries can span over multiple pages, because their meanings have diluted to a bland meh that requires modifiers. They are the unseasoned starches of the language.

And why would we purposefully use them? In many cases, these expanded verb structures have no different meaning than their simpler counterparts. If you make a decision, you decide; similarly, to make an escape = to escape, to take a seat = to sit, to take a bite = to bite, and so forth.

The primary difference lies in structure, not in semantics. Weak verb phrases say very little in a lot of words. Revising for more precise language simplifies these structures, which allows the reader to access the story without wading through that slew of extra verbiage.

The Litmus Test

When evaluating verb phrases, consider the following two questions:

  1. Does my tense-bearing verb communicate the main action of the sentence?
  2. If not, is there a good reason why?

Don’t bog down the reader with too much structure. Our brains actively look for the verb in the sentence, so keep it efficient.

Tl;dr, simple tenses are better; save the expanded verb structures for when they’re necessary.

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Filter Verbs | Liar, Liar

The next offender in our sequence of barrier objects is a big one: filter verbs.

Filter Verbs Defined

  1. She felt the cold November wind wafting through the window.
  2. He knew his horse would find the way.
  3. She watched him approach.

What do all of these sentences have in common? They all use filter verbs.

You may or may not have heard the term before. Some people call them “tell” verbs (as opposed to “show” verbs, from the infamous writer’s adage, “Show, don’t tell”). Some refer to them as sensory verbs. They appear when the focal character filters the narrative through their lens of experience, a rhetorical bottleneck between the reader and the action.

The category of filter verbs does include your standard sensory verbs, but also anything that happens inside a character’s head. And inevitably, any prescriptive discussion of these offenders produces a list of words to avoid.

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Filter Verbs word art

I don’t like these lists. They’re never all-inclusive (because they can’t be), and they fail to address the underlying issue. Writers eliminate one filter only to replace it with another, because it’s not a word problem at all but a structural one.

So here’s the skinny on identifying filter verbs:

It is a filter verb if the character is making an observation instead of acting or being acted upon.

In linguistics, we call these “verbs that assign an experiencer argument to their subject.” And really, there’s nothing structurally wrong with them. The issue lies in our layers of dialogue. Your reader is supposed to be the experiencer. Filter verbs make them experience events second-hand instead of immersing them in the story.

The “experiencing” character becomes the barrier.

The Syntax of Filter Verbs

Filters form a barrier in sentence structure itself. To illustrate this, take a look at the x-bar diagram for Sentence #3 from our list of examples above.

Filter verbs in a minimalist syntax tree

According to minimalist syntax, everything with concrete meaning starts in the Verb Phrase (VP), and certain elements take on grammar by moving up into the Tense Phrase (TP).

(C’mon. Deglaze your eyes.)

Now imagine yourself standing at the head of that sentence, by the letters TP in the picture. To get to the lexical meat, the action, you have to wade through the filter first.

2 Relevant Principles of Syntax:

  1. The beginning of a sentence carries the most rhetorical weight.
  2. Our brains are hard-wired to look for the tense-bearing verb. In a sentence with more than one verb, the main tense-bearing verb gets our focus. (It’s categorized as most important, in other words.)

Filter verbs work against us on both of these principles. Is a character “watching” more important than a character “approaching”? The inclusion of such implies that it is.

(But spoiler alert: it’s not.)

Writers instinctively filter as a way to pull readers into their characters’ heads, but ironically, it creates distance instead. Essentially, a reader for Sentence #3 is watching someone watch someone else. If we swap the verb structures, we can see exactly how superfluous the filter is:

  • He approached while she watched.
  • His horse would find the way, he knew.
  • The cold November wind wafted through the window; she felt it.

And suddenly, no one cares about the observer. Why? Because any importance their observation carried was tied to sentence position, not to a greater semantic or pragmatic message.

Ditching the Filter

If you write in 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited Omniscient, your character’s observations are built into the point of view. We know they see something because if they didn’t see it, it wouldn’t show up in the narration of events.

Filters, then, become redundant. Their elimination can tighten prose and shift focus to the more interesting action of the story. You can rewrite passages to eliminate filters, but removal of this barrier doesn’t have to be difficult.

Often, a more active verb lurks beyond the filter.

Example #1

  • ­The man felt a strange knot twisting his insides, warning him to flee.

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Here we have our filter with a more engaging participle in its compliment. If we ditch the filter, “twisting” gets elevated to the finite verb position:

  • A strange knot twisted the man’s insides, warning him to flee.

And suddenly, that knot is twisting your insides too. A simple shift in tense-bearing verbs allows the reader to experience such action directly instead of getting a watered-down account.

Example #2

  • She saw a flex of wings along its blurred back.

Here the filter is the only verb (because “blurred” serves as an adjective). However, we do have indirect action packed into the noun, “flex.” So, the un-filtered version becomes

  • Wings flexed along its blurred back.

Which is far more dynamic than its original incarnation.

Some filters point to a different grammatical mood in their unfiltered form.

Example #3

  • ­She thought she saw a flex of wings along its blurred back.

The combined filters in “she thought she saw” create an uncertainty, and that points to the Interrogative Mood. Un-filtered, this example turns into a question:

  • ­Was that a flex of wings along its blurred back?

Was it? We don’t know. The reader gets to wonder alongside the focal character, drawing out tension in the scene.

Removing filters leads to a more immersive reading experience because it engages the reader directly with the action. They see and feel and experience alongside characters instead of processing events second-hand.

When Filtering Is Good

As with all our barrier objects, filter verbs function best when they have a witting purpose. They’re excellent in dialogue, when one character needs to communicate experiences to another. In narration, they allow moments of introspection, often necessary in character development and plot progression.

They allow, too, distance. There may come occasions in your story where you want to push your reader back a step. Filters very calmly, very cleanly accomplish this feat.

Particularly when used with restraint.

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Excessive Expressive Dialogue Tags | Liar, Liar

Continuing in our series of literary barrier objects, we delve into the boondoggle of excessive, expressive dialogue tags.

The Basics

A dialogue tag, as its name implies, marks who speaks a line of dialogue. It can be an attributive tag or an action tag.

  • Attributive: “That’s nice,” Mary said.
  • Action: “That’s nice.” Mary wiped her hands off on her shirt.

Both types indicate who spoke, but the action tag earns more points because it adds movement to the narrative.

This post deals primarily with attributive tags. That being said, beware the overuse of action tags, particularly if they involve a character turning, looking, staring, etc. Actions should pack a punch, not whiffle their rhetorical impotence against the air.

And thus we begin.

Excessive Dialogue Tags

When every line of dialogue gets a tag (action or attributive), those tags become barriers to the conversation. This form of tagging is great for first drafts, so that the author can keep track of character back-and-forth, but it needs paring in the editing phase.

Long story short: the author who informs their reader which character is speaking every single line demonstrates a lack of trust in their audience’s ability to follow a conversation. Don’t be that distrustful author.

(Although, admittedly, I’d much rather there were too many tags than too few. I haaaaate having to go back and count lines to figure out who’s talking.)

Expressive Dialogue Tags

I fought this one for years, y’all. Every writer has heard the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Inevitably, expressive dialogue tags get paraded out as the prime violation to this guideline.

It’s the ongoing battle of the editors vs. the middle school English teachers. One says only to use “said” and “asked,” while the other gives out lists of alternatives and makes assignments for students to write whole stories without using “said” at all.

word cloud dialogue tags

It’s not a matter of one being right and the other wrong. Tagging dialogue with a descriptive speech word instead of the blasé “said” or “asked” is a form of both show and tell, depending on which layer of language you’re looking at.

  • On the semantic layer, you’re telling the reader how the character spoke.
  • On the pragmatic layer, you’re showing the character’s mood through their manner of speech.

So why should semantics win out over pragmatics? It doesn’t always have to. Sometimes telling the speech style fits better in the flow of the story. (Show and tell should have balance anyway, or stories risk becoming overwrought.) But the battle between these two layers gets tipped, because there’s a third layer of language involved:

  • On the syntax layer, you’re telling the reader who spoke any time you use a dialogue tag at all.

Attributive tags blatantly remind the reader that they are reading a book. The sole purpose of these tags is to clarify who says what, but if that information is already clear, they become redundant. (Yet another reason to use action tags more often.)

If you need to give attribution, the boring “said” and “asked” can easily fade into the narrative background, whereas more expressive tags mark this already-conspicuous construct further.

A Small Addition

In this category of “expressive dialogue tags,” we also include the “said + [adverb]” construct. In general, we use adverbs to prop up weak verbs. However, we use “said” specifically because it is weak, and thus largely invisible. If you’re changing “he snapped” to “he said angrily” for the sole purpose of eliminating expressive tags, you’re better off leaving it as “he snapped.”

(Although, admittedly, I love me some beautiful adverb usage, and I admire writers who toss them in without worrying about calling down the wrath of armchair editors everywhere. So.)

Excessive, Expressive Dialogue Tags

Our barrier object of excessive, expressive dialogue tags manifests when dialogue tags become so frequent and so flamboyant that they interrupt the story to call attention to themselves. Consider this passage from Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865):

excessive expressive dialogue tags in Wonderland

In this exchange between only two characters, every line of dialogue is tagged. We have said, cried, and pleaded, along with modifiers severely, humbly, sharply, and angrily. The excessive, expressive tags not only appear on every line, but they draw further attention through lack of pronoun use. (It’s always “Alice” or “the Mouse” speaking, never “she” or “it.”)

The barrier, then, becomes two-fold:

  1. The tags interrupt the spoken dialogue of each character, with sentence structure that blocks the flow of the full line of speech.
  2. That interruption in turn prevents narrative immersion, creating a block between the reader and the story.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the “I had not!” line of dialogue, whose subsequent tag might cause the reader to miss the joke in Alice’s response. “A knot? Oh, do let me help undo it!”

Carroll gets a pass because A) he’s writing in the mid-1800s and B) he’s writing for a young audience. Today this style of dialogue would be more prevalent in early-reader chapter books. It should reduce with Middle Grade and disappear from YA/Adult genres altogether.

A Good Barrier

Dialogue tags can gum up a conversation, but they can also act as pauses for when a character doesn’t rattle off their full line of dialogue in one go. Take this line from the excerpt above:

“A knot!” said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. “Oh, do let me help to undo it!”

The action of Alice searching for this supposed knot very nicely punctuates her first exclamation from her second. And while, had I been Carroll’s editor, I likely would have eliminated the “said” and made “looked” the main verb of the sentence (my above caveat against “looked” et al. notwithstanding), the placement of the tag in context really is lovely.

I’m also a fan of the occasional expressive attributive tag. They flavor a narrative when you can’t always shove an action into the mix, and they do it succinctly.

When used with care, dialogue tags of all types can become an asset rather than an obstacle.

However, One Final Caveat

With regards to expressive dialogue tags, beware mistaking action tags for attributive ones. You can’t shrug a line of dialogue. Or grin it. Or chuckle it. These and other similar tags are actions separate from speech. More specifically, they’re intransitive verbs, so they can’t structurally take a line of dialogue as their object.

(Because, as intransitives, they can’t take objects at all. Haha.)

/prescriptivism

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A Minor Hiccup in a Hedge

AverageEverygirl091

Nestled among the marked (or “dispreferred”) behaviors of discourse we find a lovely little linguistic feature known as “hedging.”

Hedging is the default refuge of anyone who doesn’t want to be held 100% accountable for what they say. The speaker tempers their words to lessen the impact of their speech, thereby creating a verbal trap door through which they can escape should the need arise.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of tiptoeing and a useful hallmark of lawyers, politicians, bloggers, and anyone else who might worry about getting caught in a lie by their own soundbites.

Shifty behavior isn’t the only factor that lends towards hedging. Politeness plays a strong part as well. You don’t want to speak in bald absolutes? There’s a hedge for that.

Modal Hedges

Modals provide a ready means of hedging. Compare the solid, reliable sense inherent in can, will, shall, and must with the weaselly, conditional sense of may, might, could, should, and would. You can almost hear the retractions formulating in a speaker’s mind:

“I told you I might help, not that I will.”

As modals, by their definition, indicate a speaker’s mood toward the statement they utter, use of the conditional models is a dead giveaway for a hedge. The speaker may follow through, but then again, they might not.

Verbal Hedges

Verbal hedges come in at least two varieties. The first is the pull-your-punch linking verbs that people like to substitute for the solid “to be”:

  • to seem; “She seems nice.” (I don’t know if she actually is, but she seems that way right now, so don’t hold me accountable if she turns out to be a massive jerk.)
  • to appear; “It appears we have an agreement.” (We have one, but I don’t want to trample on your sensibilities by declaring is so boldly, in case you’re having second thoughts.)
  • to look; “He looks angry.” (Every visual cue for anger is there, but there’s a slight chance he has one of those angry faces, so I won’t definitively label him as being angry just yet.)

The second type is a shell verb that dilutes the main verb of a sentence to allow for exceptions to the statement. For example,

  • tend to; “I tend to shriek when I’m scared.”
  • try to; “I try to obey traffic laws.”

Such hedges can be useful, but remember: the longer the verb phrase of a sentence, the weaker its effect. In strong, efficient writing, verbal hedges get the boot.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

Adverbial and adjectival hedges are, as their name implies, adverbs, adjectives, or adverbial phrases that qualify another lexical part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition).

Some of these hedges reflect “smallness” in their literal meaning, the better to minimize the rhetorical impact of the word or message they modify:

  • a little; “I may be a little late.” (“I won’t be there on time, but it’s nothing to get upset about.”)
  • a bit; “Your voice is a bit loud.” (“Tone it down, Brunhilda.”)
  • slight; “We’ve run into a slight snag.” (“Something’s gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.”)
  • at least; “I called your name at least five times.” (“I lost count after five, but there were more than that. Or I’m exaggerating to make you feel bad.”)

Others reflect “variety”:

  • kind of; “I’m kind of happy.” (“I’m happy, but saying it outright is too much.”)
  • sort of; “You’re sort of a jerk.” (“You’re totally a jerk. Mend your ways.”)

The “frequency” adverbs often and sometimes serve to temper their absolute counterparts, always and never.

My personal favorite with adverbial hedges is when they pile up on each other, à la kinda sorta (“I kinda sorta like you, Jimmy.” *blushblushblush*) or when they directly contradict the adverb they’re modifying.

Kind of really, my love, I’m looking at you. “I’m kind of really annoyed right now” actually means “I’m really, really annoyed right now, but I’m tempering one of those reallys with a kind of because I’m showing restraint, but if you don’t take the cue I might end up wringing your neck.”

Yes, in a strange twist of language, kind of really is a hedge that augments and diminishes at the same time, people.

(Which is why I love it so.)

When it comes to narrative writing, adverbial and adjectival hedges are mostly superfluous (YSWIDT, haha?) and can be edited out. A slight snag is a snag. A minor hiccup is a hiccup. And if you’re a little late, you’re late. Period. No qualifying necessary.

Except when you kind of really need to, I mean. And then it’s pretty much okay.

If I Were Any More Uncertain, I’d Be Subjunctive

GrammarNazis_05

 

If English language elements are a collection of family members, the Subjunctive Mood is the sickly great-uncle, bed-ridden and lingering at death’s door for ages upon ages, and just when you think he’s finally kicked the bucket, BAM! He rears his hoary old head and demands a pudding cup.

(No offense intended to any sickly great-uncles out there. Please enjoy your pudding.)

The “was” vs. “were” debate is by no means of recent origin. It started to emerge sometime in the 1600-1700s, but the transition began gradually enough that it’s still happening to this day. And the thing is, no one uses one or the other consistently. No one.

The Subjunctive Mood

Moods, in language, refer to the speaker’s disposition towards the words they’re saying. The Indicative (AKA the Declarative) is the default mood; there’s also the Imperative (which only has a 2nd person form because it’s demanding action from someone else), the Interrogative (for asking questions), the Conditional (for that non-committal speaker), and the good ol’ Subjunctive.

The Subjunctive Mood expresses hypotheticals. Or, at least, it’s supposed to. But since it’s been dying out in English since the Dawn of the English Language (yes, really), it mostly gets trotted out when some pedant wants to put someone they don’t like in their place, grammatically speaking.

The identifying hallmark of the Subjunctive is that it carries no inflection. Present Subjunctive is the root verb; Past Subjunctive is its plural past-tense form; Future Subjunctive gets the modal “should” (recall that the “mod-” in “modal” is actually “mood” [OE mod] and that modals exist to convey the speaker’s grammatical Mood). So, the subjunctive forms for the verb to run would be as follows:

  • Present: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they run
  • Past: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they ran
  • Future: if I/we/you/he/she/it/they should run

Basically, in Modern English, the only place this mood could actually show up as different from the Indicative is in the 3rd person singular present expression (e.g., if he run, if she run, if it run).

Unless!

Unless we’re talking about a most irregular verb.

To Be or Not To Be

The etymology of our strangest and most common verb, to be, is a fascinating tangle. A hybrid of two Old English verbs, beon and wæron, its Indicative Mood displays inflection in every singular present tense, and a separate form for plural present, past singular, and past plural:

  • Present Singular: I am, you are, he/she/it is
  • Present Plural: we/you/they are
  • Past Singular: I/he/she/it was
  • Past Plural: we/you/they were

The Subjunctive forms are, again, the root for Present Subjunctive, the plural past tense for Past Subjunctive, and the modal “should” for Future Subjunctive:

  • Present: if I be
  • Past: if I were
  • Future: if I should be

That’s right. Proper use of the Subjunctive demands that you use “if I be” for present-tense hypotheticals.

  • “If I be late to the restaurant, order without me,” said no one within the past three hundred years.

Remnants of the Present Subjunctive survive in idiomatic usage (e.g., “be that as it may”) and colloquial speech (e.g., Yosemite Sam out lookin’ fer a fight), as well as more archaic references, such as the giant’s rhyme from Jack and the Beanstalk: “Be he alive or be he dead / I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

Past Subjunctive has proved a little more hardy: “if I were,” “I wish I were,” “as though he were,” etc. still survive in everyday speech, but was has steadily crept into that territory. One theory is that, because was gives more certainty to the sentence, it started being used for emphasis: “I’m not this, but if I was…”

Regardless of the cause, Subjunctive were has become marked as an oddity, yet it clings to its role with a death-grip. For every song lyric that starts “If I was,” there’s an armchair grammarian in the wings gnashing their teeth against the usage.

But, again, only if they dislike the band. We’re very quick to condemn those we wish to find fault with and to excuse the ones we love.

Final Thoughts

Whether the Subjunctive eventually dies its long-drawn death is anyone’s guess. At this point, it’s mostly personal preference that dictates whether someone uses it or not. And, frankly, calling someone out for their non-use is like criticizing them for not liking carrot cake: it’s pointless, fruitless, and—ultimately—counter-intuitive. It breeds hyper-correction and contempt, neither of which are good for cooperative communication.

In my estimation, where Subjunctive were is concerned, it’s best to live and let live. Or die, as the case may be.

 

*Fun Note: The song that’s linked on the words “If I was” above casts off the Past Subjunctive in its chorus but preserves the Present Subjunctive in the lyric “Be I a poor man or a king.”

Verbs, Part 6: Conclusion (for now)

Objectives:

  1. Describe major verb features and their functions.
  2. Classify specific verbs according to the theta-roles they assign.

Skill level: Advanced

As indicated by the title, this is the final post in my verb series, though not necessarily my final post on verbs. (Who knows what the future holds, yeah?) This is mostly an overview post, so it’s short, quick, and to the point.

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Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

This post covers two essential constructs most commonly associated with the verb to be.

Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of copulas and existentials.
  2. Eliminate the existential construct in favor of a stronger subject and main verb.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Copulas, AKA Linking Verbs

In English, the term “copula” (or “linking verb”) refers to a verb that links a subject  and a subject predicate. (The subject predicate, as indicated by its name, takes a nominative case.) The copula serves as a sort of grammatical placeholder and holds little lexical meaning despite its grammatical and rhetorical purpose.

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Verbs, Part 4: Theta-Roles, or How to Eliminate Passive Voice

My favorite syntax resource, Radford's English Syntax: An Introduction.

My favorite syntax resource, Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction.

The discussion in this post requires a different view of language structure. For a deeper understanding, I refer you to Andrew Radford’s English Syntax: An Introduction (ISBN 0521542758), particularly pp. 190-193 . Much of this post draws from that source.

Objectives:

  1. Identify the theta-roles assigned to nouns by verbs.
  2. Revise Passive Voice from sentences by using verbs with alternate theta-role assignments.

Skill level: Advanced

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