I’ll be the first to admit that my knees wobbled as my partner and I warmed up in preparation for taking the dance floor. After all, it had been years since my last competition — back in fifth grade, when Mary Jo Sue Bobby Bootenshaker and I won the Hokey Pokey Championship — and I still wasn’t completely sold on the idea of performing on Dancing with the Grammar Stars.
“You’ll do fine,” whispered my dance partner during the pause between contestants. “Remember the scene in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ where Fred Astaire dances on the walls? That’s all you have to do.”
“Thanks, Aunt Ruth. Now I feel really confident,” I said with a slight smile. “By the way, you look marvelous in that dress. How, uh, how did you manage to squeeze into it?”
She was wearing a size two something or other — the local paper would describe this as a lovely chiffon chantilly lace with a dollop of meringue — that was perhaps ten sizes too small. Envision trying to squeeze a Sherman tank into the bag of peanuts that the airline generously gives you on the short hop from Frankfurt, Germany to Wichita, Kansas, and you’ll be pretty close.
“It took a lot of grease and I had to borrow a high-powered vacuum from Jim Bob’s Vacuum and Automobile Deodorizer Store (‘Not Only Do We Suck, But We Smell Too’). I don’t think it’s ever coming off. I may as well have just had it body-painted on me.”
“Uh, no,” I gasped, suddenly feeling dizzy.
“What’s wrong, nephew, are you nauseous?” Aunt Ruth exclaimed.
“No, I’m nauseated,” I replied.
“You are nauseous … you are making me nauseated.”
“Oh don’t start that again, Aunt Ruth. Besides, we have bigger fish to fry.”
“Fish? How did you know?”
“I went surf fishing the other day and brought home a nice assortment of fish that I thought I would grill for you. If you was to come over tomorrow afternoon …”
“If you were,” I corrected.
“No, I’m not. I’m asking you,” replied a flustered Aunt Ruth.
“You said, ‘If you was,’ but you clearly meant, ‘If you were,’” I remarked.
“And why would that be, oh Graceful Gorgon of Grammar?”
“Because you are using the subjunctive.”
“I think you’ve got subjunctivitis of the brain or something, Nauseating Nephew.”
“We can’t neglect the subjunctive form, Aunt Ruth. It’s going out of style, but it’s still important.”
“And why is that?” Aunt Ruth was tapping her foot impatiently.
“Because we need a way in our glorious language to express conditions contrary to fact, or requests, or wishes.”
“Oh, obviously,” she sighed. “Well as long as we’re here, tell me, precious nephew, how one should use the subjunctive?”
“I’m glad you asked.”
An announcement blared over the speakers. “Aunt Ruth and Nauseating Nephew, it is requested that you be ready to dance.”
“Oh that’s weird,” said Aunt Ruth. “Shouldn’t he have said ‘that you are ready to dance’?”
“Nope,” I replied. “That’s the beauty of the subjunctive. Present tense verbs do not change to indicate the subject’s number or person. The subjunctive always uses the base form of the verb (be, jump, sing) with all subjects.”
“Wow, that’s cool,” replied Aunt Ruth. “Could you give me more examples please?”
“Sure, Aunt Ruth. Take a look at the following.”
It is important that you be well-rested.
It is vital that she drink her orange juice each morning.
We asked that he eat less before tomorrow’s test.
“Now, note that there’s only one past tense form of be, and that is were.”
If I were you, I’d have picked a dress about twenty sizes larger.
“Hey, it’s almost time to dance. Here’s your mango,” she said, handing me a fruit.
“Mango? What’s this for?”
“That’s the dance we’re doing, silly.”
“Aunt Ruth, it’s not the mango, it’s the tango.”
She turned pale. “If I were to suddenly disappear, don’t be too surprised. I’ve been practicing the wrong dance.”
“Don’t worry, Aunt Ruth — and good use of the subjunctive, by the way.”
“Uh, thanks. Now, tell me once again when we use the subjunctive?”
At that moment, our dance routine began. I wrapped my arm around Aunt Ruth’s waist — no small feat — and began. As we made our way across the dance floor, we wowed the judges with our own special version of the tango. Using our Nebraska roots, it was actually a combination tango and square dance.
“So … Aunt Ruth … first of all, you use the subjunctive in contrary-to-fact clauses beginning with if. For example, if I were to be a judge, I’d give us a 10. Since I’m not a judge, I use were instead of was.”
“Second, Aunt Ruth, do not use the subjunctive mood when the condition exists or may exist. For example, if she wins the dance contest, she’s going to take a month off. Here you use the normal wins instead of the subjunctive win.”
“Third, use the subjunctive mood when expressing a contrary-to-fact wish. I wish that she weren’t stepping on my feet. I wish that my dance partner weren’t smelling so …”
Aunt Ruth hit me over the head with an umbrella. I guess I deserved that.
“Use the subjunctive mood for that clauses that are requests or suggestions. Aunt Ruth asks that all her dance partners be graceful. Here, use be instead of are.”
“And finally, there are some expressions that use the subjunctive mood because they are remnants from days of old when the subjunctive mood was much more commonly used. The phrase as it were comes to mind.”
We finished our routine to an uproar of applause.
“If I were to have paid money to be in the audience, I’d be happy with our performance.”
“Exactly, Aunt Ruth. Exactly.”
My dearest Ruth,
It is with great remoras that I am swimming on the beach. Really, those suckerfish are huge. I am still looking for my porpoise in life, at least hoping to find a ray of meaning. “Live each day to the fullest” — that’s always been my manta. Sometimes I flounder, but other days I have a whale of a time.
Oh, I’m such a kidder. Enough with the puns already. Anyway, just dropping you a line to say howdy. I’m doing laundry today and I hung my clothes outside on the line. It’s humid though. I was hoping my clothes would be dryer than they are by now.
Dear Aunt Iquity,
Why would your clothes become an appliance?
What are you talking about?
Dear Aunt Iquity,
You said you wished your clothes were a dryer. A dryer is something that makes things more dry than they were. You want your clothes to be drier. A dryer makes clothes drier.
I’m glad you set my mind at ease on that point. I’ve been worrying about it all week. I can breath more easily now.
Dear Aunt Iquity,
If can is a helper, why did you put a noun after it? You said, “I can breath” … that’s like saying, “I can porcupine” or “I can chihuahua.”
I believe you wanted to say, “I can breathe,” not, “I can breath.”
Picky, aren’t we? I think your girdle is too tight. Relax, girl. Losen up.
Your distant relative,
Dear Aunt Iquity,
Sticks and stones may break my bones, and names do hurt me sometimes. You meant loosen up, not losen up.
Can we talk about something else now? You’re driving me bonkers.
A distant relative whom you will never see again,
Dear Aunt Iquity,
Yes we may.
It’s quiz time. Below are sentences with misplaced modifiers and / or dangling participles. Take a stab at answering the questions.
I. Surprised that his remark about her inability to brew a proper pot of tea would stir such angst, the bullets whizzed past Horace’s ear as he hid behind Mrs. Ainsworth’s refrigerator.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was surprised?
2. Should Horace have been more prudent with his criticism?
3. What do you suppose happened to Horace after he mentioned that Mrs. Ainsworth had overcooked the cranberry scones?
II. Aghast that her guest would make such a blunder, the goldfish aquarium water — with the goldfish — was consumed before Mrs. Rutherford’s very eyes.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was aghast?
2. How do you think the goldfish felt about this whole ordeal?
3. One can only assume that the consumer was either pitcher Randy Johnson or slugger Dave Winfield, given their histories of animal destruction (look it up). Who was it, and why?
4. The word very is used as an adjective here. Can you think of two other examples using that word in this way?
III. Towering into the clouds, Aunt Ruth stared at the formidable mountain and decided to put on an extra pair of socks.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was towering?
2. If you answered “Aunt Ruth” to the first question, give an estimate of what Aunt Ruth’s mass would be, and attempt to explain why she of large mass wouldn’t throw the earth’s orbit out of whack.
3. What color socks would Aunt Ruth wear for this example?
IV. Stunned by the surprising blast of the cannon, the heavy artillery used in Robert’s graduation ceremony caused Mr. Entlewaithe’s dentures to fall out and land in Mrs. Jackson’s handbag.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was stunned?
2. Describe how Pachelbel’s canon might have had a different result.
3. What did Mrs. Jackson do when she returned home and found Mr. Entlewaithe’s dentures?
4. Should Mrs. Jackson have added the dentures to her collection of body parts that she kept in jars on the shelf in the den (including three wisdom teeth, a set of tonsils, and an appendix)?
I’ve never claimed to be a king of grammar, nor do I take pleasure in being a member of the Grammar Police (occasionally it’s fun, depending on the offender’s identity). Yesterday, in fact, I let two incorrect usages of hopefully just saunter on by without my uttering so much as a word. I also heard a like instead of an as, along with an object pronoun being used with a linking verb (ouch).
I am not harsh (am I?) for a couple reasons, namely:
1) Criticizing someone for incorrect grammar does nothing to encourage him/her. Keep harping on grammar, and the receiver of the criticism will hate it (and possibly you) for life.
2) I’m still learning this stuff myself, and I discovered today (well, it was pointed out to me by the Maternal One) that I have been using “couple” incorrectly all these years (not that I’m THAT old, but I’m old enough that “all these years” adds up to a boatload).
How did I use couple and how should I use it?
It appears that I’ve been leaving off the required of in the expression couple of. I’ve just been saying couple.
1) I see a couple chihuahuas walking down the street.
2) A couple hawks are overhead, spying a couple chihuahuas.
1) I see a couple of chihuahuas …
2) A couple of hawks …
It turns out that in every case where you use couple (as a noun) you need to also use of, except when using couple to refer to two of something (as in “they make a nice couple”).