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.”