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A Few Rules of English-Language Use Part 2
Rule 7 Subjunctive:
English speakers have a very vague understanding of the subjunctive
mood. At the moment I am attending a class in Italian (my French is
fluent) and am learning how the Italian use of subjunctive differs from the
French use. In French, the subjunctive is generally although not always
determined by what goes before it. Certain verbs and expressions take
the subjunctive and there is no choice. Italian, the subjunctive mood is
called for in more situations than in French, but is often optional and can
be used to distinguish nuances of meaning. On the other hand, it is
possible for Italians to completely ignore the subjuctive either out of
ignorance or deliberate disdain. Berlusconi never uses the subjunctive at
Most of my English-only classmates are totally baffled by the subjunctive,
not understanding that "if I go" is indicative, while "if I went" is the
subjunctive mood rather than past tense ("Isn't 'went' past?"). I think the
problem for them is that the subjunctive in English does not have its own
set of forms. It relies on forms we also use to distinguish tense or
person like the "be" in "If this be treason..." or the missing s in "I
prefer that he remain seated." Also, it is not always a mechanical
either/or choice: both indicative and subjunctive constructions may be
legitimate: If I am wrong, I will be the first to admit it.
Rule 9 Stop using clichés
I think this advice can be overdone. It is hard to draw the line between
cliches and figures of speech. "Step up to the plate" sounds pretty trite
and I would never say that myself. On the other hand "uphill battle" or
"losing battle" strikes me as no more than a common expression.
Rule 17 Amongst, amidst, etc.
I agree that the -st forms of these words are disappearing from American
usage but they are used commonly in the UK. When I read "whilst", this is
tipoff that it was written by somebody from the UK. As a native American
speaker, I don't use any of these forms very naturally myself, but I don't
think they are completely arcahic yet even in American usage.
Additional rule: The pleonastic is.
Have you written about this one before? I notice my kids saying things
like "The thing of it is, is that...." and "What it really is, is that... "
RHF replies: I have included a rule about the pleonastic, or "back-to-back," is in Part 3, this month's article.
We feel bound to mention that one does not add the adjective "horseback" when mentioning the activity of riding (Zombie Metaphors).
If there be any form of riding one can undertake which does not require a horse, then that is the occasion for specifying the nature of the ride, or the sort of mount, or both.
This might, properly, be more of a matter of general culture, rather than of specific language, but the protection and preservation of English is desirable more because of its cultural origins than for the mere convenience of the virtues of the language itself.
As with "the Sabbath being made for man", so with English and its significance and function as an ingredient of its culture.
Talk of "horseback" in conjunction with riding is as uncouth as putting down your knife at the dinner table in order to transfer the fork into your right hand to eat the fish, poultry, or roast.
"Hollyork" has not yet made savages of us all.
Harrow English School
Have you considered offering all of the issues of TRV on a CD? This would be something similar to what the "TESOL Quarterly" and other journals have.
RHF replies: A good idea.
The first 88 issues (September 1999 through December 2006) of The Vocabula Review are now available on CD-ROM.
You may order Vocabula on CD-ROM here:
All files are PDFs. Allow three weeks for delivery.
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Please, oh please a button for free
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How grand life would be
I am committed to helping to save the English Language, and am considering ordering the Review as a supplement to my other texts for 100 students if I am accepted for the position in the fall.