Monthly Archives: October 2012

I’m in the (Subjunctive) Mood for a Melody

I wish I were the subjunctive mood. So mysterious. So misunderstood. If I were the subjunctive mood, only the cool crowd would get me, man. People would want to plumb my depths, find what lurks beneath these still waters. But my innermost nature would remain an eternal mystery, because I’d be like the wind, baby.

The subjunctive mood has been referred to as a linguistic fossil, and as fewer and fewer people understand it, it falls farther and farther out of use and someday could conceivably disappear entirely. What a pity that would be.

Of the people who do use it, one has to imagine that a good portion of those don’t know why they use it beyond recognizing that it “sounds right.” Someone might sing, “If I were a rich man,” but if pressed on why he or she sang “I were” instead of “I was,” the person would likely have no real idea—and might even fear that an error had been committed.

The Merriam-Webster definition of mood is the “distinction of form or a particular set of inflectional forms of a verb to express whether the action or state it denotes is conceived as fact or in some other manner (as command, possibility, or wish).” (I could have paraphrased the definition right off, but this way I can recommend Harm∙less Drudg∙ery, an informative and entertaining blog from Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper.)

To put it more simply, mood shows the mode or manner that thoughts are expressed. Most people are much more familiar with the indicative mood, used to express facts and opinions and to make inquiries, and the imperative mood, used to give orders and make requests.

The subjunctive mood, marked by seemingly odd verb forms and sometimes known as the malady-sounding conjunctive mood, is used to express statements that are contrary to fact or conditions that are doubtful or unreal, such as wishes and possibilities. Clauses beginning with if are a frequent hideout for subjunctive verbs.

The following are a few examples of subjunctive verbs:

  • If I were taller, it would be you looking up to me.
  • I wish it were a sunnier day.
  • Her command was that we all be on our toes.

Unreal states, wishing, longing even: yes, the subjunctive mood is a dreamer, and what a beautiful thing to be.



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During my college years—e-mail was as yet all but unheard of, and kids could still smoke in dorm rooms, if that gives you a general time frame—I was mystified by the processes other students employed during their studies. I took notes in class and would review my textbooks, but that was the extent of it, and that worked for me. For some students, however, studying seemed to consist of painstakingly highlighting so much of their textbooks that I wondered whether the few words left unmarked were in fact the ones of greater significance.

While mindlessly highlighting line after line of text, these students might not have been doing any real, actual studying, but in their minds they were following the processes of studying and so were in fact studying, even if it didn’t translate into the point of the whole exercise: learning.

I’ve always been wary (note the use or wary rather than weary, so commonly confused) of embracing processes that give me a false sense of accomplishment. People often spend so much time going through the motions and getting their processes in order that they never truly engage in the pure, undiluted work of whatever art it is they are practicing.

Get ready to accuse me of burying the lead*: The preceding paragraphs are meant as a (perhaps unnecessarily long) lead-in to my thoughts on a tool I have approached cautiously but am nevertheless finding myself excited by.

Scrivener software is a content-generation tool for writing and organizing documents such as novels, screenplays, research papers, and nonfiction works. The software allows writers to view their work in a number of different ways and allows writers to break their work into separate scenes. Writers can therefore open the program, go to their work in progress, and select a specific scene to work on. Scrivener provides a corkboard, index-card view as well so that writers can view the arrangement of their scenes and rearrange them with ease.

The program is also notable for easily accessed folders where writers can store research and character and scene sheets. At any point, writers can compile their scenes and format complete documents.

Scrivener is available on a thirty-day free trial, and I downloaded the trial software yesterday. The price of the full software is $40, and even with only a few hours of testing, I am certain it is a purchase I will make.

Another reviewer, who writes long, research-heavy nonfiction works, noted that the software has become almost indispensable for him, even though it won’t do the hard part of actual writing. This brings me back to my introduction, in that writing is always core, whatever methods one employs. No one wants to fall into the trap of thinking and talking about writing more than doing the actual work of writing, but I can see the benefit of this software.

Visualizing one’s work is often difficult if it’s viewed as one unwieldy mass and not as a collection of parts that work together to create the whole, so this index-card view of one’s work could be beneficial. There are certain works I would want to lay out on the corkboard, scene by scene, before diving into the actual scenes themselves. Having written primarily with Word, the ability to go to a certain scene without managing different files or locating it within one large file is extremely attractive. Scrivener also allows users to import and export one’s work easily with programs like Word and Final Draft, so it isn’t necessarily the only software one would use when working on a project.

In short, whatever one’s method, I think this software is worth a look.

* The introductory section of a news story is also called the lede, but, and I would appreciate someone with a more extensive journalism background correcting me if I’m wrong, I believe the expression is more properly burying the lead.

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The Second Time Through

In preparation for this week’s release of Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, I spent a good part of last weekend rereading its predecessor, The Passage. Here is a sentence from Cronin’s epic work:

“By nightfall they were fifty miles past Oklahoma City, hurtling west across the open prairie toward a wall of spring thunderheads ascending from the horizon like a bank of blooming flowers in a time-lapse video.”

A number of things struck me about this sentence. There’s tremendous movement, for one thing, and there’s the use of the word thunderheads, which seems to me suggestive of someone who’s spent a great deal of time looking at the sky over an open landscape. The imagery of flowers is beautiful and also cinematic (time-lapse photography has been employed with weather quite effectively in numerous films). Writers are correct to exhibit concern over using too many prepositional phrases, which can suck the life from a sentence, but I think they work here.

Though obviously outside the realm of authorial intent, the sentence did put me in mind of these lyrics from the Alice in Chains song “Brother”:

Roses in a vase of white

Bloodied by the thorns beside the leaves

That fall because my hand is

Pulling them hard as I can

Something I picked up during my second time through the book is the theme of falling that follows the character Wolgast. At one point, Wolgast is carrying the girl Amy, who is unconscious, up a ladder in an air shaft. He has to lean out with her and maneuver her into a duct above him, and there’s this line:

“He began to fall. He’d been falling all along.”

Caught in the moment, I only read this the first time as coinciding with the physical action of the scene. But on my second reading, it brought tears to my eyes, because it said so much more.

And then there is this line, which I found devastating the first time through and just as affecting the second. Notice again the reference to falling.

Amy, he thought as the stars began to fall, everywhere and all around; and he tried to fill his mind with just her name, his daughter’s name, to help him from his life.”

This sentence is dear to me, and I have trouble speaking it aloud without being overcome. Cormac McCarthy, whose stunning work The Road was frequently referenced in reviews for The Passage, is famously quoted as saying that semicolons and exclamation points have no place in literature. McCarthy is a brilliant writer, but I think the semicolon works well here, and I also enjoy the way exclamation points are used in the works of Sarah Langan (a writer whose fiction blows me away) and Swamplandia! author Karen Russell.

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Have You Seen My Towel?

The hyphen is an unassuming little bugger, isn’t he?

He’s happy to break a word between lines, but he doesn’t expect you to take much notice of him. He seems content to say, “The rest of the word is down there, on the next line.” The hyphen practically waves his hands in the air, bashful as always: “Really, just pretend I’m not here.”

Hyphens are also known to disappear over time. Words such as “teen-ager,” which once used hyphens, eventually abandon them: “teenager.” It’s as if the hyphen eventually begins to feel extremely uncomfortably and simply says, “Well, I’m not needed here any longer. Don’t worry, I’ll show myself out.”

Hyphens will even stand in for their bigger brother the en dash (–) when a typeface won’t accommodate the lesser-known mark. An en dash is the length of a capital N and is used for number ranges (1940–1960) and to hold together certain compound expressions that require a mark stronger than the hyphen to hold the expressions together (a Nobel Prize–winning scientist, for instance). Because the vast majority of the population can’t pick the en dash out of a lineup, the hyphen all too often gets away with this impersonation.

A mark more people are familiar with is the em dash (—), which is the length of a capital M and is often just called the dash. The em dash can be used in a sentence in place of parentheses, to indicate an interruption in dialogue, or, as more and more seems to be the case today, to set off dramatic statements—or supposedly dramatic statements.

Unlike the unassuming hyphen, the em dash is all bravado. Increasingly, writers are using em dashes with a frequency they can’t seem to control. These em dashes are like spontaneous erections. The writer might be a bit embarrassed by them, but that doesn’t stop them from popping up all over the place—quite frankly, it’s enough to give anyone a headache!

It’s not that the em dash doesn’t have its uses, but with its almost ubiquitous presence in today’s writing—especially on the Web—a little propriety might be in order.

One might also think just how all this celebration of the em dash makes the humble hyphen feel. You can hardly blame him for wanting to avoid public showers.

Note: Although en dashes and em dashes are commonly understood to correspond to the lengths of upper-case N’s and M’s, respectively, their actual lengths vary by font.

Reading Update: Last night I began reading The Double by the extraordinary writer José Saramago. I have always been fascinated by doppelgangers, so you can imagine my excitement.

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Mommy and Daddy Still Love You

Commas are often like confused children who have to learn different sets of rules for each of their divorced parents’ homes. At Mom’s house, it’s perfectly acceptable—in fact, it’s mandatory—to jump into place before the word and in a series.

“You need to do your homework, eat your dinner, and get to bed!” insisted Mom.

But at Dad’s place, things are different. Dad, at his grumpiest, recently told the comma, “Quit fooling around with that and! Do your homework, eat your dinner and get to bed!”

The comma does his best to do the right thing, but even when he knows he’s in the right place, Mom and Dad still give him trouble. At Mom’s house, he took his rightful place behind the state name in this sentence: “Solomons, Maryland, is a wonderful place to live.”

“What in tarnation are you doing there? You don’t belong there!” chided Mom.

At Dad’s, he rightfully slipped in behind the year: “January 1, 2013, is going to be the best New Year’s Day ever!”

“Get out of there, boy. You being there just ain’t natural,” cried Dad, horrified.

And the poor comma certainly never meant to come between Mom and Da—er, the subject and its verb.

The comma Mom favors in our first example is referred to as the series (or Oxford) comma. It is considered more exact and it helps to avoid confusion. This, however, is a style choice, and Associated Press style, favored by most newspapers, allows this comma to be dropped.

So neither Mom nor Dad is more correct than the other, though Mom has plenty of friends who support her point of view and Dad has his own pals who think he’s absolutely right. It’s all very confusing for a young comma struggling to find his place in this upside-down world.

At least there’s one thing Mom and Dad can agree on: It would be nothing but trouble if their little comma started hanging out with semicolons.

Reading update: I’m currently enjoying James Newman’s The Wicked, his spin on a 1980s-style horror novel, and Ian McEwan’s debut collection, First Love, Last Rites.

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