Column: It’s all subjunctive


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Let’s go back in time for a minute. It’s summer, 1995. Skee-Lo’s hip-hop smash hit “I Wish” is blaring in my ear from one earbud of a shared Sony Discman sporting fresh batteries. My friend Cody has the other earbud. We’re riding in the back seat of Cody’s parents’ car en route to Sweetwater, Texas, for someone’s wedding (maybe his cousin – I can’t remember).

I was invited along with the simple hope of splashing around in the hotel pool at Sweetwater’s Holiday Inn. When we got there, we immediately found the pool…empty. Our dreams were shattered. We found ourselves in the middle of nowhere with a cowboy wedding to attend and a hotel pool sans water. Sweetwater – more like no water.

So we had nothing better to do but to memorize each word to Skee-Lo’s Grammy-nominated song about wishing he were a little bit taller as well as wishing he were a baller so that he could date a good-looking girl. The song encapsulated everything Cody and I wished for as middle school boys. Well, all that stuff and water in the hotel pool.

It breaks my heart to look back on this fond memory because Skee-Lo’s grammar was wrong. You see, Skee-Lo was exploring a condition that was contrary to fact; he was pondering a hypothetical situation and expressing a wish. He was using the subjunctive mood. So, instead of singing, “I wish I was a little bit taller,” he should have sung, “I wish I were a little bit taller.”

Contrast Skee-Lo with Beyoncé, who nails it when she sings, “If I were a boy.” In both Skee-Lo’s wish to be taller and Queen B’s hypothetical exploration of being male, the sentences should use were because they aren’t true. Some telltale signs of when it’s time to use the subjunctive verb form include sentences starting with “If” or when you see the verb followed closely by “would” or “could.”

Although subjunctive verbs expand far beyond was/were, the examples containing was/were are my favorite. All I know is if I were in charge of an East Texas hotel in the summer, I’d make sure the pool had water in it.