In the mood
West Coast Editor,
June 2004

As we all know, English has three moods: bookish, slang…er, sorry—indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The first two are pretty much self-explanatory and easy to identify. The third is not, and is routinely abused.

In the media and in private conversation one runs across expressions of the form: “If I would have known, I wouldn’t have done it.” The correct expression, of course, is: “If I had known, I wouldn’t have done it.” This particular problem is likely due not only to a poor understanding of English but also an unfortunate coincidence.

Grammatically and etymologically, ours is a Germanic language with significant importations of Scandinavian, Franco-Latin and Greek words. Unfortunately, English has lost much of its German precision. Take the ubiquitous solecism: “If I would have…” Let’s go back to German for a minute. “Ich habe eine gute Idee” (“I have a good idea”) is a straightforward present indicative sentence. “Ich hatte eine gute Idee” (“I had a good idea”) is the same sentence, but in the past tense. “Wenn ich eine gute Idee hätte, würde ich ein berühmter Erfinder sein.” (“If I had a good idea, I would be a famous inventor”) is a past subjunctive sentence.

Note the following comparisons of the present and past indicative and the past subjunctive:
• German: habe/hatte/hätte.
• English: have/had/had.

The identical spelling of the past indicative and the present subjunctive of the English verb “have” gives the illusion that “had” is the same word in each case, even though it clearly is not.

The only existing orthographic distinction of the subjunctive in English is in the verb “to be” as in the expression “If I were…” (past) or formal phrases like “If there be any reason why these two should not be married…” (present).

I suspect people have conflated “had” with “had” because the word does not seem to connote the subjunctive qualities of doubting or wishing. To make up for this perceived lack, “would” is added and this in turn forces the change of “had” to “have.”

Would that Canadians had a better understanding of grammar.