At long last, it’s time to reveal the Big Kahuna, the Top Dog, the Numero Uno Bête Noire of Summer 2011. Before I name the Best in Show, I would like to offer a final justification for why I’ve put this list together. First of all, I had no intentions of trying to scold anyone or of suggesting that I am rigidly prescriptive about language. In fact, I often enjoy the way language rules can be broken when we are being resourceful or creative because this might result in new meanings or useful distinctions.
I also wanted to make clear that I focus on the errors that native speakers make with their own language. Of course there are some learners of English that may make the same mistakes, but confusing grammatical structures in a second language is understandable. Learning another language is a huge undertaking and errors are a natural part of the process. Native speakers have less reason to be confused, especially with the more basic structures that should have been learned in elementary school.
Essentially, these are errors that are generally not made out of ignorance of obscure forms, imperfect learning of a second language, or creatively bending rules for effect. These are errors which can be avoided with some more awareness of how we write. Simply put, I would just like people to pay more attention. And then spread the word!
The issues I take with the items on my list have to do with their negative effect on writing. I firmly believe that clarity in writing should be a major, if not the single most important, consideration when choosing words and sentences. If clarity can be maintained along with style, so much the better, and the combination of both is what good writers strive for and actually produce. Less skilled writers may achieve clarity, but their writing becomes dry and dull. Others may sacrifice clarity or substance for the sake of overly stylized writing, and their writing suffers for it.
Conflating count and non-count nouns, misused apostrophes or misplaced modifiers, clichés, in varying degrees, all affect the clarity of the writing or reveal a sloppiness in style. And then there is one issue that puts the others to shame: conditional abuse. This standout can be mangled in not one, not two, but three different ways. For the diversity of errors one can commit while using it, the conditional has clinched the Number One seed.
Error 1: ‘Sounding it out’ doesn’t always work. Our dear English language loves to leave out sounds as we speak. It’s a way to cram in more words and meaning in less time. It’s why we say gonna or wanna, which we all do whether we admit it or not. The process is called elision, or the omission of one or more sounds in speech.
Elision in the conditional happens when we use past tense conditionals. “I could have been a contender” often reduces have to ‘ve or –a in speech: ‘I could’ve been‘ or ‘I coulda been‘, though we generally only write the former. The problem here is that another function word reduces to a similar sounding contraction: ‘kind of‘ becomes ‘kinda‘. Again, we generally don’t write this, but we say it all the time.
Because the pronunciation of the elision, a common mistake when students try to write the long form of the conditional is, “I could of been a contender.” It was a common enough mistake that many spell-checkers will now fix it automatically while we type. This may seem like a godsend to many, but for me it just muddies the waters. Who knows how many of my students had tried to write ‘could of‘ but were corrected without them even noticing? How can they ever begin to correct themselves if they never get the chance to?
Error 2: Know your verb forms. The conditional construction requires the form of the verb commonly known as the past participle. In verb form tables, this is usually the third column, and in some textbooks I used overseas, it was actually referred to as ‘Verb Three’. For regular verbs, this is indistinguishable from the past tense form: both forms get a simple –ed suffix.
This is not true for irregular verbs. For example, if I say “I should have waxed my car this afternoon”, any error in thinking would not be reflected because the forms are the same. However, using an irregular verb will reveal the error: “I should have went to the car wash.” Of course it should be ‘should have gone‘, but this mistake is distressingly common. Most people are aware of the form gone and even use it correctly elsewhere. Similarly, they wouldn’t dream of saying “He could have was a contender.” And yet, the Past Tense form often makes an appearance in the conditional when a past participle is called for. Imagine how quickly a seizure is induced at the sight of ‘should of went‘!
Error 3: Yes, you can say ‘had had’. The most egregious error found with the conditional construction is one that I see made not just by my poorer student writers, but also by journalists, politicians, and even my fellow English teachers. These are people who would never dream of writing ‘could of‘ or ‘should have went’, and who even know to use the last bastion of the subjunctive verb form in English: ‘if I were‘ instead of ‘if I was‘. And yet, I’ve heard many sentences along the lines of: “If he would have just done the research paper, he would have passed the class.”
Here’s the problem with that sentence. The conditional is generally expressed in two separate clauses, one dependent (the ‘if‘ condition) and one independent (the ‘then‘ result). In a past tense unreal conditional sentence, the dependent clause should contain the Past Perfect, not the modal. So the correct sentence would read, “If he had only done the research paper, (then) he would have passed the class.” There are some other options; in informal spoken contexts, people will often use the simple past: “If he did the research paper, he would have passed.” Or, if the past unreal event had current or future results, you might end up with, “If he had done the research paper, he could be taking the final exam right now.” The change, however, is not in the dependent clause, but in the independent clause. The only options for that clause remain the Past Perfect or the Simple Past.
It’s amazing how many people misuse the conditional in this way. Even style manuals have to specifically instruct people not to say ‘would have + verb’ in the ‘if’ clause. The problem is not new. The 1965 Fourth Edition of An Index to English writes, “The use of would have after if rather than had, though increasing, is not established in Standard written English.” (Perrin, p.215) I put the phrase ‘if I would have done‘ into Google’s Ngram Viewer, a tool for finding the frequency of specific words or phrases in a corpus of books from 1800 to the current day. Here’s what came up:
Similar charts come up when I substitute ‘done‘ with a different verb. The most interesting graph is for ‘if I would have been‘:
Clearly, the misuse has been a consistent behavior for a significant amount of time, and yet it is still marked as incorrect. While the graph is interesting, it only tells us of the frequency of usage during the past 200 years in a relatively limited number of written documents. It tells us nothing of the context or the reasons why it was misused.
The conditionals can be confusing. Sometimes we can get all twisted up in the mechanics of what could have been, what conditions had to have been in place, and how odd it sounds to see ‘had had‘ (as in “If Timmy had had a cell phone, Lassie wouldn’t have had to save him all the damn time!”) Don’t get started on mixed conditionals! (“If Lassie hadn’t been ‘playing vet’ with Rin Tin Tin, Timmy would not have been living in the well for the past 20 years, and would be a strapping young man by now!”)
This brings me full circle to the idea of clarity. If a writer is getting tangled up in her own confusing over the conditional, how must her reader feel? Are you really saying what you think you’re saying? Isn’t it worth the trouble to just step back, think about that sentence a little more, and check if you’re not certain? It should come as no surprise that I always vote for double checking. Honestly, I’d probably even encourage a triple-check. Just to be really sure. But I don’t expect everyone to be as neurotic as I am about the issue, so I’ll stop short of suggesting more than that (to anyone else but myself).
So there you have it! My very first Top Five list, inspired by Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity and my geeky love of grammar. Did I miss anything? Do you have your own Bêtes Noires you’d like to share? Any suggestions or requests for future grammar discussions or Top Five lists?