It seems to be an iron law that when pedants make their pronouncements on the English language they succeed in parading their own ignorance before the world. The Guardian today offers us these joys:
I am appalled that your Guardian style guide author David Marsh advocates dispensing with elements of grammar that have been sacrosanct among the educated classes for centuries. His disregard for rules on split infinitives, the subjunctive tense (1) or the ending a sentence (2) with a preposition made my blood boil. Is the grammar of today’s schoolchildren, already so influenced by the need to keep their missives (3) down to a paltry 140 characters (4), not bad enough, (5, 6) that Mr Marsh should wish to encourage such sloppiness (7) by recommending a general dumbing-down of our beautiful language? Whatever next? Would he be so bold as to suggest we no longer use (8) words such as referenda or formulae (9)? Why not go the whole hog and say that there is no difference between less and fewer? (10)
May I propose that the Guardian, which has an unfortunate history of committing a number of famous typos and clangers (11) over the years, to the extent that it has often been lampooned by the likes of Private Eye among others (12), be (13) not the most authoritative organ to bid that we rewrite our grammar books? (14) Please stick to things at which you excel, such as current affairs and great news articles, rather than dabble in things about which you have shown yourselves to be defective (15).
Tristán (sic) White
External examiner, University of London (16)
1) The subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. Moods are indicative, subjunctive and imperative; tenses are present, past etc.
2) Wrong. This must be either ending a sentence with a preposition (ending is a participle) or the ending of a sentence with a preposition (ending is a gerund).
3) Missive: formal or humorous a letter (COED).
4) It is not clear that all schoolchildren use Twitter, certainly not in all their written communication. David Crystal says: “On Twitter, you don't get the range of texting abbreviations you get in text messaging. It's a more sophisticated kind of communicative medium. You get semantic threads running through it. When you start counting thousands and thousands of messages, you suddenly realise that on the whole it's a new art form in the making.”
Of text messaging itself he says: “Children could not be good at texting if they had not already developed considerable literacy awareness. Before you can write and play with abbreviated forms, you need to have a sense of how the sounds of your language relate to the letters. You need to know that there are such things as alternative spellings. If you are aware that your texting behaviour is different, you must have already intuited that there is such a thing as a standard. If you are using such abbreviations as lol and brb (“be right back”), you must have developed a sensitivity to the communicative needs of your textees.”
5) I am not sure about the phrase [adjective] enough that. I have not investigated the matter but to me it seems American; I first met it as a tic of Tom Clancy’s style. I would prefer so [adjective] that but I do not insist.
6) This comma is certainly incorrect. Removing the subordinate clause we have: Is the grammar of today's schoolchildren … not bad enough, that Mr Marsh should wish to encourage such sloppiness. Either the writer has got hopelessly mixed up or he has used a comma rhetorically to mark a pause in speech.
7) The writer has certainly got his negative concepts confused here. He is implying that the level is not yet sufficiently low for Mr March to wish to encourage it.
8) This is surely intended as a subjunctive use of use but it is ambiguous. I would recommend should use for clarity’s sake.
9) The writer assumes that referendum is a Latin second declension noun like bellum. It isn’t; it is a gerundive form meaning something to be discussed. It is more like the referendum question itself or an agenda item. Anyway, it is firmly established as an English word with its plural referendums. Here we have not only the etymological fallacy but also fallacious etymology. The COED has mathematical and chemical formulae but formulas as methods or ways of doing something.
10) Quite enough has been said about this.
11) I do not think that commit is really the right collocation for a typo or clanger-
12) The likes of and among others are synonymous. This is an example of tautology, regarded as poor style.
13) Clearly intended as a subjunctive but it is referring to a present state, not to a hypothetical future. If you propose that something be … you are saying how you think that it should be in the future. Here the writer is making a proposition that starts from what he regards as a present situation. It should be is.
14) The two subordinate clauses, one nested inside the other, are correct but make for a pompous style that is not immediately easy to follow.
15) Turning this sentence round we have You have shown yourselves to be defective about these things, which is not the best style.
16) Mr White does not say which subject he examines but I can only hope that it is not the English language.
I did consider the possibility that this letter was written ironically. On balance I fear that it was intended seriously.
The second letter is this:
I must defend the imperfect subjunctive where meaning is at stake. I have regularly been alarmed by such statements as “England may have lost the match without Rooney” when what was meant was “England might have lost the match without Rooney”. I'm sure Wayne would agree.
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
I sympathise with the writer’s sentiments. I have made the same point myself here. However, this is nothing to do with the subjunctive; it is the use of the present and past tense of a modal auxiliary verb with the perfect infinitive. True, may is sometimes used to express a subjunctive idea, as in:
I fear that we may have been deceived.
But that is not what we have here.