Thursday, August 26, 2010


The pluperfect subjunctive

I just ran a quick errand, and former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin gave me today’s blog topic while I was out. He was on a radio show on WNYC, on the program Tell Me More. And he said this:

Well, you know, I think the Latino community has been pretty invaluable in this recovery. I mean, if they wouldn’t have came here and helped us to rebuild, we wouldn’t be where we are.

One has to wonder what tense that is, if they wouldn’t have came here and helped us to rebuild.

Properly, it should be, if they hadn’t come here and helped us, but the construction he uses is more or less a common error. If they hadn’t [x] we wouldn’t [y], is very easily turned into, if they wouldn’t have [x], we wouldn’t [y], because it sounds more parallel. But it isn’t, in fact. The conditional clause, correctly put in the pluperfect subjunctive, is "if [person] had [or hadn’t], followed by the past participle of the verb — in this case, come here.

Of course, Mr Nagin got the past participle wrong, as well: came is the past indicative, not the past participle. One would think that a mayor of a major U.S. city might know how to speak proper English, but, well, one would be wrong, wouldn’t one?

Alternatively, the sentence could be cast this way (my preference): Had they not come here and helped us to rebuild, we would not be where we are now. But that sounds a bit too hoity-toity, doesn’t it?

A businessman from the midwest is on a trip to Boston, and he’s been told that the first thing he has to do while he’s there is find a good seafood restaurant and eat some scrod. It is, he’s told, what Boston is known for.

So the guy gets into a cab on his first night there, and the cabbie says, Where to, Mac? The businessman replies, Take me to the best place to get scrod!

The cabbie turns to face him and says, Mac, I been drivin’ in this town for thirty-two years, and this is the first time I ever heard that used in the pluperfect subjunctive.

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