“If I were a rich man,” and other musings on the subjunctive

A great musical and grammatically correct!

A great musical and grammatically correct!

There are two rules of grammar that I won’t ever give up.  The first is the use of a singular pronoun as an antecedent to a singular noun.

For instance, The student handed in their paper late.  The singular subject should have a singular pronoun, either he or she, but time and time again I see written prose using the plural in some vain attempt to be gender neutral.  Someone must stem the tide of subject-antecedent agreement, and that person is I.

The second thing I won’t give up in the subjunctive verb case.

For instance, If I were a rich man, the famous verse from Fiddler on the Roof.  I was reminded of how important the subjunctive is while reading “After the Deadline,”  the New York Time’s compilation of all the grammar errors made in the paper.  I respect the fact that the NYT not only collects its mistakes but also corrects its errors, giving readers a handy grammar lesson in the process.

As Philip B. Corbett writes, “The subjunctive mood is a bit more arcane than other entries on our list of favorite grammar gaffes, like subject-verb agreement. Still, it’s a sign of polish and precision to get this right. The subjunctive is most often used in contrary-to-fact conditions and for wishes and other hypothetical expressions.”  Corbett’s final sentence is the key to Tevye’s lament:  Tevye isn’t rich, not by a long shot, and his wish for an easy life is a great rule of thumb for the subjunctive.