Another in the series, How the English are Ruining Our Language.
I’m told that the Brits regard the preservation of the subjunctive mood as an American affectation. Well, I can’t help that, but when they come over here and start trying to kill it in our newspapers, I have to draw the line.
In a recent book review in the New York Times, Andrew Sullivan writes,
[The impeachment provisions adopted by the Philadelphia Convention] amounted to one core idea: If the president was to start acting like a king, he could be dispatched.
Andrew Sullivan, “Can Donald Trump Be Impeached?“, New York Times, 12 March 2018.
Sullivan was educated in England, so perhaps it is understandable that he eschews the subjunctive here: he is more to be pitied than censured. But in doing so he obscures a vital distinction. Compare the following sentences:
If Jones was to climb the sacred mountain, he would need help.
If Jones were to climb the sacred mountain, he would be arrested.
In the first sentence, climbing the sacred mountain was, in the past, something to which Jones aspired, and for which he would require help. That is to say, “In order for Jones [in the past] to climb the sacred mountain, he must have help.”
In the second, climbing the sacred mountain is, at all present and future times, something that will get Jones arrested, or would if he did it.
Note that both sentences refer to a thing that does not exist: Jones’s climbing of the mountain. The first, however, refers only to the past, at which time Jones’s climbing of the mountain was a prospect or goal; while the second refers to any time from the present onwards.
Thus, under American usage, Sullivan’s sentence strictly means, “In order for the president to start acting like a king, one option was to impeach him.”
That, of course, makes no sense, and is not what Sullivan meant. That is why we have preserved the subjunctive, and why the British would do well to revive it.