The "sports subjunctive": neither sports-related nor subjunctive

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The so-called sports subjunctive (discussed some years ago on Language Log as the "baseball conditional") has been in the news, and was discussed in this post by Mark Liberman. I'm quite sure Mark is right in his interpretation of the crucial example under discussion (Judge Martin did not claim to be a Muslim, he used a colloquial counterfactual conditional with the meaning "if I were a Muslim"); but rarely has a construction been so badly named. "Sports subjunctive" is not a good term; nor is Barbara Partee's "baseball conditional"; nor Mark's suggested "sports conditional". We should resist adopting any of them.

To begin with, the construction has no special connection with sports. Let me take an example that was actually quoted by Mark Liberman in a different context, when talking about the syntax of a language called Pirahã, which uses parataxis (stringing together of independent clauses) instead of subordination (embedded clauses as subparts of larger clauses). He read it in an Elmore Leonard novel, Mr. Majestyk:

"Listen," Renda said, "we get to a phone we're out of the country before morning."

Mark notes, quite correctly, that Renda clearly means something like "If we can just get to a phone, we will be out of the country before morning." Crucially, we get to a phone is to be understood as a conditional adjunct — equivalent to an if-phrase. (Also noteworthy is the use of present tense we're out of the country to refer to future time; but that is not relevant here.)

Colloquial English has long had paratactic conditionals of this sort. They occur in a wide range of contexts that have nothing to do with sport.

But they also have nothing to do with the subjunctive, a topic on which virtually all popular grammatical discussion is disastrously confused.

It is a big mistake to assign grammatical terms to phenomena that reside merely in a kind of meaning. The justification for making a grammatical distinction is that some distinction of actual word order or word shape or pronunciation has to be accounted for. You can use a verb of motion to refer to either fast motion or slow motion, but the reason grammarians don't talk about slowative and fastative moods or tenses of verbs is that there is absolutely no grammatical distinction in phrase order or word inflection between clauses like The snail moved across the path and The express train moved along the track.

Intuitive ideas of meaning expressed, then, is not the decisive factor. So in the case of subjunctive clauses, rather than looking for something about the meanings of clauses in Latin or French that you can find in English and apply the term "subjunctive" to, we should ask what stable non-meaning-related distinction of form in English can only be accounted for by positing a construction relevantly similar to such Latin and French clauses (and thus deserving of sharing a name with them, not that the identity of name ultimately matters much).

Here's how The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) uses the term subjunctive (which you don't necessarily have to follow, but I cite it because CGEL has a well-motivated and consistent usage, whereas traditional grammars are all over the place on this topic). Subjunctive clauses are finite subordinate clauses introduced by a subordinator or preposition, having an obligatory subject and a verb in the plain form, occurring in certain contexts.

To see one prominent example of such a context, note the kind of finite declarative subordinate clause that begins with the subordinator that and is used after a range of verbs and adjectives expressing some kind of mandatoriness or obligatoriness. CGEL calls these mandative subjunctives. For example:

[1] It is vital that she get here early..

The plain form generally looks the same as the plain non-3rd-singular present tense, so with 3rd-person subjects the usual -(e)s ending is missing from the verb. Here the missing -s (it doesn't say she gets) is one clear distinction of form that the grammar needs to account for. (Notice also the lack of do in negated subjunctive clauses: we find It is vital that he not get careless, rather than *It is vital that he do not get careless.)

When the verb is the copula, things are clearer still, because the plain form be is distinct from any of the present tense forms (am, are, is):

[2] The duke insisted that the cutlery be made of pure silver.

Notice that this doesn't say that the duke insisted that the knives and forks were silver; he was laying down an order that they should be: the underlined clause makes reference to a hypothetical situation that would exist given compliance with the duke's insistence.

There are other kinds of subjunctive than the mandative; for example, whether they be rich or poor is an interrogative subjunctive subordinate clause (rather archaic-sounding) with a subordinator (whether), an obligatory subject (you can't omit they), and a plain form verb (be).

[Digression 1: There are plenty of Standard English speakers who use the present tense verb form instead of the plain form in subjunctives. The hallmark of those speakers is that they find The duke insisted that the cutlery was made of pure silver ambiguous: it has the meaning of [2] above as well as the meaning that the duke insisted that the cutlery already was silver. I'm ignoring these speakers and concentrating on the form the subjunctive has for those users who formally distinguish it from the present tense. End of digression 1.]

[Digression 2: Popular discussions nearly always confuse the subjunctive construction with the one using the special 1st-singular and 3rd-singular form were in counterfactual conditionals:

[3] If he were a dog, he'd be a pitbull.

CGEL calls this use of were the irrealis form of the copula. It is often thought to be a past tense subjunctive form, but wrongly: if he were a dog is not the past tense of if he be a dog.

Back in the 1800s, people did write things like if he be a dog. In Bram Stoker's, Dracula (1897), for example, we find: If it be true, what terrible things there are in the world. So back then it would have been reasonable to say that subjunctive clauses occur in conditional adjuncts as well as in mandative contexts. But very few people people still write or say if it be true today, whereas counterfactual conditionals like if it were true are still common. End of digression 2.]

Notice now that in sentences like We get to a phone we're out of the country before morning you do not use the plain form of the verb in the first (conditionally understood) clause, you use the present tense. If I modify the example to give it a 3rd-person-singular subject I can show this (the asterisk indicates ungrammaticality):

[4] a.   He gets to a phone, we're all dead.
     b.  *He get to a phone, we're all dead.

And that would mean you don't get be in clauses like this, you get is:

[5] a.   Hank is an informer, I'll eat my hat.
     b.  *Hank be an informer, I'll eat my hat.

The first clauses here (before the comma) aren't subjunctives, and don't have any relevant similarities to subjunctives; they're simple present tense clauses, but interpreted conditionally.

Just to underline the unsuitability of the term "sports subjunctive", let me note that there is unclarity about what its users mean to denote. Some say that it is simply the use of the ordinary present tense in a conditional adjunct to convey the meaning of a past perfect in a counterfactual conditional. Thus the commenter psychot says (on this page):

I'm constantly annoyed by something I like to call the "sports subjunctive," a grammatically incorrect construction often used by sports announcers.

For example, they'll say "If Jordan doesn't make that play, the Bulls don't win the game." Of course, the proper subjunctive construction is "If Jordan hadn't made that play, the Bulls wouldn't have won the game." Too much verbiage for the sports world, I guess…

This sticking with the present tense instead of marking counterfactuality with other tense choices may also be a typical feature of the construction, but most of the discussion seems to have focused on the omission of if, which is not evident in psychot's Jordan example. Barbara Partee's term "baseball conditionals", discussed in this post by Mark, had both features.

These paratactic conditionals have nothing inherently to do with sport or sports commentary, and there's no reason to call them subjunctives. I'd say we should call them bare paratactic conditional clauses (or paratactic conditionals for short).

[Revised slightly Tue 28 Feb 2012 17:35 GMT = 12:35 Language Log time, and again Thu Mar 1 08:58 GMT = 3:58 Language Log time.]

[I open comments, all hell breaks loose.]

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