Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American tobacco farmer who visited a doctor in the 1950s and soon after died of cancer. But cells taken from her in a test were cultured in a lab, becoming the HeLa cells, the first “immortal” cell culture line, used to develop the polio vaccine, shot into space, and subject of nearly countless experiments. Skloot’s new book on Henrietta—and her family and the medical establishment—is absolutely riveting.
But how . . . impossible such a thing seemed in the 1950s. How impossible it seems to us to have immortal cells. It seems . . . contrary to fact.
And in fact, the idea of “contrary-to-fact” is the key to an aspect of English grammar that has puzzled many, many a writer and reader: the subjunctive mood, or the “If I were” vs. “If he was” question.
Verbs have tense, expressing chronological relationships; verbs have voice, expressing the subjects’ activity or passivity; and verbs have mood, expressing actual or conditional states of being. The moods in English are the imperative, the indicative, and the subjunctive.
Whoa, you say, that is contrary to my interest in grammar. TMI from the grammar geeks!
The subjunctive mood expresses states of being that are conditional.
1) The action or state of being may come to pass in the future if certain conditions are met.
2) The existence of the action may depend on the consequences of another action that may or may not come to pass.
3) The action or state of being might not be possible—it may be contrary-to-fact.
4) The existence of the action may depend on the fulfillment of a wish, command, or desire.
Even more simply, the subjunctive expresses a
or condition contrary-to-fact.
Regular verbs are subjunctive when they are expressed without the final “s” in a clause.
The verb “to be” is subjunctive when it is expressed as “be” in the present or “were” in the past.
For example, consider this sentence, which contains a suggestion that may or may not come to pass:
The bouncer demanded that he leave the club immediately.
If we just wrote the sentence, “He leave the club immediately,” it would be wrong. But when it is in a clause after a “that” that may or may not happen, then it is correct—it is the subjunctive form of the verb.
Or how about this one, which also may or may not actually happen:
My coach suggested I be more aggressive on the serve.
If we wrote the sentence, “I be more aggressive on the serve,” it would be wrong. But when it is in a clause expressing a suggestion that may or may not actually happen, it is correct. It is subjunctive.
Most of the time, native English speakers and highly practiced language learners have no trouble using the subjunctive in sentences such as the above.
But the contrary-to-fact was/were dilemma? Which to use? Befuddlement!
Easy tip: If you can follow the first clause with the silent parenthetical remark (but it is not), then the clause is about something that isn’t real, that is subjunctive, that is contrary-to-fact. And you use “were.”
If I were Henrietta Lacks (but I am not)
If Brad Pitt were in my grammar class (but he is not)
If I were a rich man (but I am not).
Use “was” if the statement might be true or factual.
If I was a carpenter (I could be)
If I was a rich woman (I could be—even grammar teachers get rich
And what is not contrary to fact? A big shout out of thanks to Paula Carino, singer/songwriter/writer/yogini extraordinaire and generator of the title of this post.
Do you use the subjunctive? Have you ever had to explain it to anyone else?
And how would you work with this passage?
Well now, if Jesus was the sheriff and I were the priest
If my lady was an heiress and my mama was a thief
Oh, and Papa rode shotgun for the Fargo line
There’s still too many outlaws
Tryin’ to work the same line
Let us know!
Ellen Scordato has spent 25 years in book publishing as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She currently is a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer. Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services in addition to running the production side of The Stonesong Press.