“If Bill Clinton Was President”

The above title is taken from an article by Peter Baker on the first page of the “Week in Review” section of the New York Times, December 12, 2010. In the article, Baker compares Clinton’s situation after the Republican landslide of 1994 with President Obama’s in the wake of the 2010 mid-term elections, but the substance of the article is not the topic of this post.

Reading that title was jarring for a strict and dedicated grammarian like me. My immediate reaction was to correct it mentally to “If Bill Clinton Were President.” However, further reflection convinced me that the plural construction for the subjunctive that I learned at my mother’s knee is now incorrect. I must bow to authority. If the New York Times Style Manual deems the singular verb correct to express the subjunctive, I am in no position to quibble.

The unenlightened have had their way with the language and sullied it, but there is no turning back. Grammar and syntax are living organisms that are vulnerable to rough usage, just as domestic animals may be ruined by cruel owners. A starved, abused dog may be nursed back to health, but it will never achieve the healthy, confident temperament of a well-loved and well-fed pet. United States English has been kicked around and abused by the uneducated. One could moan that it has lost some of its purity of expression and precision in meaning, but that ignores the fact that language is not the exclusive domain of cake-eaters. Everyone uses the language and everyone has the right to influence its development.

“If Bill Clinton was President” is grating on the ear of someone who learned grammar before the turn of the present century, but that does not detract from its meaning. The writer and the reader both understand that the intended meaning is to set forth a condition that does not exist. The change in verb form does not alter the meaning of the clause: Bill Clinton is not presently the President, but for the purpose of comparison we will imagine that he is. The language has moved on and contemporary usage has trumped conventional grammar.

The subjunctive mood is just as important today as it was in 1669 when a fellow named Tuberville took offense at remarks by Savage. Tuberville laid his hand on his sword and said, “If it were not assize-time, I would not take such language from you!” The court held that Tuberville had not committed an assault because his statement was expressed in the subjunctive mood. Tuberville v. Savage, 86 English Reports 864 (King’s Bench 1669). He had not threatened Savage; he had stated, in effect, that he would not threaten him. Therefore it is crucial to recognize that although the language forms have changed, the same meaning can be expressed. “If Bill Clinton was president . . .” is expresses the subjunctive mood , even if the verb usage appears to be indicative.

Contemporary usage has stifled and suffocated the noble and mellifluous “whom.” It has also replaced “his or her” with the indeterminate “their.” The latter case is actually an improvement since it does away with the ugly mashup, “his/her.” It is now correct to ask, “Who do you love?” and to say, “I would like to see a lawyer with their hands in their own pocket for a change.” These are just a couple of the ways in which rules of grammar have outdated formerly correct usages. To say, “Whom do you seek?” is no longer correct. It is stilted and unnecessarily formal.

Language purists will wail and beat their breasts. However, they forget that regular spelling and grammar are very recent developments—particularly below the upper middle class. Prior to the U.S. Civil War, literacy rates were low and spelling whimsical. Grammar and syntax were far different in the late 19th Century than they are today, and that is only five generations away from our time. Language changes and even diehard nitpickers like me must learn to go with the flow.


John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2011 John B. Payne, Attorney