November 25

If I Was a Rich Man…

…I’d write more posts for this blog and I’d correct that subjunctive clause to its proper form: "If I were a rich man…."

Seeing as how I’m nowhere near rich, I have to grovel like everyone else to make a few bucks and keep the bankruptcy court at bay as long as I can.

When I applied for my latest writing gig, one of the interviewers asked me my pet peeve with misused English, and I answered "the subjunctive mood," which is clearly evident in the song, "If I Was a Rich Man," and in almost everyone’s everyday English when discussing conditional matters in an if construction.

However, I’d also have to rank verb coordination right there with the subjunctive.

For instance, look at this sentence:

"Neither he nor I are happy about this."

Anything wrong here?

Yes, indeed, there is.  In a neither/nor or either/or construction, there are two subjects, and sometimes one is singular and one is plural, or one is third person and one is first person, as in this example.

Since you can have only one verb in  neither/nor, either/or sentence, which of the two subjects determines the verb?  English rules dictate that the second subject determines the verb form.  Therefore, the above sentence should read:

"Neither he nor I am happy about this."

Sounds strange, huh?  But just like the people who predicted our current economic meltdown a year ago were considered strange, this proper usage is far from strange but absolutely spot on.



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Posted November 25, 2008 by Gary McCarty in category "Grammar Sucks

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