Which president weighed more than 300 pounds and allegedly got stuck in the White House bathtub?
Let’s narrow it down. Was it:
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- Theodore Roosevelt
- William Howard Taft
- Martin Van Buren
The answer is C—William Howard Taft—a fact I learned about a year ago when I started studying up on presidential history for a trivia league. (Before that, I would’ve gone with Hayes. Rutherford just sounds like the kind of guy who’d be stuck in a bathtub somewhere.) So when I posed that same question to an eight-year-old girl and she said, “William Howard Taft,” I was gobsmacked. Lest you think she just got lucky, she also knew that James Madison was the shortest president and that William Henry Harrison had the shortest presidential term.
Now, I don’t have kids, and I’m not around my friends’ kids all that often—kids just aren’t my thing—but I was positively charmed by this presidential-fact-knowing, rubber band-lobster-making, piano-playing eight-year-old and her sister—the sweetest, cuddliest six-year-old on the planet. I recently had the opportunity to spend the day with them—their mother, Laila, has been my friend since fourth grade—and it was one of the nicest days I’ve had in years.
So I’m dedicating today’s blog to them. Not too long ago, Laila asked me to write a post on the correct use of the subjunctive mood. Laila—this long-distance request goes out to you.
First, let’s define what we mean by “mood.” In this context, mood refers to how a verb expresses an action or a state of being. Moods can be:
- Indicative. This includes statements like, “James Buchanan is the only president who never married.”
- Imperative. This includes commands like, “Stay out of that bathtub, William Howard Taft!”
- Subjunctive. This mood is all about hypothetical situations or ideas that are contrary to fact. Like, “If I were Andrew Jackson, I never would’ve signed that Indian Removal Act,” or “If Schuyler Colfax had gone to that play instead—as Lincoln asked—Lincoln’s fate might have been much different.”
1 and 2 are straightforward, but the subjunctive mood often trips people up. How many times have you heard someone say, “If I was you, I’d….”? Too many. (That very construction is the reason Laila asked me to write this in the first place—it drives her crazy.)
So let’s make this simple. The present subjective always uses “were” (never “was”), and the past subjective always uses “had.”
Why the confusion? Honestly, I can’t ever remember discussing mood in English class. I remember it from Spanish. So maybe that’s part of it—it’s just not that widely taught.
But there’s also the fact that not every “If I…” construction is subjunctive. Take these sentences from cliffsnotes.com. (Yep—that CliffsNotes—who knew they did more than tell you what you should be getting out of books like “Call of the Wild” and “Animal Farm”?)
- If I was wrong, I’m sorry.
- If I were wrong, I’m sorry.
According to Cliff, “The first sentence is in the indicative mood — it actually offers up the speaker’s apology. The second sentence, in the subjunctive mood, states either a) that an apology would be forthcoming if the speaker’s error comes to light, or b) that the fact that the speaker hasn’t offered an apology indicates that he or she was not wrong. In either case, in this second sentence, the speaker’s error and apology are both hypothetical, and therefore the sentence is in the subjunctive mood.”
So that clears that up.
Do you have a favorite president or favorite bit of presidential trivia? Doesn’t “Rutherford” sound like a man stuck in a bathtub? And did you cover mood in English class?
Word of the Week: Gobsmacked
Song of the Week: James K. Polk, by They Might Be Giants