If I Was Pedantic

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 23rd, 2019

Dr. Dolittle and the Pushmi-Pullyu.

Does anyone remember the two-sided animal from Dr. Dolittle, the Pushmi-Pullyu? It was a beast with two fronts, each of which stubbornly wanted to lead, so attempts to move forward in either direction went nowhere.

I am feeling a little pushmi and a lot pullyu about the current state of grammar in children’s books these days. There is a LOT of casual bad grammar floating around now—even in picture books, even in picture book titles—and I am struggling, fellow readers. I understand that language is fluid, vegetable, ever-changing, and reactive, yet I was raised by grammar enthusiasts and taught school by English teachers whose rules were precise and immutable. It’s not that I never violate those rules; there’s a tiny rebellious thrill to be had by beginning sentences with “And” or ending them with prepositions. (A schoolmarmish thrill, sure, but rebellion is individual.)

The grammar slide in children’s books began in young adult novels. Authors argued that creating teenagers who spoke perfectly grammatical English would undercut the authentic vernacular of those characters, and to an extent, I understand and agree with that argument. (That said, there are plenty of authors who do manage to create believable characters who somehow adhere to the rules of grammar without drawing attention to it or undermining themselves as believable teens. Just saying.)

At some point, what began as a quest for authenticity has begun to feel either like ignorance of the rules (by both authors and editors) or pandering to an audience who may not know better. Beginning sentences with “me and her”—as in “Me and her went to the mall”—doesn’t strike me as necessary. Maybe YA protagonist Chervil wouldn’t say, “She and I went to the mall,” but she would say, “We went…,” so why doesn’t she? It’s the extraneous bad grammar, the bad grammar that doesn’t lead a reader anywhere interesting or important, that chafes worst.

In recent buying meetings for upcoming books, I’ve noticed so many current books that misuse “was” in place of “were.” If Pluto Was a Pea. If My Moon Was Your SunIf I Was the Sunshine. All three of these are picture books, and there is no good reason to throw away the wonderful “were” for the pragmatic “was” in any of these books. We use “were” when a situation is hypothetical or impossible, and “was” when a situation could have happened. It’s a useful distinction, so the erosion of it troubles me.

If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island works because it’s talking about people whose names were, in fact, changed at Ellis Island. As far as I can reckon, Pluto never will be a pea, or the size of one, and using the phrase, “If Pluto were a pea…” throughout the book would have been both correct and helped train little ears to hear and become familiar with correct usage. Sometimes I suspect that authors and editors fear that using certain correct forms will sound snooty or formal. I truly don’t believe that using “were” uncomfortably elevates a sentence.

My strongest Pushmi-Pullyu moment came last week when I read the text for Julie Fogliano’s new picture book, If I Was the Sunshine. Julie is a poet, the real thing, a master of language and deceptive simplicity and rhythm, and I love her books with a deep joy and respect. Now comes a beautiful one I so want to love, but its indiscriminate flickering between “was” and “were” in equally subjunctive situations pulled me up short. A few of its lines, which are lovable for so many other reasons:

if i was the sunshine
and you were the day
i’d call you hello!

and you’d call me stay

if you were the winter
and i was the spring
i’d call you whisper

and you’d call me sing

Delicious, right? Why would I rain on this poetic parade? Who even notices the difference? (Pushmi.) There is so much delight in this book, from excellent juxtapositions to surprising metaphors—and beyond the words, Loren Long’s soft illustrations are lovely.

But I do find myself wanting a poet to bring the toddlers full poetic beauty.

Why would we choose to switch between “was” and “were,” further confusing young readers and perpetuating the trend toward obliterating the difference between the two words? I suspect there may have been a concern about word repetition overuse, and as someone who wrote a book that uses the phrase “how do you wokka-wokka” half a dozen or so times, that writerly worry resonates.

I do not believe that any poetry would be lost here, or that the ear would be fatigued, if “were” had been used throughout. Let’s see:

if i were the sunshine
and you were the day
i’d call you hello!

and you’d call me stay

if you were the winter
and i were the spring
i’d call you whisper

and you’d call me sing

To me, it’s even prettier without “was.” The construction is less visible, which makes the poetry sing. And when there’s a gentle opportunity to lead by example, without even needing to teach, is that a lost opportunity? (Pullyu.)

I am probably in the minority. It may be that “was” sounds harsh to me not because its letter sounds buzz (wuzzzzz) instead of murmur (werrrrrrre), but because it sounds wrong. My ear expects “were” and therefore I experience “was” as a miniature aural slap. But the majority of our culture no longer differentiates between the subjunctive “were” and the historical “was,” so it’s likely that few people notice the difference—and even those who do may not care. That large slice of readers likely would find the repetition of “were” annoying. (Back to Pushmi.)

In wrestling with myself over this issue, I turned to the newly bestselling Dreyer’s English, to see what author Benjamin had to say. I refer you to page 100 for the full text, but suffice it to say that he struggles a bit, too. After outlining the proper usage, he goes on to say, “Well, here’s the thing. When I was a baby copy editor, I was told by my betters not to impose the subjunctive on writers who did not naturally use it. […] That was a marching order I could, for a good long while, march with, and if you’re satisfied with it as well, then by all means march away. But if you’re feeling a little itchy, let’s make another run at it. […] I tend to think of it thus: If I could insert the words ‘in fact’ after ‘if I,’ I might as well go with a ‘was’ rather than a ‘were.'”

Even writing this post, I’m laughing at how old and fussy I must sound. As someone impatient to overturn outdated political and social structures and strictures, I’m a little surprised to come up against the places where I feel rigid and old-fashioned. Ah, Ms. Taylor, what you created with your sentence diagrams back in 1978!

If I was pedantic, I’m sorry. (And if I were less flexible, I wouldn’t be able to own that ‘was.’ So not all is lost.)

8 thoughts on “If I Was Pedantic

  1. Ann Dixon

    I agree and thanks for saying it! Losing the subjunctive diminishes the expressiveness of our language, in a small way perhaps, but nonetheless a loss.

    As for “Me and her…” am I making this up, or did anyone else learn as a kid that we put the other person’s name first, then our own (as in “Mary and I went…”) as a matter of courtesy, of not putting ourselves ahead of others? Perhaps that was just my own experience but it makes the “me and her” construction doubly jarring to my eyes and ears.

  2. Shari Randall

    Yes to this! As a former children’s librarian, I’ve noticed this trend and share your concern. Why is it happening? Editors are missing at every level – from serious news sources to picture books – and even more sadly, some editors are unaware of correct grammar.

  3. Kathy Quimby

    I am with you. I’ve also noticed the subjunctive were disappearing under an avalanch of was, because, I suspect, people are more concerned about subject-verb agreement than mood. But I love the subjunctive—the song would be nowhere if Tevye sang “If I was a rich man.”

  4. Rita

    I, too, read the title “If I was the Sunshine” and immediately cringed. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one.

  5. Sarah Sullivan

    I’M WITH YOU! I hate to see us lose the nuance of the subjunctive mood. Call me old-fashioned, but it enhances the meaning of the thought being expressed. Beyond that, if children want to learn to speak and write in other languages, they will encounter the subjunctive mood. If they have not learned its proper use in their native tongue, how much more difficult will it be for them to grasp the subtle distinctions in a foreign language?

  6. Karen Coombs

    You’re not wrong. I’m with you. How are children going to have correct grammar permanently instilled in their speech if their books don’t present it? Sadly, many young people these days don’t know proper grammar. Unfortunately some of them are writers and editors.

  7. marjorie

    I AM WITH YOU! Was kvetching about this on a friend’s Goodreads review of it. I DO NOT UNDERSTAAAAAAND! And yeah, why ALTERNATE the was/were? SO BAFFLEDDDDDDDDDDD!

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