Odds and Ends (Mostly Odd)


Past tense: I went to the store and stole a cookie.

Present tense: I am at the store, stealing a cookie.

Future tense: I am going to go to the store to steal a cookie.

Contrary-to-fact tense: If I were a thief, I would steal a cookie.

Sometimes that last one (contrary-to-fact) is called the conditional tense, but regardless of what you call it, most people have never heard of it. And the vast majority of them get it wrong. This includes some successful writers, including one whom I shall refrain from naming, who wrote a blog post blasting a copy editor for changing “she treated me as though I was a four year-old” to “she treated me as though I were a four year-old.” She went on at length about how she was a professional writer and knew darn well how to used complex structures and verb tenses, blasting the copy editor for changing her work. And she was wrong.

Sorry. I don’t know who the copy editor is/was; I just feel compelled to defend… well, the one who was using the correct tense. If it’s truly a matter of style, the writer should have the final word. If it’s not, then the one with the correct information should have the final word, and in this case it was the copy editor.

Here’s how this tense works (a obscure as it may seem, it actually comes up more often then you might expect):

If you are using a sentence construction that uses the term “as if” or “as though” or something similar to expresses a concept that is not, in actuality, true, then you are using the conditional or contrary-to-fact tense. The reason I prefer to call it the contrary-to-fact tense is that the name explains how it works.

“If she were a dinosaur…” “He treated his son as though he were a small tuna fish…” The woman is not really a dinosaur, nor is the man’s son really a tuna fish. The statement is contrary to the facts of the case. In the event you are writing this kind of sentence, you always, always, always, use “were” instead of “was.” “If I were a chicken…” “If you were a chicken…” “If she was a chicken…” Nope, that last one should read, “If she were a chicken…” (Testing to see if you were paying attention.) “If we were chickens…”

If it’s past contrary-to-fact (or past conditional), you always say “had been,” but most people don’t get that one wrong nearly as often. “If I had been hoping people would stop making this mistake, I was setting myself up for disappointment.”

That’s the ‘odd’ part. Here’s the ‘end’:

I don’t see it nearly as often as the above-mentioned problem, but I see it often enough that  thought I’d mention it anyway. The American convention for punctuation as it relates to quotation marks is that if the quote marks fall at the end of the sentence, the punctuation goes inside of the quote marks (yes, even if the punctuation isn’t part of the original quote). The British convention of leaving the punctuation outside the quote marks often seems to me to make more sense, but we’re not in Great Britain, are we?

So if you see Many of these cookies are “stolen.” you’re reading someting published in America. If you see Many of these cookies are “stolen”. you’re reading something published in G.B (or simply incorrectly written, if you’re on the left side of the Atlantic Ocean).

I mention this because lately I’ve seen a lot of sentences that are written thus: I was eating the “tuna”, and got “sick”. All I’m asking is that you tuck that poor little comma and lonely old period inside of the quotation marks. It’s just the way we do things here in America. Besides, if you don’t, I’ll have to. And when I do, please refrain from writing ranting blog-posts about how stupid I am. If that were to happen, it would make me “irritable.”

But since that last sentence was written as contrary-to-fact, I know we don’t have anything to worry about…


30 comments to Odds and Ends (Mostly Odd)

  • This is helpful. I knew about the conditional tense and I love the idea of calling it the “contrary to fact tense”.

    Being British, I didn’t know that it was correct in the US to write the last part of that sentence as I love the idea of calling it the “contrary to fact tense.”

    Those transatlantic differences can be confusing at times so thank you for sorting that one out for me.

  • I stopped reading a library book a few days ago, because the author constantly misused the reflexive pronouns, and the editor didn’t fix it before publication. I swear, on every other page, the characters would say things like “If you have any questions, just ask myself.” Or “John Smith and myself are available to go.” After about sixty pages of this, I couldn’t concentrate on the story enough to keep reading.

    Not that I plan to write any ranting letters to the editor about it, or anything… *grin*

  • Young_Writer

    If only my teachers taught things like this. We learn vocab words and then freewrite. It’s fun, but how are you suppossed to write well when you aren’t being taught anything? Well, you take what you can get, right?

  • FHH – Glad the info is useful. When I get submissions from overseas, I’m more than happy to work with the author, knowing that things like punctuation within quotes and the uses of double-quotes vs. single quotes is different because it’s supposed to be different. But when Americans don’t know where to put the period, then I’m just sad.

    Misty — I would quit on a book like that, too. The problem is that in most cases like this one, we’ll never know if we should be writing angry letters to the editor, the author, or both.

    Young Writer — Props to you for seeking more and better knowledge outside of the classroom. I wish I had been as focused and disciplined as you are when I was in school. It will pay you dividends down the road; have no doubt about that.

  • Guin

    On American punctuation and quotes: periods and commas go within the quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points only go inside if they are part of the statement being quoted. So if you see How many of these cookies are “stolen?” then someone didn’t catch the error.

  • The American way is in flux. I think it makes a LOT more sense for the question mark in that example to be outside (and prefer it that way myself), but there are still style guides that call for it the other way. I should have been more specific in pointing that out, so I’m glad you brought it up.

  • In fact, I’m going to change to example to something more concrete, so as to avoid confusion. If you’re reading this and wondering what Guin is talking about, it’s because you read my post after I changed the example. It used to be a question mark. I don’t want any confusion.

  • Ryl

    Thanks, Edmund. “Contrary-to-fact” makes it easier to understand/remember the correct application of this kind of subjunctives.

    Misty’s comment now has me doing a panicky S-and-D through my manuscripts!

  • Very helpful stuff, Ed. I was actually thinking about grammatical and stylistic issues the other day. I was working on the WIP and mentioning that my lead character was no stranger to murder and mayhem, and the sentence as originally written came out as “He had witnessed killings and on more than one occasion he had killed himself.” I quickly realized that this made it seem that my lead character had committed suicide on several occasions. The sentence needed to read “He had witnessed killings and on more than one occasion he himself had killed.” Grammar. Tricky stuff.

  • Ryl,

    I’m not that bright, so anything that simplifies and clarifies is my friend.

    Enjoy the S&D.

  • David,

    Knowing that you’re a baseball fan (why else would you have collected baseball cards instead of comic books when you were a kid), I’ll put it this way: The author is the batter, the editor is the umpire. When it comes to style, the tie goes to the runner (the author). But if you blow straight grammar (especially a new writer), you’re just plain old out. And shocking though it may be to hear, sometimes the umpire makes a mistake. (Fortunately editors do get to use instant replay…)

  • Okay… but why is it like that? If ‘was’ is singular, and ‘were’ is plural, what makes it always plural in the contrary-to-fact tense, even when the subject in question is singular?
    This is what always got me in trouble in grammer classes. I can follow the rules, but I always wanted to know why. And usually the answer was “Because that’s the way it’s done.” Which isn’t very satisfying when the rules appear to contradict themselves.

  • I can’t definitively say why it’s that way (and would welcome input form anyone who can). I will say that I *suspect* that someone, somewhere, decided we needed a tense to indicate when someone was saying something that didn’t mesh with reality. But that’s just speculation on my part.

    Anybody got anything more concrete?

  • Edmund, a huge thank you for this reminder! My AKA’s 4th and 5th books were published only in the UK (though the final one of these two will be out in early Oct. Whoot!) and I punctuated (and spelled) as they wanted. This has forever thrown off my knowledge of proper US punctuation. Though somehow I easily tossed away boot instead of trunk, UK spellings of check, and other oddities. Anyhoo, Thank you! Perhaps I’ll remember it this time! (Maybe?)

  • That’s what editors are for, my dear: to make stuff up and sound authoritative about it.

  • but we’re not in Great Britain, are we?

    Um. In my defense/defence I’m Canadian, so I’ve been dealing with two sets of rules my entire life. My spelling is mostly British, which screws me up when I’m writing html, but I had always wondered about where I should place the punctuation.

    My WIP is written in Canadian (British) spelling. Gah.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @JRoeser – I also have no idea why the plural form is used for the contrary-to-fact case, but I can make a guess. Many languages have a lot more forms for different verb tenses (I AM, I WAS) and identifiers(?)(I AM, he IS), than English uses. But, as in English, there are still distinctly grammatically defined cases that use the same form. If I remember my German correctly, you-formal/plural (are) and they (are) use the same word, as written here, but it’s different from you-informal (are). AND we know that English USED to have this distinction for you-informal, with a different word for the you’s, like German has. You are (formal/plural) vs. Thou art (informal). I have also heard that Latin can be a pain in the butt to learn, because it has so many different distinct cases for everything. So my guess is that English MAY have HAD a different set of words for the contrary-to-fact case, but over time swapped them for a more commonly-used set out of laziness/efficiency. Older languages tend to be more complex. Plus, English is a pidgin language made of many other languages, and so simplifying things where possible probably happened a lot faster than with more traditional languages.

  • Ed> Oh thank you! I have given up on the subjunctive (that’s what it gets called in grammar books, if people are trying to look it up, along with the conditional!) when it comes to a lot of my students. Especially when they have bosses that might do what that author did to the copy editor. (The reason I would buy the incorrect tense is if a character is talking and would speak incorrectly! But that clearly wasn’t the nature of the author’s complaint.)

    J Rosser> Why we have the different spellings? And this is a gues,s so someone might be able to tell the right answer. Most languages that English derives from have a different tense for the subjunctive. Latin does, Spanish does. I’m guessing all the romance languages do, and I don’t know about German. So just like we have a different tense for present and for past, we have different spellings for different “moods.” (Person, number, tense, voice mood are the five elements, for lack of a better word, for verbs). Our problem is that “were” subjunctive (mood) is not distinct from “were” past tense indicative (mood). We use the same spelling for both.

    So, I wish I were a rich woman… (very very contrary to fact.) Person: first, number: singular, tense: present, voice: active, mood: subjunctive.
    I am a rich woman (fact, indicative) person, number, voice, tense, all the same: as above. Mood: indicative.
    (Random fact: there’s also the imperative mood that we use for commands. So “Sit down!” is 2nd person, singular, present, active, imperative).

    When I edit I do my best to catch these, and usually do, though I also rely on the fabulous proofreaders/copyeditors that come after me, too.

    So much in English (American and British, I guess, but I know American) is changing so fast. This isn’t a bad thing–but it does make some stuff difficult. For example, I’m rather excited about the possibility of losing official spellings for stuff. I love that part of Chaucer and other old stuff: no standardized spelling, so in five lines you might have the same word (especially names!) spelled 3 different ways!

  • For example, I’m rather excited about the possibility of losing official spellings for stuff.

    This terrifies me. I already have enough trouble reading all the misspelled posts online. If printed material threw aside spelling rules, it would take me weeks (and a whole bottle of ibuprofen) to read a single book.

  • @Hepseba: Ah… yes. German. I remember those classes, but was never very good at it. LOL But I see what you mean, especially in the context of other languages… and it makes sense. I used to tell my students that english is a lazy language that people like to speak as quick as possible, which can eventually change how things are spelled. (I was teaching in Korea and trying to get the kids to pronounce certain words properly. Like saying ‘jumpt’ intead of ‘jump-ed’… someday we might all just spell it ‘jumpt’ because of things like texting and twitter. It’s already starting!) I can also see how it might effect grammer forms. It’s interesting to think about how language and grammer might change in another hundred years, and what rules will still be in use despite their possibly obsolete presence.

    @pea_faerie: That makes sense too. I had only considered plural vs singluar, not subjunctive vs. indicative “moods.” Never been very good with other languages, although I have tried. It does help to think about the origins of rules when pertaining to other languages rather than english as its own entity. So many rules… this is why I usually just fall back on “This is what sounds correct,” and it usually is. But I still find myself curious as to why. Thank goodness for editors!

  • And after they start using non-standarized spelling, we’re going to start making up our own numbers, too. We certainly wouldn’t want anyone feeling ‘bad’ because they got an answer wrong, so we’ll make it that no one is ever wrong again. Don’t get me started.

  • Tom G

    Man, those crazy Brits, always spelling things differently and using incorrect punctuation. This is, they act like they INVENTED The language or something. Go figure.

    Of course I’m in Texas, and it’s the Wild, Wild West of punctuation around here. Yee ha, baby.

  • The US style of putting punctuation inside quotation marks came about because of lazy typesetters: It was easier to jam a tall double-quote on the end of a line than to add a short block to keep the letters and punctuation from falling off the end of the stick. It is and always has been illogical, and, though much of grammar still is so, this is one element that is coming around.

    It makes no sense to say, for instance

    The driver kept a “trouble log.”

    because the period is not part of the log. It is far better to be clear and unambiguous by writing

    The driver kept a “trouble log”.

    Many writers are coming to recognize the value of this approach, even in the backward, reactionary, non-metric US.

  • In Australia, just before I started on my novel I debated using US spelling or Aus spelling. Especially because it is a medieval type fantasy and have lots of armour / armor and I’d be talking about the colour / color of banners and such. I decided to stick with Aus spelling and grammar because my spell checker and grammar checker were already in Australian and it is a bugger to shift them from US (Microsoft assumes everyone, regardless of their computer set locale, wants to write in Americanese and so it takes a fair bit of mucking about to get Australian English to stick).
    I figure I’ll need to switch the spell checker over to US before I query agents because if you think the fantasy market is small in the US or UK then you’d be surprised to find that I’m the only person in all of Western Australia who reads fantasy (there is another guy who reads science fiction but he works on a mine in South Australia for most of the year). So I pretty much have to submit to US and UK agents and publishers if I want a chance. If I WERE to submit in Australia I … Oh I was just trying to make a sentence in conditional tense.

  • Ryl

    I’m also using British spelling — it’s the characters’ idea/whim/imperative. They insist, I obey. Besides, they have me outnumbered,… and they know where I live.

  • I’m a prof of English and I always knew it as conditional. But I really like the contrary to fact label because that my students will get so much better. As for the punctuation, didn’t know the British was different. It’s old habit for me because of Modern Language Association (MLA) style, which is what I teach.

  • Oh, and on this subject, I frequently will change copy edits to wrong grammar and spelling, particularly in dialog. But I know what it is. For instance, I know that as if is more proper than like, but it comes off as more formal in dialog or thought so I stick more frequently to like. For example: “Like I cared.” I also use spat instead of spit for past tense purely because I like it better and I also like burnt better than burned, but frequently let it go as burned. Some of it is pure taste. Though I did give up on grey and went with the American gray instead. That’s a topic worth having here. What author spelling and grammar quirks we cling to even when we know they are wrong and why.

  • You’re right about that, Diana. Any editor worth his (or her) salt should recognize when a writer is doing stylistic things, especially when it come to dialouge. A writer should always be quick to stand up for dialogue choices.

  • I always thought the UK punctuation around quotations was more logical but I’ve been here a long time and, as Diana says, standard US English puts punctuation inside quotes. I’m not aware of this changing in any significant way. It helps to remember that there is not necessarily logic to these rules: they are what they are because we have agreed to these conventions fo ra long time. To deviate from them, far from making you quirky (or even more logical) just makes you confusing and “wrong.” Just because things are arbitrary–or seem to be–doesn’t mean you don’t deviate from them at your peril. Language finsally is, after all, not about personal expression, but about community.

  • Very well said, A.J. *stands and salutes* Very well said indeed.