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Are You in the Subjunctive Mood?

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I’m going to spend a few posts on what I think is an interesting and sometimes confusing component of our language: the subjunctive mood.

Contrary to what some say, the subjunctive is not a tense; it’s a mood. Tense refers to when an action takes place (past, present, future), while mood merely reflects how the speaker feels about the action. When deciding whether to use this “mood” or not, a writer needs to stop and think about the intent in the sentence she wants to write. I often see the subjunctive used incorrectly, or not used when it should be.

The subjunctive mood is rarely used in English, but it is widely used in Spanish and other languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred.

Let’s start with a simple comparison. English verbs have three moods:  indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.

  • I will go to sleep now.  Do you want to go to sleep now? (Indicative mood: used to state a fact or opinion or ask a question)
  • Go to sleep now!  Please, go to sleep now. (Imperative mood: expresses a command, gives a direction, or makes a request)
  • If I were you, I would go to sleep now. (Subjunctive mood: expresses wishes, suggestions, and other attitudes)

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Either Or, Neither Nor

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It doesn’t matter if you pronounce either with a long (ee-ther) or a long I (eye-ther). Depending on your region of the country, one may be preferred, but either pronunciation is correct. However, it is important that you know when and how to use these words and their partners or and nor correctly.

Either and neither are comparison words. They are used to compare two alternatives or options—not more than two.

  • When John met with the dean he was told, “Either apply yourself to your studies or drop out of college.”

The dean might have given John more than two options, but if he did, he wouldn’t use either.

Here’s one way you can write multiple choices:

  • The dean told John to pick one of the following options: apply himself to his studies, hire a tutor, or drop out of school. (Either would not be correct in this instance.)

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When You Don’t Want to Hyphenate

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Writers often hyphenate when they aren’t supposed to. It always seems to make sense that if you have two words that sound like they’re connected, you should stick a hyphen between them. But not so. Here are some word combinations that are usually open:

Proper nouns and adjectives relating to geography or nationality, unless the first term is a prefix:

  • Chinese Americans, North Central region, African American, African American president

But you would write: US-Mexico border, Spanish-American organizations.

Chemical terms:

  • sodium chloride, sodium chloride solution

Foreign phrases—open unless hyphenated in the original language. Foreign phrases and words are also italicized:

  • A priori, in vitro fertilization, but vis-à-vis for clarity and meaning. (The actual meaning is face-to-face, also hyphenated.)

Numbers and abbreviations:

  • 25 mi. trip, 3 oz. cup, 5K race

Numbers and percentages:

  • 75 percent, 4.6 percent

Noun and numeral or enumerator:

  • Type 2 diabetes, size 12 font, page 1 placement

So if you’re writing a popular paranormal novel, you might be writing about an American Martian Type 4 undead vampire zombie. No hyphens needed!

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