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Grammar, Identity, And The Dark Side Of The Subjunctive: Phuc Tran At TEDxDirigo

Presented by Guest Contributor Phuc Tran

I am total a geek. Who’s a geek here? That’s probably a rhetorical question at a TED conference, right? I love Star Wars, I collect action figures, and my favorite biography is the biography of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–for God’s sake, I read a book about the writing of another grammar book. How about those geek credentials?

I’m here today to talk about grammar, but not the “gotcha” grammar of split infinitives and the misuse of “whom” because frankly, I hate it when grammar is used to belittle others. I am here to talk to you how grammar is a tool, to be used like a pair of glasses. When employed at the right time, grammar can bring the world into sharp focus, and when used at the wrong time, it can make things incredibly blurry. And this all starts with the subjunctive. I remember talking to my dad about the subjunctive, and because he wasn’t a native English speaker, he didn’t understand all the nuances of the subjunctive. “Listen, Dad. You can say something like ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’” And his response? “That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are you talking about something that didn’t happen?” (A staunch reader of non-fiction, my father has a similar opinion of fiction. “Why do you want to read books about people who never existed doing things that never happened?”)

Here’s a quick refresher of the subjunctive: in English, we have three moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. If we use the indicative mood in writing or speaking, we view the verb’s action as factual: “I am talking at a TED conference.” And the subjunctive mood is used when we view the action as nonfactual: “I might shit my pants.” The imperative mood is used when we view the action as a command: “Bring me a change of clothes.” The subjunctive comprises all the nuances of non-fact: potentiality, possibility, and contrafactuality.

The subjunctive mood allows us to look into the future and see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities with just a little sprinkling of could’s, would’s and might’s. Similarly, it also allows us to look into the past, to envision a world that didn’t happen but could have happened. The subjunctive is the most powerful mooda time-space dream machine that can create alternate realities with the idea of “would have been” or “should have been.”

And within this idea of “should have” is a Pandora’s box of regret and hope.

Growing up in Pennsylvania as a Vietnamese refugee, I would sometimes think about what would have happened if my family hadn’t escaped Saigon in 1975. Would we have been imprisoned like my father’s cousin, who spent years in re-education camp being tortured and sentenced to hard labor, or would we have been killed like countless other South Vietnamese unable to escape that April? The night we were fleeing Saigon, my entire family–grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles–were scheduled to board a bus. As the bus was loading passengers to go to the airport, I begin crying, shrieking uncontrollably–so much so that the entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away, it was struck by artillery fire, exploded, and killed everyone on board. As a young kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune and about what could have happened. I didn’t know it then, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn’t ponder–all because of the English subjunctive. Continue reading