Grammar Wednesday

California Teacher Guy comes through for me AGAIN!

My dear Mrs. Chili,

The following sentence appears to be irredeemably mangled, but I suspect you’ll find a way to improve it:

But if it wasn’t him and the Democrats, Obama said to reporters in South Dakota, whom was Bush referring to — “Some straw man…?”,8599,1807377,00.html

I’ll be watching for your version of redemption in the next edition of Grammar Wednesday!



For starters, you all should know by now how Mrs. Chili feels about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions. It’s FINE for conversational, informal writing – hell, I do it in comments all the time – but I continue to hold that conjunctions do not belong at the beginning of sentences in formal writing. I know that this is a point upon which I and my linguist friends agree to disagree, but I stand by it, nonetheless. In this structure, the “but” isn’t even really necessary – the sentence could start just as well with the “If.”

Were I editing or reviewing this article, I would probably write “awk” in the margins next to this sentence. It’s decipherable, certainly – Obama is responding to Bush’s “accommodationist” remark to the Israeli knesset – but it doesn’t flow seamlessly off the page. It made CTG choke – and it did the same to me when he sent it to me – and anything that makes the reader hitch, even a little, isn’t great writing. My suggestions to this writer would be to reframe the idea in a way that allows the eyes to glide a little more smoothly. Perhaps like this:

If Bush wasn’t referring to Obama and the Democrats in his comments to the Israeli legislature, Obama asked, then to whom were the remarks aimed?

I stopped to think about the subjunctive mood in this structure – should it be “if Bush weren’t referring“? I can’t say with 100% confidence that it is proper to use the subjunctive here – Bush DID make the comments; that is not in question.  The referring part is in question – if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation – but I’m not sure that warrants the use of the subjunctive…

Finally, the idea of the “straw man” is that of a fallacy of logic (which is timely, given that I’m starting debate and persuasion in both my public speaking and composition classes this week!). Essentially, the fallacy involves the speaker ignoring or distorting his or her opponent’s position, thereby setting up an easier to refute “straw man” that can be knocked down with little effort. I’m pretty sure that the fallacy doesn’t apply here – though the implication is that Bush IS distorting Obama’s willingness to enter a dialogue with the leaders of states that the current administration refuses to talk to, the remark seems out of place in this sentence and likely didn’t make any sense to much of the audience. If I’d been editing this piece, I’d have recommended that the author leave it out entirely.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone, and thanks again, CTG!



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2 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. First and third person “was” and “were” are both used in present counterfactuals. “were” might be more formal.

    I tend to think that if you’re wondering whether to use “was” or “were” in a case like this, you’re wondering too much. The verb “be” is the only verb where this distinction is made. With every other verb, the simple past form is used. If there was any ambiguity or confusion here, we would encounter it with every other verb.
    If I were/was in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.
    If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.

  2. Your rewrite of that tortured sentence is absolutely loverly! 🙂

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