if I were king

What we were taught in grammar school was called, appropriately enough, grammar. But by the time you get to college (or even high school), old-fashioned grammar is looked down on as reactionary, authoritarian, even racist. After that, the only respectable use of the term grammar is descriptive grammar — meaning a linguistic analysis of common usage. At this point, those of us who want or need to maintain a standard for clarity of communication are relegated to terms like style and usage.

My favorite grammar books, therefore, don’t have the word grammar in their titles:

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style
  2. The American Heritage Book of English Usage

Despite their apologetic tone, these are both solid references for anyone looking to standardize written grammar.

Chicago is available online (for a subscription). American Heritage was online at Bartleby.com, but some time in the past year, it disappeared down the memory hole. This has been a problem for me professionally, as I need an online reference to cite for editorial corrections I make at work. Otherwise, resistant writers or underinformed proofreaders are likely to incorrect my corrections.

The section of American Heritage I have needed to cite most often is the subjunctive, which is usually a counterfactual construction, but is too often confused for a conditional. In a self-conscious effort to get it right, most writers seem to get this one wrong. So you think it would be easy to point them to an authority on getting it right, an explanation not just of how and when to use the subjective mood but also when not to use it.

The only reliable such explanation I’ve found is American Heritage, and it’s no longer conveniently available online.

So I’ve transcribed it here.


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