DEMANDS.

I’ve just read Adam Gopnik’s typically charming and insightful essay “The Corrections: Of abridgments, commentaries, and art” in the latest (Oct. 22) New Yorker, and I heartily recommend it to you if you have the physical magazine—alas, it is not online. But there is a sentence that is probably yet another sign that I am irrevocably behind the times when it comes to ever-changing English grammar. Here it is:

The tale of how the guy who played Superman on a cheap, forgotten TV series shot himself lacks the grip of tragedy, even pop tragedy, which demands, after all, that the hero once counted.

(He is discussing Hollywoodland, “the intelligent, brilliantly acted… yet unbelievably dull story of how the fifties television Superman, George Reeves, killed himself or was killed in a very minor Hollywood scandal.”) Now, in my dialect, the verb demand requires the pathetic remnant of what was once the English subjunctive: I demand that you go, He demanded that she be executed, or in this case which demands that the hero once have counted. Does Gopnik’s version sound perfectly acceptable and mine stodgy and archaic, or do you share my sense of what demand demands? (If the latter, do you too get regular solicitations from AARP?)

Comments

  1. For what it’s worth, this 22-going-on-23-year-old agrees with you.

  2. SnowLeopard says:

    I (33) agree with you, but I can also readily imagine excising the “have” because my sentences, for the sake of precision and completeness, are often so damned long that people stop for meals and bathroom breaks at the commas and schedule weddings, funerals, and childbirth around the semicolons. Dropping the “have” could be a mercy for someone who’s struggling.

  3. “[It] demands, after all, that the hero once have counted.”
    That is completely wrong to me. You just can’t make a subjunctive complement clause with “have” like that. It needs a modal verb:
    “[It] demands, after all, that the hero should once have counted.”

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Nomis, precisely: where once the subjunctive was used (but became difficult to separate from the non-subjunctive), the word “should” now supplies the modal meaning, at least in spoken form. To me “…that the hero once have counted” would be the correct literary form, but the colloquial one would have “should have counted”. (This is my impression as a long-practiced but non-native speaker).
    On the other hand, I find “demands” here peculiar – “requires” seems more common in such a sentence (but what follows the verb is subject to the same rule).

  5. Is anyone reading this a Brit? I work with Brits and none of them use the subjunctive in subordinate clauses – they think it is “wrong” and don’t see how we Yanks can use it as we do. If you’re out there, what would you write instead? (The whole sentence is pretty awkward – a stereotypical Brit would sniffily dismiss it as yet more example of American bad taste, I suppose…)

  6. dveej, I’m a New Zealander and basically use British forms, so that would explain my aversion to LH’s proposed wording. I had no idea this variation existed!

  7. Gopnik’s version sounds fine to me; yours sounds slightly awkward, but probably acceptable. I’m 26 and grew up in New York.

  8. I wonder whether the problem with the sentence is that “demands” [present tense] is following by a clause in the past tense, “counted”. This doesn’t look right to me. Doesn’t the present tense verb require a present or future (potential) action and not a past action? It’s clumsy as it is.

  9. I agree with the comment above — it should definitely be “… which demands wow gold wow gold wow gold wow gold wow gold wow gold wow gold cheap wow power leveling the hero once counted.”

  10. LH,
    The sentence sounds odd, but I don’t think your analysis of its problems is correct. The subjunctive has tenses, including a simple past tense, even in English. To indicate prior time, the subordinate clause would be expected to be in the simple past tense after a present tense in the main clause, as is true here. The perfect tense in the subordinate clause would only be expected after a past tense in its main clause.
    So the grammar is not the problem. “Tragedy demands that the hero once counted” tells a general truth not bound to the time of the events decribed in the rest of the sentence.
    I think the sentence is so convoluted that reader skips over the present tense of “demand” and remembers only the earlier past tenses, hence your preference for the perfect subjunctive here.
    If AG had put parentheses around the part of the sentence from “which demands…” on, you wouldn’t be bothered by the syntax.

  11. mollymooly says:

    The present subjunctive is identical to the present indicative except for the third person singular and the verb “to be”.
    The simple past subjunctive is identical to the simple past indicative except for the the verb “to be”.
    British English does not use the subjunctive after “demand that”, “request that”, “propose that”, “in order that”, etc. Usually the indicative is used; in formal written language the modals “should”, “would”, or “might” may be used.
    I (Irish) saw nothing wrong with the verb in the original, though I may have been distracted by its general clumsiness. I am repulsed by hat’s proposed rewrite. A better rewrite for me would be:… which demands, after all, that the hero should once have counted.

  12. Well, there’s a clear Atlantic divide here.
    Also, I removed the links from Mr. wow’s comment but left the comment itself so that Matt’s response would be comprehensible.

  13. “…demands that the hero had once counted,” would be my (American) rewrite. Placing “have” between “once” and “counted” sounds awkward to this amateur.

  14. michael farris says:

    I agree with Henry IX.
    I would also be okay with
    “should have once counted”
    In general the original seems overwritten and convoluted and could benefit from further editing (JMO).

  15. I frequently get my feet tangled up on the use of the perfect in even slightly complicated sentence structures. In this case,I might easily have started simple, and then revised to the perfect. But note that my previous sentence doesn’t sound quite right eather.

  16. “demands that the hero once had counted”?

  17. When I write a sentence that raises a touchy grammatical problem, normally I rewrite the sentence rather than trying to solve the problem.

  18. mollymooly says:

    Placing “have” between “once” and “counted” sounds awkward to this amateur.
    I think this may be another Atlantic divide. “should have once counted” sounds to me like emphasising “once, not twice”. Perhaps to Americans the reverse is true?

  19. I found the original sentence awkward, and I needed to read it three times to understand it. However, I don’t think my problem was related to the lack of a subjunctive but to the word “counted”. Appearing nakedly like that it made me ask “counted what?” (1, 2, 3 etc.?) and so I didn’t immediately realize it meant “counted for something”.
    As for the subjunctive, I’m British, but I do think putting it in the subjunctive helps, so the Atlantic divide may be less clear than earlier responses suggested. In my own writing I would normally use a subjunctive after “demand”, though it’s certainly true that the subjunctive in general is closer to being dead in British usage than it is in American.

  20. I found the original sentence awkward, and I needed to read it three times to understand it. However, I don’t think my problem was related to the lack of a subjunctive but to the word “counted”. Appearing nakedly like that it made me ask “counted what?” (1, 2, 3 etc.?) and so I didn’t immediately realize it meant “counted for something”.
    As for the subjunctive, I’m British, but I do think putting it in the subjunctive helps, so the Atlantic divide may be less clear than earlier responses suggested. In my own writing I would normally use a subjunctive after “demand”, though it’s certainly true that the subjunctive in general is closer to being dead in British usage than it is in American.

  21. mollymooly says:

    I concede Athel is right; my “does not use a subjunctive” above should read “need not use a subjunctive”. Though I’m not sure whether the subjunctive has waned more in cisatlantic English or rather been somewhat revived in transatlantic English. It also occurs to me that “must” is another modal verb that can replace the subjunctive (after “insist”, say); I daresay others could too.

  22. See CGEL Chap. 11, Sect. 7.1.1: “The mandative construction” and, in particular, the bullet “Three types of mandative clause.” These are, subjunctive-mandative, should-mandative, and covert-mandative. Of the last, which is what is given here, where the form is the ordinary declarative, it says:

    Clear cases of the covert construction are fairly rare, and indeed in AmE are of somewhat marginal acceptability. In AmE the subjunctive is strongly favoured over the should construction, while BrE shows the opposite preference.

    The problem with tense is, I think, that you want a timeless statement that x was once in the past y.
    I don’t know whether it contradicts the premise, but I’m pretty sure the old TV Superman is still high camp.

  23. OT, but a highly annoying phrase I see only on the sports pages: “probably one of the…”
    As in, “Randy Moss is probably one of the best players I’ve ever seen”.
    The double qualification sounds horrible. “The best player I’ve ever seen” works. “Probably one of the best players I’ve ever seen” works. “One of the best players I’ve ever seen” works. Three phrases, three different meanings.
    “Probably one of the best players I’ve ever seen”? Does this guy not trust his own mind?

  24. Damn! My second example should have been “Probably the best player I’ve ever seen.”
    Damn.

  25. mollymooly says:

    How about “probably one of the only…”?

  26. The subjunctive lingers lightly in my Scots English, but your proposal sounds wrong to my ear, Mr Hat. And, even if right it would be lipstick on that pig of a sentence.

  27. Personally I would scrap the whole sentence. Barring that, I would use “should once have counted” or “once have counted”. And I’m mostly American and many, many years from retirement.

  28. Alan Gunn says:

    Well, I’m an AARP-er and it looks very odd to me without the “have.” But it would look just as odd if a “should” were added. Some twenty to thirty years ago, a lot of young people used “would have” instead of “had” in contrary-to-fact expressions (such as “if I would have known …”). This struck me as a sort of exaggeration of the subjunctive, or perhaps an unconscious attempt to revive a dead one. It seems, mercifully, to have died out.
    But I agree with the several commentators who suggest rewriting the whole sentence. The New Yorker sure ain’t what it was when Harold Ross ran the show.

  29. I am gravely concerned about the new threat of Wow Power Levelling. We all know that power leveling would just be the first step. I suggest termination with extreme prejudice.

  30. I have nuked all other wows from orbit, but left this first example as a historical monument.

  31. I’m Canadian and not yet thirty, and I’m in favour of a rewrite, or at the very least the addition of a “should have” or a “have”.
    And to Alan Gunn: I know “If I would have known” and its kind very well, and I’d say it’s taking over, rather than dying out.

  32. David Harmon says:

    Well, you can demand that something be done, but you can also demand an apology or refund, and that demands no “that”! ;-)
    You might say there’s an elided phrase “… that you give me …”, but these days, such a phrase would target your demand much more closely to the specific person you’re speaking to.

  33. AL’s right, Alan- “If I would have known” is alive and well.
    Cheap wow power levelling has got to be Kierkegaard’s worst nightmare.

  34. “..which demands, after all, that the hero once counted” sounds fine to me. “..which demands, after all, that the hero should once have counted” sounds even better.
    “..which demands that the hero once have counted” sounds completely ungrammatical.
    Trans-Pacific rift (Australian English)?

  35. Well, I’m British and ‘once have counted’ sounds wrong to me. However, ‘should once have counted’ is what I’d tend to favour. And funnily enough, I wouldn’t mind ‘have once counted’: I have not the faintest idea why I’m OK with that last one but not with LH’s original suggestion.
    But I couldn’t agree more with the folks who point out that it’s really a bad sentence.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    The way I see it, there’s no way to tell whether “counted” — which is in the past tense — is in the subjunctive or not. So you are proposing using the present perfect tense instead, in order to make the subjunctive visible? “That the hero have once/once have counted” is present perfect subjunctive.
    (Something similar is mandatory in written German, where the subjunctive has an important role in reported speech, but is identical to the indicative for regular verbs, so the, uh, other subjunctive is used instead, the conditional, the “if I were” one.)

  37. Hmm, maybe so.

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