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May 12th, 2004

Three feet vs. three-foot / if ... were vs. if ... was / like I or like me?

by Barbara Wallraff

Mary Opela, of Halfmoon, N.Y., writes: “If ‘foot’ is singular and ‘feet’ is plural, I can understand having a hole ‘three feet deep.’ But why is it called a ‘three-foot hole’?”

It’s called that for the same reason we say “three-year lease” and “three-bedroom house.” English uses the singular form for nearly all nouns that are used “attributively,” or as adjectives before nouns. Similarly, “foot soldiers” and “footraces” and “footpaths” each involve plural feet, but their names employ the singular “foot.”

Mo’e Samstag, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “In a recent column, you wrote ‘if Roses were your name ...’ In this case, is ‘name’ no longer a singular noun taking a singular verb? I would have written ‘if Roses was your name.’”

Thanks for reading me so closely! But that “were” of mine wasn’t plural -- it was subjunctive. The subjunctive is one of the three “moods” of English, along with the imperative (“Please tell me your name”) and the indicative (“My name is Wallraff”).

A subjunctive verb comes in a form different from the usual, indicative one -- “were,” for instance, instead of “was” (or “is” or “am” or “are”). It is used for things that aren’t real or aren’t true, such as wishes, possibilities and speculations. A familiar, correctly used subjunctive crops up in the song title “If I Were a Carpenter”; the songwriter isn’t a carpenter. Or think of “If wishes were horses, beggars might ride.” Are wishes horses? Of course not. Were they ever horses? No. “Were” in that saying isn’t a past-tense verb; it, too, is subjunctive, because the idea that wishes could be horses -- like the idea that my earlier correspondent’s name might be Roses -- is only hypothetical.

Jerry Witt, of Winona, Minn., writes: “In a recent column, you wrote ‘I imagine that you, like me ...’ Surely it should be ‘like I,’ short for ‘like I do.’”

I’m sure that one of these days I’ll make an egregious grammar mistake. And I promise that when I do, I’ll fess up. That “like me” is no mistake, though. According to traditionalists, “like” is a preposition, and what’s supposed to come after it is a noun or pronoun in the objective case -- like “me.” Also according to traditionalists, a whole clause, with a verb, should never come after “like.” That’s what “as” is for -- as in, “Do as I do,” not “Do like I do.”

“As” sometimes sounds affected, though, where it’s perfectly correct. For instance, consider “I can tell you’re interested in grammar, as I am.” With a sentence like that, if you want to be both correct and down-to-earth, “the way” is one way to go: “I can tell you’re interested in grammar, the way I am.”

P.S. Since readers seem to enjoy searching this column for mistakes, I’ve included one this time on purpose. (No, it’s not “fess up” -- that’s a legitimate spelling of a colloquialism, not a mistake.) I’ll send a signed copy of my new book, “Your Own Words,” to one reader, chosen at random, who finds the mistake and let’s me know what it is before May 25.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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