A case for the subjunctive
Posted: 03 January 2018 10:00 AM   [ Ignore ]
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OK:I accept that only fusty old prescriptivists expect anyone to write or say might have rather than may have of something that definitely did not happen; that we aren’t allowed to say that using may have in such a case is an “error”; and that it doesn’t matter anyway because in practice everybody always knows what is meant.  But when yesterday the front page of the London Times carried a picture of a fire in a Liverpool multi-storey car park with the caption “Sprinklers may have stopped a fire wrecking 1,400 vehicles in a Liverpool car park, an official said - Page 9”, I honestly did initially read that as good news - that all those cars might have been wrecked in the fire, but thanks to the presence of sprinklers they weren’t. Only the article on Page 9 made clear that the 1400 vehicles mentioned had actually all been destroyed.

OK, maybe that’s officially not a grammatical error, but I think it’s fair to say that anything that lends itself to such ambiguity surely is crap writing!

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Posted: 03 January 2018 10:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’m with you Syntinen Laulu, but I may use the wrong word in conversation.

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Posted: 03 January 2018 10:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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It’s an error.

Writing is not speech.

Sentences that contain clauses like ‘we’re not allowed to say X’ rarely recover.

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Posted: 03 January 2018 11:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I don’t know if this would be a case for the subjunctive mood. 

Regardless, I agree that it is an error primarily because the sentence is in the past tense, “...may have stopped a fire...” therefore, might would have been the appropriate tense since might is the past tense of may. Apart from the appropriate tense, might would have lent more clarity to the sentence; I think.

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Posted: 04 January 2018 05:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Was the caption actually quoting the official? If so, the paper would have been correct to print exactly what they said.

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Posted: 04 January 2018 06:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It’s an error.

No, it’s language change in action.  Descriptivist though I am, this particular change maddens me, and I have been complaining about it for years (ever since I first noticed it), but that doesn’t make it “wrong.” Whether you or I like a new linguistic development or not has no bearing on its function as a part of the language, and there’s nothing we can do to hold back the tide of change.

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Posted: 04 January 2018 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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This is not a grammatical error for the reasons LH gives, but it is poor editing.  A caption, like a headline, is removed from the surrounding context to prevent ambiguity.  Extra care is therefore called for.

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Posted: 04 January 2018 09:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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No, it’s language change in action.

I agree; nevertheless, the caption is slightly ambiguous and it’s for this reason we’re having the discussion. It boils down to formality, which seems to be eschewed by descriptivists. Again, I agree, I don’t think of it as an error, but perhaps just a matter of aesthetics.

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Posted: 04 January 2018 11:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I would say it’s an error. Not because it should be in the older, subjunctive form, but because the meaning is ambiguous when clarity is required.

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Posted: 04 January 2018 02:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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People speak how they will. Standards for written language change more slowly. Not every example of non-standard English eventually becomes accepted as the standard. Whether this one does or not remains to be seen.

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