Timothy Noah, writing under Slate’s “Chatterbox” rubric, talked to the ghostwriter of O.J.’s controversial ex-book If I Did It. In his article, Noah wrote a sentence I can’t quite understand:
Goldman assumed a karate stance, according to Miller’s description. “Then,” Simpson/Fenjves writes discreetly, “something went horribly wrong, and I know what happened, but I can’t tell you exactly how.” Note the absence of the subjunctive tense.
Readers, I cannot figure out what that last sentence is supposed to mean: “Note the absence of the subjunctive tense.” Clearly, Noah thinks that O.J.’s grammar is particularly revealing, but I can’t figure out exactly why. (There is, of course, no such thing as subjunctive tense. There is, however, such a thing as subjunctive mood.)
Last night I wrote an email to Noah himself, but he has not answered me. I hope one of you will tell me what you think Noah means.
Does Noah mean that O.J. asserted that he knows what happened, instead of saying what might have happened? Does Noah think the phrase what might have happened, or something similar, would be an example of “the subjunctive tense”? That’s about the best guess I can come up with. I honestly can’t figure out what else Noah might have meant by that.
So, it remains unclear what Timothy Noah thinks is especially significant or damning, from a grammatical point of view, about O.J.’s ghostwritten sentence. What do you think about “Note the absence of the subjunctive tense”?
(Note: This is a question about English grammar, not O.J. Simpson. Please comment on Timothy Noah’s “subjunctive tense” and not O.J.)
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January 17th, 2007 @ 15:33
That’s a tough one man.
Q: Does Noah mean that O.J. asserted that he knows what happened, instead of saying what might have happened?
A: My guess is yes, he’s asserting that OJ knows what happened.
Q: Does Noah think the phrase what might have happened, or something similar, would be an example of “the subjunctive tense”?
A: Yes to this too.
My guess on this is that “what happened” refers to the outcome, but not necessarily to the process that resulted in the outcome. It’s poorly written and the “note the absence of the subjuntive tense” part only makes it less clear.
Have you heard back from him?
January 17th, 2007 @ 15:49
I still haven’t heard from T. Noah, and I don’t think I ever will. I’m sure he thinks I was defending O.J., or doing something other than asking him to restate his point in better English.
Or perhaps he thinks “note the absence of the subjunctive tense” was just too clever for the likes of me (”Eat your heart out, Bill Safire!”). Oh, well. Maybe he’s right.