Zoe and Her Cupcakes

ZOE, I suspect, has never been taught the subjunctive or the conditional mood, but somehow, she seems to have such a solid grasp of how they work. Zoe is the seven-year-old daughter of my secondary school classmate, Nadine Yap, whose Facebook post on October 6 sparked an online debate I was completely oblivious to until nine days after, when her follow-up piece, An Update on Grammar and Graciousness, caught my eye.

What triggered the noise was a snapshot of Zoe’s English assignment, beautifully phrased and pencil-scripted in a careful, clear hand, in response to a clinically-termed exercise called the Stimulus-Based Conversation.

As it turns out, the stimulus was so stimulating that parents from east to west, north to south, friends far and near, participated in the big grammar debate with shares (681), likes (480), and comments aplenty—uncountable from being compounded across the thousands of Facebook users who were drawn into this whole hullabaloo. As I write this, there has been 8,452 shares on the Straits Times article, Primary 1 Pupil’s English Composition Answer Generates Online Debate, first published on October 7 with an appended update on October 16: Mum Defends Teacher.

I own I did see Nadine tag me at the earliest stages of Zoe’s grammar debacle, but October 6 was a day of Facebook fast, which technically means that I should have gone cold turkey, but I did dip in briefly and zipped out just as quickly. What I recall, though, when I caught a glimpse of Zoe’s words and the red ink intruding her thoughts was a feeling of annoyance, disbelief, and anger all smooshed together.

“What a moron, this teacher!” I thought, and then I worried no longer. Facebook fast, remember?

Fast forward nine days. I thought Nadine was so gracious and generous in her Grammar and Graciousness thought piece. What was striking about her comments was not so much her deft touch at public relations, but her earnest desire for all of us, parents, students, citizens and countrymen, to engage in constructive debate rather than to slow-cook our frustrations into an explosion of words, some of which were, in her mind, “downright vitriolic.”

I guess I should be ashamed of my “moron” outburst, even though it was private, for it did border on the “vitriolic,” but I’ll make up for it by explaining why—an explanation I haven’t yet come across in the messy threads of conversations that have sprouted forth, weed-like, from Nadine’s page.

First, here’s the question:

If you are celebrating a family member’s birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?

And next, Zoe’s answer:

If I were to plan a birthday, I would plan it for my mother instead of a cake I would make cupcakes.

And her teacher’s correction:

If I am to plan a birthday, I will plan it for my mother. Instead of getting a cake, I will make cupcakes. 

Understanding the Subjunctive
The problem with our English education here is that the subjunctive and the conditional mood make no appearance at all in the grammar curriculum. Students today don’t get to learn them, students in the past never did either—and that includes Zoe’s teacher, presuming she’s a born-and-bred Singaporean like Nadine and myself.

Now, whoever set that question, obviously has no knowledge of the subjunctive or the conditional mood of the verb, would. Let’s define them both here:

  • subjunctive |səbˈʤəŋ(k)tɪv| Grammar
    adjective
    relating to or denoting a mood of verbs expressing what is imagined or wished or possible.
  • would 
    modal verb
    (expressing the conditional mood) indicating the consequence of an imagined event or situation ~ in this instance, the imagined event or situation is the manner in which Zoe would celebrate a family member’s birthday.

The key phrase in Oxford’s subjunctive definition is “what is imagined or wished,” which is echoed by “an imagined event or situation” in the definition of would. See how the subjunctive melds with the conditional in sense and taste?

And so, when Zoe’s teacher corrected her would to will, she had completely smothered the subjunctive and changed the meaning of her sentence. There’s a world of difference between the two:

(a) Zoe would make cupcakes for her mother
~ a desire and inclination born out of an imagined situation

(b) Zoe will make cupcakes for her mother
~ a strong assertion, an intention that will turn into action

Correcting the Question
Now let’s return to the stimulus question. I’m afraid it’s grammatically incorrect.

Cranky: If you are celebrating a family member’s birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?

Correct: If you were celebrating a family member’s birthday, how would you plan to celebrate it?

Any verb following “If” should be rendered in the subjunctive mood, not the present tense. No, no, no! Not “are” or “is,” but “were.” And always “were,” never ever “was,” regardless of the subject, plural or singular—though in this regard, English doesn’t work in such anal ways as French. But as a silly grammar purist, this is what I’m campaigning for: Let there be light, let there be “were”:

If I were a princess, I would
If you were a princess, you would
If Zoe were a princess, she would
If they were royalties, they would
If we were royalties, we would

So, you see, if you were to answer the question based on a grammatically cranky question, naturally your answer would hobble about, broken and rickety, just like Zoe’s teacher’s, clanking away like so:

If I am to plan a birthday, I will plan it for my mother. Instead of getting a cake, I will make cupcakes.

Now that the crux of my quarrel has been addressed, I’m left with one other niggling thought. Why, oh why, did the teacher have to turn Zoe’s intentions of making a cake to getting a cake?

Zoe: Instead of a cake, I would make cupcakes.

Teacher: Instead of getting a cake, I will make cupcakes.

Zoe had executed an ellipsis flawlessly here—ellipsis being “the omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues.” Notice how she had omitted “making” in the modifying clause (“Instead of a cake”). She could have written this:

Instead of making a cake, I would make cupcakes. 

But she didn’t, our brilliant Zoe! She has taught us many things, her teacher as well.

Hopefully, the schools would get cranking along with some lessons on the subjunctive and the conditional. I didn’t get to learn them until my early twenties in a French class at the Alliance Française—not a kind testament to our English grammar education at all.

In the meantime, I’m still waiting for Nadine to report back to my question, “How were the cupcakes?” Now, when’s her birthday?


Language Bites” are reflections on the joys and angst of language usage, from sentence structure to syntax, voice and vocabulary, some why’s and how’s, plus do’s and don’t’s.

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