Tevye: Poster Boy for the Subjunctive
Tevye: Poster Boy for the Subjunctive
By Michael Croland
The English language’s best example of the subjunctive mood is “If I were a rich man, dai-dle, dee-dle, dai-dle, dig-guh, dig-guh, deedle, dai-dle, dum.”
The subjunctive is one of three moods in the English language. It denotes that a statement describes a desired or hypothetical outcome rather than an actual state of affairs. While the indicative and imperative moods are typically used correctly, grammar experts far and wide cringe at the chronic misuse of the subjunctive mood. Enter Tevye—the star of Fiddler on the Roof and a hero to many Jews who nostalgically cherish his portrayal of Old World shtetl life.
Tevye’s “If I Were a Rich Man” has become a savior for the subjunctive. It has had a much greater impact than the less kosher “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener” jingle, which was also written in the early 1960s. “If I Were a Rich Man” and its mouthpiece are heralded in numerous grammar guides, including The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style. Grammarians including the Grammar Patrol, Grammar Girl, and Grammar Lady have all used Tevye’s song to drive home the point that the subjunctive calls for “if I were,” not “if I was.”
“Teaching the subjunctive was a challenge. Many students didn’t know what it meant, let alone how to use it,” says Edith Fine, who taught San Diego State University Extension classes as part of the self-professed “Grammar Patrol” for 20 years. “I’d hop up and dance around the room singing, ‘If I were a rich man ….’”
“Singing Tevye’s trademark song, so familiar because of Fiddler on the Roof, provided a strong visual and auditory device to make the explanation stick in people’s minds,” Fine says.
Syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick, a journalist since 1941, has used “If I Were a Rich Man” to demonstrate the subjunctive more times than he can keep track of. A 2004 article on the subject was even titled “If I Were/Was a Rich Man.” Kilpatrick says that “If I Were a Rich Man” is an ideal example because Fiddler on the Roof is better known to readers than grammar scholars would be.
“My guess is that 99.99 per cent of adult Americans have absolutely no understanding of the subjunctive mood and don’t give a damn about its survival,” says Kilpatrick.
“If I Were a Rich Man” is also the example of choice for many online grammar gurus. Mignon Fogarty, who hosts the popular Internet show Grammar Girl, sang part of “If I Were a Rich Man” during a September episode about the subjunctive. “Whenever I hear the lyrics, the music jumps to the front of my brain,” she says.
“I do think it is the most widely known example of correct usage of the subjunctive,” says Fogarty.
Chad Sanders started his “Subjunctivitis” blog two years ago with a primary focus on the subjunctive, its defenders, and its butchers. In his first blog post about the subjunctive, Sanders called Tevye the “Golden Boy” of the subjunctive mood. He wrote, “Oh, Tevye. If only there were more like you. You got it. And you’re Russian!”
“If I Were a Rich Man” is “fun to sing, and people can see that [the subjunctive is] a rule that someone actually followed,” says Sanders.
Tevye’s praise among the grammar-conscious is rife with peculiarities. It’s striking that grammar experts spelled Tevye’s name incorrectly in e-mail interviews—Kilpatrick wrote “Tavya” and Sanders wrote “Revye”—and that Fogarty admittedly couldn’t pronounce the name. The lyrics of “If I Were a Rich Man” don’t seem to welcome praise for proper usage, as they feature onomatopoeic animal noises and pure gibberish. Last but not least, a milkman from a Russian shtetl, who wouldn’t have spoken English in real life, apparently has a better grasp of the English language than most native English speakers.
“I think that is ironic and funny,” says Sheldon Harnick of Tevye’s unexpected pedestal in the grammar world. More than four decades ago, Harnick wrote the lyrics to the songs in Fiddler on the Roof. He based the title line of “If I Were a Rich Man” on the 1902 Sholem Aleichem story “Ven Ikh Bin Roytshild,” which is Yiddish for “If I Were a Rothschild.” (Ironically, the original line isn’t even in the subjunctive, according to a Yiddish scholar at the YIVO Jewish Institute for Research—it’s in the conditional mood, which doesn’t exist in English.)
“I was not particularly aware that I was using the subjunctive correctly,” says Harnick. He credits teachings in grammar school for his working knowledge of the subjunctive. “It would’ve bothered my ear to say, “If I Was a Rich Man,’” he says.
If only the subjective mood were used correctly more often, it would thrive. Like the Old World traditions of Anatevke, the subjunctive is appreciated less and less and is in danger of dying off in future generations.