Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Avoid the conditional.

OK, here's a quiz that'll take you back to 8th grade, or as they say in India, 8th form. Name three "modes" of a verb. I'll give you a hint: you can also call them "moods" of the verb. Think now. Morph yourself back to junior high school English class or middle school. Remember those days? Pimples. Hair on your body in places you never had it before. OK. Give up?

All verbs have mode (also called mood), as well as tense, number, and person. The mood reflects the approach you give the verb, that is, indicative, imperative or subjunctive (which many people call "conditional"). The first mood, indicative mood, makes a statement. "I am going to the meeting this afternoon." Imperative mood states a command, "Go to the meeting for me this afternoon." And, the subjunctive mood, which is a little more complicated, often states a condition, leading many people to call it by that term. It could look like this, "If you go to the meeting, would you represent me?"

In this post let's consider the subjunctive mood only. Subjunctive verbs can express a wish and a requirement, but let's just examine the conditional aspect. In this form, the verbs often use these helping verbs: would, could, should, may, and might. I recommend that business writers avoid them. Why? Simply because they suggest indecisiveness.

No executive or group of executives that entrust important studies or proposals to you are going to be satisfied if you report back to them that, "We should consider a merger with Widget, Inc." Even less compelling is the statement, "We might merge with Widget, Inc." No, they want to hear you say, "I recommend that we merge with Widget, Inc." or "I recommend that we avoid Widget, Inc. at all costs." Conditional is too conditional.

OK, here's another quiz. Who uses conditional verbs more, Americans or Asians? Right, Asians use it more often. It's part of the culture. And, when I say Asians, I am also including people from India. I have grown to love all things India, mostly because of my work at Carnegie Mellon University where I have taught hundreds of young people from India and also from my association with a great young company called Cognizant. Over the past ten years I have found the people from India to be the most generous and deferential people I have ever met. And, imagine, I have been teaching them to be less deferential and to stop using the conditional mood so often. Why because it makes these very learned, intelligent people seem unsure of their their recommendations.

Here's your last chance to get an Ed Barr quiz right tonight. Who uses conditional verbs more often, men or women. That's a loaded question, you say! Perhaps. But, let me know what you think. Do men or women use the conditional form of the verb more often? Which gender, on the whole, loads its writing and speaking with "could, would, should, may, might"? If you're really feeling grammatical and communicative, tell also us why the gender you chose uses conditional verbs more often. Above all, though, if you're married and you debate this, don't go to bed mad! That's an imperative!


  1. Well, we might reconsider the bonuses given to those bozo executives at AIG who managed to lose billions of dollars, but then again, that might violate some previous legal agreement.

    Just kidding of course, about a national travesty in process where "conditional" would have been a better way to award bonuses--make them conditional on profits!

    I suspect (hedging, conditional phrase?) that American men might be less inclined to use the conditional form. Not because they are more sure of themselves, but simply because of their cultural belief that they need to be "strong" and "sure of themselves."

    John Wayne never said "let's think about possibly storming that hill..."

    That said, I know lots of women who would never consider being "wishy-washy." (a strange colloquial expression in itself) Is there a time at which women became stronger or equal to men in their portrayal of their decisiveness? Is there a difference among male/female Baby Boomers vs. Gen X, vs Gen Y?

    What do you think?

  2. Men are from Mars; women are from.... Whoops, that's someone else's book. Anyway, we both know we can get in lots of trouble stereotyping, but if you read Deborah Tannen, you'll find this: "A married couple was in a car when the wife turned to her husband and asked, 'Would you like to stop for a coffee?'

    'No, thanks,' he answered truthfully. So they didn't stop.

    The result? The wife, who had indeed wanted to stop, became annoyed because she felt her preference had not been considered. The husband, seeing his wife was angry, became frustrated. Why didn't she just say what she wanted?

    Unfortunately, he failed to see that his wife was asking the question not to get an instant decision, but to begin a negotiation. And the woman didn't realize that when her husband said no, he was just expressing his preference, not making a ruling. When a man and woman interpret the same interchange in such conflicting ways, it's no wonder they can find themselves leveling angry charges of selfishness and obstinacy at each other."

    Now you know why Cool Hand Luke said, "What we have here is a failure to communicate!"

  3. Great summary! But, wasn't it the southern sheriff who said that in Cool Hand Luke?

  4. Yes, but Luke said it in the church doorway at the end of the movie just before they shot him!