Grammar and the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution, reverence and respect for which are inversely proportional to its readership, is not an elegant document. Unlike the King James Version of the bible (another document more respected than read), the Constitution displays very little eloquence, elegance, or poetry. It is a plodding, prosaic document whose language often betrays its contentious, compromise-laden creation process.

The Body of the Constitution

Needless to say, the Constitution is riddled with passive constructions, the majority of them with unexpressed agents. Once we get past the comparatively eloquent—and active-voiced—preamble (We the People of the United States…), we find ourselves immersed in a sea of passivity.

Article I, section 1. All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives….[We’ll Return to Article I later.]

Article 2, section 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows:…

Article 3, section 1. The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish….

You get the picture. Now, the main body of the Constitution is no longer entirely in effect; the states and legislatures have introduced and passed 27 amendments to the original articles (so far), which have altered and updated the original document as times have changed and U.S. citizens have had the opportunity to reconsider many original provisions. The first ten of these amendments are called The Bill of Rights. These are among the most important, and controversial, documents in American government and politics.

The Bill of Rights

The amendment process began almost concurrently with the composition of the original document. The first ten amendments were part of the package agreed upon by the Framers that was submitted for ratification by the first Congress assembled after the adoption of the new Constitution. It was the intent of the Framers to specify the key rights that citizens of the new nation were entitled to possess.

Unfortunately, the amendment writers were no more gifted as writers than the original bunch. Some of our amendments are models of confusion. Consider, for example, the well known First Amendment, which contains exactly one sentence—but what a sentence!

Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We are so used to quoting snippets from this amendment that we do not often notice how muddled the English is. The most that can be said of this lead-off sentence is that it is written in the active voice; beyond that, we sense that it forbids Congress from trampling on certain individual rights. However, the message of the amendment is obscured and diluted because the grammar of the sentence is convoluted. Let’s take a close look.

The sentence begins simply enough with a subject–verb–direct object, plus a negating adjective:

 Congress shall make no law

but after word number 5 the sentence devolves into a morass of seemingly random constructions and murky syntax. Three participles are followed by a gaggle of prepositional phrases and a couple of infinitives. By the time we get to “or the right,” we have pretty much lost our way. Where does this phrase come from, and to what does it relate? The final straw is “and to petition”; this seems like an afterthought.

Just try to diagram this sentence. I did, and it nearly cost me my sanity.

Here is my version. I had to distort the normal shape of a diagrammed sentence just to fit this sentence’s 45 words and convoluted structure onto the printed page. 

First Amendment

It is only by diagramming this awkward sentence that I managed to unravel its underlying syntax, which in turn revealed its meaning and logic. Through the diagram, we can see that the entire tail of the sentence is based on a set of three participial phrases that modify the noun law (respecting, prohibiting, and abridging), each with a direct object of its own. Furthermore, one of the participles (abridging) sports a compound direct object (the nouns freedom and right). And the final direct object (right) is followed by a prepositional phrase (of the people) modified by two infinitive phrases (to assemble and to petition).The coda of this symphony consists of a prepositional phrase (of grievances) within a prepositional phrase (for a redress). Whew!

Another problem with this problematic sentence is that the antique punctuation gives misleading clues as to what phrase belongs with which idea. For example, it is only by diagramming the sentence that we can see that or the right grammatically depends on the participle abridging.

Now, I thump no bibles, but I have to admit that, compared to this amendment, Thou shalt not kill is admirably direct.

Amendments or Improvements?

Sometimes the relationship between the original Constitution and the amendments is one of improvement: An amendment corrects an untenable idea in the Constitution while simultaneously clarifying its language.

Let’s return to another part of the very first article of the original Constitution, first quoted above. This article famously includes a notoriously callous calculation of the value—using a wealth of passive constructions—of the life of each slave for purposes of representation and taxation:

Article I, section 2. …Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Much later, the Thirteenth Amendment rendered this loathsome calculation null and void by making slavery illegal—and at the same time, it upgraded the language to a comparatively direct statement, with only one passive construction buried in a relative clause within a prepositional phrase. Remove the interpolation, as I have done by striking it through below, and you get a very straightforward sentence:

Amendment XIII, section 1.  Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place under their jurisdiction.

Similarly, the language of the next amendment, Amendment XIV, which extended citizenship to persons in the United States, is not only clear, but uncharacteristically devoid of passive constructions:

Amendment XIV, section 1.  All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Perhaps the committees of politicians working on these two amendments received, consciously or otherwise, some subtle guidance from the president himself, a man named Lincoln who was known to turn a good phrase from time to time.

The language of the amendments, then, is in general no better than that penned by the original Framers, but sometimes it represents an attempt to redress a wrong that became apparent only after the passage of time.

The Worst Amendment of All?

Let me take one final example of poor language by the hallowed Framers of the Constitution (they are always spoken of with capital letters). This instance consists of a sentence that is not only grammatically abominable, but has generated a hellish controversy that plagues us today as citizens. It continues to bedevil the Supreme Court, which is stuck with the job of interpreting it. This is the Second Amendment.

Amendment II.  A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Problem 1: Apparently unrelated parts. There are at least two grammatical problems with this amendment. The first is that the sentence contains two grammatically unlinked parts. The “sentence” contains 27 words, but the first 13 words have an ambiguous syntactical relationship with the last 14. The consequence of this is that there is no clear logical relationship between the two parts of the sentence.

Here is how the sentence has to be diagrammed:

 Second Amendment Part 1

 Second Amendment Part 2

Note the gap between the top half of the diagram and the bottom half. Grammatically, what we have in the first part of the sentence is an absolute construction, which is modeled on a Latin construction called the ablative absolute. An absolute construction is unrelated grammatically to the rest of a sentence; its link to the rest of the sentence is more holistic—it is supposed to modify the entire thought contained in the sentence.

Unfortunately, the holistic link in this case is itself not at all clear, with the result that the interpretation of the entire amendment is hopelessly muddled. The issue of who possesses the uninfringeable right to keep and bear arms—the militia? the states that muster militias? the people in well-regulated militias? the people in general?—is left unclear because of the presence of the absolute.

Absolute constructions are rare today, and are generally frowned on by grammarians, but they were more common in the 18th century, when the second amendment was composed. Still, this particular example is a singularly muddled construction, and the interpreters of the Constitution have been laboring under its ineptitude since the day it was penned.

Problem 2: A passive without an agent. The second most damaging flaw in the amendment is that the main clause of the sentence is in the passive voice—and the agent of the predicate (shall not be infringed) is not expressed.

Perhaps the Framers meant that no State could infringe the individual right to bear arms, or that the United States as a whole could not infringe it. Their passive construction represents a missed opportunity to be clear (or an intentional opportunity to be unclear). All that appears to be manifestly clear is the existence of some kind of non-infringeable right.

The grammar of today. Today, a participial construction, such as being necessary to the security of the State, would be attached to a noun that it is a grammatical part of a sentence—usually the subject. In such a construction, the participle would usually be placed next to the noun it modifies. If the Framers had done this, the amendment would be different—clearer, but different. Here are a couple of possible constructions.

Interpretation 1: A tight construction. For example, the second amendment participial construction today might be part of this sentence, in which the right to bear arms is severely restricted to militias:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of the State, shall have the right to store and provide arms to its members in the event of need, and this right shall not be infringed by any governmental body.

Interpretation 2: A loose construction. However, if we simply ignore the first part of the amendment, as many of today’s interpreters wish us to do, the second part clearly seems to vest the right to keep and bear arms in the people. In this part, the Framers seem to state that people—not just States or militias—have the right to keep and bear arms, and that this right is not to be infringed.

Under this sort of interpretation, the amendment might have been worded like this:

All citizens of the United States shall have the right to keep and bear arms, and this right shall not be infringed by any governmental body.

To limit or to explain? But if this is what the Framers wanted—if they had wanted to cede the right to bear arms to all persons, regardless of membership in a militia—why mention the militia at all? The presence of the first 13 words, that damn absolute construction, must have had a purpose in the minds of the Framers. The mention of the militia must have been meant either to explain or to limit the individual ownership right stated in the second part of the amendment.

Limiting. If the purpose was to limit the individual ownership right, perhaps this would be a better wording for the second amendment:

All citizens of the United States who are members of a well regulated militia shall have the right to keep and bear arms, and this right shall not be infringed by any governmental body.

Explaining. But if the purpose was to explain the individual ownership right, perhaps this would be a better wording:

Because States need well regulated militias, their citizens shall have the right to keep and bear arms, which shall be placed at the service of those militias upon need established by the States or the United States as a whole. The right of individuals to keep and bear arms for this or other purposes shall not be infringed by any governmental body.


Quite simply, we do not know what the Framers intended. In fact, what is codified in this ambiguous amendment may well be the Framers’ own ambiguity. It seems pretty clear to me that the second amendment is not the product of consensus among the Framers.

And we are stuck with their dithering.

Verbs: Part 6—Voice

Voice is that characteristic of a verb that permits the speaker to specify, and the listener to understand, the relationship among the action described by the verb, the agent causing or initiating the action, and the recipient of the action.

There are in English two voices: active and passive. Using a bare-bones active voice construction, the usual order of words is agent–action–recipient, or in grammatical terms, subject–predicate–direct object. In the corresponding passive voice construction the order is recipient–action–agent.

Active voice. Let’s look at a very simple active voice sentence that contains all three—and only those three—elements: an action, an agent, and a recipient.

Julian enjoys movies.

In this sentence, the action word—the verb—is enjoys; the agent (the doer) is the proper noun Julian; and the recipient of the action is the plural common noun movies. In a sentence diagram, we can illustrate this with the most basic of diagrams, which portrays the subject (the agent), predicate (the verb), and direct object (the recipient) on a single horizontal line, separated by vertical lines of different lengths.


Passive voice. The equivalent passive voice construction places the recipient (now the subject) and verb (now lacking a direct object) on the horizontal, and puts the agent (now the object of a prepositional phrase) in a subordinate position:

Movies are enjoyed by Julian.

And here is its sentence diagram:


What’s the difference? As you can see, this version is semantically, but not syntactically, equivalent to the active voice version—it preserves the meaning but not the grammar of the original sentence. Specifically, where the first sentence uses a simple present tense form of the verb to enjoy, the second one has to use the more convoluted passive construction, which in this case is [present tense of the verb to be + past participle of the verb to enjoy]. Furthermore, the passive construction pushes the agent (Julian) to the end of the sentence, introduced by a preposition (by) that indicates that he is the agent. Not trivially, three words have become five.

The syntactic differences between active and passive constructions are not the only differences; we will discuss other differences later in this article.

Forming the Passive Voice

The passive is formed in English not by inflecting (i.e., conjugating) the root verb, but by using auxiliary verbs. Specifically, as we have seen in the sample sentence above, the present indicative passive of the verb enjoy is formed by joining the present indicative active of the verb to be, in the appropriate person and number, to the past participle (the third principal part) of the verb enjoy.

I enjoy movies becomes Movies are enjoyed by me.

We like food becomes Food is liked by us.

Politicians sometimes tell lies becomes Lies are sometimes told by politicians.

Passive verbs across the tenses. There are active and corresponding passive verb forms for most, but not all, verbs across their many tenses. Here are examples.

As you can see, some verb tenses, most notably the perfect progressive tenses, really can’t be made passive. You can also see that many of the possible passive constructions sound odd—stilted and awkward—to the ear. For this and other reasons, most writing manuals urge careful writers and speakers to avoid passive constructions where active ones will be more effective. Typically, the active voice is not only more concise than the passive, but it is punchier, more direct, more forceful too.

Note also that commands (i.e., verbs in the imperative mood) do not do well in the passive voice. Pick up those papers simply works better than Those papers are to be picked up. And Sheriff Matt Dillon would have been met with naught but derision if he had snarled, The sky is to be reached for, Bart.

Similarly, the passive voice drains the power out of questions. Is that man bothering you? is better than Are you being bothered by that man? and Can I help you? is much better than Can you be helped by me?

Using the Passive Voice

Writing manuals and teachers so often and so forcefully inveigh against the passive voice that many people believe that there is something wrong with it. Well, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the passive voice per se, but it has certain undesirable characteristics that justify the cautions of writing manuals. In moving from active to passive constructions, we introduce  not only the obvious formal differences in the sentence (use of an auxiliary verb, inversion of the verb, slowing the pace and flow of the sentence, shifting of the agent and the recipient in the sentence, increasing the level of difficulty of the sentence), but other, subtler differences as well.

For the careful writer or speaker, the most important distinction lies in the differing effectiveness of statements in the two voices. The active voice supports sentences that are pointed, direct, and concise. The passive voice supports sentences that are indirect, vague, or even evasive. This mainly explains the counsel in books on effective writing to avoid as much as possible the passive voice.

Habitats of the passive voice. Some types of writing seems to thrive on passive constructions. Bureaucratic prose, for example, is rife with passives, as in the following actual examples:

Your signature should be placed in the box to the left of the date box, the form should be dated, and the completed form should be placed in a stamped envelope and mailed to the following address.

Employees are advised that their desks should be locked overnight, and in cases where sensitive documents are kept in the desk, during any absence from the desk of more than a few seconds. Such documents, if unattended, can be glanced at and even removed for copying if they are not secured. This will not be tolerated.

Police and legal writers also use the passive voice. In many cases, this is an intentional (or instinctual) bias toward an avoidance of clear assignment of responsibility. If a police report states,

According to witness testimony, the alleged perpetrator was initially approached by the alleged victim, hostile words were exchanged, leading to blows, and the ensuing altercation was actively engaged in by both parties.

the probable intent—or at least the pretext—is to avoid assigning responsibility for the altercation clearly to either the accused or the alleged victim.

Another sphere in which we find many passive constructions is scientific and academic writing. In this case, the culture of academia provides decades of precedent for avoiding the clear pattern of agent–action–recipient in all forms of research reporting. This seems to stem from a professional shibboleth against inserting the actual agent, the researcher, into the narrative of an experiment or a study. This shibboleth of course goes hand-in-hand with the prejudice against the first-person pronoun in research reports.

Here is an example from a journal article. I have underlined the passive constructions and made the active constructions bold. As you can see, the passives have it, 7–4.

A group of 1st-graders who were administered a battery of reading tasks in a previous study were followed up as 11th graders. Ten years later, they were administered measures of exposure to print, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and general knowledge. First-grade reading ability was a strong predictor of all of the 11th-grade outcomes and remained so even when measures of cognitive ability were partialed out. First-grade reading ability (as well as 3rd- and 5th-grade ability) was reliably linked to exposure to print, as assessed in the 11th grade, even after 11th-grade reading comprehension ability was partialed out, indicating that the rapid acquisition of reading ability might well help develop the lifetime habit of reading, irrespective of the ultimate level of reading comprehension ability that the individual attains. Finally, individual differences in exposure to print were found to predict differences in the growth in reading comprehension ability throughout the elementary grades and thereafter. (From Cunningham, A.E., & Stanovich, K.E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.)

In sum, the passive voice is not by any means incorrect, but at its most benign it lengthens sentences without adding anything new. Moving along the scale from benign to malignant, the passive voice can lead to genuine awkwardness of expression. And moving further toward malignancy, the passive can subtract something of importance from the sentence: the agent. If the agent is suppressed, the passive voice can be a way to dodge responsibility.

Secret Agents

This agent-suppressing ability is the most probable cause for the frequent use of passive constructions by politicians. Let me take just one notorious example, the sentence Mistakes were made.

“Mistakes were made.” Believe it or not, this agent-free passive sentence has had a very long run in political discourse. The first instance cited in a list of “notable political usages” of the phrase that appears in a Wikipedia article of the same name (at  goes back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Enjoy this sampling:

  • “Mistakes have been made, as we can all see and I admit it.” (President U.S. Grant, 1876, reporting to Congress)
  • “We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments [critical of the Washington Post].” (Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary, 1973)
  • “And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.” (President Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 1987)
  • Acknowledging that it was ill-advised to involve both a senior banking regulator and the Democratic Party’s senior fundraiser in White House discussions with the banking community about banking policy, President Clinton said “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.” (1997)
  • The king of all users of the phrase is probably Senator John McCain, who had a lot to say during the George Bush administration about the Iraq War. Speaking with reporter Tim Russert, McCain once said, “I think that one of the many mistakes that have been made is to inflate the expectations of the American people beginning three years ago that this was going to be some kind of day at the beach” [which, by the way, had been McCain’s own position earlier]. Then, speaking of President Bush, McCain went on to say, “he admitted that errors have been made.” When Russert tried to pinpoint an agent for all these mistakes, asking, “Isn’t that the president’s failure?” McCain replied, “Well, I—all of the responsibility lies in everybody in positions of responsibility. Serious mistakes are made in every war. Serious mistakes were made in this one, but I really believe that there is progress being made [Wow! Another one!], that we can be guardedly optimistic.” (2005)
  • U.S. General David Richards used the phrase to lay to rest the souls of about 70 Afghan civilians killed in an air strike: “In the night in the fog of war, mistakes were made.” (2006).
  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted that the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys during the George Bush administration for apparently political reasons had been a bad idea with “I acknowledge that mistakes were made.” (2007)
  • The Internal Revenue Service, apologizing for apparently targeting political action groups for audits before the 2012 presidential election, commented “Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale” [a statement that appears to have been vindicated by subsequent investigations] (IRS, 2013)

These statements all admit the existence of mistakes, but they seem to pin the blame for them on nothing at all—perhaps a change in the wind or a giddy whim of fate. The use of the passive voice makes it easy to avoid taking personal responsibility, and for this reason careful writers (and I mean stylistically careful, not legalistically careful) should weigh the use of the passive very judiciously against the almost always more straightforward active voice.

In my next blog post, I plan to write a little bit about the grammar of the United States Constitution.

Sisters—Part Three

[This is the conclusion of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]

Upon graduation in 1958, Justine was not expected—make that not allowed—to go to college. Girls in those days and of our class and ethnicity (both the Irish and Italian sides) were not destined for college. They were genetically programmed to get a job right out of high school and work at it until they met their future husband. After the nuptials, they would quit work to take care of household duties and bear children.

Justine did not appreciate this genetic blueprint and made her feelings known. I sat through many essentially one-sided debates on the college issue.

Justine argued something like this:

“I want to go to college and I have a right to go. Dad went to college, why not me? I’m good enough in school that I can get a scholarship. Then I can find a way to pay my other expenses. I’ll pick a college in the city so I can live at home to save money. When I graduate I can get a better job and earn more money with a college degree than with a high school diploma. And I can certainly meet better boys in college than in the neighborhood.”

With this she rested her case. The prosecuting attorney rose in rebuttal.

“College isn’t for girls. While you’re living under my roof, you don’t have a right to do anything that I don’t say you can do.”

My mother was the prosecuting attorney, by the way. Aunt Lucy, Aunt Margie, Aunt Kathryn, and probably every other woman my mother knew except Eleanor Roosevelt (whom she didn’t really know all that well) would have been happy to serve as expert witnesses.

Case closed. Justine’s future was determined.


Justine had no choice but to seek employment right out of high school, except for a short detour to pick up the additional equipment that would make her employable. Aunt Margie suggested a good secretarial school in the area where Justine could pick up skills comparable to those that Roni had already acquired through the curriculum at her commercial high school.

Defeated, Justine did as told, spending a summer learning to type and take shorthand and then gaining employment at a company in Manhattan named Agrico, which dealt in farm equipment and supplies.

She earned decent money but continued to live at home. This meant that she had to turn over her entire paycheck to our mom and live on an allowance. This was ungodly galling, and Justine thought that she might circumvent the policy by using tactics similar to those employed by my dad. On payday, he was sure to make a stop at Ryan’s Bar before coming home; this was his way of getting at least one good evening’s use of his own money. Justine was no drinker, but she did like clothes; her Ryan’s was Macy’s. This led to the incident of the pretty white blouse.

Fed up with my mother’s parsimony, Justine decided after nearly a year of feudal serfdom to seize some of her money for herself. One day she stopped at Macy’s on the way home and bought a plain but pretty white blouse—a fashion update—to wear to work.

My mother sniffed out the Macy’s bag instantly and confronted Justine.

“What’s that in the bag?”

“What? Oh, nothing. Just something I picked up for work.”

“Let’s see it.”

“No. No, mom. It’s just a little something. It will be good for my work.”

“Show me.”

“Look, you can see inside. It’s just a blouse. For work. Just a pretty white blouse.”

“You don’t need that. You have plenty of blouses.”

“Yes, but this one’s pretty. You know, for work.”

“Who are you trying to impress? Is it that Mr. McKee? Why do you need a fancy blouse?”

“It’s not fancy. It’s just pretty. And what has Mr. McKee got to do with anything?”

“That’s what I want to know. Take it out of the bag and let me see it.”

“Here. Here it is. See? It’s just a pretty little blouse. It’s white. For work.”

“How much did you pay for it? Give it to me.”

“No. You don’t have any right to take it. It’s mine. I bought it with my own money.”

“You don’t have any money. The money you earn is my money for supporting you in this house. Now give me the blouse and the receipt.”

“No. No, please, mom. It didn’t cost much. And it’s just for work, not to go dancing or anything.”

“So you go dancing with Mr. McKee? He’s married you know. You shouldn’t encourage him.”

“Oh mom. It’s not like that. He just likes me. He’s nice. We don’t go dancing or anything. He just likes to talk to me. And anyway, the blouse is just for me. For work. I paid for it.”

“Give me the bag. With the receipt.”

At this point, my mother grabbed the Macy’s bag. Justine held on tight until she had to give it up. My mother took the blouse out of the bag and held it up for inspection. She looked at the price tag.

“Fifteen dollars? You spent fifteen dollars on a blouse? I could have bought a week’s groceries on that. I’m going to return this blouse as soon as I can get downtown.”

Justine’s face showed fear and, to be sure, loathing. She lunged for the blouse and got a fistful of it. The two of them tussled for possession like the two mothers in Solomon’s court. There was a ripping sound.

My mother reacted first. “There. Now you’ve torn it. How am I supposed to return it now? I’ll have to put it away.”

She took the damaged blouse, bundled it up inside its bag, and stuffed it into the lower drawer of the sideboard in the dining room, with the spare tablecloths and napkins.

Horrified, Justine broke down as thoroughly and miserably as I ever saw her do. I pitied her. I stood silently at the foot of the dining room table, seeing my mother in a new light.

A scene from the long past came to me—the pencil case incident. But now I realized that my mother had switched sides. Instead of being my sister’s fearless protector she had become just another Sister Felicia Jerome. I felt ashamed and sorry for Justine.

Roni had a similar reaction, but I saw that her pity was alloyed with a malevolent force field clearly directed at my mom. I thought of this moment later when I noticed that Roni managed to use her own money to buy a record player, for which she encountered no fallout. That was Roni: She just did things and dared anyone to question her. I got the idea that mom would never tear any of Roni’s clothes in half.

The blouse remained in the sideboard drawer. For all I know, it is there still.

Justine continued to work for Mr. McKee until she met a local boy at the St. Mark’s Tuesday night dances. They hit it off right away and within a couple of years they married and Justine moved as far away as she could.

Sisters—Part Two

[This is the second of three parts of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]

To me, Roni was the closer of my sisters—closer in age and availability. Justine, six years older, was more distant, more involved in her own stuff, and too mature to be much of a companion. Roni was different. She played with me and fought with me and talked with me often. Consequently, I liked her better. On the other side of the coin, she was the sister I kicked down the stairs.

Much later, in the two-year period between Justine’s wedding and her own, 20-year-old Roni and 16-year-old I became even closer. We went to the movies and the beach together, and I accompanied her to the classroom part of her driver training course a subway ride away. Sometimes we listened to the little blue and white Decca record player she had brought home one day after work, in flagrant violation of house rules against spending her salary on anything at all not approved by my mother. I guess one day she just snapped, having become unbearably frustrated after looking one time too many at the non-functioning turntable in the massive, vintage 1930 radio-phonograph console in the living room, which my parents knew would never work again but refused to replace, insisting they would someday get it fixed.

Roni was also very cool—and utterly noncompetitive—about her standing relative to Justine’s at school. Justine was something of a legend in St. Mark’s elementary school. She was highly intelligent and the nuns knew it and gossiped about it. She set some kind of IQ standard. When it came my turn to work my way through the Catholic school system, one of my early teachers crystallized the challenge I faced: “Oh, you’re Justine Murphy’s brother. She was a very good student.” The clear implication was that if I tried I could maybe be a respectable second best.

This mattered to me. Roni had probably heard the same thing, but for some reason having to do with gender or birth order, I guess, it never affected her. She was content to find her own way, make her own friends, and toil at the level of accomplishment with which she was comfortable. This was a good level, but not the highest level. Justine was all high 90s, Roni was typically low 90s.

In the early grades, I didn’t know from 90s, but unlike Roni I wanted to be as respected as Justine. I formed the intention of accomplishing that task, but it was initially hard to tell if I was succeeding. In the early years of schooling under the nuns of St. Mark’s, there was no perceptible, formal system of measurement by which to differentiate gradations of intelligence. There were no numerical or letter grades in first or second grade, just animal stamps, holy cards, and check marks. The teachers in those grades were probably covertly frustrated with and peeved by early signs of developmental lag in some of their charges, but they resolutely showed nothing in grades one and two to distinguish between the smart kids and the dumb kids. Virtually the sole divider that I noticed pertained to urination: Kids who peed in the classroom were held in noticeably lower esteem than those who did not.

I did not. But then, of course, neither had Justine or Roni.


Justine was smart, as the nuns observed, but fragile. She was painfully shy, to the point that she could barely look another person in the eye. She was also sensitive to the sun, with the result that she was constantly squinting, which brought a worried, wrinkled look to her face. She was in no way the comparatively outgoing, social type that Roni was, and consequently had few tight friends. And most notably, she was no good under pressure.

Take the nun I will call Sister Felicia Jerome, Justine’s fifth grade teacher. Sister Felicia Jerome had a reputation, well deserved, of being strict and demanding—not so much in academics (Justine’s strength) as in neatness and orderliness. In particular, Sister Felicia Jerome resented the law of gravity: She hated it when kids dropped things. She made it a policy that any dropped articles, including pencils and paper, would be confiscated, to be returned, if she wished, after class.

This of course was a virtual mandate to Justine to drop things. She lost pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, bobby pins (Sister Felicia Jerome could hear them drop halfway across a crowded schoolyard), sheets of paper, rulers, what have you. Every day Justine would come home bereft of some essential article of learning and my mother would have to replace it.

The pencil case was the last straw. Every kid was required to have a pencil case. You could have a Lone Ranger pencil case, a Betty and Veronica pencil case, a plain pencil case—as long as you had a pencil case. The pencil case held, naturally, pencils, but also pens, erasers, compasses, protractors, and a rash of other accoutrements of fine schooling. One day Justine dropped her case and Sister Felicia Jerome took it from her. Justine went home that day in tears.

My mother had a strong reaction. She could replace the odd pencil or pen, especially since my dad could easily purloin writing implements and paper through his job at the New York City Board of Education, but a pencil case held a king’s ransom of expensive items. It was costly itself, and compasses and protractors were also pricey. The thought of replacing a fully loaded pencil case lit my mother’s fuse.

With me in tow (I was too young to leave behind and Justine too distraught to babysit), she marched straight to the school and managed to find Sister Felicia Jerome at her desk, probably brushing up on torture techniques of the Middle Ages. My mother parked me in the hallway outside the classroom door and stormed Sister Felicia Jerome’s desk. Mom was steely-eyed, righteous, and more dominant of voice than even a nun. I listened as she absolutely cowed Sister Felicia Jerome.

I of course had no intention of missing the visuals, and so I moved from the hallway to the doorway. The good nun made futile attempts to argue her case but my mother rode roughshod over her protests. All discussion ended as mom demanded to know where the pencil case could be found (a closet in the corner of the room); then she retrieved it and departed without another word. She left Sister Felicia Jerome dumbstruck.

I would like to say she also left her contrite and made a new nun of her, but I have no evidence for either claim. All I know is that Justine was involved in no more incidents of brutality. And by the time I got to fifth grade, Sister Felicia Jerome was no longer at St. Mark’s, having probably been reassigned to Quantico to train marines.


Justine’s shyness was a social barrier but she was in no way a misfit. She was mostly a typical American girl of the 1950s: She was aware of and responded to fads, followed the stars in fan magazines, enjoyed American Bandstand and other popular TV shows, tried to style her hair in a Hollywood way with newly invented Toni home permanent kits (bad idea), did her best to hide her acne, and even attended the Tuesday night dances in the St. Mark’s auditorium—in other words she wasn’t just withdrawn and hyper-bright.

Justine had friends but they were not the alpha girls. She admired many boys but they pretty much ignored her. Her dances and romances on Tuesday nights were virtual, never actual. She was not sexually advanced; that was for the Italian girls. She didn’t know how to flirt.

Roni knew how to flirt. She attracted boys through her good looks, outgoing personality, and sense of humor. Her school grades weren’t threatening and she was easy to talk to. The result was that Roni had an easier time than Justine in the lab experiment that is grades six through eight. This doesn’t mean that she had what you would call boyfriends in grade school or did anything as socially avant garde as go steady, but she was at least in the mix.

As for disciplinary matters, Roni glided through grade school without attracting any particular Sisterly attention. She had no pencil case incidents, no detentions, but also no scholarly or good conduct awards. Of all the Irish girls in her class, she probably earned the fewest holy cards for pious or devotional acts. She attended mass on Sundays and, with the rest of the school, on First Fridays. She didn’t talk too much or too loudly at those events.

She attended the Tuesday night dances, and actually danced with some of the boys. There were no blots on her report cards, but no stars either. And when it came time to graduate in 1956, she followed the predestined route allotted to girls of her apparent qualities—the one that led to the commercial high school, St. Joseph’s, rather than the academic high school, St. Brendan’s, that Justine attended.

Compared to Roni, Justine also accepted a great deal more fatherly attention during the early years of high school. After dinner, my father would sit with Justine at the dining room table that served as the homework zone for all of us. He had an astounding memory. Justine was forced to struggle with French (evidently a more academic language than the Spanish that was Roni’s lot in her commercial school) and my dad remembered far more than I would have guessed. I particularly remember him helping Justine through a laborious translation, bit by bit on successive nights throughout the school year, of Blanche Neige (Snow White). I was amazed as I sat doing my third grade math at two things: that my dad was fluent in French and that French people had Snow White too.

He not only did French homework with her but also, if I am remembering it right, Latin, algebra, English, social studies, and everything else but P.E. I was impressed, but when my time came six years later to take the same subjects, I let it be known that I preferred to do my homework by myself. My dad was disappointed but I had a statement to make.

The other service he rendered her (and later me) was to adjust his workday so that he could take her to high school. She was the nervous type, admittedly, but it seemed excessive even to the young me that he did this two years straight, considering that St. Brendan’s was one express stop away on the subway and he took her not just to the station but all the way to the school door. When my time came, he took me to the school door for two days; for the rest of my freshman year (and never later) he went only as far as Times Square, where our paths diverged. I don’t remember if he decided to do it this way or if I made the choice, but I suspect it was the latter.

Justine’s high school career was uneventful. She did quite well at St. Brendan’s and had several close friends. She joined the French Club and dreamed of going to Montreal or even France with her classmates, but never did. Her consolation was a class trip to Washington, D.C., in senior year, which excited her as much as Paris would have done. She was bright enough to enjoy learning and to crave more when she finished high school.

This was not to be.

[To be concluded]

Sisters—Part One

I retain in the spacious shame department of my long-term memory the image of my sister Roni’s rear end growing steadily smaller as she slides and stumbles headfirst down the basement stairs. Roni’s dive was no accident: I pushed her. I should mention that I was probably five at this time, and Roni nine.

It all started with the Pepsi bottles.

My mother, who had virtually despotic control of the household finances, kept everyone in the family, my father included, on a tight, nonnegotiable budget. One line item was Pepsi Cola. My two older sisters and I loved Pepsi, and my mother would accommodate our craving by purchasing one six-pack for the three of us. The rule was that she would not replace the six-pack until six empty bottles had been returned to the cardboard carrier, which was kept on the first step of the stairs leading to the basement.

The mathematically correct ration was of course two bottles each; our young morality made this apportionment as inviolable as the water distribution system on a lifeboat. The minute the sixth bottle hit the carton, and not a second before, we could petition my mother for another six-pack.

It was well established that I liked Pepsi most among the three Murphy children and, developmentally, had the least self-control. My sisters knew this. At the time of the stairway incident, they were also old enough to have considerably more freedom than I. They could, for example, leave the house unaccompanied to walk to and from school. This meant that they could, at least theoretically, obtain a soft drink from a local soda fountain. There was just such an establishment on the corner of 18th Street and Avenue Z, which is to say one block from our house and less than that from the schoolyard. Therefore, were they so inclined and so flush with cash as to put a nickel together (or even half a nickel, if they were willing to share with another girl), they could procure a perfectly satisfactory carbonated beverage without having to invade their home ration.

For this reason or some other, it was frequently the case that there remained in the cardboard bottle carrier one untouched bottle after I had polished off my two Pepsis. I suspected Justine of engineering this situation intentionally because it resembled a tactic she often used when we all had ice cream cones. She would slowly, slowly lick her scoop of ice cream while Roni and I applied a vigorous tongue to ours or even, in my case, bit off fairly large chunks. The result was that Justine was still working on her cone long after we had finished ours. With great kindness, she would moan and sigh with pleasure as she ran her tongue over her cone, somehow managing to scrape it so fine as to diminish the total surface depth one micron at a time.

So, as I say, if there was to be a Pepsi laggard in the house, nine times out of ten it would be Justine. This time it was Roni.

She held steady at one Pepsi for the better part of a week. I would check every morning and a few times during the day, and I would invariably find five down and one to go. Finally, I resorted to a tactic that was not in the code of the Pepsi bottles: I asked her if she was ever going to finish her last bottle and, if not, could I maybe have it.

Instead of saying either yes or no, she surprised me. “Oh, do I still have a bottle left? Let’s go count them.” We went to the top of the basement stairs, and she knelt and bent over—way over—to achieve a physical, hands-on count of the bottles: “One, two, three, four, five empties, and one full one still to go. I had no idea,” she said. “I’ll just have to enjoy that last one in a couple of days. Sorry, Eddie.”

I was old enough to process irony. I snapped. Without conscious intent, my knee moved forward squarely to meet her bottom and then simply continued moving. So did Roni. She went down those stairs soundlessly, as far as I can recall, and reached the bottom with great speed. That’s when she started crying.

I ran straight out the front door. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even pause to run downstairs and check her condition; I suppose I could claim that her crying reassured me that she had suffered nothing fatal and made it unnecessary to examine her further, but that would be a lie. I didn’t think of that or anything that had Roni at its center; I thought only of me.

I had never done anything of this magnitude before. I knew I would be in trouble, but I didn’t know how much. I didn’t run away; I merely nailed myself to a cross and hung around on the sidewalk in front of the house.

After some time my sister Justine came out and delivered the preliminary verdict: “Mom says you should just stay out here and wait until Dad comes home.” She wouldn’t even answer me when I asked if Roni was all right. All she did was give me a look such as his jury probably later gave Ted Bundy after convicting him of multiple murders in 1980. “Just stay here,” was all she would give me.

When my unwitting father finally arrived, I greeted him shyly and with evident guilt, but I wasn’t clever enough to put my side of the story on the record first. In truth, there was no my side of the story. I let him go into the house without saying why I was outside. Several minutes later he came out and told me in an eerily flat voice, “You’re in serious trouble. Roni will get better, but I had to call the police.” Just then a siren sounded a couple of blocks away.

Of course he hadn’t called the police, but I was convinced he had. It turned out that Roni was shaken up but perfectly fine (well, maybe a slight scrape or two) and my Brooklyn-savvy dad had played the odds about the siren, winning by coincidence. When the siren died down without spilling a team of armed officers onto 19th Street, I began to catch on. My father forced a stern look onto his face and told me to go inside, apologize to Roni, and put myself to bed.

I was relieved, having spent the time outside the house in a fantasy land of punishment, prohibitions, and lost futures. Dread of pain occupied a significant portion of my mind, but the worst of my torments was embarrassment. I thought about all the people on the block who didn’t consider me a ruffian. I pictured the people at mass who admired my hymn singing. I thought about how I would enter school in just a few months with a bad reputation, never have friends, grow up lonely. I begged God for another chance. I think I even offered to give up Pepsi for the rest of my life if only, if only.

Years later, when I became a father, I recalled this incident and the way my parents handled it. The flagellation I self-administered while stewing on the sidewalk, greeting passersby and trying to look normal while convinced that a lurid GUILTY sign hovered over my head like a tarnished halo, was far harsher than any punishment my parents could have doled out. It seems impossible, but no one can nail you to a cross better than you can.

And it worked. I never kicked anyone down a staircase again.


If you are the youngest of three children and you are a boy, it is arguable whether having two older sisters or two older brothers is the more advantageous position (we will ignore the case of having a mixed pair). The common wisdom is that having older brothers is better, at least in Darwinian terms, because it makes you tougher, more competitive, more fit. The thinking is that you will be improving yourself as you strive to keep up with your brothers in sports and physical games and have to defend yourself when the games drift toward physical or psychic abuse. With older sisters, there is usually no sense of endangerment, and hence no forced muscular or psychic development; instead, the suspicion is that you will be coddled, treated perhaps as a little dress-up doll—sissified.

On the whole, I think it was good that I had older sisters. I don’t remember being coddled, and I am certain there weren’t any dress-up situations. It may have been a developmental disadvantage that my sisters were stereotypically feminine when it came to physical activities, because I am and always have been completely hopeless at sports, but both of them were clever and appreciated intelligence, offering a fertile environment for my style of humor and my verbal predilections. Another advantage of older sisters is that I never had to wear hand-me-downs. I also got my own room.

My sisters pretty much went their way and I went mine. They were close to each other, sharing a room at home, while I had my own small room adjacent to theirs and directly above the kitchen. My room was near enough that I could hear them talking as I drifted off to sleep, and their companionship in the dark hours seemed sometimes enviable, but I was mostly happy to have my own little enclave where I could think my thoughts and hum my hums without interruption.

My sisters were just fine as siblings go, although I always—always—felt different from them in ways other than the obvious. For one thing, they didn’t seem to like leaving the house, preferring to remain indoors on weekends in their pajamas and bathrobes well into the afternoon, while I couldn’t wait to jump into my dungarees, as we called them then, and slam the door behind me.

For another thing, they never hung out with the neighborhood kids, while I was an enthusiastic member of a group of boys and girls from the block who spent summers on the street running, playing red-light-green-light, roller skating, flirting through a game called “Truth, Dare, Consequence, Promise, or Repeat,” and engaging in long bouts of a New York game called Ringolevio—which was a bit like tag, but subtler and more complex. (Ringolevio is to tag as chess is to checkers.) To this day my personality and even my appearance remain quite distinct from my sisters’ (who in both respects resemble my father), and I have long harbored a secret suspicion that there might have been a milkman in my mother’s life.

My sisters were four and six years older than I, and thus a bit out of range for playing and companionship purposes, which may have helped to nurture my more solitary side when I was at home. As soon as my Uncle Marty and his family moved out of our basement in 1952, I moved in. My parents made the basement a kind of large storage area for all sorts of things, including my toys, comic books, and baseball cards. When I wasn’t outside playing with my friends, I was in the basement reading, imagining, shooting, making marble runs, counting my play money, and daydreaming.

[To be continued]

Verbs: Part Five—Mood

The term mood, when applied to verbs, refers to the speaker’s or writer’s attitude toward the reality, potentiality, purpose, or effect of the action described by the verb. In English, the four moods are the indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and conditional. The conditional mood is sometimes regarded as a subset of the subjunctive.

The Indicative Mood

When the attitude of the writer is actual or factual, which is to say concerned only with conveying or requesting information or expressing opinions, the verb will be in the indicative mood. We spend most of our lives in the indicative mood. The sentences in this paragraph are in the indicative mood.

The indicative mood can be used with any tense of the verb. For instance, the following sentences are all in the indicative mood, even though they use different tenses.

I have about 30 books on that topic. (present tense)

Are you thinking of buying that refrigerator? (present progressive tense)

Your brother was a writer, wasn’t he? (past tense)

Sal and Thera were swimming all afternoon. (past progressive tense)

We ate at that restaurant last month. (past tense)

I have always enjoyed spending my summers on the lake. (present perfect tense)

Honestly, that idea had never occurred to me. (past perfect tense)

Can you tell me how to get to South Street? (present tense)

Will your brother spend time with us this Christmas? (future tense)

You’ll have finished that book in plenty of time for me to borrow it for my class. (future perfect tense)

The Imperative Mood

The imperative is used to express commands, requests, or desires. The best way to illustrate this mood is to play a little mind game.

Imagine you are the king or queen of a small country. Picture your castle peopled by eager servants and filled with wealth untold. Summon your page and direct him to bring your children to you. Look upon your children; tell them how important and fine and noble they appear. Urge them to maintain always their regal bearing, but remind them to mitigate their hauteur with human compassion. Oblige them to accept that their birth and breeding are privileges. Counsel them to understand their subjects. Help them to see the role of a monarch as serving the people, not the reverse.

The main verbs in this paragraph are all in the imperative mood. The subject of every main verb, as is usually the case with verbs in the imperative mood, is an implied You.

You should also notice that the imperative is used mostly with the present tense. You can’t order someone to do something in the past, of course, and while there are future commands (of the type: You will obey me!), they are rare now outside of movies involving Nazi Commandants.

Both the indicative and imperative moods are reality-based moods. They pertain to the here and now, and in the case of the indicative, to the actual past or the intended future. They contrast strongly with the subjunctive mood, which is the mood of unreality.

The Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood is the mood for expressing wishes and hopes, talking about imaginary or hypothetical situations, expressing preferences, and issuing indirect commands, suggestions, or requirements.

For instance, the following sentences use verbs (underlined) that are in the subjunctive mood:

I wish I were president.

If I were president, I’d end inequality in every sphere of human life.

I know what Theo would do if he were president. What would you do if you were president?

It is essential that the voices of parents be heard.

The committee suggested that the accountant prepare a detailed explanation of last quarter’s corporate expenditures.

The head nurse demanded that the police officer leave the patient’s room immediately.

Visible and invisible subjunctives. The subjunctive mood in English requires very few verb changes (i.e., inflections), which is lucky for us. In fact, of the seven true subjunctives sprinkled in the sentences above (i.e., those not using would), one of them requires no verb change at all: What would you do if you were president? This second-person subjunctive form is no different from the second-person indicative form: you were.

The other subjunctives in the sentences take a form that is different from the corresponding indicative form (I were, he were, voices be, accountant prepare, officer leave). These forms are “visible” subjunctives; i.e., they are distinguishable from their indicative counterparts (I was, he was, voices are, accountant prepares, officer leaves).

There are many “invisible” subjunctive forms in English hiding within seemingly indicative shapes. In fact, we often use the subjunctive without really knowing we’re doing so; it’s clearly quite possible to say, for instance, What would you do if you were me? without realizing that we have used the subjunctive mood (if you were me).

Formation. The universal way to form a subjunctive—in all persons of all verbs—is to use the base form of the verb (the first principal part, which is the infinitive without the word to). Let’s take a look at how this plays out in the formation of subjunctives across the three persons, focusing first on verbs other than to be.

First and second persons. In the first and second persons, singular and plural, of any verb other than to be, the subjunctive form (i.e., the base form of the verb) is indistinguishable from the corresponding indicative form—it is always an invisible subjunctive. Only the context—the implied or stated wish, hope, dream, imagining, preference, counsel, suggestion, or command—tells us that we are dealing with the subjunctive.

Consider these examples of invisible subjunctives across the three persons and both numbers of some common verbs:

Would you prefer that I go with you, or would you rather we both stay home?

Are you suggesting that we lie to the police?

I would suggest that you attend the concert with your daughter.

The judge has decreed that I appear before the magistrate at ten a.m.

My advice is that we accompany you to the courthouse.

I strongly suggest that you do the speaking.

Third person. In the third person singular and plural, the regular formation of the subjunctive (the base form of the verb) has a different effect in the singular and in the plural.

In the third person plural—the they form—the subjunctive of all verbs except to be is invisible: It is the same form as the indicative. But in the third person singular of these verbs, the subjunctive differs from the indicative because the subjunctive uses the base form, as it is supposed to do, while the indicative (as you may recall) uses the base form + s. Here are some examples of subjunctives in the third person, both visible and invisible:

The captain suggests that passengers remain in their seats with their seat belts fastened. [Third person plural: The subjunctive is invisible.]

The captain requests that passenger Morris return to his seat immediately. [Third person singular: The subjunctive differs from the indicative and is therefore visible.]

House rules require that audience members refrain from using their cell phones during the show. [Third person plural: The subjunctive is invisible.]

The management requests that no one photograph any portion of this presentation. [No one is third person singular, causing the subjunctive to be visible.]

The Verb To Be. The verb to be is slightly different. Across all persons and numbers, the subjunctive form is the base form of the verb, be, just as it’s supposed to be, but this form is always visible because it can never be indicative.

The boss strongly suggests that we be in attendance at the “voluntary” picnic.

The judge has decreed that I be at the magistrate’s office no later than ten a.m.

My advice is that you be at the courthouse one hour before the hearing.

I strongly suggest that he be the spokesperson.

The Court demands that members of the public be silent and respectful during the trial.

An endangered species? While subjunctive forms are far from extinct, they are probably on the path to extinction. It would not yet sound quite right to use the indicative forms in these sentences (i.e., The boss suggests that we are in attendance; It is decreed that I am; My advice is that you are; I strongly suggest that he is; The Court demands that they are), but speakers today are coming to use the conditional should in place of the actual subjunctive, as in:

The boss strongly suggests that we should be in attendance at the “voluntary” picnic.

It is decreed that I should be at the magistrate’s office no later than ten a.m.

My advice is that you should be at the courthouse one hour before the hearing.

I strongly suggest that he should be the spokesperson.

The Court demands that members of the public should be silent and respectful during the trial.

The Conditional Mood

Like the subjunctive mood, the conditional mood in English is a mood of possibility, unreality, wishing, and pretending. In contrast with other languages, which use inflected forms, English constructs its conditional verb forms with auxiliary verbs—almost always would, and sometimes might, should, could, can, and ought.

Unsurprisingly, conditionals are used very often in conditional sentences—that is, sentences comprising an if clause (a protasis) and a then clause (an apodosis). Within the sentence, the if clause—the condition—is the subordinate clause and the then clause—the result— is the main clause. Note that the then in what I have been calling “the then clause” is usually unexpressed, or understood.

Recall one of the sentences I used as an example of the subjunctive mood earlier, into which I have now inserted the usually unexpressed then:

If I were president, [then] I’d end inequality in every sphere of human life.

This is one type of conditional sentence, a counterfactual (or contrary-to-fact) sentence using the subjunctive mood of the verb to be in the if clause and the conditional mood of another verb in the then clause. It is called conditional precisely because the stated result (e.g., ending inequality) is conditional upon the truth of the if clause. In the case of a counterfactual sentence like this one, the condition is not met (I am not president) and therefore the result is unattained (i.e., imaginary): universal equality remains a dream.

Before we discuss the 4 + 1 types of conditional sentences that grammarians recognize, let’s take a look at how this sentence would be diagrammed.

 If I were president

Types of Conditionals: An Overview

In English, there are four basic types of conditional sentences, commonly (but mysteriously) numbered 0, 1, 2, and 3. The Zero Conditional is factual, Conditional I is predictive, and Conditionals II and III are hypothetical. A fifth type, the Mixed Conditional, combines elements of types II and III. The following table presents examples of sentences illustrating the basic types.

Conditional Table

The Zero Conditional

In the Zero Conditional, the action in both the protasis (the if clause) and the apodosis (the then clause) is generally in the present. The Zero Conditional is used for statements that the speaker or writer claims or believes to be factual, logical truths.

Conditional I

In Conditional I, the action in the protasis is generally in the present, and the action of the apodosis in the future. Conditional I is predictive: The writer or speaker expresses a prediction about the likely future result of performing the action in the if clause.

Conditional II

In Conditional II, the action in the protasis is expressed as a past tense, but refers to a usually unrealized present condition, and the action of the apodosis is in the present conditional.

This is an unusual set-up worth parsing in detail. The actions in If I spoke German or If I had a million dollars seem to be set in the past, but they really refer to a (nonexistent) state or condition in the present: If I spoke German now and If I had a million dollars now. But the speaker knows that these present conditions do not exist, and so Conditional II is hypothetical and counterfactual.

How subtle this is! The writer or speaker sets up a logical relation between a past event that did not happen, a present condition that does not exist, and an unrealized result that will not come to be. Conditional II expresses, usually with regret, a “prediction” about what might have been if only the condition in the if clause, which doesn’t exist because of a road not taken in the past, were true.

I believe that the past tense verbs in Conditional II (in this case, spoke and had) may be the traces of extinct subjunctive forms that would have existed as inflected forms if English had developed differently. (The preceding sentence, as we will now see, happens to be a Conditional III. It may also be hogwash because I am not a trained linguist; I merely play one in this blog.)

Conditional III

In Conditional III, the action of both the protasis and apodosis is in the past, but the action of the protasis refers to a time in the past prior to the time referred to in the apodosis. That is, one past action is “paster” than the other. The other characteristic of Conditional III sentences is that both clauses are hypothetical and counterfactual: Neither action happened.

For example, in the sentence If you had spoken up, I would never have married her, the speaking up would have had to have happened (but didn’t) before the marrying (which would then, it is claimed, not have happened). Similarly, in the sentence If Carlos had come, the party would have been more fun, Carlos’s coming would have had to have happened before the party became a total bore; since he never came, the party was a flop.

To express these hypothetical relationships, English puts the verb in the protasis in the past perfect and the verb in the apodosis in the past conditional (aka the conditional perfect).

The Mixed Conditional

The Mixed Conditional is a combination of Conditional II and Conditional III. Typically, the action in the protasis is in the past and the situation described in the apodosis is in the present, generally describing something that is not the case now. Thus, the Mixed Conditional is usually hypothetical and counterfactual. For example, If I had listened to you (in the past), I wouldn’t be in the trouble I’m in now (but I didn’t, and I am).

Here, in summary and in conclusion, is a chart of the characteristic attitude and usual progression of tenses in the basic types of conditional sentences.

Conditional Table 2

The next topic in our discussion of verbs will be voice.


The Italians in the Basement—Part Four

[This is the fourth and final part of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Uncle Marty drew from his Italian heritage an encyclopedia of tools and their names. His manual dexterity exceeded my dad’s by at least two orders of magnitude, and he loved fixing, building, and bettering things. Whenever he had a free weekend, he would search through the house with my father for projects to take on. If I was lucky I could accompany them on their quest. It was while searching for just such a project that my dad revealed, in a closet in my parents’ bedroom that I had never even noticed before, a ladder to the roof. Because I was with them at the time, Uncle Marty invited me to come along to the rooftop, and my father agreed.

I don’t know what Dad and Marty were seeking that day, but when I stepped out onto the roof I was transported. I had never felt so full of light, so free of gravity, not even in the Statue of Liberty. I felt myself rising out of my body and hovering above my neighborhood. Dropping abruptly to my knees on the asphalt roof with a thrilling sense of vertigo, I crawled to the roof edge and got a God’s-eye-view of my street: the elder Mr. Crafa next door with his constant lawnmower; dapper Mr. Bruno, on his way home up the street to his wife and his two boys, who were on the way to becoming my friends; even Mrs. Welch on the stoop of the three-story apartment house next door, holding and cooing over one of the many stray cats she had taken in over the past couple of months.

In fact, my scope was now virtually infinite: Because 19th Street consisted of an unbroken series of row houses, every roof touched every other roof. I could have walked from Avenue Z nearly all the way to Avenue Y, and on a lazy summer day a couple of years thence, I did so. On this day, I closed my eyes and imagined such a walk. The people in the houses beneath my shoes would have no idea that someone—a boy—was walking on their heads. What sublime power, what ecstasy!

That day I was Newton receiving the gift of godly knowledge, or Francis of Assisi on his first levitation. That rooftop was a mind- and soul-changer that I owe to Marty’s enthusiasm for repair projects and adventure, and to his generosity toward a quiet five-year-old nephew. It was only one of a catalog of ways that Uncle Marty’s tenure in our basement affected my life.


The Catholic Church, singularly adept at hyperfine analysis and minute categorization, recognizes seven formal virtues. Four of these (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) are called moral virtues. A person can earn the moral virtues through deep study, hard work, and vigilance. Anyone with sufficient motivation and commitment can develop the moral virtues.

But the Church also recognizes three theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—so called because they have to be divinely infused into a person, not gained through an act of will or devotion. The theological virtues are in essence born, not made; you can’t go out and buy them, even with coins of piety. The soul can possess them only by God’s generosity. A person with them can be said truly to possess grace.

Uncle Marty stocked my young soul with a wealth of lessons that I learned chiefly by observation. I learned about driving nails cleanly, sawing across the grain, using the knuckles and hands as measuring tools, and many other practical things. I learned that a car ride could be an adventure and that, if you had nice things, you should share them. I learned never to be gloomy, always to see the good in people, no matter how raggedy or unusual the exterior, and to be quicker to laugh at yourself than at others.

The most important lessons he offered were the subtlest, and were delivered by actions rather than lessons. I don’t know about the moral virtues, since I’m sure he could be as imprudent, unjust, weak, and intemperate as anyone. But in his unfailing good cheer, confidence, and kindness, he incarnated the theological virtues that all the teachings of the nuns and priests who would come later could deliver only as abstractions. Marty’s pedagogy was corporeal. Looking back I see that he was faith, hope, and charity in the flesh, and I can only wonder that the grace of God so quietly resided in this humble man, and feel lucky that I had the chance to experience it.

The Italians in the Basement—Part Three

[This is the third of four parts of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Gerry was four years older than I, about the same age as my sister Roni. When her family first moved into our house, Gerry must have sniffed the air and instantly sensed a threat. She immediately formed a cynical entente with my sisters, reinforced by gender and age, and made me—the baby of the family, the boy—the object of relentless torment. I felt her hostility but was too young to do much about it. Except, of course, encourage her mother to fawn on me.

Gerry was a talented tormentor. She would pick on me relentlessly. If she knew a clever card trick, she would show it to my sisters and me. Then, when we all begged her to tell us how she did it, she would eventually tell my sisters, but when it came my turn, blandly inform me that “a good magician never reveals her tricks.” If she had a juicy bit of gossip, a joke, or a funny story, she would openly exclude me from her audience, banishing me with clever sayings like, “Go tell your mother she wants you” or “Why don’t you make like the wind and blow?”

Once she showed us a pencil drawing that she had done. It was a portrait of a girl in profile, and it was pretty good. The only odd thing was that the girl had two distinct swellings placed symmetrically on her torso: one in the front of her chest, which I knew was right, and another equally prominent in the same region of her back, which was something I had never seen before. So I asked her.

“Gerry, what’s that bump?”

“You mean this one,” she said, pointing to the breasts.

“No,” I said, “I know what that one is. What’s this one?”

“Oh, look at him. He knows what tits are. Not bad for a baby. How did you find out about those, Baby Eddie?”

“Everybody knows about those,” I stammered. “They’re real, you know. Girls have them.”

“Your sisters don’t,” she said.

“Uh, well, I guess not. But they will. You have them and our mothers have them.”

“You little sneak. You’ve been looking at things you’re not supposed to look at. You’re no angel after all—you’re a bad boy. Eddie is a peeper. Eddie is a peeper.

“Go away, you little peeper, before I tell your mother.”

Completely flustered, I slunk away. What a stinker, I thought.

Stinker was a pretty good stab at what Gerry was, given the developmental limitations of my vocabulary. She did things just like this all the time, making me the odd kid out on every occasion when it was just the four of us together. I finally gave up on her and went outside or to another room when she was around, although with all those Grimaldis in the house, there weren’t many vacant spaces at any given time.


Gerry’s problem could not have been that she was mistreated or starved for parental love. In fact, she was an only child who was treated extraordinarily well. In at least one area she was more catered to than we were: She had more toys and other good things than my sisters and I put together.

Let’s take one example. After her family’s TV, her best possession, in my view, was a fully articulated Howdy Doody puppet, dressed in cowboy gear, with more movable joints than a Chinese gymnast. Howdy was controlled by a ship’s rigging of strings and handles; if you worked at it you could probably make Howdy dance better than Fred Astaire.

Gerry never came close to mastering the strings, working at them and their paddles for no more than twenty minutes before giving up permanently. Devoid of patience and manual coordination, she missed Howdy’s potential, leaving him on day one a pile of wooden limbs and fishing line in the corner of her room.

Howdy Doody wasn’t a toy my ultra-frugal parents would ever buy. But every time I saw him or thought of him, I wished they had. I was of just the sort of patient and meticulous disposition to work out how to make him move—and unlike Gerry I was probably literate enough, even at age five, to work through the instruction booklet and illustrative pictures that came with him.

But she never gave me a chance. She kept him in her room and, undoubtedly noticing my envy, told me never even to think about touching him.

Gerry’s real problem, I realize now, was that she was a girl in an Italian household. For all the joy Italian girls may give their parents when they arrive, the blessing is necessarily mixed because, in a world populated by their natural predators (i.e., Italian boys), girls bring the onus of eternal parental vigilance. Boys, in contrast, cause no commensurate worries. For Aunt Kathryn, I clearly represented the son she never had, and Gerry knew it.

[To be continued]

The Italians in the Basement—Part Two

[This is the second of four parts of a story about the time during 1951-52 when the Grimaldis—my Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn, and cousin Geraldine—lived in the basement of my parents’ house in Brooklyn.]

Uncle Marty had one quirk that was insanely galling to my father. Once a week, he would come up from the basement, which had only a sink and toilet, walk through the living room, and go upstairs to our bathroom to take a shower. We would hear the water running and, sometimes, Marty himself crooning a popular tune or a sloppy Italian amore song. He was an emotive bather.

Marty’s baritone was not the thing that bothered my father. What really got to him was that, for all the Saturdays Marty indulged his shower habit, he never remembered to tuck the curtain inside the tub. While the rest of us were tuning in to his musical performances, my father must have been listening for the distinctive sound of water hitting the bathroom floor. The minute Marty went downstairs to his basement lair, my dad would speed upstairs and angrily mop the sodden bathroom floor. His colorful vocal stylings, which were also audible in the living room, involved neither pop tunes nor amore.

Of course, my dad, being Irish, never voiced his complaint directly to Marty; instead he griped about it to himself, tubside, and to the larger audience of his family sotto voce when he returned to the living room red-faced from his exertions. Marty’s tub manners chewed on my dad’s innards as long as the Grimaldis occupied our basement.


Marty was invariably cheerful and energetic, creative and enthusiastic; in daily life, he was a jet with a visible contrail. Even my father, who was irked by some of his habits, respected Marty’s Italianate manual abilities, which complemented my dad’s less tactile Hibernian leanings (which he probably would have called brains). And he liked—everyone liked—Marty’s affable nature and sense of humor. Marty was always good for a funny story—often a story in which he himself played the role of butt—or a joke he had heard, and he bore a bone-deep resemblance to Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, who also had the comic gift.

My father seemed especially bemused by jobless Marty’s utter lack of concern at a time when most people, with less reason, harbored a Sears Catalog of fears: not making ends meet, commies, a new Depression, atom bombs, polio, and gangsters, among others. Not Marty. I remember one time, after some interaction with Marty that I don’t recall, my father saying something to my mother that I processed even then as deeply portentous. His complete utterance, a florid compound sentence that I understood but imperfectly at the time, nevertheless stuck word-for-word in my mind. My dad, recovering from his encounter with Marty, shook his head slowly, exhaled, and commented, with both exasperation and admiration, “Marty could walk out the door and see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse grazing their horses on the lawn, and he’d offer them a pail of water.”


Aunt Kathryn was a large Avon Lady obviously addicted to her products. She applied cosmetics with a heavy hand to every square inch of her body. She always smelled of perfume, which was not unpleasant, and cigarettes, which was, and wore rouge and bright red lipstick. Her physical expressiveness significantly exceeded the combined passion level of the entire Murphy household.

Kathryn was loud, flashy, painted, fragrant, and colorful, and when she came upstairs to visit us, she left lipstick stains on absolutely everything in the house. Her lipstick-stained cigarette butts adorned every one of the ten or so ashtrays that my mother strategically placed in every location where Kathryn might be tempted to alight.

Now, the presence of stained cigarette butts in ashtrays is one thing, but Kathryn managed to smear lipstick on just about all of our possessions, including objects that you would think were physically inaccessible. My mother once found and held out for inspection a decidedly Kathrynesque stain high up on a curtain in the living room; Kathryn would have had to have stood on a chair and jumped to plant it there. In the end, my mother gave up on asking Kathryn to be careful and shrewdly put out the red Christmas napkins when the Grimaldis came upstairs to visit instead of the white ones that she used for other guests.

Uncle Marty and Aunt Kathryn were comfortable with children: They loved me and my sisters and we loved them back. Kathryn’s natural exuberance led her to hug and kiss me frequently; when she did, I put up with the smell of cigarettes, which overpowered even the cosmetics, because I liked her and because every hug made my loathsome cousin Gerry jealous.

[To be continued]

The Italians in the Basement—Part One

As a devout Catholic, I grew up with the concept of grace. I heard the words “the grace of God” or “God’s grace” almost daily, and Mary, the Blessed Mother, was famously “full of grace.” Beyond God and Mary, the quality itself was loosely attributed to a handful of the more pious saints, but it was notoriously hard to define. Now I know that grace is a real human characteristic, but rare. You might expect to find it among the professionally devotional, but of all the nuns and priests who extolled it ardently and incessantly in my youth, only one—the young and virile Father Lahey—came close, and he had the Greek version, properly called charisma.

It turns out that grace itself can actually be right next to you and—because it most often seems to come in unlikely shapes—can take you by surprise. It took me a while to realize that my Uncle Marty had grace, and he himself would have scoffed at the notion. Perhaps that is an essential component of grace: If you have it, you don’t know it. You certainly never claim it.


It is to Uncle Marty that I owe my first car ride, which happened to be to the Statue of Liberty. The Grimaldis—Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathryn (my mother’s younger sister), and cousin Geraldine—were living at the time—summer 1951 to fall 1952—in our basement. The car ride was a gift from Marty to our decidedly carless family (my father had owned a car back in the 1920s, drove it sparingly, wrecked it somewhere upstate, and left it unrepaired by the side of the road—never to buy another).

On the appointed day, the three Grimaldis, my dad and mom, my sisters (Justine and Veronica), and I all piled into Marty’s venerable Plymouth. This was a large gray car with two full-size rows of seats and an additional rear-facing rumble seat. Roni and I, as the two youngest, were assigned to this odd seat until my cousin Gerry figured out that we enjoyed it. On the return trip, she and Justine joined Roni in the rumble seat, while I had to sit in the regular back seat with my mom and dad.

Because my family didn’t have one, merely to be in a car was exciting. Marty drove expertly, but fast—too fast for the parents, perfectly for the kids. Watching my neighborhood and the rest of Brooklyn recede rapidly backwards was a thrill. And the best part was yet to come: the parking garage in lower Manhattan. This was a six-story structure with a long spiral ramp to the parking levels. The garage was nearly empty but Marty chose to park on the top level to give us extra spiraling time. He knew just how much gas to give the Plymouth to make the ascent and descent as heart-stopping as possible. Everyone but Marty screamed with terror as the vehicle screeched its way up and, later, down the long ramp.


The Grimaldis were living with us because Marty had been laid off after the war from a longstanding job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Other men might have garnished this apparent defeat with a loss of self-respect, but not Marty. He wasn’t pleased about it, sure, but neither was he deeply concerned. He was confident that prosperity was just around the corner, and just by being Marty and available, he got along.

For all of the year or so that he lived in our basement, Marty didn’t really have a job. Still, he somehow managed to have many things that we didn’t have, such as the Plymouth, a big console radio and record player that—unlike ours—actually worked, and a TV. He cheerfully shared these with us. Being a kind man, he probably didn’t notice that his only child, my cousin Gerry, resented sharing anything with me, but I did. On nights when my family was invited downstairs to watch Martin & Lewis or Uncle Miltie, Gerry routinely informed me that I couldn’t fit with her and my sisters on the sofa, which could easily, in fact, have accommodated all of us plus the infield of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I gave in, and no one was aware of her exclusionary policy except me; they all assumed that I liked sitting on the hard, linoleum floor.

Marty didn’t really look for work, confident that it would come if it wanted to. And just often enough, it did. One day, for instance, he came home with a large bag of gumballs. He told us that he just happened to be walking down the street that morning when a man with a trunkful of gumballs asked Marty if he could help distribute them.

Marty’s assignment was to fill the gum machines at every stop on the Brighton Beach subway line, uptown and downtown, and then return to the Sheepshead Bay stop, where the man was parked, by 4 PM. This he did, and diligently. When he returned at the end of the day holding a bag diminished by maybe half, the man happily assured him that the number of gumballs he’d gotten rid of was plenty, and not only paid him what he owed but told him to keep the rest of the bag for his kids. Which is why Marty came home a double hero. I’m sure Aunt Kathryn appreciated the money, but gumballs were the favored currency among kids.

[To be continued]