Riffle through any joke book and at once you'll come on a puzzle. Invariably, the many pages devoted to husbands and wives will imply that wedded bliss is life's biggest joke. But if matrimony were really were that funny, shouldn't more wedlocked mates be laughing? For that matter, the moment you lend an ear to any air shaft in a building of high-rise apartments you'll admit the yelps of rage and woeful cries which married people emit don't sound a bit like hilarity.
Oh, superficially, they often seem to be joking. I infer that from the number of married sentences beginning with, "Har-har!" or "Ver-r-ry funny!" Of course, those aren't really sentences. They're what we grammarians call interjections. Indeed, married grammar often begins with just such interjectory warm-ups for the main event.
It's also true that marriage is itself a kind of sentence, but sentences in married grammar are only somewhat analogous to those putting you behind bars. Furthermore, in marriage you get no time knocked off for good behavior, and if you do take time off, your mate may not think that's good behavior at all. Which brings us back to interjections: "Ha!" – or in some cases, "A-ha!" Which is often followed by the interjector's urgent desire to inform.
Now, although – grammatically speaking – urgent desires to inform may use any number of sentence patterns, they nonetheless favor the syntax and sentence type known as formulaic: "Well, let me tell you a thing or two!" Here the adjectival "two" may not be meant as a literal limit. More items than two are likely to forthcome; nor should "let me" be construed as the speaker's request for permission.
In theory, such prologues should be followed by lively exchanges. In practice, however, what follows is the form of discourse which rhetoricians call monologue. Typically, these monologic discourses range by free association through a broad list of topics broached in no particular order, with passion leading the parade like a righteous drum major.
When the speaker is female, her list of items tends to specialize in past tense, or (more specifically) past imperfect. A female spouse's inflections of that tense may be both comprehensive and historical, going back as many years as she and the male addressee have been married. Then further yet, into the male's behavior even before betrothal. Past imperfect is so capacious a tense it may sometimes take in the male spouse's mother and his relation to her, by way of drawing unamiable conclusions.
Agreed, gender bias ought to play no role in analyses of married grammar. Still, objectivity requires that we face certain biological facts. These may determine choice of one grammatical mood over another. Female "desires to inform" favor the indicative mood, while males forced to the wall by their mates invariably take sanctuary in the subjunctive.
As you may recall from those mind-numbing chalk talks in grade school, the subjunctive mood expresses things contrary to fact or reality. A husband, for example, will use this mood to concede, quite hypothetically, his having erred: "Well, even if I may . . . somehow . . . have seemed to say or have done some such thing, . . ."
Alternatively, he may use its conditional forms beseechingly: "If you would only calm down for half a second, then I might possibly be able to . . ." The controlling word here is if. Once if is in place, the male spouse's utterances contrary to fact or reality will then flow freely as water from a tap. Hence the male subjunctive is highly subjective, even wishful, while, at the same time, "objectifying" (as feminist theory has it) the hypothetically compliant female addressee.
Next, we must take up the question of case.
Pedants naively insist that – unlike Latin with its nominative case, genitive case, dative case, ablative, vocative, and so on – English has but two cases. These, they say, are subjective and objective. There is also the aspect of syntax. Any married sentence beginning with "whoever" must end with first person singular, and (as purists insist), in subjective case: "Whoever went off and left the burner on, it wasn't I." One may choose "I" or the less formal "me"; however, married syntax places the pronoun last, for its crescendo effect.
But what of objective case? Spousally speaking, it is most frequently heard in female uses of the interrogative mood: "They're coming tonight and you never bothered to tell me? " Once again the female pronoun is "objectified." All of which may create confusion, if not downright contention.
In practice, fortunately, any confusion is illusory, since actual usage renders much of this rule business easy as pie. In locutions beginning, "You never . . ." or "You always . . ." the addressee is – invariably – in the accusative case. Teachers of Latin may bristle. Professional bias inclines them to deny that English has any such thing as the accusative. Well, let them bristle their fill. Latin teachers are in denial about quite a nimber of things. Besides, few or none among such vestals ever marry, so how would they know?
When it comes to hard fact, eight out of ten locutions among mates long married are in the accusative. Expletives, of course, are invariably so. This remains no less true if the married phoneme is but a sigh, or a sudden and vigorous exhalation through the nostrils. A virtual "top quark" in married grammar is what our cutting-edge theoreticians are now calling the expletive silence.
Unfortunately, nothing is so innocent as chalk, and as we all know to our cost, English teachers who are anywhere near a blackboard love nothing better than diagramming. Like rhapsodic Euclids, they segment off adverbial phrases, gerunds, prepositions, and what have you, blithely bracketing, humming, and parsing as they go. With what practical result? For generations now, the sole profit from these dissections has been pocketed by chalk and eraser salesmen.
Diagrammatic glyphs and runes notwithstanding, the truly deep structures of married grammar must never be dealt with like body parts of a dead frog. They are living organisms. One or two examples should suffice. In parsing the elements of "Well, I give up!" a diagramming traditionalist would claim its subject is "I." How matrimonially naive! Quite obviously, the implied subject is "you."
Moreover, deep structure reveals this fact in many a free-floating, married observation. One or two instances will clarify; for example, in "All I know is, I bring home a hundred thirty-five dollars a week!" or, "I can't imagine how a person could find anything in this mess!" Why puzzle over the subject of these sentences? Once again it is second person singular: "you," every time.
Among wives with a talent for voicing arch observations, grammatical nomenclature can be exploited. Dangling participle can refer to a spouse's sexual dysfunction, just as misplaced modifier may hint at her mate's extra-marital deportment. These usages could bring us, sadly, to the couple's declension together – just when it would be fruitful to examine the multiplying effect of conjugation, a term pregnant with innuendo. However, that and its potentially forthcoming issues must be reserved for more delicate treatment, lest my further remarks offend chaste eyes. But one word more.
It is true that married couples now tend to be busier than ever. Happily, for everyday usage they may as well unclutter their minds of technical terms so as to focus on essentials. Wives should therefore dwell less on past imperfect, and husbands be slower to fall back on the the subjunctive. Thus disencumbered, each mate may safely specialize in the present indicative with a bare two declaratives: the indispensable "You never . . ." and the ever-relevant "You always . . ."
Couples bound to each other for any length of time at all will need nothing else. Let a remark begin with "You never . . . " or "You always . . . " and the contentious intent of the main clause can – as we married grammarians put it – be taken as understood.
Reg Saner's poetry and prose has appeared in no fewer than sixty-four anthologies, "But," as he is quick to say, "who's counting?" His in-progress nonfiction, "Brio: The Summer, the Garden, the Girl," narrates a newlywed couple's highly unlikely run of dumb luck in the Italy of 1960.