In response to my "She Says That as If It's a Bad Thing" post (the "that" referring to calling something the "Boston Tea Party"), a commenter writes:
How can someone say, "She Says That as If It's a Bad Thing"?
In English, we say, "She says that as if it were a bad thing."
"As if" should alert the writer that a "contrary-to-fact" construction, requiring the subjunctive mood, will follow.
A few thoughts in response.
1. In English we generally (though I acknowledge not always) say "we say" to mean "we say." The commenter seems to mean by it "we should say according to the rules that I think we should follow." But looking at what we really say (for instance, by using google) reveals that English speakers use both "say that as if it is a bad thing" and "say that as if it were a bad thing" — and apparently use the former more often than the latter.
So say what you will about what we should be saying, but don't dress it up in the supposedly objective garb of what we actually say and don't say. And, yes, this is a prescription, but one with a sound semantic basis: My claim is that "we say" generally comes across to readers as a descriptive claim, and it's therefore confusing and misleading to use it when one can at most support a prescriptive claim.
2. Even if the commenter is talking about what should be said under the "rules" of the language, I'm not sure that he would be right. To begin with, the subjunctive is largely dying, as various usage dictionaries (such as Merriam-Webster's Webster's Dictionary of English Usage) attest. Even if we take a prescriptivist approach, we would have to identify some reason to think that it is still obligatory, and I don't know of such a reason. Surely even hard-core prescriptivists must accept that at some point their prescriptions stop being obligatory — or else we'd have to keep using "thou" / "thee" / "thy" for the second-person singular familiar.
3. On top of that, I'm actually deliberately not trying to make a claim about whether "[the Boston Tea Party] is a bad thing" is "contrary-to-fact." My point is precisely that this view of the Boston Tea Party may well be perceived as a sound evaluation in some places (chiefly east of the Atlantic) and as unsound in others (chiefly west). Even when the subjunctive was more common than it is now, I'm not sure that the subjunctive would have been used in such contexts. Perhaps it would have been, but again that requires evidence and not just assertion.
But in any event, if I can just get prescriptivists to carefully say "we should say" rather than "we say" (when "we should say" is what they really mean), I'd be happy.