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A Grammar Lesson with F. Scott Fitzgerald

The website Open Culture featured an article about F. Scott Fitzgerald, that American symbol of the Jazz Age, happily passing a cocktail napkin to his publisher with the various verb conjugations of the newly minted verb “to cocktail.” While this neologism is not particularly interesting in itself, the English teacher part of  me was attentive to the names of the verb tenses Fitzgerald used for his list. They clearly come from the Latin grammar book and are actually quite different from how they are generally labelled in English grammar. Although this was clearly just a joke by Fitzgerald, who was not a scholar and was most likely less than sober at the time, he misuses some terms and leaves out others, such as all passive and future forms. Just for a bit of fun myself, I thought I would attempt to adjust the labels according to common modern English terminology (Fitzgerald’s labels in Italics). Comments and corrections by more expert grammarians than me are welcome in the comments:


I cocktail/He cocktails: Present

Present Simple tense: used for habits, facts, and general truths. The list does not include the most common English Present tense which uses the Continuous (or Progressive) aspect: “I am cocktailing.”

I was cocktailing: Imperfect

Past Continuous tense: used for things in progress at a certain time in the past.

I cocktailed: Perfect

Past Simple tense: used for finished past actions.

I have cocktailed: Past perfect

Present Perfect: used for actions that started in the past and continue in the present, or for past actions with unspecified time.

I might have cocktailed: Conditional

Past subjunctive mood: A conditional sentence must contain two clauses, one of which is the condition and one of which is the result (“If I’d had money, I might have cocktailed.”). Fitzgerald’s sentence merely describes a possible past hypothetical action.

I had cocktailed: Pluperfect

Past perfect tense: used to state the something happened earlier than something else in the past, always in conjunction with another past verb (usually Past Simple: “I had cocktailed at the Ritz before we met.”)

I would have cocktailed: Subjunctive

Past subjunctive mood: This is no different from “I might have cocktailed” except that “would” in this statement is more certain than “might”.

I should have cocktailed: Voluntary subjunctive

Past subjunctive mood: This is only different from the “would” and “might” sentences because the modal verb “should” signals that it was an obligation, duty, or better idea to do a past imaginary action.

I did cocktail: Preterite

Past Simple tense: Preterite is a term that encompasses finished past tenses. In some languages like Italian there is a remote past tense and a recent past tense. In English, the only tense that we use for this is the Past Simple, described above. The auxiliary verb “did” adds emphasis, usually in response to a mistake or misunderstanding.

Cocktail!: Imperative

Present Imperative mood: used for commands, warnings, and injunctions.

Cocktailest thou? (Dost cocktail? or Wilt cocktail?): Interrogative

Present Interrogative mood: He’s obviously having fun, dipping into archaic literary English, but we would always use the auxiliary verb “do” to do this (Do you cocktail? or You cocktail, don’t you?). This little “do” is very unusual compared to most languages, and probably comes from Welsh influence on English, according to linguist John McWhorter.

I would have had to have cocktailed: Subjunctive Conditional

Past Subjunctive mood: Fitzgerald’s version is overly wordy, and should be “I would have had to cocktail”. The first “have had” already denotes the past time and does not need to be used twice. Otherwise it is no different from the previous examples of “I might have” and “I would have” except that using “had to” signals that this action was necessary.

I might have had to have cocktailed: Conditional Subjunctive

Same as previous.

Cocktailing: Participle

Present participle: can be used just the participle form of a main verb (“I am cocktailing”) or as a gerund acting as a noun (“Cocktailing is expensive.”)

Once again, there are many other forms that were not included. All the above examples can be put into the Passive voice using the verb “be” and the past participle “cocktailed”. Also, there are several future forms that can be used  (“I’m going to cocktail”, “I’ll cocktail”, “I plan on cocktailing”, etc.).

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