[This article originally appeared in the September 2006 (Vol. 29, No. 9) issue of The Editorial Eye.]
If it were a human being, you couldn’t help but pity the poor subjunctive mood. Few people know what it is, and of those who do, many are convinced that it is dying.
Well, if the subjunctive is dying, it is enjoying one of the longest death scenes in history. As early as 1851, grammarian Goold Brown opined, “It would, perhaps, be better to abolish the use of the subjunctive entirely. Its use is a continual source of dispute among grammarians, and of perplexity to scholars.” Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage cites other early authorities who were convinced that “the subjunctive, as a separate mode, is almost lost and out of mind in our language.” An 1896 grammar textbook proclaimed, “The subjunctive as a form of the verb is fading out of the language.”
And yet it persists, preserved in idiomatic expressions such as “God save the Queen,” “Far be it from me,” and “Be that as it may,” and in ordinary sentences like “If I were you, I wouldn’t be so quick to say the subjunctive is dead.”
“The rumors of my death…”
The Eye asked Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, whether the subjunctive was dead or dying, or alive and well and planning a big comeback. She said, “The subjunctive mood is alive, all right. But it’s a shadow of its former self. Old English actually had a range of subjunctive tenses, much like Latin and French. What survived into modern English—that is, into the 15th century and beyond—is a tiny handful of odd conventions that bear little resemblance to the subjunctive systems in other languages.”
Indeed, the subjunctive mood is just one of five moods that were recognized in grammar texts as late as the turn of the 19th century: the familiar indicative and imperative moods, something called the potential mood, and the infinitive. The potential mood faded away, but the subjunctive is still with us—albeit in a limited role.
According to Garner’s Modern American Usage, the subjunctive is used in modern English for
- statements that are contrary to fact (such as the Cowardly Lion’s “If I were the king of the forest”);
- suppositions and hypothetical situations (“If it were to rain, you’ll want an umbrella”);
- wishes (“I wish I were young again”);
- demands or commands (“The officer ordered that the evidence be impounded”); and
- suggestions (“Mother suggested that she return the gift”).
It also survives in some formal contexts, such as legal phrases and parliamentary procedure (“I move that the meeting be adjourned”). However, some will insist on using the indicative mood in these cases, especially in casual conversation or correspondence. For example, according to Google’s index, I wish I was appears on the Web four times as often as I wish I were. This is not a new phenomenon; we have evidence that was often took the place of were in “I wish” phrases going back to the 16th century (and probably earlier).
Part of the problem with the subjunctive is that, as verb forms go, it’s almost invisible. For most (but not all) verbs it is completely uninflected—that is, there are no modifications like those that indicate tense or person—so it stands out only in situations where you might expect an inflection but don’t find it. For example, the present subjunctive form of complete is complete in the first, second, and third person singular and plural. The same is true for the present indicative except for third person singular. Thus, “He insisted that I complete my work” looks the same as “I try to complete my work early.” The subjunctive becomes noticeable only in a third person singular subjunctive construction like this: “He insisted that Martha complete her work,” where the ear is accustomed to completes.
And it is seldom given more than a cursory look, if that, in high school and college English classes. Students learn more about the subjunctive if they study languages that have a distinct subjunctive form, such as French or German.
Long live the subjunctive
Admittedly, it has a limited role in our language, but there’s no reason to proclaim the death of the subjunctive or to join in calls for its abolition. There are still instances where nothing else will do—for example, when it is used as a command or to make a demand, the subjunctive can help avoid ambiguity. Consider this sentence: “He insisted that his children be prompt.” In this case, we understand that the father was making his expectations clear. Change the subjunctive be to the indicative are—“He insisted that his children are prompt”—and you might think that the father is merely defending his children against an assertion that they are less than punctual.
In other cases, there’s no ambiguity involved, but the indicative mood conveys a completely different meaning from the subjunctive. Consider the phrase used so often by people issuing an apology: “If I have offended anyone, I apologize.” It’s clear that the speaker admits the possibility of having given offense and is trying to make amends. Change it to the subjunctive had, and the meaning changes: “If I had offended anyone, I would apologize.” Implicit in this phrasing is “but I didn’t, so I’m not really apologizing.”
The best argument for acknowledging the subjunctive is the fact that people still use it, in simplified form. As O’Conner explained, “The reason the old complexities fell by the wayside is that they weren’t needed. Languages don’t evolve by happenstance. English is what it is because useful tools last and extraneous ones are discarded along the way. The fact that we don’t have a full-fledged system of subjunctive verb forms is evidence that we don’t need one.”
The subjunctive today might be subtle and a bit tricky in application, but it isn’t impossible. I believe—on the basis of little more than my own observations—that most people pick up the subjunctive through exposure rather than by learning a set of rules for its proper use. We grow up hearing it in conversation. Or we remember the Cowardly Lion proclaiming “If I were king of the forest…” and Tevye daydreaming about the things he would do “If I were a rich man.” It seems natural to speak and write this way. We incorporate subjunctive statements like “If I were you” into our everyday speech without really knowing why.
This isn’t unique to English speakers. One Internet source had this to say about the subjunctive in German (“The Subjunctive Mood in German,” http://german.about.com/ library/weekly/aa060799.htm):
Why is it, if you ask a native speaker of German to explain the use of the subjunctive, he or she will most likely (a) not know what the subjunctive is, and/or (b) not be able to explain it to you? This, despite the fact that this same German (or Austrian or Swiss) can and does use the subjunctive all the time! Well, if you had grown up speaking German, you could, too.
In a completely unscientific survey of an Internet group of professional writers and editors, those who responded said they understand the subjunctive and use it when it’s called for. That doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes struggle with it. One of the respondents to my little survey commented that sometimes it’s hard to know whether you have a case of simple contingency (it might or might not be true) or a clearly counterfactual statement. And yet who among us splits such logical hairs when we’re stating our wishes, dreams, aspirations, and intentions? In cases of a tie between the conditional and the impossible, enforcing the subjunctive is a postwriting editorial task.
O’Conner spent several pages in Woe Is I dealing with the subjunctive; her approach is a wholly practical one that shows models of its use rather than discussing the verb tenses and forms of the subjunctive. “At the time I wrote the book, I was an editor at the New York Times, and it seemed that I was correcting the same mistakes over and over again. When you deal with writers every day and try to help them understand their mistakes, grammatical theory just doesn’t cut the mustard. Rather than discuss the grammatical foundations of the subjunctive (most readers don’t care), I boiled it down to the practical problems people were having with it.” That’s an approach The Editorial Eye supports.
The subjunctive also has a healthy secret life—in poetry. We English speakers reflexively recognize the implications of the subjunctive: its promise, threat, hope, regret. No other verb form could express as well the sly amorous lobbying in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:
HAD we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime….
This article was originally printed in The Editorial Eye, 66 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314-5507, (703) 683-0683.
Copyright © 2006 Roy Jacobsen. All rights reserved. You can print ONE copy of this article for personal use. If you’d like to reprint this article, send me an e-mail and we can discuss it.