Verbs in English have many different classifications including person, tense, voice, and mood, person. The classes are not mutually exclusive. So a verb can be in the third person, past tense, passive voice, like so:
The book was given to me.
This article is about mood, a distinction that is fast disappearing. English has three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The first two are pretty easy to master. The indicative mood describes situations as they exist:
The goldfinch sits on my feeder, eating his nyjer seed contentedly.
The imperative mood provides direction:
Take this sentence as an example.
The subjunctive mood describes situations that are counterfactual, hypothetical, requested, suggested, or proposed—situations that don’t exist, but that could exist:
I would be happier if the subjunctive were used correctly more often.
Like the distinction between “who” and “whom,” the subjunctive can sound a little fussy in spoken English, so its increasing disuse is understandable. However, in written English, its presence is still desirable, particularly in scientific and technical writing.
The subjunctive uses the base or infinite form of the verb (think “to be,” but drop the “to”) to indicate possible realities. These are usually expressed in “if…” clauses. The example that I find most grating is Jim Morrison’s omission in The Doors’ 1967 hit, “Light My Fire”:
you know that I would be untrue
you know that I would be a liar
if I was to say to you
girl we couldn’t get much higher
Jim didn’t actually tell his girl they couldn’t get higher. He’s making a hypothetical claim. (Although he did sing the line on the Ed Sullivan show, despite the producer’s request that he change it to “better” because of the drug reference.) The verb should be the subjunctive “were” to indicate that under a different set of circumstances, like if the couple were not high as only 60s rock legends and their groupies could be, he might say this to her.
One reason the subjunctive has fallen out of favor is its overuse. The mood used to be invoked in any sort of conditional circumstance, whether hypothetical, false, or even impossible. Another ‘60s rock legend, Pete Townshend used it to excess in his song, “It’s Not True,” released on the 1965 My Generation album:
I haven’t got 11 kids
I weren’t born in Baghdad
I’m not half-Chinese either
and I didn’t kill my dad
Like in The Doors’ song, the claim made by the singer is fictional. However, in this case, it is a denial of fact expressed by the negative auxiliary “not” rather than a hypothetical situation, a sort of double negative if you will. So the subjunctive is not necessary.
These are the two extremes of the 20th century, drawn from an extreme decade and its extreme artists. The truth about the subjunctive, like most truths, rests somewhere in the middle.
Currently, the subjunctive is still being used for hypothetical situations or situations contrary to reality, such as those found in “if,” “as if,” and “as though” clauses**. The subjunctive is also used when conditions are requested, suggested, or proposed, regardless of whether they have yet been enacted. The distinction is a fine one, but this is where I think that scientific and technical writing, especially when it is regulatory in nature, can benefit from the use of the subjunctive.
For an example, let’s look at the following sentence:
Protocols require that every researcher hold [not holds] a master’s degree at minimum.
This clearly distinguishes what the protocols require from what may or may not occur in practice. This can be particularly useful when a reviewer is contrasting proper protocol with a flawed methods statement.
Likewise, here is a description of a potential negotiation status:
The tribes are demanding provisions be written [not are written] for cultural artifacts not yet discovered.
Again, the statement clarifies that a provision is being discussed. Its status is pending.
The leading authority on English language usage, Bryan Garner, says that the subjunctive is also used for statements of necessity. In this case, I would err on the side of laxity. I think these are situations in which the subjunctive is better left out of the sentence, much like Pete Townshend’s use of it in “It’s Not True,” where it sounds forced.
Here’s how it would look in practice:
Subjunctive: We must ensure take not occur.
Indicative: We must ensure take does not occur.
I feel like the subjunctive sentence is overly formal and even a little bit awkward. Perhaps this is one reason why it is disappearing even when its use is preferable.
What do you think? Is the subjunctive under-used, or are we doing just fine with or without it?
**Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage: The Authority on Grammar, Usage, and Style. 3rd ed. Oxford UP, 2009.