Moody Verbs: The Disappearing Subjunctive

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”:

Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors

Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors

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:

Pete Townshend, lead guitarist and song writer for The Who

Pete Townshend, lead guitarist and song writer for The Who

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.

Comments

  1. Joseph M Gaffney says:

    I agree that the subjunctive is losing ground, but I don’t agree that it’s “overly formal” or “awkward.” I also think your argument is somewhat confused and confusing.

    For example, I’m not at all comfortable with your writing “I feel like the subjunctive sentence . . . . .” How did “feel like” come to be a substitute for the quite adequate “feel”? I could understand “”feel that,” but not “feel like.”

    I think we should have one language, i.e., we should speak as we write and write as we speak. You seem to imply that it’s okay to skirt the subjunctive in speech or, at least, in casual speech, but not in formal writing. In other words, you suggest two rules depending on the context of the speech or writing. That’s a burden for writers, speakers, readers, and listeners, and I certainly disagree with that advice. Don’t forget Gresham’s Law which, if we apply it figuratively to speech, predicts the inevitable corruption of English.

    I feel casual speech, sans the subjunctive, will eventually seep into formal writing and the subjunctive will eventually evaporate. If we insist on precision in both writing and speech from elementary school onward, then the subjunctive will live on in all types of speech, personal and public, and in all types of writing, personal and formal. Having one clear standard rather than two ambiguous standards would make speaking and writing easier, not more difficult.

    Clarity of communication, particularly in the practical areas of economics, law, and politics is essential for progress. Ambiguities precipitate conflict, whether they be legitimate misunderstandings or mere excuses to shirk or flout one’s agreement. The more precisely we speak and write, the fewer opportunities for shenanigans.

    So, no we should not endorse the slow death of the subjunctive. Instead, we should go out of our way to resuscitate and revive it; we should make it a condition of decent employment; we should include its mastery in the Collage Boards, etc. The benefits would be at least twofold: (1) it could certainly reïgnite interest in classical literature and (2) it could certainly prompt everyone to be more precise in everything they do, not just language.

  2. Stanley Dambroski says:

    Nice article, Michelle. Thanks for introducing me to the Who song.

    I thought of the “I weren’t” as a nonstandard indicative rather than a subjunctive–a subject-verb disagreement. I know I’ve seen that in literature, reflective of characters’ social class. I did a quick search for the form in Charles Dickens and didn’t find an example. But I did find a negative subjunctive from Great Expectations–Pip: “I wish I weren’t common.”

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